The year has witnessed a remarkable come back in marine life and ecosystems, partly attributable to the absence of humans courtesy of lockdown and partly thanks to successful conservation efforts.
You will remember our collective surprise and delight earlier this year when fish were once again seen flourishing in Venice's canals, followed by whales being spotted off New York and rare pink dolphins returning to waters off Hong Kong. Here are some more marine life discoveries, events and reports to warm the heart.
Humpback Whale Population Booming: Known to be the longest migratory mammals on the planet and some of the ocean’s most remarkable singers, the humpback whale is one of the world’s most recognizable whales. A recent study on humpbacks that breed off the coast of Brazil and call Antarctic waters home during the summer has shown that these whales can now be found in the sort of numbers seen before the days of whaling. Records suggest that in the 1830s there were around 27,000 whales cruising the world’s oceans, but due to commercial hunting, by the mid-1950s only 450 remained, pushing the humpback whale to the dangerous risk of extinction. Thanks to the ban of commercial whaling in 1986, however, the magnificent creatures enjoyed a strong recovery, with their population now estimated to be around 93 percent of its original size.
UK Nature Reserve's Record Year for Seal Pups: Back in 1988, the Blakeney Nature Reserve in Norfolk recorded the first birth of a grey seal pup. Since then, the reserve has become England’s largest seal colony. When compared to the grand total of 25 pups born there in 2001, you realize just how much the Blakeney Nature Reserve has grown as a seal colony over the years. So, why has this particular reserve been such a successful breeding ground for grey seals? According to the National Trust, the colony has been thriving because of the lack of natural predators inhabiting the reserve. Plus, with humans largely staying away from the reserve due to 'you know what', the conditions at the reserve in Norfolk have never been better, which is setting the stage for a fantastic breeding season. In fact, the National Trust is expecting a record-breaking baby boom of 4,000 grey seal pups this winter.
Record Year for Leatherback Sea Turtles: Lockdown boosts numbers of Thailand's rare sea turtles with the largest number of nests of leatherbacks found in two decades as beaches emptied. The 11 turtle nests authorities found were the highest number in 20 years, said Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre. “This is a very good sign for us because many areas for spawning have been destroyed by humans,” he said. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtles. They are considered endangered in Thailand, and listed as a vulnerable species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Bowhead Whale Population Rebounds: In some rare good news from the top of the world, bowhead whale populations have rebounded and are nearing pre-commercial whaling numbers in US waters. Surprisingly, the whales’ recovery has actually accelerated as the Arctic warms, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. “This is really one of the great conservation successes of the last century,” said J Craig George, a retired biologist with the North Slope borough department of wildlife management.
Seahorse Revival: Many rare seahorses return to UK's Dorset coast for the first time since 2008. Off the coast of Dorset, in south west England, divers counted the largest number of protected spiny seahorses they have seen in the seagrass meadows in at least twelve years.
According to the Seahorse Trust, divers found at least 16 seahorses, including pregnant males (yes, males - it's a clever seahorse thing) and two babies, in a single dive. That’s a terrific amount considering no seahorses had been seen in dives since 2018 when, sadly, just a dead one was found. Trust founder Neil Garrick-Maidment attributed the increase to a reduction in people, boat traffic, and anchors, which typically damage the seagrass that seahorses typically inhabit.
New Whale Species Discovered: Clearly, this goes beyond being a story of recovery or conservation, but it's wonderful news all the same. Sound recordings and images of previously unidentified beaked whales off California raise 'highly confident' hopes of an entirely new species. “We saw something new," says Dr. Jay Barlow from the Whale Acoustic Reconnaissance Program. "Something that was not expected in this area, something that doesn’t match, either visually or acoustically, anything that is known to exist. It just sends chills up and down my spine when I think that we might have accomplished what most people would say was truly impossible - finding a large mammal that exists on this earth that is totally unknown to science."
Flourishing Coral Reef: Cool water run-off from Mount Kilimanjaro is, remarkably, enabling a 150 square mile reef to thrive with colourful coral and an abundance of marine life. Marine biologists are constantly on the look out for coral refuges - places where coral reefs have the best chance to survive warming waters due to climate change. The good news is that researchers have recently discovered an incredibly rich coral refuge on Africa's east coast, off Kenya and Tanzania. The coral refuge is thriving. It's teeming with spinner dolphins as well as rare species such as coelacanths - a species of fish that was once believed to be extinct - and it's also home to dugongs, a rare and elusive marine mammal that's similar to a manatee. So, how is it possible for this coral refuge to exist when all around it other reefs are suffering from coral bleaching due to warming waters? The answer is Mt. Kilimanjaro. The coral refuge stretches 50 miles from Mombasa, Kenya to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - whilst in parallel on land, it's home to the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro and its neighbouring Usambara mountains. Apparently, the glacial runoff from these mountains feeds into the ocean through deep channels that have formed over millennia, providing cool water to protect the corals from episodic warming events like El Niño.
Marine Life Recovery: ‘Landmark’ study concludes that marine life in the world’s oceans can recover by 2050. An international study recently published in the journal Nature, has laid out a trailblazing roadmap required for the planet’s marine life to recover to healthy levels. And, if urgent action is taken, the good news is that it concludes that the world’s oceans could recover to full abundance by 2050. The project was the combined effort of some of the world’s leading marine scientists working across four continents, in 10 countries and from 16 universities. It used evidence from successful conservation interventions around the globe to recommend crucial steps the international community can take to restore the abundance of marine life.
Restoring Seagrass Meadows: At a time when capturing carbon has never been of more importance, seagrass restoration projects such as this one are exactly what the world needs. According to the UN Environment Program, the mostly 'unseen' seagrass can capture carbon an amazing 35 times faster than rainforests. Off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, researchers and volunteers have spread more than 70 million eelgrass seeds as part of a 20 year project. It's the world’s largest seagrass restoration project, and scientists have observed an ecosystem from birth to full flowering. The eelgrass seeds initially covered just over 200 hectares but have now spread to cover an incredible 3,612 hectares - and counting. Within the first 10 years of restoration, scientists observed an ecosystem rebounding rapidly across almost every indicator of ecosystem health. Namely, seagrass coverage, water quality, carbon and nitrogen storage, and invertebrate and fish biomass.
Meanwhile, on land:
2020: Fabulous Year for Wildlife. Whilst humanity has had a lot of unwanted ghastliness to contend with in 2020, one of the positive upsides has been a the extraordinary global renaissance for wildlife - partly through human absence caused by lockdown and partly through successful conservation efforts. We review some of the highlights to help put a festive smile on your face. More...