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Chile: Expedition to the end of the world, where humpback whales are thriving

  • Mongabay Latam joined an expedition to the Francisco Coloane Marine Park near the southern tip of Chile, where the humpback whale population has risen dramatically — from 40 individuals in 2003 to 190 in 2019.
  • The park, established in 2003, remains without a management or administrative structure, but that is changing with the development of a conservation and sustainable development plan underway.
  • Although the whale population in the area is growing, threats remain, including entanglement in fishing gear, contamination from nearby salmon farms and ship traffic and noise pollution from coal mines.

This is the story of how, after centuries of exploitation, the humpback whale has managed to recover in the waters of southernmost Chile. It is also the story of how the park where the recovery is unfolding has become one of the best spots in the Pacific Ocean to admire these giants.

Mongabay Latam sailed for three days in the remote waters of the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, located in Chile’s Magallanes region. Icy winds and near-constant rain make it one of the most hostile places in the world for sailing, but also one of the most pristine. Practically untouched by humans, the park spans the most isolated corners of the Strait of Magellan, encompassing hundreds of green islands densely covered in virgin forest.

The goal of the expedition, organized by the Chilean arm of the New-York based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS Chile), was to explore the financial complexities of conservation. It provided Mongabay Latam the opportunity to observe firsthand what experts consider one of the most successful cetacean conservation projects in the world. In 2003, only 40 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) frequented the park, but scientists have recorded as many as 190 in recent years. That nearly fivefold increase in less than two decades was the result of a combination of conservation strategies on the part of Chile and other countries.

A natural spectacle

Some 87 species of cetaceans exist globally, and approximately half of these have been found in Chilean waters, according to the Cetacean Conservation Center, a Chilean NGO.

Humpback whales, called yubartas or ballenas jorobadas in Spanish, live in both the northern and southern hemispheres. South of the equator, the number ranges from 5,900 to 16,800 individuals, according to Juan Capella, a biologist with the Colombian research institution Fundación Yubarta and the Chilean science and ecotourism venture Whalesound. Capella said scientists estimate the population was originally closer to 200,000 and that indiscriminate hunting over centuries decimated it.

A humpback whale in Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.

Six populations of humpback whales live in the southern hemisphere, and one of them in the southeastern Pacific along the coasts of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. The whales here divide their time between their feeding areas in the freezing waters at the southern end of the continent and their tropical breeding grounds several kilometers north of Ecuador.

“Humpback whales travel between 6,500 and 8,500 kilometers (4,040 to 5,280 miles) in total from one area to the other, so their population in the southeastern Pacific is probably the most widely distributed,” Capella told Mongabay Latam.

In the mid-1990s, Capella was part of a group of scientists who discovered a feeding and resting ground where adult humpbacks and their calves gather every summer in the area around Carlos III Island and Seno Ballena fjord in the Strait of Magellan. Capella said the area serves as a “biological corridor” for humpbacks and sometimes for endangered sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis).

The scientific research carried out on this population of humpbacks in the Strait of Magellan also established the basis for the Chilean government to declare the Francisco Coloane Multiple-Use Marine and Coastal Protected Area (AMCP-MU) in 2003, named for the renowned Chilean writer.

The Francisco Coloane AMCP-MU covers an area of nearly 672 square kilometers (260 square miles), where only economic activities that guarantee the sustainability of ecosystems are permitted. A small part of this area was granted special protection and declared a marine park. The park forbids “any kind of activity except those authorized for the purpose of observation, investigation and research,” according to the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (SERNAPESCA), the Chilean government agency responsible for marine protected areas.

Restricted fishing within the park, which covers 15 km2 (5.8 mi2), has made it an important feeding ground for whales each year from late spring through autumn.

Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.

The entire AMCP-MU, including the park, is a heterogeneous and biologically unique area located in the heart of the Strait of Magellan, where the sub-Antarctic waters of the southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans converge. The strait’s geographic, oceanographic and climatic conditions make it a biodiversity hotspot, one of the last refuges of the southern river otter (Lontra provocax) and above all a strategic area for humpback whale conservation, according to a study carried out in 2008 by the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme.

Getting there is not easy. The journey consists of traveling for two hours by road from the city of Punta Arenas to the port of Bahía Mansa. From there, visitors travel by boat for approximately eight hours to reach the park; however, bad weather can affect the crossing, often extending it by up to three days. Mongabay Latam was lucky, though, and the good weather throughout the expedition enabled this reporter to see five whales break the surface with their enormous fins.

The growing whale population

Capella said researchers sighted only 40 humpback whales in the Francisco Coloane Marine Park in 2003. Now, a decade and a half later, he said researchers have seen 190 individuals.

Every spring and summer for 20 years, Capella has lived practically on his own on Carlos III Island. To sleep, he makes do with a simple tent. To cook, he uses a basic wooden shelter with a dining room, wood-burning stove and chimney. To work, he has a small observatory made of wood and glass located on top of a hill, giving him a 280-degree view of the whales swimming in the sea below.

To fund all these years of research and this center of operations, Capella and three other researchers established Whalesound, a business based in Punta Arenas that links tourism with science. The scientist’s silence and solitude are occasionally interrupted by small groups of tourists, mostly foreign, who venture to the end of the world to observe the spectacle this remote place offers.

Five sleeping domes cater to the tourists. When asked why he doesn’t sleep in them himself, Capella grinned: “My tent is cozier because it’s smaller.”

The whole camp is built on raised platforms connected by walkways. The goal is to interfere with the environment as little as possible and to prevent the destruction of the peat bogs that cover the island. These fragile ecosystems, composed of vegetable matter accumulated over thousands of years, act like sponges saturated with water.

To monitor the whales, Capella uses photography, observation, satellite transmissions and a notebook where he writes down his data by hand. GPS tags attached to whales’ dorsal fins have enabled him to track some whales for almost three months, despite the difficult working conditions in the Strait of Magellan.

“When the whales arrive, the water temperature ranges from 6 to 7 degrees Celsius and the wind reaches speeds of up to 40 km (25 mi) per hour,” Capella said. Up to 400 centimeters (157 inches) of rainfall each year makes for uncomfortable work. “It feels like it’s between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius,” he said.

“Based on the number of whales identified up until now and the low rate of recapture, this population unit of whales is in the middle of experiencing a period of post-whaling recovery and is probably much greater in size than current estimates indicate,” the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) said in a 2014 report (PDF).

Nevertheless, their recovery is still in its early days, in part due to humpbacks’ slow rate of reproduction. A female gives birth to a calf once every two to three years, so the population is still well below the numbers recorded before commercial whaling. “We are probably somewhere between 20 and 25% of what it is thought there was before commercial whaling began, so we are relatively far off the initial population size but much better than we were 40 years ago,” Capella said.

Humpback whales in Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.

There are several reasons for the whales’ recovery. Humpbacks have been globally protected from commercial whaling since 1966 (although the Soviets continued to catch large numbers of them in secret until 1973), and commercial whaling of all species has been banned since 1986. Furthermore, the creation of marine parks along the Pacific coast of the Americas has conferred extra protection.

Despite positive indicators, the scientific community agrees that more studies are needed to make long-term predictions. “My goal is to carry out an investigation with projections for the year 2050 in which I hope to document the population trend and the potential impact of the effects brought about by climate change, as well as various internal population parameters,” Capella said.

Scientists maintain that even though humpback whales are no longer hunted and their classification on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species was downgraded in 2008 from Vulnerable to Least Concern, their conservation could be undermined by human factors, which can often be fatal.

Remaining threats

For most of the year, and in various parts of the world, humpback whales swim along coasts, where they are vulnerable to unintentional harm caused by human activities.

Bárbara Galetti, the Cetacean Conservation Center’s president, said it is vital for research institutions, governments and local communities to work together for the preservation of the species. “In the 21st century, indirect impacts will probably be the greatest threat to these marine mammals,” she said.

In the Strait of Magellan region, scientists have identified the greatest threats to humpbacks as accidental capture in fishing nets, the increase of salmon farming, collisions with boats and the impacts of the mining industry.

The global increase in synthetic fishing nets has meant that accidental entanglement in active, discarded or drifting nets is the most frequent cause of death or injury resulting from human activity among humpback whales. Fishing vessels and cruise ships that travel along the Chilean coast have reported this kind of accident.

Humpback whale in Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.

The proliferation of salmon farms near the area where humpbacks congregate has also become a significant threat. “Their cages constitute physical barriers. In addition, the salmon industry produces chemical compounds such as hydrocarbons, generating environmental contamination,” Capella said. He added that, if this goes on for a long time, “It could lead to the accumulation of toxins in the bodies of these mammals.”

The situation is a matter of extreme concern to the local community because the cages are located not far from the Francisco Coloane Marine Park approximately 100 km (62 mi) away. “It is unfortunate to see that these are concessions granted by the government that have been in operation for a long time,” Capella said.

Another emerging threat to the whales is boat traffic in the area. According to the Chilean navy, approximately 1,800 vessels travel through the Strait of Magellan every year, without any speed regulations. “As marine traffic intensifies, the possibility of collisions between cetaceans and these large vessels increases dramatically,” Galetti said.

Chile has no regulations to protect whales from ship strikes. In 2017, near the town of Puerto Cisnes in the Aysén region some 1,080 km (670 mi) north of the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, local fishermen sighted a beached blue whale with visible injuries. SERNAPESCA, which filed a complaint with the environmental and cultural crimes unit of Chile’s national police force, reported that the whale had a severed fin and that it had clearly suffered a collision.

Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image by Barinia Montoya for Mongabay.

In contrast, several other countries already have regulations in place to protect whales from ship strikes. The United States, for example, has explicit rules that require vessels to reduce their speed in areas where humpbacks congregate. Ecuador also has rules regarding marine traffic in specific areas and ports. “Countries in the southeast Pacific generally have clear and efficient regulations in place to conserve and respect the habitat of these marine mammals,” Galetti said. Applying a similar rule in Chile “would not be far-fetched, but rather a necessary measure to keep up with what other countries are doing to protect whales,” she said.

Until recently, the newest threat to whales in the area has been caused by mining projects, specifically the Mina Invierno open-pit coal mine located on Riesco Island, which borders the Francisco Coloane AMCP-MU. The local population and the scientific community have vocally opposed the mine for years. Galetti said that when it began operations in 2013, the number of large vessels transporting the extracted coal increased significantly. “This was complicated by the fact that the ships had to pass through a small and narrow channel, located precisely in the area where the whales eat and sleep,” she said. “The situation is a real threat to humpback whale conservation.”

Sea lions in Francisco Coloane Marine Park. Image courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.

In September 2018, the Environmental Assessment Service (SEA) and the Chilean government’s Council of Ministers for Sustainability permitted blasting or explosions as part of the mining operations. There was no proper evaluation of how this measure could affect sea-dwelling animals, according to Capella. “The blasts are very loud and are transmitted much more easily in water and through the ground than in air,” he said, adding that the explosions could induce “changes in whales’ behavior: When they begin to hear these sounds, they may start to move away.”

However, after an environmental court ended the blasting in June 2019, the mine began the process of closing.

The Ministry of the Environment said that “It is crucial to have a clear management plan developed with the different actors who work in the area (in artisanal fishing, tourism and commercial navigation), in order to apply a precautionary principle,” and that “Management experience in the Francisco Coloane Protected Marine Area indicates that, without this, the area may be perceived negatively and no longer be of interest to the community.”

What remains to be done

In addition to addressing those threats, the experts consulted for this article indicated that much work remains to bolster the growth of the humpback population. A top goal is the establishment of an administration for the Francisco Coloane AMCP-MU. Claudia Silva, WCS Chile’s conservation strategy coordinator, said the lack of one leaves the area vulnerable with no territorial monitoring or management plan that details goals for the next five years.

SERNAPESCA manages the marine park, but the service’s resources are limited, Silva said. The agency “has never carried out monitoring efforts of any kind,” according to Capella. He noted that the park’s boundaries still need to be clearly demarcated to ensure the whales’ protection, as they constantly move around in search of food.

To address one of these issues, WCS Chile was awarded the contract to draw up a Strategic Plan for the Conservation and Development of Sustainable Activities, both for the AMCP-MU and for the Francisco Coloane Marine Park. The objective is that, by 2027, the area will have an effective and coordinated management and administration helping to protect all of the targets of conservation: the feeding areas of the humpback whales, the breeding grounds of South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) and Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), and the kelp forests.

Humpback whale conservation strategies included in the strategic plan anticipate the development of a number of projects and initiatives: an environmental education program; the evaluation and monitoring of rubbish dumps and the management of boat waste; the periodic monitoring of the whale population in the AMCP-MU; the incentivization and coordination of businesses and institutions to provide data and reports concerning collisions to relevant bodies; and the evaluation and establishment of suitable measures to control fishing in feeding areas during specific seasons.

All of these measures seek to encourage the sustainable development of the economic, scientific and cultural activities carried out in the area and to strengthen the appreciation of ecosystems in the community.

Perhaps then the humpbacks will continue to flourish here at the end of the world.

Banner image of a humpback whale breaching in Francisco Coloane Marine Park courtesy of Patagonia Photosafaris.
This story was first published in Spanish on Mongabay Latam on May 9, 2019. Details have been updated to reflect current events.