There are three species of right whale. The two in the northern hemisphere have never recovered from whaling and number just a few hundred individuals. Given their common name because they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt sealed their fate. They are slow moving, live close to shore and float when dead.
At one time we would have been able to watch thousands of right whales off the coast of Europe, but sadly none remain.
Luckily the southern hemisphere right whales are slowly recovering and I have worked for Dyer Island Cruises in South Africa with them. Southern right whales spend the summer months in the sub-Antarctic feeding and then come close to the South African coast in winter to breed. This area is famous not only for boat-based whale watching, but also land-based as they come so close to shore.
Right whales can be individually identified by the callosities (hardened areas of skin) on their heads. These get covered with whale lice (actually crustaceans) and barnacles, giving them their distinctive white-ish colour. This mostly has to be done from the air.
The spectacular pure black of the whale’s tail against the green of the ocean in this area is a photographers dream. However whale watchers in the area often need an iron stomach as it is not called the ‘cape of storms’ for nothing. Despite being rather rotund, right whales are one of the most acrobatic species, frequently breaching, usually when the wind picks up, making those rough trips enjoyable at least for some people.