The Blog

A Whale Of A Problem

Already some of the most endangered species, whales have, in recent years, seemed to come up against two more frequent threats which are slowly but surely wreaking havoc on their populations globally.

The first one is beaching, where whales or dolphins have become stranded in coastal areas all over the world and, without the ability to renter the water on their own, have died slowly and horribly ashore. Beaching is nothing particularly new, there are stories from Nordic countries of stranded whales as far back as the 1700's, but they do seem to be accelerating in frequency. Whether this is due to the increased media coverage or due to the actual increased number of times it happens, it's unsure. What's sure though, is that when the population is already fragile, it becomes much more of a problem.

The second big issue which certainly is growing in frequency, is whale related deaths or injuries as a result of collisions with ships. Mankind has always been an enthusiastic maritime species, but the rapid rate of increased traffic in our oceans in recent decades has led to more and more clashes between ship and whale. Unfortunately, despite the awe-inspiring size and weight of earth's biggest animals, in a confrontation with a ship they always come off second best.

The most recent example of these two ever increasing tragedies happened in the U.K when 5 sperm whales were found dead and washed up on England's South East coast. Thought to be members of the same pod of sperm whales which lost members to the shorelines of Holland, Belgium and Germany the week before, these whales are thought to have gotten trapped in the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea. But is this down to their changing environment and climate? Or simply human (or, whale) error? The carcasses of the beached sperm whales will go some way towards answering those questions as they're used for research to fully determine their cause of death.

The other issue featured here doesn't need quite as much detective work. Whale and ship collisions have been growing in frequency and severity. Between 1970 and 2007, a third of all Right Whales deaths that were reported were caused by ship collisions. On the west coast of America in California, the close proximity between whales and vessels means that the U.S government has started to redirect entire shipping lanes to avoid known whale routes and all sightings are reported immediately to keep tabs on whales in the area.

Good solution, right? Unfortunately, however, it it not a sustainable one. Shipping lanes worldwide are ever increasing their traffic and that is only bad news for whale populations. Indeed, the west coast of America and the southern Indian Ocean are among the busiest shipping lanes in the world and just so happen to be among the main habitats of the biggest whale of the lot, the mysterious Blue. In addition, the ever shrinking arctic ice cap means that more space for shipping lanes are opened up for longer each year which would bring ships into closer proximity to the feeding grounds of many different whale species.

The key to resolving these two issues seem to lie in research. Despite their size and level of notoriety, we still know very little about an awful lot of whale species which opens the door for research and understanding that would help us to help them. Increased understanding means we can help to prevent beaching before it even happen and use our ocean highways in a way that doesn't pose a risk to any inhabitants.

If you want to get involved in Whale conservation projects, check out these programmes from Frontier.

South Africa Orca Conservation Project

by Guy Bezant - Online Journalism Intern

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