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A story of exploitation, reconciliation, and the incredible work of South African marine scientists to steer humans in the ‘right’ direction.
It’s the beginning of summer in South Africa and some 6,300 southern right whales are enjoying the last moments in the nearshore protected waters of the Southern Cape coast. It will only be a few weeks before they set out on a remarkable journey South where they will feed for several months to restore energy after an exhausting breeding season. For many of the calves, this will be the first time they venture past the polar front into the icy rough seas of the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean.
Southern right whales have experienced a marvelous recovery after being hunted to near extinction during the age of commercial whaling. Over 150,000 right whales are estimated to have been killed in the southern hemisphere leaving as little as 300 whales at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, the right whales were one of the most exploited cetacean species in the world and the name ‘right whale’ originates from the whalers referring to them as the ‘right’ whale to hunt
“Many of these animals have witnessed their parents and grandparents being slaughtered by men with spears and harpoons and towed behind whaling vessels for kilometers to the nearest shore-based factories. Yet, these highly intelligent and social animals exhibit strong curiosity and unbelievable levels of trust during our research cruises.”
Today, fully protected by international and national laws, the population has enjoyed rapid growth nearing the species’ biological maximum. Instead of hunters, the spectacular gathering of right whales on the coast of South Africa now attracts millions of locals and people from around the world and generates substantial incomes for the coastal community. Every year, visitors can witness the whales nurse their newborn calves, communicate across the bay by slapping their tails on the water, or penetrate the surface in majestic breaches, followed by massive splashes which can be visible from kilometers away.
Despite the successful initial phase of their recovery, some worrying changes in population dynamics have been observed in recent years. Fewer and fewer calves have lately been seen, as well as the body condition of adult whales seems to be worsening. Southern right whales are capital breeders, meaning they heavily depend on their stored energy which they build in their high latitude feeding grounds, for undertaking the thousands of kilometers long migration, as well as for successful breeding and raising of offspring. If they don’t find enough krill in summer, they won’t have energy for the rest of the year and they won’t be able to reproduce. These observations have only been possible thanks to the tireless work of a group of marine scientists and whale enthusiasts who have dedicated their lives to shepherding these magnificent animals on their journey to return to the pre-whaling numbers.
Based in Hermanus, a small coastal town on the Southern Cape coast, the Whale Unit of the Mammal Research Institute has been supporting the conservation of South African right whales through scientific research and population monitoring to ensure the recovery continues in today’s rapidly changing oceans. I have been lucky enough to join the team this year and help develop a new tool to assess the health of right whales using drones.
They are doing incredible work, patrolling the coastal seas, collecting data, and publishing research to ensure conservation decisions are based on the best scientific knowledge. Every season, the team spends hundreds of hours out at the sea sailing on boats or cruising in a helicopter to get closer to these mysterious animals and learn more about their feeding and breeding strategies, migration patterns, and monitor the population. The team also monitors the coastal seas and ensures that human activities, including fishing, sailing, and whale watching, take place in compliance with the regulations for whale protection.
Days at sea are rough and tiring. In the winter, which is when right whales occupy the coast of South Africa, the Atlantic Ocean can be very turbulent. The frequent large swells and strong winds make drone operation, sample collection, and satellite tag attachments from a nine-meter-long rubber duck challenging tasks. Being thrown around in these harsh conditions is a frequent occurrence and with it comes the risk of triggering an unwanted response from the right whales if the animal feels threatened, such as flopping their tails with force which could capsize the boat. However, every minute spent with the whales is priceless as it can provide invaluable information about them and move us a step closer to understanding the recent changes in population dynamics, as well as steer human activities in the right direction to ensure minimal impact on marine wildlife.
Many of these animals have witnessed their parents and grandparents being slaughtered by men with spears and harpoons and towed behind whaling vessels for kilometers to the nearest shore-based factories. Yet, these highly intelligent and social animals exhibit strong curiosity and unbelievable levels of trust during our research cruises. Els, the Research Manager of the Whale Unit, told me stories of being held on one spot by right whales, mesmerized by their peaceful presence, watching them elegantly circle the boat for hours while occasionally peeking out right next to the boat to curiously check on the team.
Right whales are one the largest animals to have ever tread the waters of our oceans and they form an integral part of the Southern Ocean ecosystem. As highly charismatic species, scientists often refer to them as the sentinels of oceans – If we manage to apply effective measures and policies for the whale populations to prosper, many other species will soon follow. Many conservationists in my circles describe conservation as work with people, rather than animals, as it is predominantly human activities that put the incredible African marine wildlife in threat. The marvelous recovery of southern right whales is a great example of how oceans can prosper if given the chance, and the work of the Whale Unit on the South African South coast illustrates how…. By steering human activities in the right way … we can all benefit from oceans.
Besides southern right whales, the Whale Unit monitors and researches several other cetaceans, including humpback whales, bryde’s whales, Atlantic blue whales, and humpback dolphins. Additionally, it participates in offshore marine mammal monitoring programs focused on the conservation of several toothed whale species, including sperm and pilot whales.