Despite Global Warming, “Largest Gathering of Fin Whales Ever Documented” in “Thrilling” Return to Ancestral Antarctic Waters

(p. A5) From a distance, it looked like thick fog across the horizon. But as the ship drew closer, the ocean bubbled as 150 fin whales, the planet’s second-largest creatures, dived and lunged against the water’s surface.

Six weeks into a nine-week expedition, near the coast of Elephant Island, northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers had stumbled upon the largest gathering of fin whales ever documented.

“It was one of the most spectacular observations I’ve had,” said Helena Herr, a marine mammal ecologist at the University of Hamburg. “The fin whales seemed to go crazy because of the food load they were confronted with. It was absolutely thrilling.”

Dr. Herr and her colleagues documented the return of large numbers of fin whales to the waters that once made up their historical feeding grounds in a paper published on Thursday [July 7, 2022] in the journal Scientific Reports.

. . .

In the oceans, recent modeling has estimated that global warming caused by continued greenhouse gas emissions could trigger a mass die-off of marine species by 2300.

The rebounding of the fin whales’ population, however, offers “a sign that if you enforce management and conservation, there are chances for species to recover,” Dr. Herr said.

. . .

Scientists are not sure why some of the gatherings were so large. Dr. Herr noted that the scenes they witnessed had at least some parallels to historical reports written before widespread commercial whaling. For instance, the naturalist William Speirs Bruce described seeing whales’ backs and blasts stretching “from horizon to horizon” on an Antarctic expedition in 1892.

Recent research has proposed that the rebound in whale populations is good not only for the whales but also for the entire ecosystem, through a concept known as the “whale pump.” Scientists posit that as whales feed on krill, they excrete iron, which was locked in the crustaceans, back into the water. That, in turn, can boost phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis and serve as the base of the marine food chain.

As the fin whales bring the krill to the water’s surface, they can also facilitate the success of other predators, including seabirds, and seals, Dr. Santora said. “There’s much more cooperation and symbiosis than we usually give the ecosystem credit for.”

For the full story, see:

Winston Choi-Schagrin. “Conservation Success: 150 Fin Whales Gather For Feast in Antarctic.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, July 8, 2022): A5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 11, 2022, and has the title “A Whale Feeding Frenzy in Antarctica Signals a Conservation Success.”)

The academic article in Nature affiliated journal Scientific Reports, mentioned above, is:

Herr, Helena, Sacha Viquerat, Fredi Devas, Abigail Lees, Lucy Wells, Bertie Gregory, Ted Giffords, Dan Beecham, and Bettina Meyer. “Return of Large Fin Whale Feeding Aggregations to Historical Whaling Grounds in the Southern Ocean.” Scientific Reports 12, no. 1 (July 7, 2022): DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-13798-7

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