The Southern Right Whale has never been called the Southern Correct Whale, but it could have been.
It’s interesting how a species gets its name and I have always wondered why the Southern Right Whale was named that.
I thought it had something to do with their face being the right way up, because their smile always looks a bit up-side-down.
You know, that whale look…
Sadly I didn’t find out why these whales are “right” until I saw the news of how a sub-adult female Southern Right had been wronged by a fatal boat strike in Moreton Bay.
It was found floating up-side-down on Monday August 18 at Peel island and when Marine Parks and the traditional owners came to inspect, they turned it over to reveal eight massive propeller cuts into its brain.
It had been hit by a North Stradbroke passenger ferry on Friday August 15 along with an adult suspected to be its mother that was seen afterwards injured but still moving.
The fact that the dead whale was found had a lot to do with the Southern Right carcass’s ability to float – unlike humpback carcasses which don’t float.
According to whale historian Marion Diamond the Southern Right’s ability to float is one of the main reasons it was called “Right”.
In her blog “Historians are Past Caring” the retired historian says:
“Unlike other whales, a dead right whale floats when dead because of its thick blubber, so to whalers, they were the right whales to catch. Not only did they yield more oil, but after harpooning, they could be tethered alongside a vessel, and processed at the whalers’ convenience. So right whales were hunted more than any other baleen whale, and their numbers dropped accordingly.”
The extra blubber isn’t the only reason they were the preferred prey for whalers. Southern Rights are quite slow movers, they don’t react quickly and they spend more time on the surface than other whales because they are surface skimming feeders.
Ms Diamond’s blog outlines how the Southern Rights were decimated in the early days of Australian colonisation when “Ships would dump their ‘cargo’ of convicts in Sydney, then head off into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales.”
They were so easy to hunt in the south that some reports say in the early days of colonization you could almost walk across the backs of Southern Right Whales (SRWs) in Hobart’s Derwent River in the winter and the sound of their blows kept residents awake.
There is anecodatal evidence but no official colonial records of them being as far north on the Australian East Coast as Moreton Bay.
However Darren Burns from Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation traditional owners group on Moreton Bay’s North Stradbroke Island, who inspected the Southern Rights carcass, says migrating SRWs did occur in Queensland before white settlement.
He says it’s only since 2002 that the endangered whales have recovered enough to return to Moreton Bay.
Queensland University whale expert Michael Noad also suspects a small fraction of the Southern Rights that made up the Victorian and Tasmanian winter population had migrated yearly to Moreton Bay in the days before colonisation. However they had stopped migrating to Queensland before the state was even settled 190 years ago because of the massive losses caused by whaling.
He says the numbers that visit the bay at present are very small… possibly only a couple at a time and possibly different ones.
Like SRWs most common Gold Coast whale species carry the names given to them by their hunters.
Humpback Whales were named by whalers for their hump. The Minke Whale was named after a novice Norwegian whale spotter called Meincke who mistook a Minke for a Blue Whale. The Brydes Whale was named after another Norwegian whaler Johan Bryde, who helped construct the first South African whaling factory in the early 1900s.
Practices have changed but the names have stuck. Now the whales are protected but shipstrikes have become the biggest threat they face.
To reduce the risk to whale populations especially Southern Right Whales ships in whale hotspots should be made to slow down, a recent international report recommends.
The “Collision Course” report by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) on boat strikes in the Barrier Reef says, whales zones should be introduced like “school zones” to control speed and mariners should be more aware and report all incidents.
“The risk of ship strike is largely unrecognised and unreported. The relative lack of reports of ship strikes is likely to significantly under-represent the threat they pose,” the report says.
With the re-appearance of a few Southern Right Whales in Moreton Bay each year, traditional owners and whale experts are urging ships and boats to heed the report’s recommendations and take extra care.