Whale Species in South Australian Waters

It’s not just Southern Right whales that grace our waters in South Australia … 29 other whale species have been recorded, from small Common Dolphins (2m) to the largest animal ever to have lived, the Blue Whale (30m).

There are over 80 species of whales in the world, and all whales belong to the order Cetacea (Suh-TAY-sha). Baleen whales (like Southern Right whales) are filter feeders, using baleen to sieve tiny marine crustaceans from the sea, and have 2 blowholes on top of their head. They are primarily migratory species, needing to travel to the Antarctic waters in summer when their prey is most plentiful.

Toothed whales have teeth! Their main food is fish, although some species have other preferences as well, such as Killer whales (Orcas) which love seals and sea lions and Sperm Whales which prey on large squid. Toothed whales have only 1 blowhole.

Identifying Whale Species

Southern Right Whale
14 – 18 metres. Dark brown to black with white patches on belly; no dorsal fin; white skin callosities on head; V-shaped blow. A large, rotund whale. Endangered.

Humpback Whale
13 – 16 metres. Dark brown to black with white on flippers, flanks and belly; knobs on top of head and throat grooves; bushy blow; extremely long pectoral (side) fins. Vulnerable.

Blue Whale
25-30 metres. Blue-grey mottled with light grey spots. The Blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on earth, even bigger than any dinosaur, and they can live up to 80 years or more, weighing between 100 – 200 tonnes.

Sperm Whale
12 – 18 metres. Black to brownish grey with white patches on mouth and belly; huge square head; heavily wrinkled skin; blow angles forward and to the left. Deep divers (up to 3km); feed on squid and fish. Classified as Insufficiently Known.

Orca (Killer Whale)
8 – 9 metres. Bold black and white patterns; tall, erect, triangular dorsal fin in males, more curved in females. Formidable predators eating fish, seals and even whales. Often hunt in pods. Classified as Insufficiently Known, but generally common and widespread.

Common Whale Behaviours

Whales exhale air from the blowholes on top of their heads at great pressure, causing moisture in their breath to condense and create a cloud or “blow”. Southern Rights have a distinctive V-shaped bushy blow and usually blow every minute or so after being submerged.

Spy Hopping
The eyes are set low down in Southern Right Whales because their natural predators and hazards come from below. However, they can lift their head and eyes above the surface when they want to have a look around. This is called spy hopping.

Deep Diving
When whales wish to dive deeply or quickly, they will drop their heads and lift their tails out of the water, then swim straight down.

Whales most spectacular activity is when they launch themselves up out of the water then twist and fall back down. This is called breaching, and it is believed they do this for several reasons … to communicate, dislodge parasites, get a higher view, drive off predators or just play. Southern Rights usually only breach about three quarters of their bodies out of the water, but others such as Humpbacks can actually jump clear.

Tail Lobs
Tail flukes measure up to 5m across and weigh several tonnes. Whales will often lift them out of the water then back down hard with a loud crack and lots of spray. This is called tail lobbing, and is done for several reasons … to communicate, cool down, drive off predators or just for fun.

Pec Slaps
A less strenuous way for whales to communicate, is where they lay on their side at the surface and slap the water with their pectoral fin.

Body Rolls
Whales frequently lay upside down, rolling on the surface with their pectoral fins stuck out for balance. There are various reasons for this … to simply rest or stretch; or, if a female, to avoid the demands of a hungry calf, or the advances of males during courtship.

Tail Lifts
Whales are able to suspend their tails above the water for quite long periods by dropping their heads and maintaining position with their pectoral fins. There are several reasons for this … to just rest, study the area around and below it or catch the wind and actually sail along. Also, if a female, to avoid the demands of a hungry calf, or the advances of males during courtship.

The 6 most commonly seen whales in South Australia are the Southern Right, Humpback, Sperm, Blue and Killer Whales, and Common Dolphins. Each species can be identified by the shape of their blow, and the size and shape of their tail flukes and pectoral fins, and overall body size, colour and shape.

Download: How to Identify 6 commonly seen Whales in SA (351 KB pdf )

Most of the other whales recorded in South Australia are seen less often than the 6 mentioned above and include the following species:

Baleen Whales

  • Pygmy Right Whale: 5 – 7 metres
  • Blue Whale: 25 – 33 metres
  • Fin Whale: 22 – 26 metres
  • Bryde’s Whale: 12 – 14 metres

Toothed Whales

  • Pygmy Sperm Whale: to 3.4 metres
  • Dwarf Sperm Whale: to 2.7 metres
  • False Killer Whale: 5 – 6 metres
  • Long-Finned Pilot Whale: 5 – 7 metres
  • Short-Finned Pilot Whale: to 6.5 metres
  • Strap-Toothed Whale: to 6.2 metres
  • Gray’s Beaked Whale: to 5.6 metres
  • Shepherd’s Beaked Whale: 6 – 7 metres
  • Arnoux’s Beaked Whale: to 9.6 metres
  • Hector’s Beaked Whale: to 4.5 metres
  • Andrew’s Beaked Whale: to 5 metres
  • Cuvier’s Beaked Whale: to 7 metres
  • Southern Bottlenose Whale: 7 – 8 metres
  • Bottlenose Dolphin: 3 – 4 metres
  • Risso’s Dolphin: 2 – 4 metres

A group of dedicated and passionate Whale Spotters in Victor Harbor, together with staff from the South Australian Museum and South Australian Whale Centre take and catalogue photographs of Southern Right Whales in order to identify individuals and track Southern Right Whale movements and migration patterns.

Whale Research Organisations in Australia