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Tuatara: Volume 12, Issue 2, July 1964

Return of the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis Desm.) to New Zealand Waters, 1963

page 115

Return of the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis Desm.) to New Zealand Waters, 1963


During 1963 evidence of the catastrophic decline in the number of humpback whales passing the New Zealand coast was again noted. Only nine whales of this species were taken in the 1963 season on the northward migration, and including these nine, only fifteen seen altogether. This catch of nine can be compared with twenty-seven caught last year, eighty in 1961, and over 300 in 1960. A similar decline has been reported from Australia. Protection for the species has been agreed internationally, but it seems possible that such protection has been left so long that the species may never recover in numbers.

Similar protection has been agreed upon for the great blue whale, the largest animal on earth. This species has also declined in numbers until it is now in severe danger. The damage to these two species has been done despite the controls laid down by the International Whaling Commission. Even the stocks of the finback whale, the mainstay of the industry in the Southern Ocean, are declining year after year.

The Right Whale

Despite the declining numbers of these three species the rarest large whale in the southern hemisphere is still the Right Whale (Eubalaena australis), which was on the verge of complete extinction when protected by the whaling convention of 1936. It was ruthlessly hunted by whaling ships and whalers based at innumerable shore stations all over the hemisphere from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. Possibly the only bright spot in the dismal picture of southern hemisphere whaling at the present time is the gradual re-appearance of this extremely rare animal in a few of its traditional haunts around the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

The species gained its odd name simply because to the early whalers it was the ‘right’ whale to chase — easy to catch and easy to kill. Cruising along at no more than three knots or rolling page 116 at the edges of kelp beds in shallow water the animals were easy to take even with the most primitive methods. Once killed the animal floated without the need to fill the carcase with air or the attachment of buoys. The species was hunted mainly for its whalebone, or baleen, and this grew as long as ten feet in large animals.

When physically mature a good male is about 48-50 feet long, and a female between 55-60 feet. In the water the whale is easily distinguished from all other species by its broad flat back, devoid of any trace of dorsal fin, a peculiar aggregation of yellowish lumps on the upper surface of the snout called the ‘bonnet’, and the fact that the spout is double, not single as in all other whales found round the New Zealand coast.

It is probably true to say that the Southern Right Whale is still the rarest large animal in the world. It is doubtful whether the number of individuals in the whole of the eastern Southern Ocean exceeds a very few hundred, even though it has been completely protected there for over twenty-five years. Prior to the opening of the 19th century the Right Whale came to New Zealand waters in very large numbers. It was extensively hunted during the period 1820-1900, and there are traces of whaling stations in a great numbers of bays and coves on both the east and west coasts of New Zealand.

The whales spent the summer months feeding in the Southern Ocean and moved north in the autumn, reaching the bays of the sub-Antarctic islands and the New Zealand mainland in July, August and September. It appears that mating must occur in shallow water in this species, although it is known that a great number of the females coming close inshore had small calves with them. From this and other evidence it seems likely that some calves were dropped in shallow water in the same months.

Not all the Right Whales in the south Pacific area went further north than the sub-Antarctic islands. A few stayed for a time
Lateral view of Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis Desm.)

Lateral view of Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis Desm.)

. page 117 in such places as Perseverence Sound and North West Bay on Campbell Island, where they are still found today, and then moved off into the Southern Ocean again. In all probability the fact that a few individuals did this, as well as the failure of the whaling stations set up on Campbell Island, are the only things that saved the species from complete extinction in the South Pacific area. The adverse weather conditions and the isolation deterred whalers from making a going concern of the various stations set up on the island. By the time that an attempt was made to set up semi-permanent stations on the island the stocks of the Right Whale were so low that the men could not be persuaded to stay down there for the small rewards that resulted. One by one the stations collapsed after only one or two season's operations. In this way the whale survived.

However, even today no more than about forty Right Whales have been seen at Campbell Island at one time, and there is no reason to assume that this does not represent a considerable percentage of the total population. At the end of the Second World War it seemed that there were fewer than ten pairs of Right Whales coming each season to Campbell Island. In the last five years it has been possible to note an as yet small, but appreciable recovery in the numbers. In the last two seasons, up to twenty whales have been seen in one bay at a time at Campbell Island, and in the winter and spring of 1963 a noticeable return has been made to the New Zealand mainland. Optimistically we hope that this means the numbers have outgrown the handful that each of the sub-Antarctic islands could support, and that the species is once again returning to the habitual movements between New Zealand and the Southern Ocean that it made a century ago in great numbers.

The Right Whales that did reach the New Zealand mainland in the early years were hunted so extensively that by 1927 fewer than a dozen individuals were being caught each year. The surviving shore stations had gone over to exploiting humpback whales long before this. By the time the species was given complete protection by the convention of 1936 it had disappeared almost entirely from New Zealand waters. Perhaps a lone whale would be reported every three or four years, but more often none at all. The bays of Campbell Island became the last precarious stronghold of the species.

The first sighting on the New Zealand mainland for many years was made, ironically enough, at the Tory Channel whaling station on July 15, 1963. The launch of the Picton harbour-master was working opposite the whaling station when one of the men on board spotted a whale coming into the channel against the tide and signalled the whaling station. One of the small humpback chasers went out to the spot. When the whale surfaced again it page 118 was seen to be a Right Whale about 55ft. long. The chaser followed the whale for about three miles as it moved along the edge of the extensive kelp beds, eventually losing sight of it towards the far end of Arapawa Island. It seems probable that the whale came out of the other entrance and went on north up the west coast of the North Island.

At the end of August, 1963, the whaling section of the Fisheries Laboratory received a report from Bluff of a whale which came into the harbour and nosed round a fishing boat. The whale was described in such a way as left no doubt of the species. This was the second Right Whale of 1963.

On September 1 a 60ft. whale with a 15ft. calf was sighted by some fishermen near Whangarei Heads. The same whales were later reported nearer Whangarei in the channel. The mother whale was described as being ‘a little like a very large humpback with strange lumps on its head’.

Finally a 55ft. Right Whale was seen moving less than half a mile off-shore at Maraetai, near Auckland. A clear photograph of its head was obtained as it came up to breathe, and once again there was no doubt of its identity. This sighting was made on September 4, 1963.


It is unlikely that many more than these five Right Whales have been into New Zealand waters this year. The animals come so close inshore and move up the coast so close inshore that they are a most conspicuous object. The time and space distribution of these sightings makes it seem unlikely that the same whale was observed at different times at Bluff, Tory Channel, Maraetai and Whangarei. It is to be hoped, however, that there were others, and also that the species will continue to return to these waters in growing numbers each season. Mr. W. H. Dawbin, of Sydney University, has recently informed this section that Right Whales are also re-appearing in Australian waters.


Dawbin, W. H. Personal communication, August, 1963.

Gaskin, D. E. Unpublished whale sighting data, 1963.

Slijper, E. J. ‘Whales’. Hutchinson Press, London, 1962.

Diary of a whaling season, 1912. Dominion Museum, unpublished manuscript.

Diary of a whaling season, 1911. Dominion Museum, unpublished manuscript.