Sunday, February 5

Seeing 1,000 glorious fin whales back near extinction is a rare ray of hope | Philip Hoare

GRAMThe good news cannot be more direct than this. A thousand fin whales, one of the largest animals in the world, were seen last week swimming in the same seas where they were brought to the brink of extinction last century by whaling. It’s like humans never happened.

This vast assembly spread over an area five miles wide between the South Orkney Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. A single whale is stupendous; imagine 1,000 of them, their misty forest of jets, tall as pine trees, the plosive sound of their blows, their hot breath condensing in the icy air. Their sharp dorsal fins and steel-gray bodies glide through the waves like a ballet of whales, choreographed on the southern tip of our planet.

The sight has left whale scientists gasping and frankly green-eyed with envy. conor ryan, who observed it from the National Geographic Endurance polar cruiser. In a message from the ship in a complicated connection, Ryan, an experienced zoologist and photographer, says this may be “one of the largest aggregations of fin whales ever documented.” His estimate of 1,000 animals is conservative, he says.

“We were about 15 miles north of Coronation Island,” Ryan reports, with “four large krill vessels working in the same area.” The presence of the boats makes clear the reason for this festival. The whales fed on a massive scale, gobbling up tons of tiny shrimp.

Fin whales are surprisingly slender and squiggly creatures when you see them underwater, and they’re so long they seem to take forever to swim. Like blue, humpback and minke whales, they are baleen whales, distinguished by food-filtering keratin plates rather than teeth. Unlike toothed whales, such as sperm whales and killer whales, they are not usually seen as social animals. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville classify the fin whale as “not gregarious… very shy; always walking alone… the banished and invincible Cain of his race”.

Factor in its tremendous size, up to 27m long, just shy of the blue whale’s 33m, and you’ll come close to appreciating the staggering intensity of this eruption of marine life.

So is this really good news? In this same ocean, at least two million whales were sacrificed in the last century. Since we now know that fin whales can live up to 140 years, the effects of that slaughter are still being felt in their culture. It may be that our assumption that fin whales are not “social” animals actually stems from the fact that they modified their behavior to evade whalers, as sperm whales did in the 19th century. Scientists suspect that baleen whales have also learned not to gather in large groups in order to stay one step ahead of hunters. Only now, perhaps, are they returning to their old feeding grounds.

Ryan delights in calling himself a “whale nerd”; he and his best friend, Peter Wilson, were only 14 years old when they published their first peer-reviewed scientific article about killer whales in 2001. When I get home from this trip, I’ll be writing another article. Despite his 20 years of experience at sea, Ryan had never seen anything like it. “Words fail me,” he says. “I have seen maybe 100 fins here before in previous years. Thousands of chinstrap penguins, petrels and albatrosses too… It was unusually calm weather,” he adds, “and unusually good visibility.”

If Ryan considers himself blessed, so should we. whales still face many threats, mainly from us. And we would do well to remember that the protests that saved the whales in the 1970s and 1980s will be outlawed if the new police and crime bill passes. In a world bound by grief and threats to democracy (it’s a good job the whales don’t have to petition for the right to assemble), 1,000 fin whales can’t help but warm our hearts. They might even convince us that, as another species of (supposedly) sentient mammal, we still have a chance to get through “all of this.” As long as we stick together and send out some protest spurts of our own.

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