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Endangered Blue Whales Make 'Unprecedented' Comeback to South Georgia Island

Animals
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) surfacing, showing the remains of a blow and its mottled appearance near South Georgia Island in the Polar Regions. Mick Baines & Maren / Getty Images

The largest animal on Earth is proving that wildlife protections work.


A team led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) recently reported the initial results of three years of expeditions to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, an important summer feeding ground for whales that became a killing field when the whaling industry discovered it during the first half of the 20th century. But now, after 30 years of protections, the whales are returning. Researchers counted 36 sightings of 55 critically endangered Antarctic blue whales during their 2020 trip, up from just one sighting of two whales in 2018, according to BAS and The Independent.

"[It's] truly, truly amazing," Dr. Trevor Branch of the University of Washington told BBC News. "To think that in a period of 40 or 50 years, I only had records for two sightings of blue whales around South Georgia. Since 2007, there have been maybe a couple more isolated sightings. So to go from basically nothing to 55 in one year is astonishing."

BAS said the number of blue whales its team had seen was "unprecedented." But it also marks a return to a pre-whaling norm.

"I see them in hundreds and thousands," whaler and explorer Carl Larsen said of the island's whales when he first visited South Georgia at the start of the 20th century, according to BAS. He opened a whaling station, and was soon joined by others. Together, they decimated the island's whale population by more than 176,000 over 60 years. According to some estimates, whaling also wiped out 97 percent of blue whales, The Independent reported. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) finally instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

Whales were barely seen around South Georgia between the 1960s and the 1990s, when they began to make a comeback. In addition to Antarctic blue whales, the BAS-led team recorded 790 humpback whales over 21 days, and estimates that there are now more than 20,000 of them feeding off the island in the summer. It also reported frequent sightings of southern right whales in 2018, but few in 2019 and 2020, suggesting they had gone elsewhere to feed.

"After three years of surveys, we are thrilled to see so many whales visiting South Georgia to feed again," project leader Dr. Jennifer Jackson of BAS said in the press release. "This is a place where both whaling and sealing were carried out extensively. It is clear that protection from whaling has worked, with humpback whales now seen at densities similar to those a century earlier, when whaling first began at South Georgia."

Jackson told BBC News that she thought the whales' return to the island represented a long term trend, not a temporary change in habits caused by a shift in the movements of krill, the whales' prey. She said the data suggested the survey took place over normal years for krill.

Antarctic blue whale expert Paula Olson, who was also on the trip, said it was the first to survey whales around the whole island in decades.

"[W]e truly felt like explorers," she told The Independent.

But it won't be the last assessment of Antarctic blue Whales. The IWC Scientific Committee will conduct an overall assessment of the species' recovery next year.

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