The correct whale

The Southern Right Whale has never been called the Southern Correct Whale, but it could have been.

It’s interesting how a species gets its name and I have always wondered why the Southern Right Whale was named that.

I thought it had something to do with their face being the right way up, because their smile always looks a bit up-side-down.

You know, that whale look…

Sadly I didn’t find out why these whales are “right” until I saw the news of how a sub-adult female Southern Right had been wronged by a fatal boat strike in Moreton Bay.

It was found floating up-side-down on Monday August 18 at Peel island and when Marine Parks and the traditional owners came to inspect, they turned it over to reveal massive head injuries from a propeller strike.

It had been hit by a North Stradbroke passenger ferry on Friday August 15 along with an adult suspected to be its mother.  The fact that it was found at all had a lot to do with the Southern Right carcass’s ability to float – unlike humpbacks which don’t float as evidenced by the dead humpback that sank recently tangled in the Billinga shark net.

According to a savvy historian the Southern Right’s ability to float is a main reason it is called “Right”.

In her blog “Historians are Past Caring” retired historian Marion Diamond says:

“Unlike other whales, a dead right whale floats when dead because of its thick blubber, so to whalers, they were the right whales to catch. Not only did they yield more oil, but after harpooning, they could be tethered alongside a vessel, and processed at the whalers’ convenience. So right whales were hunted more than any other baleen whale, and their numbers dropped accordingly.”

Ms Diamond’s blog outlines how the Southern Rights were decimated in the early days of Australian colonisation when “Ships would dump their ‘cargo’ of convicts in Sydney, then head off into the Southern Ocean to hunt for whales.”

Southern rights prefer the colder waters and inlets around Victoria and Tasmania and there’s no old whaling records of them being as far north on the East Coast as Moreton Bay.

However Darren Burns from the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation traditional owners group on North Stradbroke, who inspected the Southern Rights carcass, says endangered Southern Right Whales have been coming back to Moreton Bay since 2002.

History and science converge, when Marion Diamond says, Queensland University whale expert Michael Noad suspects a small fraction of the Southern Rights that made up the Victorian and Tasmanian winter population had migrated yearly to Moreton Bay precolonisation. However they had stopped migrating to Queensland before this state was even settled more than 190 years ago because of the massive whaling losses.

It’s only been in the last decade that the South Rights have recovered enough to return a couple at a time.

Today unfortunately most of the common Gold Coast whale species carry the names given to them by their hunters.

Humpback Whales were named by whalers for their hump. The Minke Whale, which has the unfortunate reputation of making up 85 percent of the killer whale diet in Antarctic waters, was named after a novice Norwegian whale spotter called Meincke who mistook a Minke for a Blue Whale. The Brydes Whale was named after another Norwegian whaler Johan Bryde, who helped construct the first South African whaling factory in the early 1900s.

Now as the threat to Southern Rights shifts from whaling to ship strikes perhaps any newly discovered species could be named after the boat that struck them

Like boat strikes the past always collides with the present, but ships in whale hotspots should be made to slow down, a recent international report recommends.

The “Collision Course” report by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) on boat strikes in the Barrier Reef says, whales zones should be introduced like “school zones” to control speed and mariners should be more aware and report all incidents.

“The risk of ship strike is largely unrecognised and unreported. The relative lack of reports of ship strikes is likely to significantly under-represent the threat they pose,” the report says.

Unless the dead whale floats…

Photo:  Traditional owner representative Darren Burns of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation took this photo of the whale’s “massive prop cuts to the head” on his phone when he went to Peel Island.

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