Blue whales are returning to a tiny island in the sub-Antarctic — 50 years after whaling in the region brought them to the brink of extinction

Blue whales are returning to a tiny island in the sub-Antarctic — 50 years after whaling in the region brought them to the brink of extinction
The Antartic Blue WhaleMike Johnson via Australian Antarctic Program
  • The critically endangered blue whale seems to be returning to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia after a hiatus of over 50 years.
  • Over 42,000 of their species were killed in the same waters at the turn of the 20th century when whaling took hold and brought them to the brink of extinction.
  • Jennifer Jackson, the co-author of the study and the person who led the 2020 whale expedition, hopes that the increased numbers are a sign of more growth in the future.
Near a tiny little island in the sub-Antarctic called South Georgia, blue whales were hunted mercilessly at the turn of the 20th century before disappearing from the region entirely. Fifty years down the line, it looks like the species is ready to make its way back into the Atlantic waters.

Blue whales are returning to a tiny island in the sub-Antarctic — 50 years after whaling in the region brought them to the brink of extinction
The team sighted 55 Blue whales during the 2019/20 research expedition to South GeorgiaMartin Collins via the British Antarctic Survey

Blue whales are the largest animals on the face of the planet. And, once upon a time, they even ruled the seas. But, the value of their meat and oil brought them to the brink of extinction as whaling took hold in the 1900s.

Despite the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) efforts to provide legal protection in the 1960s, illegal hunting continued till 1972.
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The global blue whale population stood at around 125,000 in 1926. As of 2018, there are only 3,000 blue whales on record. This puts them on the IUCN Red Listas ‘critically endangered’.

"The continued absence of blue whales at South Georgia has been seen as an iconic example of a population that was locally exploited beyond the point where it could recover,” said Susannah Calderan, the lead author of the study published in Endangered Species Research.

What happened in South Georgia 50 years ago?
At least 42,498 blue whales were killed between 1904 to 1971 in the Atlantic Ocean around South Georgia. Most of them met their doom before the 1930s.
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Driven to the brink of extinction, they soon vanished from the area.

This is the first time that blue whales have been spotted in the region again, according to the British Antarctic Survey. Their study also shows that humpback whales are also making a comeback.

Blue whales return to South Georgia
As far as the British Antarctic Survey can tell, blue whales returning to the waters of South Georgia this time around aren’t the same ones that used to live in the region before.
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Out of the 41 of the blue whales in the region have been photo identified, none match the 517 whales currently catalogued in the current Antarctic blue whale photographic database.

However, 2020 was a milestone year. This year resulted in more blue whale sightings than ever before at 58, in addition to numerous acoustic detections.

"We don't quite know why it has taken the blue whales so long to come back. It may be that so many of them were killed at South Georgia that there was a loss of cultural memory in the population, that the area was a foraging ground, and that it is only now being rediscovered," said Calderan.
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Jennifer Jackson, the co-author of the study and the person who led the 2020 whale expedition, hopes that the increased numbers are a sign of more growth in the future.

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