After being driven to the brink of extinction, fin whales, the second-largest creatures on Earth, have returned to their ancestral feeding grounds around the Antarctic Peninsula.
From 1904 to 1976, when industrial whaling took place in the Southern Ocean, whalers killed an estimated 700,000 fin whales, reducing their population to around 1 percent of its previous size. The whales, which can grow to more than 80 feet in length, all but disappeared from the Southern Ocean.
In 1982, the International Whaling Commissions voted to ban commercial whaling, and in recent years, scientists have seen fin whales starting to make a comeback.
Scientists at the University of Hamburg traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula in 2018 and 2019 to track fin whales using aerial surveys. They counted 100 groups of one to four fin whales, as well as several larger groups, including one near Elephant Island comprising 150 whales. Their findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“I’d never seen so many whales in one place before and was absolutely fascinated watching these massive groups feed,” said Bettina Meyer, a biologist at the University of Hamburg and coauthor of the study, said in a statement.
The whales’ return comes at time when sea creatures are increasingly imperiled by climate change. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions continues unchecked, a third of marine animals could go extinct over the next 300 years. Scientists say that recent resurgence of fin whales could actually help fight climate change.
“When the whale population grows, the animals recycle more nutrients, increasing the productivity of the Southern Ocean,” Meyer said. “This boosts the growth of algae, which for their part absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, reducing the atmospheric CO2 concentration.”