The coastal town of Imbituba, 70km south of Florianopolis in the southern state of Santa Catarina, once relied on whale hunting for its economic survival, but has now become one of the country’s main sanctuaries for this endangered species.
Host to the annual National Whale Week, in September, the region, with over 33 kilometers of unspoiled beaches and coastline, is an ideal place for whale spotting, especially between the months of May and November, when Southern Right Whales migrate to the region’s clear calm waters to give birth to their offspring.
In 1981 Vice-Admiral Ibsen Cmara, one of the foremost Brazilian environmentalists of all time, established the ‘Southern Right Whale Project’ aimed at protecting the remaining right whales in their breeding grounds of Southern Brazil, especially in Santa Catarina State.
Reaching almost 60 feet and forty tons, Southern Right Whales (also known by the scientific name of Eubalaena australis) are quite distinct from other whale species by their rounded, black bodies and striking whitish callosities on their heads.
Such callosities are born with the whales and vary from one individual to another, much as fingerprints in humans, therefore allowing researchers to identify individual animals and study their migrations and reproduction habits.
Since the eighteenth century, right whales were relentlessly slaughtered in Brazilian waters (as well as in many other areas, for that matter) resulting in their almost complete extinction.
Despite protected by international treaties since 1935, the slaughter of the species continued in Brazil until 1973, when the last Armaão (whaling station) of Southern Brazil, at Imbituba, closed its operations due to… lack of whales!
The rediscovery of the surviving right whales of Brazil by the team of the Right Whale Project, in the early 80’s, led to the structuring of a permanent program to study and foster the recovery of these whales in Brazilian waters.
Among other successes, the project achieved wide public awareness on the need to protect the species, and in 1995, the Government of the State of Santa Catarina legally declared these whales a State Natural Monument, thereby reassuring its full protection.
The orderly and conscious development of whale watching in this region has recently been incorporated as one of the Project’s priorities, in order to promote a source of economic benefits to the coastal communities directly involved in helping to protect these magnificent yet still endangered animals.
During the austral winter and spring, Southern Right Whales – survivors of the second most endangered whale species – reach the Southern Brazilian coast to give birth and raise their young in the many protected bays and coves of the region, where they can be easily observed as close as 60 feet (20 meters) from shore.
Here they will meet resident populations of tucuxis – one of the smallest cetaceans, endemic to South American waters – and bottlenose dolphins who cooperate daily with artisanal fishermen in catching mullet in lagoon channels, a unique interspecific friendship.
A little southward, Southern Sea Lions watch the passing whales from their safe haven in the ecological reserve of Lobos Island.
Some curious facts about Southern Right Whales
– Only the mothers and calves migrate to Brazil. The males accompany the females to the Valdez penisula in Argentina, where they split up.
– The females can reach up to 17 meters in length and weigh around 45 tons
– The offspring are born between June and December, measuring around 5 meters and weighing between 4 and 5 tons.
– The young calf can gain 50 kilos a day in the first weeks of life, only from the mother’s milk, which is rich in fat.
– Females give birth on average every three years. The gestation period is 12 months.
– Their body are black and rounded, with no dorsal fin, and a large head with makes up a quarter of the total body size.
– They have distinct creases or markings on the top and sides of their heads, which like human’s finger prints, are unique to each whale, and are used as a means of identification by researchers.
– They can stay under water for up to 20 minutes and travel at speeds of between 5 and 12 km per hour.
– The flippers are large and rounded, and the flukes have a broad, smooth rear margin separated by a deep notch. The hot air which they blow comes through the flukes comes out in a distinct V shape.
Whale Types and Migration
The freezing waters off Antarctica are the summer home for many whale species. While there, the whales feed on the rich supply of krill (small prawn-like animals). In autumn, as the temperature falls and ice starts to cover the sea, many of the large whale species begin a long and hard migration northward to the warm waters off the Australian coast. Humpback and southern right whales follow a similar route each year, and many females make the journey while pregnant so that they can give birth in Australian waters.
June to October – Fin, Jubart and Minke
August and November – Right Whale
U.K. and Ireland:
April and October – Minke
January and April – Jubart and Cachalot
U.S. and Mexico (Californian Bay):
January to April – Grey, Blue, Jubart, Fin and Minke
July to November – Jubart
June/July to November/December – Southern right
End of November to March – Jubart, Fin and Minke, Orcas
August to November – Jubart
May to October – Southern right
Hotels in Imbituba
Imbituba Praia Hotel
The town’s only beachfront hotel, with over 60 apartments, with color TVs, air conditioning, frigobar, veranda and hammocks. Other facilities include swimming pool, sauna, games room and convention center. Average price R$60/night per couple.
Av. Transatlntica, s/n – Centro – Imbituba
Tel: (048) 255-1700
Silvestre Praia Hotel
Just a 100 meters from the beach, all rooms with air conditioning, frigobar and color TVs. Hotel also contains games room, swimming pools, barbeque and observation point for whale watching. Average price R$65/night per couple.
Rua Irineu Bornhausen, 185 – Centro – Imbituba
Tel: (048) 255-1230
For more information check out the following website (in Portuguese)