Fin whales covered the horizon in clouds of their breath as far as the eye could reach, numbering in the thousands. The National Geographic Endurance's passengers and crew happened upon this extraordinary sight near Antarctica in January 2022. It had gone unnoticed since commercial whaling nearly wiped off the species.
Conor Ryan, a zoologist and resident naturalist on board the cruise ship run by Lindblad Expeditions, recalls the incredible sight that met them as they sailed north of Coronation Island last year: "A horizon filled with whale spouts."
Off Coronation Island, which is located north of the Antarctic Peninsula, between 830 and 1,153 fin whales, as well as a few humpback and blue whales, had collected to gorge themselves on a thick patch of krill.
This enormous gathering of baleen whales may be the largest witnessed since industrial whaling came to an end in the late 20th century, according to scientists at Stanford University who examined images and recordings of the occasion. Only 300 fin whales were present in the largest fin whale group hitherto identified.
Matthew Savoca, a marine ecologist at Stanford and co-author of a new research on the incident, believes that seeing anything like this a little more than a century ago wouldn't have been all that unusual.
Only blue whales are larger than fin whales, which can weigh up to 80 tons. Around one million of these enormous cetaceans formerly roamed the oceans of the world, but a century of whaling caused their numbers to drop by about 98%. The species is listed as being at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, despite its expanding population.
Savoca, a National Geographic Explorer, says the extraordinary sighting gives him hope for the survival of fin whales in the Southern Ocean. He is especially concerned since the fin whales were observed close to many commercial krill harvesting vessels, which pose a hazard to them from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
According to Helena Herr, a marine mammal biologist at the Center of Natural History at the University of Hamburg in Germany, "It's excellent that the fin whales are back, and that more and more people get to witness it."
Whales frequently congregate near Coronation Island, according to Herr, who has done significant research on whales in the Southern Ocean, since the area's waters are full of Antarctic krill.
Due to their popularity as food for penguins, whales, and squid, these tiny crustaceans serve as the foundation of the food web in the Southern Ocean. Also, there is a demand for krill, and each year, hundreds of thousands of tons are taken out of the Southern Ocean for use as dietary supplements and fish feed. (Learn about how a declining krill population affects life in Antarctica.)
When Ryan and the visitors from the cruise ship discovered that the fishing boats were actually trawling through the whale aggregation, their joy at witnessing so many fin whales was "slightly tainted," Ryan claims. "Watching this was pretty startling."
For instance, according to Savoca, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which oversees krill fishing in the Southern Ocean, needs to consider the safety and dietary needs of whales.
Herr adds that the commission must also enforce current laws. There are regulations that state krill fishing is prohibited near whales or any other feeding species. This analysis demonstrated to us that at least these four vessels defy this rule," the author claims.
Savoca contends that whether or not gatherings like the one observed in January 2022 become routine or are merely an anomaly will depend on how we manage Antarctic krill fisheries during the ensuing ten years.
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