Blue Whale Sightings Confound, Thrill Marine Conservation Groups

A 40-foot-long blue whale stranded on a beach in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri was towed back into the Arabian Sea on February 1, 2016, by two ships, adding to recent rare sightings of the huge creature. The nine-hour-long operation, hailed by the press as “the biggest rescue mission in the state involving the world’s biggest animal,” took place along the coast near Dapoli, some 215 kilometers from Mumbai, India.

According to the Hindustan Times, the highly publicized rescue happened just a few days after the carcass of a Bryde’s whale, also of imposing size, washed ashore at the Juhu beach in Mumbai. Prior to the blue whale episode, fishermen in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district spent hours on January 12 trying to rescue nearly 100 short-finned pilot whales that had also beached. About 40 of the marine creatures were saved, and at least 45 died in the event.

While beached whales are no longer a novelty, blue whale sightings carry the distinction of highlighting the largest animal that has ever lived.

Blue whales racing
Giant blue whales racing at high speeds [Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]

National Geographic reports that marine ecologist Leigh Torres found what appeared to be a blue whale nursing its young in the South Taranaki Bight off the western coast of New Zealand. During a research trip in February, wherein the likely nursing behavior was spotted, Torres’ team launched a drone from research vessel NIWA R/V Ikatere to shoot a video of five pairs of mothers and calves as well as 10 other adult whales. The convergence of blues was partially attributed to a rich supply of krill, their primary food source.

The video-shooting drone used typically to measure whale size and count whale numbers, caught the unusual behavior of two whales gliding in the water at high speed. Torres explained what happened.

“We had no idea they were [likely nursing] when we saw them from the vessel. But from the overhead perspective we could clearly see this coordinated behavior between mother and calf. It was beautiful to see.”

A similar rare drone video of a blue whale mother and her calf was caught by another group in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica. The video was shot in late January by members of the vigilant Sea Shepherd Society patrolling the frigid waters in the ship Steve Irwin to deter poachers.

The drone was sent to record the rarely-seen blue whales, topping 98 feet long as adults, the largest animals known to man. National Geographic explorer and research biologist John Calambokidis, who studies blue whales for marine animals advocate Cascadia Research, explained the drone findings.

“This is nice footage, and what makes it interesting is that Antarctic blue whales have a low density and are hard to see and study.”

Torres of the research vessel NIWA R/V Ikatere thinks the whales in her video belong to the pygmy subspecies of the blue whale. Despite the “pygmy” nomenclature, they are still massive, achieving lengths of about 89 feet, compared to 112 feet for the biggest blue whales, the Antarctic subspecies. One estimate pegs the number of pygmy blue whales in existence at between 10,000 and 20,000, but there are no hard indicators to say how many live off New Zealand or elsewhere.

According to National Geographic, the intrepid blue whale was almost hunted to extinction in the first half of the 20th century and was prized for its large size. While its pre-hunting population was estimated to have been about 300,000, with the majority living around the Antarctic, blue whale numbers collapsed to 0.15 percent of its historic strength, or to a low of 450.

Calambokidis of Sea Shepherd on the ship Steve Irwin pointed out that what has helped in the population recovery is the international treaty in the 1960s that ended legal blue whale hunting. Despite some illegal hunting in the late 1970s, mostly by the Soviets, there have been encouraging signs of a slow recovery.

Loading...

“In the 1970s many scientists thought blue whales were doomed to extinction, that their population had been knocked so low that they would not be able to recover.”

Steve Irwin
The Steve Irwin being prepped to hunt for whale poachers [Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images]

While odds are stacked against the blue whale, self-appointed stewards worldwide are rallying for its preservation. N. Vasudevan, the chief conservator of Indian environmentalist Mangrove Cell, remarked on the beached blue whale incident.

“While this might be the first time that a blue whale has been successfully rescued from along any coast of India, it is matter of grave concern that these mammals are washing ashore with such frequency. There is an immediate requirement to find out why these instances are happening.”

In an act of cooperation from diverse groups, Mangrove Cell officials teamed up with members of the Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit, a German organization researching marine life in Ratnagiri, and activists from earth-friendly Sahayadri Nisarg Mitra Chiploon, to rescue the blue whale.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]