Unknown Chilean Population of Blue Whale Discovered

A blue whale from the eastern Pacific. According to the IUCN they are endangered. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

It amazes me that we can still in this day and era of satellites, technology and boats shipping goods everywhere that we can still find new populations of the world’s largest living animal.

“…a century of commercial whaling almost pushed the blue whale to extinction. The slaughter peaked in 1931, when 29,000 were killed in one season. By the time hunting blue whales was outlawed in 1966 it is estimated that the population had been reduced by 99 percent, from perhaps half a million to just a few thousand in all the world’s oceans.

. . .

Almost as amazing as these whales themselves is the story of how this population was discovered. In 1997, a group of scientists boarded two ships to comb the 2,500 miles of Chile’s pacific coastline and do a count of blue whales. In that entire time, they found just 40 whales “it was bad news,” says Hucke-Gaete. But then a small group of those scientists decided to soak up the stunning scenery. They hopped on a cruise ship to enjoy the trip home. That ship passed through the Gulf of Corcovado.

“When they were entering the gulf, they started seeing blue whales,” says Hucke-Gaete, his voice filled with excitement as he recounts the unexpected discovery. “And they saw another one, and then they finally saw 60 in less than four hours.”

It seemed the scientists had stumbled on a large and unknown population of blue whales, but it wasn’t easy to confirm their findings. It took Hucke-Gaete six years to raise the money to come back the Gulf to confirm that what they saw in 1997 wasn’t just a one-time occurrence. Each year since 2003 the scientists have been in Corcovado from January to April the Southern Summer and so have the whales. They have learned that the whales come to this vast Gulf to feed and nurse their young. Corcovado is a previously unknown refuge that may help save the species.

“The significance of the place is that this is a place they feed; this is a place that is important to them and not only for the adults, it’s for calves,” explains Hucke-Gaete. “If we find calves, that means the population is recovering and that carries on a big responsibility for us: we need to take care of this place.” “

This is an extraordinary discovery from several perspectives. First, like I said above, finding new populations of a living beast larger than the dinosaurs in this modern world blows my mind. Second, this is a new feeding ground, so it must be a productive area and the ecology and conservation status of this Gulf of Corcovado need to be seriously addressed. Tierramerica reports:

“According to the latest research, these giant mammals arrive there with their young in February to feed on krill, an abundant crustacean in the area, and then leave the Chilean coast in June and July.

This discovery contradicts the traditional scientific assumptions that the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) migrates in the summer towards the poles to feed, and in the winter to the tropics to give birth to their young and to mate.”

A proposal to make the area a Protected Maritime and Coastal Area of Multiple Use is making its way through the Chilean government hierarchy and could be enacted upon by the end of the year. Still, Threats from salmon farming and other industrial activities need to addressed and studied in greater detail. Third, whale falls!! Whale falls are unique chemosynthetic environments, complete with bone-devouring zombie worms and hagfish, even anemones! Plus much much more. This place has got to a breeding ground for whale fall communities and I need think Craig, Peter and I need to put in some proposals to go to Chile, which also home of the Chilean Triple Junction which contains vents, seeps and known whale falls all in close proximity.

8 Replies to “Unknown Chilean Population of Blue Whale Discovered”

  1. Great news! Thanks for posting them! Let’s hope for the best for these whales and their environment!

  2. While I applaud the apparent discovery (and share the incredulity that such a population of large animals could remain unknown), I have to again ask a simple question: in an age when relatively simple electronics can monitor these endangered megafauna, why aren’t we attaching tags to all of these animals? Sure, they might be no longer considered “wild” to some purists, but the advantages of being able to track — in real time — individuals of these species go far beyond such academic concerns. Imagine a continuously updated tracking system on the bridge of ships coming into Boston that monitored the presence of northern right whales, or on the bridge of U.S. Navy ships coming into Honolulu harbor while monitoring humpbacks; such systems might easily do more for whale conservation than anything the IWC has done in decades.

  3. oh, great …
    Have you guys ever tried to attach such a device on a whale?
    And apart from the costs:how do you expect to attach these things?
    As much as I know there are 2 ways: suction cups or hooks …
    Now imagine having a hook on you for a long, long time ….
    I suppose you are marine enough to know the problems of fouling organisms, of infections
    often whales keep “pariste free” by shedding the outer layer of their skin … this makes suction cups not so stable
    and then the problem of power: batteries? What size? Solar recharge? How?
    Greenpeace tagged 19 humpbacks for their campaing to save them from Japanese whaling: have a look on how long they lasted!
    How do you expect to tag whole populations to do what you envision?
    Sorry … don’t really like the idea ..

  4. For God’s sake, don’t let the Japanese know or they’ll be in there harpooning like crazy – for scientific purposes, of course! Can the area be declared “out of bounds” for Japanese fishing (sorry, whale-processing factory)ships?

  5. The devices on the humpbacks stopped working because of technical problems (loss of the device, breakdown of batteries, etc) not because the whales were caught … just in case this was not so clear and people got upset about it.
    The population in the Corcovado bay was discovered some time ago (the original paper is from 2003)
    There is a study center Ballena Azul (Blue Whale)
    and from their homepage you can download a wonderful, bi-lingual description of the Corcovado Bay environment (6.5 MB!)
    I don’t think Japanese whaling ships would be the major problem, but there still are. Hope the area gets protected soon!

  6. Put a tracker on it and the Japanese or Icelandics will find a way to get them.
    Dumb idea, guys.

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