It’s been nearly 170 years since Nathanael Hawthorne detailed the whaling industry in “Moby Dick.” Before the 1850s, the Atlantic was teeming with blue whales. Between 1998 and 2018, scientists working in the southern Atlantic saw only one, making them just as rare as Hawthorne’s titular antagonist.
The blue whale population was headed swiftly for extinction, but that story has changed, too. According to People, the same scientists working from the island of South Georgia have been seeing dozens of whales each month.
In February 2020 alone, there were 58 whale sightings and dozens of calls recorded. The scientists monitoring this activity from the former whaling hub published their findings in a paper in the journal Endangered Species Research.
“The continued absence of blue whales at South Georgia has been seen as an iconic example of a population that was locally exploited beyond the point where it could recover,” lead study author Susannah Calderan, a researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, wrote in a news release. “But over the past few years we’ve been working at South Georgia, we have become quite optimistic about the numbers of blue whales seen and heard around the island, which hadn’t been happening until very recently,” Calderan said.
In just a few decades, the blue whale population has seemingly bounced back from the brink. Calderan speculates that many of the whales who once frequented the waters around South Georgia were killed off, leaving few behind who knew how to get back to the tropical island.
“We don’t quite know why it has taken the blue whales so long to come back,” Calderan said. “It may be that so many of them were killed at South Georgia that there was a loss of cultural memory in the population that the area was a foraging ground, and that it is only now being rediscovered.”
According to the BBC, the whaling industry based in South Georgia once took as many as 3,000 blue whales every year. Unlike elephant seals and fur-bearing mammals that recovered within a century after being driven to near extinction, the blue whale has not been so resilient.
But could all change with new protectionary boundaries in place.
“With South Georgia waters designated as a Marine Protected Area by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, we hope that these increased numbers of blue whales are a sign of things to come and that our research can continue to contribute to effective management of the area,” said the paper’s co-author Jennifer Jackson, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey.
Learn more in the video below.Whizzco