Southern right whales/tohora

These baleen whales can be recognised easily by their strongly arched mouth, lack of dorsal fin and V-shaped blowhole spray.

Their head and lower jaw is covered with callosities; large, white, rough growths on the skin that are usually infested with parasitic worms, whale lice and barnacles. The number and arrangement of these are unique to each animal, making it possible to identify individuals and track their movements.

Your help is urgently sought to look out for tohora around New Zealand and to report sightings immediately.

Southern right whale, showing flukes in Karitane, Otago. Photo: Nicola Vallance.
Southern right whale, showing flukes in Karitane, Otago

Facts

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are typically black in colour but can have irregular white patches. The flippers are large and paddle-shaped. Tohora are slow swimmers bfut are very acrobatic. They are also inquisitive.

Newborn: length 4.5-6 m
Adult: length 11-18 m

Range

Fluke of Southern Right whale.
Fluke of Southern Right whale

These are migratory animals and are circumpolar, mainly between 20°S and 55°S. Two northern species also exist – North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales. Tohora are a native migrant to New Zealand and are the only large baleen whales that can be seen from the beach. During the breeding season in winter and spring, they are mostly found in the waters around the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands but there are occasional sightings around mainland New Zealand.

Population

The mainland New Zealand and New Zealand subantarctic appear to represent wintering grounds for one New Zealand population as shown recent by DNA studies. We do not know if, historically, the two regions were distinct: the mainland New Zea;amd population could have been wiped out due to whaling and what we see is re-colonisation from the New Zealand subantarctic. Today, the New Zealand population is distinct from neighbouring populations in Australia, based on analysis of genetic markers.

Paternity analysis results also suggest New Zealand right whale calves have fathers from the New Zealand population, consistent with the idea the population is relatively distinct from Australia.

Diet and foraging

Southern right whale, Te Wae Wae Bay. Photo: Andy Cox.
Southern right whale, Te Wae Wae Bay

These whales can come very close to shore. Aggregations tend to form at feeding grounds, despite many animals typically being solitary or part of a very small group. Dives may last up to an hour but are usually much shorter. Tohora feed on planktonic crustaceans such as copepods and forage using a technique known as skim feeding, where they open their mouths and slowly swim through large concentrations of prey. As water enters their mouth, prey is sieved from the water and becomes trapped in their fine baleen plates.

Life history

Mating takes place in warm waters in winter with gestation lasting for about 11 months and weaning for about another year. Females are sexually mature at around eight years old with calving generally occurring regularly every three years.

Threats

Killer whales may occasionally kill tohora. They are known to form hunting packs to take down larger whales but the success rate and frequency of this is largely unknown. Other potential predators are large sharks. Predation is likely to affect calves more than adults. It is possible that such attacks were one of the pressures leading to the evolution of right whales’ use of shallow coastal habitats for calving.

Human impact

Southern right whale populations suffered dramatic losses due to whaling as they were deemed the “right” whales to catch: they were easy to approach, lived close to shore and provided large quantities of meat, oil and whalebone. Both Southern and Northern species came close to extinction and only the Southern is showing signs of recovery.

Present day threats include fishing, coastal development and human harassment. Incidental entanglement in fishing gear has been recorded, with both active fishing gear and lost “ghost” gear posing a threat.

Marine farms and coastal development results in the loss of habitat and can pose problems in terms of competition for both space and food.

Ship strike has also been reported, highlighting the importance of following the Marine Mammal Protection Regulations (1992) when in contact with cetaceans. A combination of these threats no doubt explains why tohora no longer occur in Wellington Harbour.

Southern right whale showing side fluke, Tautuku Peninsula. Photo: Erin Green.
Southern right whale showing side fluke, Tautuku Peninsula

DOC's work

DOC ranger Jim Fyfe checking Southern right whale DNA samples. Photo: Nicola Vallance.
DOC ranger Jim Fyfe checking
Southern right whale DNA samples

Recent findings

Updated April 2013

Southern right whales seen around mainland New Zealand appear to be part of the New Zealand subantarctic population, which could be undergoing a range expansion. Comparison of genetic markers showed there is no difference between the two New Zealand regions. However, it seems that the New Zealand population is distinct from the populations in Australia, based on the comparison of genetic markers.

Monitoring the species

A nationwide research project into the movement patterns of southern right whales was established in 2003. DOC is currently gathering sighting information from the public as well as using photo-identification and genetic samples to determine the population status of individuals seen around mainland New Zealand.

Researchers from the University of Auckland have created DNA ‘fingerprints’ to individually identify whales sampled around mainland New Zealand and the New Zealand subantarctic. The New Zealand right whale DNA fingerprint catalogue contains over 700 individually identified whales. Comparison of DNA fingerprints has shown the movement of nine individual whales between the mainland and New Zealand subantarctic. 

Current protection and the way forward

The New Zealand population appears to be increasing, based on a mark-recapture study of individuals from the New Zealand subantarctic. This could be associated with the establishment of the Auckland Islands marine mammal sanctuary, where a no-fishing zone exists within a 12-mile radius of the islands. A marine mammal tourism moratorium was also set up at Auckland and Campbell Island. As the New Zealand population increases, it will be important to monitor southern right whales around mainland New Zealand as it may also increase.

West Coast southern right whales

A southern right whale surfaces off the coast of Hokitika. Photo: Ian Gill.
A southern right whale snorkelling off the
coast of Hokitika

Whales along the West Coast are being photographed as part of a nationwide research project into the movement patterns of Southern right whales.

DOC staff are trying to identify whether the whales being sighted off the mainland of New Zealand are geographically isolated from those that breed further south. No movements between these areas have been documented, indicating that the mainland whales could represent a separate population.

If this was the case, it would make the mainland whales very rare. These whales would be afforded a high level of protection from potential impacts, such as marine farms, ship strike and coastal development.

Do report sightings of southern right whales to the Department of Conservation. The whales spend a large portion of their winter breeding months (June - September) very close to the shore in sheltered waters. This is exciting as it provides a rare opportunity for members of the public to see whales from the shore.

You can help

Report sightings

Your help is urgently sought to look out for southern right whales/tohora around New Zealand and to report sightings immediately.

If you see a whale please report it to DOC as soon as possible. Calls can be made to the 0800 DOCHOT line, 0800 36 24 68.

If you can, please photograph the whales. Photos can be used to identify individual whales. The most useful shots are of:

  • the left side of the head;
  • the full length of the body, particularly showing any identifying marks.

Please also record and give DOC staff the following information:

  • the date, time and location of the sighting (GPS coordinates if possible);
  • the number of whales and whether any are calves;
  • the direction they were travelling; and
  • your contact details.

How to identify a southern right whale

These whales can come very close to shore. Adults average 14-15 m and newborn calves between 4.5 and 6 m. Southern right whales are mostly black in colour and can easily be identified by lack of a dorsal fin, a V-shaped blowhole spray and white growths on their heads called callosities.

The pattern of callosities on each whale is different making it possible to identify individuals and to track their movements.

Adults and children looking for whales. Photo: Simon Childerhouse.
Looking for whales

Why sightings are important

Southern right whales are a native migrant to New Zealand. During the breeding season in winter and spring, they are mostly found in the waters around the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands but there are occasional sightings around mainland New Zealand.

It is possible the whales seen around New Zealand could be from a separate population to those found in subantarctic waters. If this is the case, it would make the population of whales visiting the mainland extremely rare and they could be in peril.

DOC needs to collect information this winter to clarify whether the mainland population is a separate population.

How to approach a southern right whale

Carefully approach whales from behind and parallel to them.

  • Maintain a distance of 50 metres from whales.
  • Operate your boat slowly
    • at “no wake” speed
    • and quietly.
  • Southern right whales may approach your boat in which case you should slow down and stop.
  • Manoeuvre your boat sensitively near whales. Do not obstruct their path, cut through a group or separate mothers from calves.
  • Avoid sudden noises that could startle the animals.
  • Aircraft should avoid flying directly over whales, keeping at least 150 metres away.
  • Swimming with whales is not permitted.

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Contacts

DOC 24 hour emergency hotline:
0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Phone to report:

Seals severely injured, entangled, or being harassed by people or dogs
Whale or dolphin strandings
Sick or injured wildlife

For other enquiries, contact your nearest DOC office