From a distance, it looks like a dark iceberg along the horizon. But as the boat approached, the ocean appeared like 150 fan whales, the second largest creature on the planet, sinking and sinking against the surface of the water.
Six weeks into the nine-week voyage, off the coast of Elephant Island, northeast of the Antarctic island, the researchers headed for the largest collection of fan whales ever documented.
“It was one of the most exciting sightings I’ve ever had,” said Helena Herr, a marine ecologist at the University of Hamburg. “Fan Wells seems to have gone crazy over the food bar they’ve been exposed to. It was absolutely fascinating.”
Dr. Herr and her colleagues have documented the return to the water of a large number of fan whales that once published their historic feeding sites in an article published Thursday in the Journal of Scientific Reports. The research offers a good news perspective on what is otherwise a worrisome landscape for global biodiversity and especially for marine species.
Human beings are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, according to UN estimates. In the oceans, recent modeling has predicted that global warming due to the persistence of greenhouse gases will lead to the mass death of up to 2,300 marine species.
Dr. Herr said, however, that the resurgence of the Fan Wells population “presents a sign that if you implement management and conservation, there is a chance of species regeneration.”
For many of the twentieth century, the scene in the waters around Antarctica varied considerably. Between 1904 and 1976, commercial whalers descended into the rich feeding fields and killed an estimated 725,000 fan whales in the South China Sea, reducing their population to more than 1 percent whaling size.
When the International Whaling Commission parties finally voted to ban whaling in 1982, after a decade-long campaign by environmental groups to save whales, a number of species – including art, sperm and sea whales – were already banned. Was disappearing. .
But 40 years after the ban on commercial whales, researchers began studying other species in the South China Sea that have seen a large number of fan whales return.
This was the case in 2013 for Dr. Herr and her colleagues. At the time, they were investigating the Mink Whales when they encountered large gatherings of fan whales “by chance.” They decided to ask for funding for the Fan Wells Revitalization Study.
In 2018 and 2019, researchers returned to the Antarctic island for the first dedicated study of the Fenwell population. Through an aerial survey, the researchers recorded 100 groups of Fan Wells, ranging in size from one to four people. They also documented eight large groups of up to 150 whales that had gathered for food.
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The survey “confirms that the pattern is still ongoing and getting stronger,” said Jarrod Santora, a fishing biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was one of the first researchers to document the increase in the Fenwell population during the Krill study. To do. (He was not involved in the new study.)
Willow researchers have warned that not all species of willow have been successfully reintroduced since the ban on willow. Sally Mizroch, a fishing biologist who has been studying whales since 1979 and was not involved in the study, called fan whales “very successful.” Unlike other species, such as blue whales, fan whales can eat large distances and feed on a variety of food sources.
Scientists aren’t sure why some of the sessions were so large. Dr. Herr noted that the scenes they saw were at least somewhat parallel to the historical reports that preceded the extensive commercial whaling. For example, naturalist William Spears Bruce on a trip to the Antarctic in 1892 saw the back and forth of the volcano “from horizon to horizon”.
Recent research has suggested that a return to the whale population is good not only for the whale but also for the entire ecosystem, through a concept known as the “whale pump”. Scientists believe that as the whales feed on the krill, they release the iron that was trapped in the crustacean back into the water. It can, in turn, promote phytoplankton, a microscopic organism that uses carbon dioxide in photosynthesis and acts as the basis for a seafood chain.
As the Fan Wells bring the krill to the surface of the water, they can also facilitate the success of other predators, including seabirds and seals, Dr. Santora said. “There’s a lot more collaboration and coordination than we usually give ecosystem credit.”