On land, the human world was one of panic and unease in 2020. But deep at sea and gliding on the water’s surface, life continued for the fascinating giants we call whales, or cetaceans; calmly unaware of the word “Corona”.
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Internationally, whales of different species were spotted with awe, named and celebrated last year. However, humans need to tackle climate change quickly to protect these complex, socially-intelligent animals in the future, as increasing data suggests whales are in danger due to rising global temperatures.
When action is taken to protect and encourage conditions favourable to wildlife, the environment thrives. In hindsight, did whales prove this in 2020?
The Big Apple Hosts a Giant
A giant surfaced from the Hudson River on 7 December 2020, thrilling New Yorkers and whale-watchers who caught a glimpse of the colossal humpback whale on his holidays.
Thought to be attracted by cleaner waters and an abundance of his favourite Atlantic Menhaden fish, this huge tourist swam around famous sites like the Statue of Liberty, as New York’s latest celebrity.
The US Atlantic coastline that runs past New York is a migration pathway for these whales. This particular humpback whale was identified as a familiar friend called NYC0089, having been sited first in 2018 near Jones Beach, around the coast from NYC.
Initiatives, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, were passed in the US to protect whales in the 1970s. These acts paved the way for a more conducive habitat, including improved water quality and more food, to support these magnificent animals. It seems these attempts to protect the whales are working; in recent years a rising number of humpbacks continue to be spotted in NYC waters!
South Georgia: from whaling to whale-friendly
The mountainous island of South Georgia, found in the south Atlantic ocean, was notorious in the early 20th century for commercial whaling. The island whalers became known for using explosive harpoons, slaughtering whales for oil to make nitroglycerine and cosmetics like soap.
This occurred on a large scale: just under 180,000 whales were killed commercially at South Georgia between 1904 and 1965. Whaling there was banned in the 1960s, to protect the dwindling numbers of whales of a variety of species.
Last November, around five decades after the ban, the Journal of Endangered Species Research reported a return of the endangered Antarctic blue whale to the island waters. 2020 marked a decade which saw 41 different blues identified near South Georgia, a big number considering how many were killed in this area.
A second report last November also delighted conservationists: humpback whales have been making a resurgence in South Georgia too, since 2013.
Although it has taken this tiny biodiverse island years to recover from the human activity that killed so many animals, it is slowly reclaiming its wildlife. Populations of penguins, seals, humpback, blue and hopefully southern right whales continue to try and re-habitat the island and its waters.
The protective laws of the 1960s proved in 2020’s findings that even the most critically endangered species can make a comeback if detrimental human activity is limited.
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Irish waters; a sanctuary for cetaceans
In June 1991 all waters within the Irish exclusive fishery limit, a 200 mile stretch from the irish coastline, were declared a sanctuary for whales and dolphins by the Irish government. This law, in addition to the Wildlife Act (1976) recognised Irish waters as very important habitats for these animals.
This ensures all whales and dolphins alongside their resting/breeding areas in Irish waters, are protected by law – leading to lots of Irish whale sightings last year!
July 2020 saw Irish waters welcome its 100th humpback whale, spotted near the Blasket Islands in County Kerry. Amazing!
In August a northern fin whale was seen in Donegal Bay, unusual in these north-west waters. The south Irish coast boasts important waters for recording fin whales, but the north-west region was yet to glimpse one of these enormous mammals.
Fin whales are the second largest animals on earth, the largest being the blue whale. These whopper whales populate most of the world’s oceans, except the ice-covered parts of the arctic.
The weirdest thing about whales
It’s hard to imagine that in relatively little time human whaling could have wiped some species out forever. These highly evolved, communal creatures swim happily when their habitats are protected by humans, a feat we need to consistently work towards for other wildlife, endangered or otherwise, in the future.