Southern right whale research

The southern right whale (Eubalaena australis, SRW) is a large and charismatic species that inhabits subtropical to subpolar areas of the Southern Hemisphere. SRWs were heavily exploited over several centuries of whaling, due to their accessibility in nearshore habitat, large oil yield, approachability, and tendency to float once dead. However, in recent decades there has been evidence of increasing population size at many of the core winter breeding grounds in Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and SRWs are currently listed as globally Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Nevertheless, regional fluctuations in recovery rates and high calf mortalities in some years mean that SRWs are still of conservation and management concern.

In the Falkland Islands (south-west Atlantic), data support a historical and ongoing use of pelagic areas during the austral summer and early autumn, presumably for both foraging and migration. However, in 2017, during Caroline’s work on sei whales in the Islands for Falklands Conservation, a contemporary occurrence of SRWs was discovered using coastal waters during the austral winter (Weir and Stanworth, 2019). Subsequently, Caroline and FC established a targeted SRW research programme in the winter of 2019, which has run annually every winter since with funding from Darwin Plus (DPLUS082 and DPLUS126) and input from a range of experienced project partners. The work carried out to date has included:

  • Visual surveys of spatio-temporal distribution using vessel and aerial platforms;
  • An aerial abundance survey carried out in 2023/24;
  • Photo-identification work to identify individual whales from the callosity pattern on their heads and to investigate their movements, population size, and scarring;
  • Satellite tracking to collect data on movements, habitat use, and dive behaviour;
  • Biopsy sampling to collect small tissue samples to carry out genetic, stable isotope and hormone analysis;
  • Acoustic monitoring to characterise the vocal repertoire and assess temporal occurrence;

  • Unmanned aerial vehicle (or ‘drone’) work to assess age composition, body condition and health.

The work has revealed that SRWs aggregate annually in the coastal waters of the north-east Falklands during winter (May to September), with groups exhibiting both breeding (mating) and socializing behaviour. The presence of numerous ‘gunshot songs’ in the winter acoustic recordings further confirms mating behaviour, since the songs are considered to be reproductive display by adult males. Satellite-tracking has linked the whales in the Falkland Islands to those using the major winter calving ground at the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, but we have also recently encountered an adult female right whale that had been tagged on the South African calving ground (Vermeulen et al., 2023), indicating that the Islands may be used by more than one SRW population. The work has already led to the nearshore waters in the north-east Falklands being internationally-recognised as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) for SRWs. Outputs from the ongoing work, including scientific papers, will be listed below as they become available.

We are proud to be part of the Southern Right Whale Consortium, an international collaboration with the ultimate goal of improving understanding and conservation management of the southern right whale across the globe.

Grey morph right whale, Falkland Islands.

Grey morph right whale, Falkland Islands.

Southern right whale tail.

Southern right whale tail.

Socialising southern right whale

Socialising southern right whale.

Right whale in the Falkland Islands

Right whale in the Falkland Islands.

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