Aerial surveys have discovered groups of up to 150 fin whales feeding near Antarctica, indicating that populations have rebounded since the whales’ hunting ban was lifted in 1976.

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Large groups of southern fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus quoyi) have been spotted in the Antarctic for the first time since a commercial whaling moratorium was imposed in 1986.

Fin whales are the world’s second-largest whale species, measuring 22 meters in length and weighing 70 tonnes on average. Their numbers declined dramatically in the Antarctic during the twentieth century as they were hunted for their oil.

Fin whale hunting has been prohibited in the southern hemisphere since 1976. There have been anecdotal sightings of the whales around Antarctica since then, but no major survey has been conducted to assess their numbers.

Helena Herr of the University of Hamburg in Germany traveled to Antarctica on the icebreaker Polarstern in 2018.

Between April 2018 and March 2019, the researchers used a helicopter to survey 3251 kilometers of ocean. The team counted 100 fin whale groups of up to four whales, as well as eight unusually large groups of up to 150 whales feeding together.

“I really enjoy seeing whales from the air because it’s amazing to be so close to them and hear them,” Herr says. “I even like the splashes of water in your face because it makes you feel like you’re among them, joining in their feeding frenzy.”

Herr and her colleagues estimate that there are approximately 8000 fin whales in the area.

She believes that the return of these whales is ultimately a good news story. “But we must not forget that climate change remains a threat, and we must ensure that this story can continue,” she says.

Reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-13798-7

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