An initiative of Earthwatch Institute

  1. 233 Photo by David Donnelly
  2. 233_0 Photo by David Donnelly
  3. 233_1 Photo by David Donnelly
  4. 233_2 Photo by David Donnelly

Southern Right Whale

Eubalaena australis


  • Colour: Generally black, with small patches of white on the belly and lacking a dorsal fin
  • Appearance: have numerous, pale coloured callosities around the head which are a characteristic identifying feature
  • A rounded head with short, spatula shaped flippers and a distinct, V shaped blow, also help to separate it from other species
  • Size: may grow to a length of 18 metres


It is usually found close to shore just beyond the beach break during rest periods and in northern breeding grounds. They are generally lethargic and are found ‘milling around’ although they will often breach out of the water. They may also roll around on their back exposing the white patches on their belly or stick a fin out of the water for long periods whilst milling.

What to Observe

  • How many adults and calves
  • Behaviour: stationary, milling (lazing around), feeding, active (describe in the comments if the whale was jumping, rolling or waving its fins), travelling (and direction)
  • Distance from shore (Hint: If you're unsure use a nearby buoy or other feature of know distance from shore)
  • Weather and sea state (cloud cover, wind and swell) 
  • Photo identification of the head (Photo tip: SRW can be identified by the unique patterns made from the callosities on their heads and scars and markings on their tail. Photos of the callosities are best taken when the whale is ‘spy-hopping’ i.e. lifting its head out of the water in a vertical position. Photos should be taken of all whales sighted and having your camera set to ‘continuous shooting mode’ will ensure the best possible chance of clear identification from photos) 

ClimateWatch Science Advisor

Climate change may reduce the productivity of the Southern Ocean, impacting the distribution and availability of its main food sources such as krill, copepods and amphipods. Changes to ocean circulation, sea level rise and temperature could affect the timing and location of its migration and breeding. Southern Right Whales are particularly vulnerable to coastal pollution and human modifications of coastal environments due to their use of shallow waters during calving. They may alter their feeding behaviour, migration and breeding grounds in response to changes in ocean currents, temperatures and increasing human modification of shallow-water coastal areas.  

When To Look

May to November, although sporadic sighting are possible outside of these months. 

Where To Look

It spends its summer months in the Southern Ocean and possibly as far south as the sub-Antarctic where they feed on krill and other invertebrates. They can be found in Australian waters from May to November, principally south of Perth and Sydney, and near coastal waters of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. However, the extent of their northern distribution is largely unknown with occasional sightings as far north as the Kimberley in Western Australia and Hervey Bay in Queensland. Recent satellite tracks of the Southern Right Whale reveal that these whales may regularly migrate east/west around the Southern Hemisphere. 

Southern Right Whale compiled distribution map - Australia - Species of National Environmental Significance Database (Public Grids)

Southern Right Whale compiled distribution map - Australia - Species of National Environmental Significance Database (Public Grids)


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  1. What Else?

    Humpback whales are similar in shape and size but have a dorsal fin and a distinctive bushy shaped blow. The tails of humpback whales are coloured black to gray on top and white underneath. Humpbacks don’t have callosities. 

  1. Did You Know?

    The name ‘right whale’ was given to these whales by early European whalers who thought they were the ‘right’ type of whale to hunt. Their slow moving nature made them easy targets and their blubber was of high quality. They also floated when dead, making them much easier to move to shore.