Southern Right Whale
About the Species
The Southern right whale is found throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern right whale is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries must list threatened and endangered marine species regardless of where they are found.
Southern right whales have a stocky, black body often with white belly and chin patches and a large head covered in callosities. They lack a dorsal fin and have wide, paddle-shaped flippers. They range in length between 43 to 56 feet, and weigh up to 176,000 pounds.
Behavior and Diet
Southern right whales exhibit breaching (partially or almost completely jumping out of the water), lobtailing (slapping the water’s surface with the flukes), flippering (slapping the water’s surface with the pectoral flippers), and “sailing” (lifting and holding the flukes above the surface, allowing the wind to push the animal through the water).
Southern right whales primarily feed during austral summer in high latitude feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean, where they use their baleen to “skim” copepods and krill from the water.
Where They Live
Southern right whales are distributed throughout the Southern Hemisphere from around 20 degrees South to 65 degrees South. These whales migrate between high-latitude feeding areas in the austral summer and low-latitude breeding grounds in the austral winter. Populations around South America , South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia are relatively well-studied.
Lifespan & Reproduction
The lifespan of Southern right whales is currently unknown but likely similar to North Pacific and North Atlantic right whales, who can probably live for at least 70 years. Females usually give birth to their first calf between eight and ten years old and gestation takes approximately one year. Calves are 16 to 20 feet long at birth and wean at approximately one year of age, and females reproduce every three to five years. Mating likely occurs in winter in the low latitude breeding and calving grounds.
Southern right whales were hunted extensively by the whaling industry until around the 1960s. Several breeding populations have recovered since then, while others have not. Current threats to southern right whales include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, industrialization of coastal and marine habitats that can result in habitat degradation, ocean noise, and changes in water conditions and dynamics due to climate change. Natural threats include diseases and predation from killer whales and large sharks. Kelp gulls have also been observed attacking these whales, although it is unclear if these attacks are affecting the whales’ populations. Most populations have shown signs of recovery from whaling, but are still small relative to their pre-exploitation abundance. One exception is the Chile-Peru population, which remains small and has not shown signs of recovery.
In the Spotlight
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings including all whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health and determine the best course of action. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes attribute strandings to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
Southern right whales have never been part of a declared unusual mortality event. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response." To understand the health of marine mammal populations, scientists study unusual mortality events.
We listed Southern right whales as endangered in 1970. We completed a 5-year status review of the species in 2007 and 2015, and recently completed another 5-year review in 2021.
Key Actions and Documents
Incidental Take Authorization: Scripps Institute of Oceanography Low-Energy Geophysical Survey in the South Atlantic Ocean
Incidental Take Authorization: NOAA Fisheries SWFSC Fisheries and Ecosystem Research Activities in the Pacific Ocean
Incidental Take Authorization: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Marine Geophysical Surveys in the Southwest Pacific Ocean
A 5-year review is a periodic analysis of a species’ status conducted to ensure the listing of a…