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Guest Blog: South Georgia Whaling Part 4 – The Return of the Whales

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission voted to pass a moratorium on whaling. In 1994, the Commission created the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, a 50 million square kilometre area surrounding Antarctica. In 2012, a Marine Protected Area was established by the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI). A 200-mile protected zone around South Georgia.

Following industrial whaling, the Antarctic Blue whale was classed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List as Critically Endangered and is estimated to be still at only 2.5% of the 1926 level (taken as the first year of significant exploitation in the Antarctic). A whale research expedition to South Georgia in 1997 concluded that 18 years after the end of commercial whaling at South Georgia, there was no evidence of major concentrations of whales returning to the island. The scale of this loss of the biomass in the oceans has no historical precedent and the ecological consequences of this are still poorly understood.

Winter in Leith Harbour
Winter in Leith Harbour

Twenty-one years after that initial 1997 survey, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) observations from vessel-based expeditions (2018 to 2020) to South Georgia saw some positive changes. Along with sighting reports submitted to the South Georgia Museum (1992 to 2019) there was a suggestion of regular and increasing whale presence in South Georgia waters.

View across Stromness Bay.
View across Stromness Bay.

In January 2020, British Antarctic Survey fieldwork reported 790 animals during a 21-day survey, reporting that the humpback whale is now particularly abundant around South Georgia waters. More exciting though, was the report of 55 Antarctic Blue whale sightings, described as ‘unprecedented’. This is a positive sign, suggesting that the endangered Blue whale is recovering and now returning to feeding grounds it routinely used before industrial whaling.

I hope that our work at the South Georgia Museum can connect communities across local, national, and international boundaries and dispel some of the myths around whaling, inspiring everyone to work together to protect our world.

To find out more about the Whalers’ Memory Bank please visit the website.


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