The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) is the baleen whale most closely associated with New Zealand because it used to come inshore to sheltered harbours to mate and calve. Other species of baleen whales were usually seen further out to sea as they migrated between their Antarctic feeding grounds and breeding grounds in warmer latitudes.
Southern right whales used to occur as far north as the Kermadec Islands, along New Zealand’s coasts, and as far south as the subantarctic Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. Today they are rarely sighted around the mainland.
Stop the snoring
In the 1840s there were so many right whales in Wellington Harbour in the winter that some settlers complained the whales’ blowing kept them awake at night.
The storm-tossed Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, respectively 500 and 700 kilometres south of New Zealand, are the strongholds of the southern right whale. Every winter the whales come to give birth and mate there. Since the Second World War, when coast watchers were stationed on Campbell Island, reports of small numbers of right whales have been common. Although there are more whales at the Auckland Islands, the first inkling of a sizeable population only came in the early 1980s when a yachtsman spotted at least 75 there.
Where the whales go from October to May is a mystery. It is believed they head for rich feeding grounds – most likely in the Southern Ocean – to build up their reserves for the winter, when feeding is less of a priority.
The right whale is a large, stocky, black whale, 15–18 metres long with broad flippers. Its lack of a dorsal fin makes it easy to identify. The arched upper jaw is covered in callosities – crusty outgrowths of skin which are often made white by infestations of whale lice. It also has a unique blow, with the water rising in two columns to form a ‘V’ 5 metres high.
Right whales were the most vulnerable of all the baleen whales: slow-paced swimmers (travelling no more than 9 kilometres per hour), they were easy to catch; they supplied larger quantities of oil than other species; when harpooned they floated rather than sank; and their baleen (‘whalebone’) was valuable as it is fine and flexible and was used for a range of items such as corsets, umbrella ribs and riding crops. For all these reasons, early whalers described the species as ‘the right whale’.
Hunting decimated their numbers – only the blue whale suffered a greater population decline.
Before whaling there were estimated to be 10,000 in the whole New Zealand region. In the 2000s there were probably about 250 (mostly around the Auckland and Campbell islands). But around New Zealand’s mainland the few sightings made since the late 1990s suggest that there are fewer than 30 right whales in the population. The low numbers persist despite protection since 1935, perhaps because females only calve every three years.