Whale Species in South Australia
Southern Right whales may be our most reknown whales here in Victor Harbor, but they are far from the only whales to gather on South Australia’s pristine coastline. 29 other whale species have been recorded in South Australian waters. These range from the small Common Dolphin (2m) to the largest animal ever to have lived, the Blue Whale (30m).
Many people are surprised to learn that Dolphins are also classified as whales. World-wide there are over 90 whale species & they all belong to the order Cetacea (Suh-TAY-sha). All whales are split into 2 distinct sub classes.
Including whales such as the Southern Right Whale, Baleen whales are filter feeders. Using large sheets of baleen to sieve tiny marine crustaceans from the sea. Baleen whales have 2 blowholes on top of their head, creating a distinctive V-shaped blow. They are primarily a migratory species, with summering grounds in the Antarctic where their prey is most plentiful and migratory routes to warmer climates in winter to mate and birth their young.
Species belonging to the Toothed whale sub class include Dolphins & Narwhals. Their main food source is usually fish, although some species have other preferences. Killer whales (Orcas) for example love seals and sea lions, whereas Sperm Whales prey on large squid. In contrast to Baleen whales, Toothed whales have only 1 blowhole creating a straight singular blow. Another distinguishing feature of Toothed whales is their ability to echo-locate, using sound waves to create visual maps of their prey and surroundings.
Identifying Whale Species
The 5 most commonly seen whales in South Australia are the Southern Right, Humpback, Sperm, Blue and Killer Whales. Each species can be identified by the shape of their blow, and the size and shape of their tail flukes and pectoral fins,as well as overall body size, colour and shape.
Southern Right whales are baleen whales measuring between 14 – 18 metres. Coloured grey to black with white patches known as blazes sometimes found on the belly; no dorsal fin; white skin callosities on the head & a V-shaped blow. A large, rotund whale with a square head and flippers. The Southern Right is classified as an endangered species.
Humpback whales are baleen whales measuring between 13 – 16 metres. Coloured dark brown to black with white on the underside of the flippers, flanks and belly; small knobs are found on the top of head and Humpbacks have throat grooves known as rorquals; Humpbacks have 2 blowholes angled together to create a short bushy blow; and extremely long pectoral (side) fins. Humpbacks are classified as a vulnerable species.
Blue whales are baleen whales measuring between 25-30 metres. Coloured blue-grey mottled with light grey spots. The Blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on earth, bigger even than any of the dinosaurs. They can live up to 80 years or more, weighing between 100 – 200 tonnes. Blue whales are classified as an endangered species.
Sperm whales are toothed whales measuring between 12 – 18 metres. Coloured black to brownish grey with white patches on the mouth and belly; This whale has a huge square head taking up 1/3 of its total body length; heavily wrinkled skin; a short singular blow that angles forward and to the left. Sperm whales are deep divers (up to 3km); They feed on giant squid and fish. Sperm whales are classified as an endangered species.
Orcas are toothed whales measuring between 8 – 9 metres. Coloured bold black with white patterns; and a distinctive tall, erect, triangular dorsal fin that is usually quite straight in males, & more curved in females. Orcas are formidable predators eating fish, seals and even other whale species. They often hunt in family groups known as pods. There is insufficient data to accurately classify Orcas but, observation suggests they are generally common and widespread.
Download: How to Identify 6 commonly seen Whales in SA (351 KB pdf )
Most whales recorded in South Australia are seen less often than the 6 mentioned above and include the following species:
A group of dedicated and passionate Whale Spotters in Victor Harbor, together with staff from the South Australian Museum and the South Australian Whale Centre take and catalogue photographs of Southern Right Whales.
This is done in order to identify individuals and track Southern Right Whale movements and migration patterns.
Click here to view the Encounter Bay Southern Right Whale catalogue and learn more about photographic identification.
Whale Research Organisations in Australia
- Australian Whale Conservation Society (AWCS)
- Dolphin Watch, Kangaroo Island & Victor Harbor
- Cetacean Ecology, Behaviour and Evolution Lab (CEBEL)
- CSIRO Marine & Shark Research
- Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences (SIMS)
- Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) Australian Marine Mammal Centre
- Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC)
- Macquarie University, NSW – Marine Mammal Research Group