When the world used to hunt whales, the Antarctic subspecies (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia) was particularly popular and came within a whisker of being totally wiped out.
“The world used to run on whales,” says Jennifer Jackson at the British Antarctic Survey. Hunted mainly for their oily blubber, the Antarctic subspecies of the largest whale was particularly desirable.
From an estimated 239,000 before the advent of industrial whaling in the early 20th century, by the early 1970s, whaling had whittled them down to just 360. The species was given legal protection in the 1960s, but Soviet whalers continued hunting in the Southern Ocean regardless. “They just hoovered up the remaining whales,” says Jackson.
An international moratorium on whaling signed in 1986 had global scope and, thankfully, adherence - though it was only agreed when it was clear there were precious few whales left to catch.
The good news is that preliminary estimates now show that Antarctic blue whales had recovered to some 4500 individuals by 2015, says Jackson, though that number won’t be formally confirmed until later this year. It will take centuries for them to revive fully, but “the blue whale recovery is symbolic of what humans can do if they just leave things alone”, says Jackson.
Leaving things alone and re-wilding need to be key mantras in the coming years.
And while this is great news for the whales, it is also great news for the climate. 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. More...