For 60 years, the blue whales of the Antarctic-Indian Ocean were massacred by commercial whalers. They are now one of the most endangered of the whales, but scientists are only just discovering their integral importance to the ocean.
In 1964, the guns fell silent. A massacre lay before them, a familiar sight from the relentless slaughter of blue whales in the last 60 years that brought a species to its biological knees and the brink of extinction.
With the advent of the industrial age, a modern way to “harvest” whales saw the evolution of a global industry that operated with increasing surgical precision. A lack of scientific reasoning meant an absence of a sustainable limit or yearly quota, and numbers rapidly declined to a point almost beyond a species’ genetic ability to continue.
Prior to industrialised whaling, the number of blue whales was estimated at around 260,000 (now thought to be an extremely conservative figure) in the Antarctic-Indian Ocean group alone, but from 1904 to1964, industrialised whaling saw this number plummet to a mere thousand or so.
Sri Lanka provides a rare opportunity to interact with and photograph the largest of beings known to have lived on this planet. For the sake of conservation, a small number of divers are given this privilege, venturing out in small boats with guides who are also collecting photographic data of flukes for identification of individuals. Just like a human fingerprint, each fluke has a unique appearance.
Now numbering an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 globally, blue whales are still considered one of the most endangered of the “great” whales. With records indicating some 26,500 blue whales slaughtered each year in the Indian Ocean, it’s a wonder how they are not already extinct. Sadly, new threats from increased ship strikes, abandoned fishing nets, ocean floating plastics and global warming pose a challenge to the genealogical recovery and stability of the species.
With the end of legal whaling, two whale sanctuaries have been established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the Southern Hemisphere. One is the Southern Ocean waters surrounding Antarctica, and the other is in the Indian Ocean surrounding Sri Lanka.