Have a whale of a time in Warrnambool – just who are these “right” whales?

Photo: Dr. Haus, via Wikimedia Commons

As a proud Warrnamboolian, we like to celebrate our claim to fame as the Whale Capital of Victoria. Female southern right whales return year after year between July – September (i.e. RIGHT NOW!) to calve and raise their giant swimming children.

But why exactly do we find them so interesting?

 

The natural and awe-inspiring bond between mother and child?

Southern right whales migrate to warmer shores over winter to breed. Logan’s beach, Warrnambool, provides a nursery for females to raise their newborn calves whilst males and non-breeding females remain further out to sea.

This means that, close to shore, we have a great view of mother-child bonding! It is believed that mothers use these few months (between July and September) to rest up before migrating back to cooler sub-Antarctic waters to feed, whereas the kids – called calves – like to play (mothers trying to relax while kids run wild, sound familiar to anyone?).

This time of play before migration is an important time for a growing calf, and play-time is centered around the mother. Research suggests that this play time allows newborn calves to develop social behaviors, and to build strength and coordination before their first migration. Additionally, calves must learn the important process of breathing through blow-holes (rather than through their mouths), a technique that must be taught at an early age.

From whale viewing platforms, we are able to witness first-hand this interaction between mother and child – a truly photogenic opportunity.

Mother and calf. Photo: Mandy Watson, DEPI, via Flickr

Their individuality?

Did you know that southern right whales have their own personalized fingerprints? Well, not fingerprints per se.

Southern right whales are easily identifiable as a species because of these large white blobs on their heads. All southern right whales have a central blob, fondly called a “bonnet”, surrounded by several other smaller blobs (if the mental image of a whale wearing a lovely pink bonnet doesn’t improve your opinion of whales, I don’t know what will).

What’s less well known is that these blobs – officially called callosities, a fancy way of saying multiple calluses – are as unique as human fingerprints, or a zebra’s stripes. As no two zebras have the same stripes, no two southern right whales have the same callosities.

Callosities appear white because of the whale lice that live within them. As much as we might be screaming “ew, lice!”, these guys are actually doing us a favour. The white appearance makes these whale-fingerprints stand out really clearly, making it easy to identify individual whales. What’s more, breeding females return to the same breeding grounds each breeding year, so we get that jolt of joy from recognizing old favourites breaking the surface of the water to say “hi”.

So thanks, whale lice! Thanks for giving us Wilma.

Greetings, whale lice! Disclaimer: this is not Wilma. Photo: Michaël Catanzariti, via Wikimedia Commons

(See here for more information about identifying beloved individual whales).

 

Their tragic history?

Southern right whales were hugely impacting by the commencement of whaling in Australia in the 19th century. So named because they were the “right” whale to kill. They were ideal for hunting – slow moving, floated after death, and provided plenty of blubber and whalebone for commercial use. Whale blubber was melted for use as oil in fuel lamps, candles, perfumes and soaps; whalebone (baleen) was used for fashionable items such as umbrellas and corsets.

Between 1835 – 1845, an estimated 75% of the southern right whale population had been hunted to extinction. It was at this point that Australia’s whaling industry collapsed, since there were so few whales remaining to whale. 90 years later, in 1935, whales received protection and numbers began to recover. Today, they are considered of least concern on the IUCN redlist.

Southern right whales are slow-breeders (with females giving birth to just one calf every three years), so it takes a long time for populations to recover after such a high number of deaths. But, numbers are increasing, and it’s lovely to see evidence of this year after year as they appear off the coast of Warrnambool.

 

We may never know…

Whatever the reason for our deep love of whale season, *cue shameless plugging* Warrnambool remains a fantastic place to view these amazing creatures. Just a three-four hour drive away from Melbourne, whales can be viewed RIGHT NOW in the middle of the calving season. So go. Go now. Do it! You’ll have a whale of a time (see what I did there?)!

Goodbye, whale enthusiasts! Photo: robdownunder, via Flickr

One Response to “Have a whale of a time in Warrnambool – just who are these “right” whales?”

  1. Jack Simkin says:

    I used to love heading down to see the whales at Warrnambool!

    Interesting to read how they identify between whales using the callosities. Great article Sarah