Right whales are the most endangered of great whales. When Dr. Roger Payne started gathering data on the Southern Right whale in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina in 1970 he was concerned that this species might be lost forever and so Ocean Alliance’s Southern Right Whale Program began.
For centuries, right whales were hunted mercilessly. Early whalers called them “the right whales to kill” because they are slow, have a thick blubber layer that produces abundant oil, and float when dead. Southern right whales were protected internationally in 1935. As whalers stopped hunting right whales, the populations in the southern hemisphere have recovered substantially, although they are still below their pre-whaling sizes.
Over the last 43 years we have conducted aerial surveys monitoring the right whale populations, our catalog now contains over 3,000 photo-identified individual right whales from Península Valdés, Argentina. Important findings on the biology of right whales were obtained using benign, non-lethal techniques. Among other things, we now know that females reproduce on average once every three years, their mean age at first parturition is 9 years, the annual rate of population increase is 5.1%, juveniles use breeding grounds to socialize with other juveniles and to potentially learn important behaviors, and right whales can shift their distribution along the shorelines of Península Valdés over decades.
The documented growth of the population of southern right whales in Argentina has been regarded for several decades as a sign of hope that recovery can occur in a whale species, but recent mortality events suggest that this population of whales may be less healthy and robust than previously thought. This reinforces the importance of continuing our research and monitoring efforts to help understand the population trends and their causes.
The great whales are important indicators of ocean health because they consume such large quantities of food and occupy home ranges that span thousands of miles. The Patagonian right whale population is recognized as one of the best indicators of the response of baleen whales to climate change in the Southern Ocean because the reproductive histories of so many of its individuals have been recorded continuously for four decades. Continuing the annual aerial surveys of the Patagonian right whale population is essential for understanding the health of this population and its extremely important western South Atlantic ecosystem.
“The (Right Whale) data you (Ocean Alliance) hold would no doubt be the single most valuable source of information on whales and their environment available… there really is nothing else out there quite as good.”
– Steve Reilly, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The Patagonian Right Whale Program is now a collaborative effort of Ocean Alliance and Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), an Argentine nonprofit founded by Roxana Schteinbarg and Diego Taboada, based in Buenos Aires. For more information please visit the the ICB website or the English version.
We look forward to sharing with you our 43rd field season in Argentina in the coming weeks.