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South Africa Holiday: Southern right whale

South Africa Holiday: All about whales

South Africa is one of the most incredible destinations for seeing whales. Southern right whales abound off the south coast Jun-Nov. Bryde's whales, humpback whales and killer whales can also be seen close to South Africa's shores.


Southern Right Whale

The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) was so named because in the 18th century it was considered to be the 'right' whale to catch by commercial whale hunters, possibly because it was easy to catch and did not drown after killing.
By 1914 it was nearly extinct, with numbers estimated at 200-300.
South Africa Holiday: Southern right whale
They inhabit colder Antarctic waters for feeding, then migrate north to warmer waters for breeding and calving. Although they may move far out to sea during their feeding season, southern right whales give birth in coastal areas. Interestingly, many of the females do not return to these coastal breeding areas every year, but visit only in calving years. Where they go in other years remains a mystery.
Today the number of southern right whales is estimated at 3,000 to 4,000, with perhaps 2,000 of these found off the south coast of South Africa from mid-June to early December every year.
Click here to see a larger picture in a new windowThe southern right can be distinguished from other whales by their V-shaped 'blow' and the callosities which appear on and around their head. Many people mistake these callosities for barnacles (although barnacles and other sea life do live on these patches on the whale's head), but they are in fact outgrowths of tough skin.
  • Colour: black with occasional white markings along back and underside.
  • Shape: the body is stocky and fat, smoothly rotund without a trace of dorsal fin or any ridge along the back.
  • Length:14-18 metres
  • Weight: 40-80 tons
  • Longevity: 90-100 years.
  • Swimming speed: 5-8kph
  • Gestation: one year
  • Calving season : August is the best month
  • Watching season: June-November (peaking in July and August)

Whale behaviours

Blowing: This is when the whale rapidly expels air through its blowhole. The "blow" is a cloud of vapour produced largely by condensation when warm breath comes into contact with cooler air. Although often rather noisy, it is the whale’s normal breathing pattern.
Breaching: This is when the whale leaps out of the water and falls back on its back or side with a resounding slap. This could be for exercise, communication, or possibly to "scratch" the parasites off that live on whales. They sometimes breach three to eight times in succession
Tail lobbing: This is the slapping of the tail and flukes (tail fin) on the water. The resultant sound could be a means of communication.
Spy hopping: In this manoeuvre the whale lifts its head and part of its upper body vertically above the water surface.
Sailing: This is when the whale holds its tail and flukes (tail fin) almost vertically out of the sea like a sail.

Related pages

Whale watching route

Humpback Whales

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are in the same family as southern right whales.
Found in all the world's oceans, most populations of humpback follow a regular migration route, summering in temperate and polar waters for feeding, and wintering in tropical waters for mating and calving.
South Africa Holiday: Humpback whale breaching
Humpback whales are often seen off the South African coast between May and November as they move between the coasts off Mozambique and Angola to calve and breed, and the colder Antarctic waters, where they feed.
Adults measure 12-15m and weigh 25-40 tons.
Humpbacks are active, acrobatic whales. They can throw themselves completely out of the water (breaching), and swim on their backs with both flippers in the air. They also engage in "tail lobbing" and "flipper slapping".

Bryde's Whale

Bryde's (pronounced "broodus") whales (Balaenoptera edeni) are found off South Africa's coasts all year round, but slightly further offshore than southern right whales. They have a bluish-gray body with white on the underside.
The Bryde's whale is  12-15m long and weighs about 13 tons.
South Africa Holiday: Bryde's whale
Bryde's whales are usually fish eaters, often feeding on schools of anchovies, sardines or herring. While feeding, the Bryde's whale displays a more regular up-and-down pattern, frequently arching its back quite high and diving for 5-15 minutes. When diving they do not show their flukes.
Bryde's whales rarely venture beyond 40° north or south, and are most common in tropical and sub-tropical waters. Often these coastal whales are believed to reside in one area year-round.

Killer Whales (Orca)

The killer whale (Orcinus orca) is a stout, streamlined animal. It has a round head that is tapered, with an indistinct beak and straight mouth line. A distinctive feature of the killer whale is its triangular dorsal fin, which can reach 1.8m high.
South Africa Holiday: Killer whale
Killer whales have a striking colour pattern made up of well-defined areas of shiny black and cream or white. The dorsal part of its body is black, with a pale white to gray "saddle" behind the dorsal fin. It has an oval white eye patch behind and above each eye. The chin, throat, central length of the ventral (underside) area and undersides of the tail flukes are white.
Killer whales generally live in pods (groups) consisting of several females, calves or juveniles, and one or more males.
Adults measure 8-9.6m long and weigh 4-9 tons.
The killer whale is found in all oceans of the world, though they are more abundant in cooler waters.
Unlike some other species of whales, which follow a regular migration route each year, the killer whale seems to travel according to the availability of food. They are one of the few species of whales that move freely between hemispheres.
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