Revival of the Southern Right Whales

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Revival of the Southern Right Whales

Text and images by Clark Miller and Adriana Basques

Less than a century has passed since the journey of Southern Right whales from Antarctica to South America was cut short by the whaling industry. Each subsequent year saw fewer and fewer whales arriving back from the Southern Oceans to the matting grounds of Peninsula Valdez in Argentina to give birth to their young and mate before returning south again


We are seated with cameras and long lenses at attention during high tide atop the observation deck at Doradillo. Scattered along the beach beneath us are tourists and local site seers in attendance for the daily whale parade. Forty-ton Southern Right whales (Eubalaena australis), principally mothers and calves and a few juveniles and single males lumber back and forth along the beach just beyond the surf zone, protected by the warm and safe shallow waters of Peninsula Valdez. These titans of the southern oceans come so close to the beach that we can make out the elaborate detail on their colossal heads. Further out a playful calf shows off in a series of breaches, attempting to locate its mother. The whales roll on their back, tail slap, spy hop, and breach in a behavioural display witnessed in a few other places around the world. There are so many whales it often becomes difficult to know which ones are the most interesting to pay attention to 2022, marks the greatest number of whales ever recorded here. Peninsula Valdez of one of the most successful stories of marine conservation, and one of the oldest.

Less than a century has passed since the journey of Southern Right whales from Antarctica to South America was cut short by the whaling industry. Each subsequent year saw fewer and fewer whales arriving back from the Southern Oceans to the matting grounds of Peninsula Valdez in Argentina to give birth to their young and mate before returning south again. Suffering the fate of other whales, the story of the Southern Right whale is a tragic one. The name itself was conjured by whalers as “the right whale to kill”. These gentle and friendly heavyweights proved to be an effortless target due to their large volume of blubber and because they floated at the surface when they died. By the end of the 1930’s the Southern Right whale was teetering on the brink of extinction.

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During the height of the whaling era, whale blubber was used as fuel to light homes and businesses prior to the advent of electricity. It was big business. Whaling fleets from wealthy countries sailed to the far reaches of the earth to hunt whales of all species in such vast numbers that to this day it is not entirely known how many whales perished. At the time, no one considered how whaling might disrupt the delicate balance of the marine environment. That their way of life could impact the overall health of the planet would seem completely foreign, and incomprehensible.  Whale experts have only recently begun to understand their sophisticated social structure and level of intelligence held within their DNA after millions of years of evolution.

With the advent of electricity and the discovery of oil, the profit for whale blubber plummeted and the market for whale oil would soon become a distant memory. One evil replaced another, but for whales, particularly Southern Right whales, the birth of a new era would mark a renewed opportunity for them to thrive once again.

In 1937, the government of Argentina granted protection to the whales creating a national park and marine preserve within the region of Peninsula Valdez. Unfortunately, Southern Right whales would suffer one last offensive during the Cold War when an illegal fishing fleet from the former Soviet Union secretly appeared along the Argentinian coastline, and over the following two years, slaughtered most of the whales that were beginning to establish a successful recovery. Believing the whales had been depleted, the ships never returned.

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Back in Puerto Piramides, as we relax in a small restaurant facing out toward the water whale spouts dot the bay at sunset like a Las Vegas water show. Across from our table, a young family has returned from their first whale-watching trip earlier in the day. The children are excited and animated as they share their experience, having never encountered a whale up close before. They will likely share this story back home with schoolmates, and or perhaps with colleagues at work, encouraging the need to further protect whales and to better understand the message of conservation they learned from the naturalist on board. 

Peninsula Valdez currently supports more than 2,000 breeding pairs of Southern Right whales, a remarkable turnaround from the previous 60 years.  The total population worldwide has been estimated to be approximately 11,000 individuals, including the regions of South America, South Africa, and New Zealand. Since 1970, more than 4,000 whales have been identified in and around Peninsula Valdez.

Quietly slipping in the water, I slowly approach a mother and calf relaxing peacefully as the calf feeds on the rich milk the mother produces. The milk is rich in fat and looked like melted ice cream suspended in water. Overhead, a small plane approaches and circles the area to photograph and document the whales. Puerto Piramides hosts the largest concentration of whales in Peninsula Valdez and has the oldest photo-identification catalogue and the oldest study of any single whale species. This year’s flight identified a record 1,420 individuals with 554 calves.  Whales are periodically fitted with satellite tags that eventually fall off to further understand migration patterns and to identify where they go to feed in the Southern Ocean. The mother allows me to approach her and the calf, which now weighs several tons. She is no longer as concerned about predation as she was a month earlier when her calf was smaller. As the calf continues to develop in size and weight, it will move out into deeper waters, making photography far more difficult. The calf becomes curious at my presence and decides to come to have a look, circling me as if a new game is about the begin. These whales often become too friendly and have been known to bump and push photographers around. Swimming with the whale elicits a deep spiritual connection as we make frequent eye contact.

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Southern Right whales are related to the Northern Right whale, Bowhead whale, and Pygmy Right whale. Southern Right whales can reach up to 18 metres at maturity and weigh up to nearly 80 tons. The callosities, which are the home to whale lice, are located on their massive head and act as fingerprints for identification. The largest callosity is located at the centre of the head known as the bonnet. Smaller callosities and thick black hair follicles that adorn the head are characteristic traits lending a unique appearance to each individual whale.

Female Southern Right whales are typically larger than males.  Males have earned the honour of having the largest testicles of any living mammal on earth, weighing just over 450 kilograms. This is mating season, and it is often a tumultuous affair.  One or several whales will attempt to impregnate her, as they labour to roll her over, jostling for position.  Struggling to capture this behaviour can be a dangerous affair.  Watching from our small boat, a group of males and a meddlesome juvenile are not willing to concede. The shallow water shortly churns from an emerald green into a fog of sand, and silt. It is anyone’s guess who will end up as victor. Females come into reproduction age at between 8-10 years and will have one calf every three years.  She will carry her pregnancy for 12 months and breastfeed her calf for a full year. Much like other species of whales, Southern Right whales can live to be over 70 years old.

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There are hundreds of mothers with calves all around us. We leave the mating scene in search of a more serene encounter. Unsurprisingly, we come upon another pair. But something is different. The calf is almost entirely white with black spots and an orange colouration around the mouth. One of the more fascinating evolutionary developments in calves is what is referred to as semi-albino transmission of the “X” chromosome. Between 1970 - 1980 there were five calves that exhibited the semi-albino syndrome, but from 1990 - 2000 twenty calves have been documented with this odd condition. Nearly four semi-albino calves are born this way each year, but this year, there are even more. The calves are not true albinos, meaning they do not remain this way through adulthood. Rather, they eventually transition into adult colouration, but with larger whitish or light grey patches, meaning that each calf that was born semi-albino can be identified by similar markings as an adult.

Back at the observation deck at Dorodillo for the morning parade, all is not as it seems. Some of the whales are having a difficult time with troublesome seagulls. While searching for food, seagulls land on the back of the whales looking for a quick meal, biting out large chunks of flesh and blubber, creating open wounds as large as a dinner plate.  An explosion in the seagull population owing to an old open-air garbage dump in the region, and fishing boats that operate at sea has become a serious health risk for the whales of Peninsula Valdez. The seagulls attack both adults and young calves. Adult whales have devised an ingenious remedy to reduce their exposure to the seagulls’ aggression with the “galleon” position. The whale will elevate her head and tail above the water while her sensitive fleshy body remains submerged. Mothers teach this technique to young calves to ward off the gulls, but it takes time for them to learn. If the seagulls gang up on a calf, serious wounds can lead to infection, and possibly death.

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While the threat of whaling is over for Southern Right whales, newer challenges await them once the whales leave the sanctity of Peninsula Valdez. Entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and more importantly climate change will continue to weigh heavily upon their future should their food supply of krill and copepods become affected.

Southern Right whales are considered one of Argentina’s most prominent national treasures. It is even on the 200 pesos bill. The government has enacted strict regulations regarding their protection. Permits are a mandatory requirement for professional photographers, and videographers in order to enter the water with the whales, and a government official is compulsory onboard any vessel.

Peninsula Valdez is a combination of a marine preserve, and wildlife refuge for killer whales, sea lions, elephant seals, penguins, guanaco, and a host of marine and terrestrial birdlife. Peninsula Valdez continues to enjoy a renaissance of revival for the Southern Right Whale thanks to the commitment of the Argentinian government and the dedicated park officials working together with research scientists to better understand the behaviour and life cycle of the whales. Peninsula Valdez has become a model of success in ocean conservation and will hopefully serve as a template elsewhere for the protection of other sensitive marine life.

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