WCS Argentina

Southern Right Whale

One of the world's rarest species of whale, the southern right whale got its name because it was the“right” whale to kill. Hunted almost to extinction there may have been less than 2000 individuals at the beginning of the XXth century, out of the more than 100,000 that are believed to have existed before whaling began. Protected now for almost 100 years the southern right whale population is slowly recovering. Almost one third of the population breeds in the sheltered bays that surround Peninsula Valdes on the coast of Patagonia. Large and relatively slow, the southern right whale has a heavy body, no dorsal fin and a large blunt head. The top jaw, lower lips, chin and“eyebrows “ have areas of thickened skin or “callosities” that are covered soon after birth by a thin layer of pale colored cyamid whale lice that feed on the whale’s skin. Right whales are social animals and gather in loose “pods”especially during the breeding season between June and December. During this period, mothers with their calves seek shallow waters close to shore, possibly to avoid being harassed by males. Over one hundred whales can often be seen from a single point from some areas on Peínsula Valdés.

Conservation Challenges

Significant mortality among newborn southern right whales has been recorded in Península Valdés in recent years however the causes are still unknown. Annual population growth stood at 7% for over 30 years since 1970 but has begun dropping. The proliferation of “attacks” by kelp gulls on this population of right whales is also cause for concern.  The first attacks were recorded in 1969. Usually working alone, a gull lands on the back of a whale lying at the surface and, using its beak, tears off as much skin and blubber as it can to eat, before the whale submerges. Gulls repeatedly attack the same areas and the resulting wounds can be the size of dishes. To avoid being attacked adult whales “spy-hop”showing only their head at the surface, to breath. Calves however take time to learn this avoidance behavior and many of end up with severe back wounds within a few days of birth.

Right whales enjoy significant public support in Argentina. They are also the basis of an active whale watching industry. Responsible tourism plays a valuable role in conservation of these whales however large numbers of well-wishing visitors also generates management challenges. The whale watching industry in Península Valdés now receives more than 100,000 people annually.

Conservation Approach

WCS works with partner NGO sand with the Federal Government of Argentina and the Government of Chubut to find ways of reducing threats to right whales and increasing their numbers.

Goals

To ensure recovery of the southern right whale population on the coast of Patagonia.

Activities

WCS is promoting and assisting the creation and strengthening of marine protected areas for right whales around Península Valdés and other areas of the coast of Patagonia, to ensure safety of right whales breeding grounds. We work with NGO partners to make ship captains that operate in the area aware of the cares to be taken to avoid negative interaction between shipping and whales during the breeding season. We participate in the monitoring of whale populations and threats on their breeding grounds and the assessment of threats that face whales where they go to forage and during migration. WCS veterinarians are working with local NGOs to try and discover the causes of the high levels of mortality of right whale calves in the first weeks of life.

Threats

Little in known about the foraging distribution of southern right whales of Península Valdés however, as a plankton feeder, this species may come into direct competition with krill fisheries in the southern oceans. One of the greatest known threats to right whales worldwide is collision with shipping. While one of the principal breeding areas for southern right whales, in Golfo Nuevo, on the coast of Patagonia also receives a significant amount of ship traffic and collisions with large and small boats are recorded fairly frequently. Illegal hunting of whales by clandestine whaling ships remains a threat to this species.

Accomplishments

Direct involvement in the creation of protected areas for southern right whales beginning with the Parque Marino Golfo San Jose (1974), the establishment of a protected area in the north of Golfo Nuevo (1992) and the designation of Península Valdés a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2000). Research and monitoring of this population of whales in partnership with other NGOs and the government of Chubut, beginning in 1970.

Contact

WCS Argentina
Amenabar 1595 piso 2 oficina 19, C1426AKC CABA

Key Staff

Guillermo Harris
Country Director
All Southern Right Whale Staff >>

Featured Partners