Seeing 1,000 glorious fin whales back from near extinction is a rare glimmer of hope

Seeing 1,000 glorious fin whales back from near extinction is a rare glimmer of hope

Good news doesn’t get any more in-your-face than this. One thousand fin whales, one of the world’s biggest animals, were seen last week swimming in the same seas in which they were driven to near-extinction last century due to whaling. It’s like humans never happened.

This vast assembly was spread over a five-mile-wide area between the South Orkney islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. A single whale is stupendous; imagine 1,000 of them, their misty forest of spouts, as tall as pine trees, the plosive sound of their blows, their hot breath condensing in the icy air. Their sharp dorsal fins and steel-grey bodies slide through the waves like a whale ballet, choreographed at the extreme south of our planet.

The sight has left whale scientists slack-jawed and frankly green-eyed in envy of Conor Ryan, who observed it from the polar cruiser, National Geographic Endurance. Messaging from the ship on a tricky 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 a conservative one, he says.

“We were about 15 miles north of Coronation Island,” Ryan reports, with “four large krill fishing vessels working the same area”. The vessels’ presence makes clear the reason for this party. The whales were feeding on a grand scale, sucking up tonnes of tiny shrimps.

Fin whales are surprisingly slender, serpentine creatures when you see them underwater, and so long that they seem to take for ever to swim past. Like blue, humpback and minke whales, they’re baleen whales, distinguished by food-filtering keratinous plates in lieu of teeth. Unlike toothed whales, such as sperm whales and killer whales, they are not usually seen as social animals. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville classifies the fin whale as “not gregarious … very shy; always going solitary … the banished and unconquerable Cain of his race”.

Factor in their tremendous size – at up to 27m long, only just short of the blue whale’s 33m – and you come close to appreciating the astonishing intensity of this eruption of marine life.

So, is it really good news? In this same ocean, at least two million whales were slaughtered in the past century. Given that we now know fin whales can live for up to 140 years, the effects of that cull are still being felt in their culture. It may be that our assumption that fin whales aren’t “social” animals actually stems from the fact that they amended their behaviour to evade the whalers, as sperm whales did in the 19th century. Scientists suspect that baleen whales also learned not to gather in large groups to stay one step ahead of the hunters. Only now, perhaps, are they returning to old foraging grounds.

Ryan delights in calling himself a “whale nerd”; he and his best friend, Peter Wilson, were just 14 years old when they published their first peer-reviewed scientific paper on killer whales in 2001. When he gets home from this trip, he’ll be writing another paper. Despite his 20 years’ experience at sea, Ryan has never seen anything like this. “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, then so should we. Whales still face many threats, mostly from us. And we would do well to remember that the protests that saved the whales in the 1970s and 80s will be outlawed if the new police and crime bill passes into law. In a world constrained by woe and threats to democracy (it’s a good job whales don’t have to apply for the right to assemble), 1,000 fin whales can’t help but lift our hearts. They might even convince us that, as another species of (supposedly) sentient mammal, we still stand a chance of getting through “all of this”. So long as we stick together and send up a few protest spouts of our own.

This article by Philip Hoare was first published by The Guardian on 17 January 2022. Philip Hoare is the author of several books, including Leviathan, The Sea Inside and Albert and the Whale. Lead Image: Spouts from fin whales near the South Orkney Islands in the Southern Ocean. Photograph: Conor Ryan.

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