A beached whale in Kent has recently brought a reminder of the issue of cetacean conservation to the UK’s front door. Whales are some of the globes greatest travellers; a humpback whale broke the world record for mammalian travel (bar us of course) in October 2010 by swimming from Brazil to Madagascar, the shortest possible route measuring in at 10,000km. What makes it more amazing is that this whale completed the journey in two years!
This globetrotting nature contributes to making whale conservation a particularly tough job. The fact that a single individual of such high commercial value can come into the territorial waters of so many countries means that conserving this species requires a huge amount of international collaboration.
Another problem faced by conservation practitioners is the very nature of the beasts makes research exceedingly difficult. The depths at which they swim, their huge ranges and their scarcity result in very limited data on every aspect of their biology, from their populations to their behaviour.
Whale strandings are an issue which has been moving indomitably to the forefront in recent years. In 2010 the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program reported a 25% increase in beaching since they started recording in 1990. The causes of these deaths are not properly understood, however there is a growing body of evidence that Sonar used by naval vessels may be a contributing factor. Sonar is thought to affect cetaceans as they use it to navigate and the ships sonar or general noise output has the potential to interfere with this. There have been a range of anecdotal cases; in 2000 17 beaked whales were stranded in the Bahamas after their ears were damaged by powerful military sonar. Some biologists also theorise that the threat of Sonar may be to unknowingly imitate killer whales, a predator of young whales. This would then cause a panic amongst a whale pod, leading to beaching.
Whatever the threat, whale conservation is a highly political issue being fought on many fronts across the globe by many different organisations. These mysterious giants have captured the imaginations of many generations of people of all creeds and it is my hope that they continue to inspire many future generations.
Fiji is routinely visited by whales and it is hoped that our Fijian conservation project will contribute to the cause by conserving local marine biodiversity.