Southern Right Whales at Head of Bight

Southern Right Whales at Head of Bight

Bridgette O’Shannessy

Volunteer Coordinator

Bridgette, our Volunteer Coordinator, on survey at Head of Bight.

I work as a research assistant and volunteer coordinator for the Great Australian Bight Right Whale Study (GABRWS) and am currently conducting field work at Head of Bight, South Australia. I have been involved with GABRWS since 2019 and have spent two field seasons at the Head of Bight. During this time, I have also been involved with the CSIRO NESP funded project which aims to create a national southern right whale catalogue within the Australian Right Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue (AWRPIC) software, collating datasets from both the south west and south east sub population.

The south west Australian sub population of southern right whales are currently listed as an endangered migratory species under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 after depletion to near extinction as a result of commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following the protection of the species from whaling in 1935, the Australian population has been slowly recovering. Navigating an ever changing world, southern right whales continue to face increased threats of climate variability, noise pollution, habitat modification, entanglement, and vessel disturbance.

Cliff survey view of a group of southern right whales (left of image).

GABRWS is committed to researching the endangered and migratory southern right whale species for conservation management. This year, we are celebrating 30 consecutive years of research at the Head of Bight. The research includes population biology and photo identification at both the Head of Bight and Fowlers Bay in the Great Australian Bight, South Australia.

The Head of Bight aggregation area remains one of the largest wintering aggregation grounds in Australia, with reports of up to 40% of the Australian population inhabiting the area. Field work involves daily population census and photo identification of individuals in the aggregation area throughout the study period (mid-July to late August) to monitor numbers by population class, spatial and temporal use patterns, calf production and behaviour. Cliff based census at Head of Bight is conducted from 16 cliff top vantage points, between 33m and 53m high. Southern right whales have unique callosity patterns (keratinised skin patches colonised by cyamids) on the dorsal surface of their rostrum, the lip line of the lower jaw and the area posterior to the blowhole. Callosities provide unique markings, much like nicks and notches on dorsal fins of dolphins, to enable us to identify individuals over time.

A southern right whale calf interacting with a pod of dolphins.

Some interesting finds that have come out of this years’ field season include 6 white calves residing at Head of Bight, and a travelling cow and calf pair that was first spotted in Cape Schanck on the 28th of June. ‘Nessie’ and her calf have travelled over 1,500 kms all the way from Western Port Bay to the Head of Bight, an incredible journey for such a young calf. The pair were harassed by boats in Cape Schanck and left the area soon after, they were also sighted at Encounter Bay, South Australia where they were again disturbed by vessels. The Head of Bight aggregation area is part of the Great Australian Bight Marine Reserve (Commonwealth), vessels are restricted from entering waters around the calving and nursery areas during May to October to minimise disturbance while whales are present. Nessie and her calf have been residing at Head of Bight for a week, and the heath of Nessie’s calf looks to be improving. Let’s hope this pair stays in the nursey for the remainder of the season.

While most days are spent conducting field work and data processing, I am still finding time to stay connected to the MMF team and our Virtual Volunteers. Creating a Virtual Volunteer program has allowed our team to stay connected during the pandemic but also increase our volunteer reach and flexibility of roles.

To find out more about GABRWS head to https://www.gabrightwhales.com/

Photos and drone images taken under permit M26085-10.

Cow and calf with dolphin Photo Credit: Bridgette O’Shannessy GABRWS.

Drone Image of Nessie and calf: Photo Credit: Emily Gregory GABRWS


Burnell, S. R. (2001). Aspects of the reproductive biology, movements and site fidelity of right whales off Australia, Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Special Issue) 2: 89–102.

Charlton C., Guggenheimer, S., Burnell. S., Bannister, J. (2014). Southern right whale abundance at Fowler Bay and connectivity to adjacent calving ground, Head of Bight, South Australia. Final report to Commonwealth Government, Australian Antarctic Division, Australian Marine Mammal Centre.

Charlton C., Guggenheimer, S., Burnell. S. (2014). Long-term Southern Right Whale Population Monitoring at the Head of the Great Australian Bight, South Australia (1991-2013). Final report to the Department of Environment, Australian Antarctic Division- Australian Marine Mammal Centre.

Charlton, C., Ward, R., McCauley R., Brownell, R.L., Salgado Kent, C., & Burnell, S. (2019). Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), seasonal abundance and distribution at Head of Bight, South Australia. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 2019: 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1002/aqc.3032

Payne, R., Brazier, O., Dorsey, E., Perkins, J., Rowntree, V., Titus, A. (1983). External features in southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and their use in identifying individuals in Communication and behaviour of whales. Westview Press: Boulder, Colorado, pp 371–445.

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