The island of South Georgia, packed with seals, albatrosses, and penguins jostling for space, is a unique wildlife haven in the South Atlantic, around 3,250 kilometers (2,000 miles) east of the southernmost tip of South America. But it has a dark past. This sub-Antarctic island was once a hub of whaling, seeing hundreds of thousands of the ocean giants being plucked from the waters during the 20th century. Thanks to the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, South Georgia’s whaling stations, like the famous Grytviken, lie abandoned. And the whales are bouncing back.
Commercial whaling killed an estimated 2.9 million whales around the world during the 20th century. The animals were processed for meat, blubber, and oil, which was used in everything from lighting to perfume to margarine. Many species, like the iconic blue whale, were decimated to near-extinction. But an international moratorium on commercial whaling signed in 1986 put a stop to the practice, allowing whales to recover their numbers. However, Japan, Norway, and Iceland still commercially hunt whales.
Now, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has shared some good news regarding the whales around South Georgia. Researchers have been surveying the animals, finding humpbacks to be common in these waters and blue whales to be surprisingly numerous. The team spotted a total of 790 humpback whales during their three-week survey. Combining this information with population counts over the past year or so, they estimate that around 20,000 humpbacks seasonally feed in the waters surrounding South Georgia. They believe the area to be a crucial feeding ground for the whales in the Southwest Atlantic, and note that the animals have almost fully recovered from whaling in this region.
In addition to this positive news, the team sighted 55 blue whales, the largest animals to grace our planet. Antarctic blue whales are rare, being critically endangered, and the researchers were surprised to see them in such numbers. In 2018, only one blue whale was sighted during the survey.
“After three years of surveys, we are thrilled to see so many whales visiting South Georgia to feed again,” said whale project leader Dr Jennifer Jackson, a whale ecologist with the BAS, in a statement. “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.”
Southern right whales were also spotted, but not in as great a density as they were in 2018, suggesting they chose to feed in other areas this year. The right whales’ name goes back to whaling days, when they were thought of as the “right whale” to target – their bodies float and they’re often found swimming not too far from shore. During their survey, the BAS researchers successfully managed to tag two southern right whales, which will allow them to track their movements and learn more about this rare species. You can keep an eye on the pair’s whereabouts here.
As we continue to over-exploit Earth’s resources, whales’ recovery from the impacts of commercial whaling serves as an important reminder of what international collaboration can achieve when it comes to protecting our world’s unique wildlife.