Southern Right Whale
The southern right whale spends the austral summer feeding in the cool waters of the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica. In winter, it migrates northwards and can be seen in the coastal waters of southerly nations
like Argentina and South Africa. Southern right whales reach around 15 metres in length, and are easily distinguishable by their dark, almost black skin covered in pale callosities. They are known for a unique behaviour called ‘sailing’, which involves elevating their tail fluke above the sea’s surface and using it to catch the wind. Southern right whales were hunted almost to the brink of extinction by the whalers of the 19th Century – however, they are now protected by all countries with a confirmed breeding population, and numbers have recovered significantly.
The humpback’s scientific name means giant-winged New Englander, and refers to the whale’s characteristic over-sized pectorals and its prevalence off the coast of
New England, U.S. It belongs to the rorqual whale family, which also includes the blue, fin and Bryde’s whales among others. Humpbacks are baleen or filter-feeding whales, surviving predominantly on a diet of krill and small fish. They average around 15 metres in length, and are known for their haunting song and their acrobatic behaviour – which includes breaching, pectoral slapping and spy-hopping. Humpbacks inhabit all major oceans and undertake annual migrations between their feeding and breeding grounds. Since the end of commercial whaling in 1986, their numbers have recovered well.
Found throughout the world in open ocean, the sperm whale’s Latin name roughly translates as “big-headed blower”. It is the largest of the toothed whales, growing to over 20 metres in length; and has dark grey, heavily wrinkled skin. The sperm whale’s head takes up a third of its body length, and its
brain is the biggest of any living animal. They are the second deepest diving mammal, reaching depths of over 2,250 metres in pursuit of their favourite prey, the giant squid. During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, sperm whales were targeted heavily by commercial whalers, who sold their spermaceti (an oil-like wax found in the whales’ head) to fuel oil lamps and candles. Although no longer hunted, they are still classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Antarctic Minke Whale
One of two species of minke whale, the Antarctic minke whale was only recognised as a distinct species in the 1990s. It is confined to the southern hemisphere, and is the main target species for
Japanese whaling efforts conducted under the dubious auspices of research. Antarctic minke whales average around 8.5 metres in length, and yet they are the third smallest of all baleen whales. They are filter-feeders, using their fringe-like baleen plates to sieve large quantities of krill from the surrounding water. Other than humans, the minke whale’s only natural predator is the killer whale. Minke whales usually travel singly or in pairs, and use a wide vocabulary of sounds to communicate underwater. They are distinguished by distinctive white bands on their pectorals.
Although not yet formally classified, scientists believe that there may be three distinct species of Bryde’s whale, of which the South African kind is one. Bryde’s whales are named after Johan Bryde, the Norwegian consul to South Africa who helped established the country’s one-time whaling
industry; however, they are no longer targeted by whalers in the Indian Ocean. Instead, they are often seen feeding on the shoals of sardines that congregate on South Africa’s east coast every year between June and July. The South African Bryde’s whale averages around 13 metres in length, and has plates of baleen rather than teeth. They use these plates to sieve small fish from the water, and can be distinguished from other baleen whales by their columnar blow.