Witsand has the largest concentration of Southern Right Whales on the South African coast, growing at an annual rate of 7%. The official whale count done from a helicopter in October 2002 revealed 117 adults and 49 calves in St Sebastian Bay. On a good day up to 50 are visible from the shore. The Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) was given this name because they live in the Southern Hemisphere and at the time was the ‘right’ Whale to hunt because they floated when killed.
It is quite easy to spot a Southern Right Whale because of its many unique features. They are baleen Whales, which means that instead of teeth it has long plates hanging over the top jaw. Their head is much hairier than most Whales, it also has callosities (a series of horny growths) behind the blowhole, on the chin, above the eyes, on the lower lip and on the rostrum (beak like upper jaw). The Southern Right Whale is very rich in blubber (oil) and actually has 2 blowholes. Watch out for the V shaped cloud of water that it spurts when it breathes out.
The females of the species are about 16.5m long and males are about 15.2m long, thus the females are slightly larger than males, as with all baleen Whales.
Colour The Southern Right Whale’s skin is usually black with white and/or brown patches. Southern Right Whale calves are blue to grey coloured.
These whales are seasonal feeders and carnivores that filter feed zooplankton (tiny crustaceans like copepods, krill, pteropods, etc.) from the water. They are skimmers or filter feeders that swim slowly with their mouth open, constantly eating. On occasion, they are also bottom feeders, eating benthic prey from the mud on the ocean floor. The fine baleen hairs can filter out very tiny prey including copepods, steropods, euphasiids and mysids (tiny crustaceans).
They are a migratory Whale, which means that they spend one season in one place and the rest of the year in another, and travel long distances between these seasons. In summer (December through May), they are in the cold polar regions of the Southern Hemisphere where food (mainly krill) is present and in quantity. Winters (June through November) are spent around the shallow coastal waters of Southern Africa, South America and Australia.
Calving is thought to occur only every 3 to 5 years. A single young is born after a gestation period of 12 months and within a year, the calf is weaned and independent. Females usually have one calf every 3 years, gestation (pregnancy) is about 13 months. Most calves are born during August. They have an average length of 6.1m (20 feet). They suckle for 4 to 8 months and drink up to 600 litres of milk per day growing 3cm (1.2 inch) per day.
The best time to spot the Southern Right is in early June when the Whale leaves its Antarctic feeding ground for the warm waters of the Cape Coast. South Africa’s Whale Route stretches from Doringbaai, south of Cape Town, all the way along the coast to Durban. That’s nearly 2000km of Whale watching coast, where many other species can also be encountered as well as many species of Dolphin and Porpoise, and includes several sections famous for their beauty, such as Witsand / Whitesand along the Garden Route.