Blue whales have gotten a great deal of attention as footage of a BBC presenter sighting a blue whale during a live interview has gone viral. The blue whale was once at the brink of extinction. While many animals who have been threatened with extinction have been successfully bred in captivity, the blue whale is the largest mammal on Earth, measuring up to 100 feet. No tank could hold one. Yet, after a hunting ban in 1966 and being given protected status, the blue whale is coming back.
Some people are old enough to remember the Save the Whales campaign. It lead to a ban on commercial whaling worldwide in 1986. (Limited “scientific whaling” was permitted.) Before the advent of steamships and the harpoon gun, blue whales were rarely hunted because their size and power made them difficult to pursue. Those inventions changed all that. It’s estimated almost 400,000 blue whales were hunted from 1900 to 1966.
Today, there are an estimated 5,000 to 12,000 blue whales on Earth. The blue whale population off the coast of California has done the best; it’s at almost 97 percent of what it was before they were targeted. They’re also the ones most likely to be seen: if you want to see a blue whale, the coast of California is your best bet. It’s not a surprise that the BBC presenter was on the Monterey Bay. There have been blue whale sightings in other coastal areas: Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand have all reported blue whales off their coasts.
But even the presenter admits that he wouldn’t have thought it was possible he’d see a blue whale sixteen years ago — a true reflection of the dire state they were in. Even now, without being hunted, the diminished population of their food, krill, and the increasing acidification of the ocean are still a problem. Some populations of blue whales aren’t recovering as well. The Antarctic population of the blue whale went from over 300,000 before widespread hunting to a low of 373 in 1973. The last count in 1996 revealed there were 1,700: a fourfold increase, but still worryingly small.
There’s still a long way to go before the blue whale can be considered to be no longer endangered. But the number of sightings every year continue to increase, and seeing blue whales in places they have never been reported to be before is possibly the best sign. It’s like the blue whale population is saying “Good job. Don’t screw it up a second time.”