Critically Endangered Whale Species Return to South Georgia Island Since Whaling Ban in 1980s

Gwen Peters

Dozens of blue whales have been spotted in Antarctica for the first time in over twenty years since a whaling ban. The South Georgia Island off the coast of Antarctica was once abundant with species of whales like the humpback whale, blue whale, fin whale, and southern right whale where they would feed. However, 60 years of whaling had caused the population of the whales to decrease. Because of this, an international moratorium on whaling was placed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982 which bans commercial whaling. After many years of this ban, researchers at the British Antarctic Survey are spotting many whales returning to South Georgia Island. 

Results from expeditions found that humpback whales are a common sight to see now in coastal waters, with high densities of the species being seen in 2019 and 2020 along with estimates that over 20,000 whales now feed in the waters off of South Georgia Island. The research team is also able to place satellite tags on two southern right whales. Southern right whales had been regularly seen in South Georgia waters during a survey in 2018, however they were rarely sighted during 2019 and 2020 surveys which suggests they have different preferences for feeding. 

The critically endangered blue whale’s population has seen a considerable rise in population after losing 97% of the species. These whales had been sparsely sighted during the 2018 survey of South Georgia. However, with the new survey which took place in 2020, the species was sighted 36 times with 55 animals seen which is a shocking amount for such a rare species. The amount of sightings seen indicates that South Georgia still serves as a very significant feeding ground for these whales. Whale project leader and whale ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey Dr Jennifer Jackson states: “After three years of surveys, we are thrilled to see so many whales visiting South Georgia to feed again. This is a place where both whaling and sealing were carried out extensively. It is clear that protection from whaling has worked, with humpback whales now seen at densities similar to those a century earlier, when whaling first began at South Georgia.”