The memory of a blue biosphere

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 Photo: Daniel CasadoPhoto: Daniel Casado 
 
A team of scientists is trying to understand why blue whales are returning to Chilean seas after thirty-three years without a single sighting.

 

By Juan Pablo Casado 
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 15.
 
 
The history of the blue whale in Chile oscillates between life and death. It was 1787 when the first one was hunted in Chile’s seas. Iquique, in the north, was where the pursuit of the world’s largest mammal began, and it would continue for centuries. The prospect of capturing this abundant source of fuel and meat attracted international whaleboats to the seas to the south of Chile, which they saw as an inexhaustible source of wealth. Almost 200 years later, in 1983, officials recorded the last blue whale killed by human hands, in Talcahuano. What brought the hunting to an end was not compassion, but rather economics.

The blue whale had abandoned the Chilean seas.

The plundering of this species has reduced its numbers, so that today these waters are home to only four percent of the total worldwide population. The Gulf of Corcovado, in the Los Lagos region of southern Chile, served for centuries as a cradle of refuge for the species to which the whales regularly returned. But indiscriminate whaling finally drove them away and forced them to abandon the place in order to survive.

“This is something that has happened in many parts of the world, where whales were hunted to the point of ‘commercial extinction,’ where there are so few of them as to make whaling operations unprofitable. The animals left voluntarily, or their numbers were so reduced as to make it all but impossible to ever see one,” says Nadine Lysiak, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

 

 The precise moment. Leigh Hickmott, an oceanographer at St. Andrews University and Open Ocean Consulting, installs through a carbon bra pole the D-Tag device on the whale. The device attaches to the whale through suc- tion cups so it won’t bother the animal. All their movements and vocalizations are recorded in great detail. Photo: Daniel CasadoThe precise moment. Leigh Hickmott, an oceanographer at St. Andrews University and Open Ocean Consulting, installs through a carbon bra pole the D-Tag device on the whale. The device attaches to the whale through suc- tion cups so it won’t bother the animal. All their movements and vocalizations are recorded in great detail. Photo: Daniel Casado

 

The extinction of equilibrium

The relationship between humans and whales in southern Chile was not always antagonistic. The original peoples lived together with the whales in total harmony, and their culture’s daily practices and rituals were attuned to the biosphere. The social organization of these indigenous peoples allowed them to successfully adapt to a complex environment, with extreme temperatures and food sources that were always verging on scarcity. 

But this symbiotic relationship goes back millions of years, to when the first microorganisms established the bases for a biotic community that made subsequent life possible. Layers and layers of ecosystems organized themselves in such a way as to make their health and growth dependent upon the existence of living beings in relation with one another.

Those inhabitants of ancient Chile were eliminated by a culture that promised to hold the key to success, and made plundering the seas and generating material wealth into structural conditions for human happiness. The future seemed to hold the same tragic fate for the whales which, at the beginning of the 21st century, are hardly ever seen in the world’s southern oceans.

 

The zodiac and the scientific team carefully approach the blue whale to install the D-Tag device that will record all its movements and sounds as well as the ocean conditions. Photo: Daniel CasadoThe zodiac and the scientific team carefully approach the blue whale to install the D-Tag device that will record all its movements and sounds as well as the ocean conditions. Photo: Daniel Casado

 

Promises of life

It was in 2003 that officials recorded the return of a blue whale to Chilean seas. And policies designed to preserve the Gulf of Corcovado in its natural, unspoiled state gave cause for hope: it seemed it was still possible to step back from the point of no return. “The Gulf of Corcovado was always home to blue whales. They historically traveled through its waters. Those found there today may very well be the grandchildren and children of whales that inhabited these waters in the past,” suggests Daniel Quiroz, an anthropologist at the University of Chile.

It was in this context that the Meri Foundation—a nonprofit organization based in Chile, whose mission is to protect the Melimoyu Nature Reserve in northern Patagonia—and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution set out to discern, scientifically, why the whales were returning to the area. For four years, both NGOs tracked these mammals which, generations later, returned to the site of their birth to resume their older way of life and bring balance back to an ecosystem destabilized by disastrous human actions.

Daniel Casado documented this important turning point in “Patagonia Azul,” a film that shows all the work done by the conservationist delegation. The Chilean photographer traveled with scientists on their expeditions through the southern seas for about a month at a time, over the course of four consecutive seasons. “It was my good fortune to be able to take part in this long-term project with world-class scientists. They are at the forefront of whale research and marine science,” says Casado. Referring to the primary objective of his film, he adds “what the documentary tries to show is Chile’s wealth, a wealth which cannot be measured in terms of extractible resources. Another aim of ours is to open peoples’ eyes to the sea. It is about showing the beauty of our oceans, as well as the importance they have in maintaining the balance of Chile’s ecosystems.”

 

 

Every year, an interdisciplinary team made up of professionals from Chile, the United States, Italy and other countries sails to the waters of Corcovado to better understand why these animals are returning to the world’s most southern seas. The field research encompasses distinct tasks: collecting plankton and biopsy samples, taking aerial photographs and, the focus of the current stage of research, collecting and analyzing data that will, in the future, lead to a greater scientific understanding of what is causing the whales to come back. This, according to Amy Apprill, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution: “What the science involves is the gathering and consolidation of data to get a better understanding of what is going on. In this way, we can create a body of scientific facts that will help us decide how best to protect ecosystems and interact with the land. A solid understanding of what is drawing them to Corcovado, what they are doing there, and how they are feeding is still lacking.”

Thanks to information provided by D-TAGs—a device that scientists attach to the whales to make audio recordings and track their movements—the environmental group is getting closer to solving the mystery. “There is so much that can be done with the D-TAGs. I deal mainly with acoustic analysis, observing the sounds emitted by the whales. The next step will be integrating data from these songs with the rest of the data collected from the apparatus: the whales’ movements, depth, and direction. Then we will see how these measurements are correlated with the sounds they make,” says Leaela Sayigh, a scholar from Hampshire College, regarding the importance of these devices.

 

Photo: Daniel CasadoPhoto: Daniel Casado

 

 The future of the sea

“There are many paths. One simply leads to extinction. The change is so great that human beings can no longer live, and we die out. On the second path, some small groups of human beings survive this change. But they survive in very different conditions. And the final path is one in which we reflect, and use our understanding and technological skill to act more wisely and put an end to environmental degradation.” With these words, the Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana referred to the possible scenarios facing humanity. Extinction, an irreversible process, stands in contrast to humanity using its understanding as its primary tool for implementing the changes that would be favorable to life. The search for balance between human beings and nature represents humanity’s most hopeful alternative.

The long-term goal of the Meri Foundation is to provoke a cultural shift that moves in this direction. The data obtained from its research will be shared with the larger community, with the goal of creating a collective consciousness that keeps the whales from emigrating out of the area again. The vital importance of the whales is based on the crucial role they play in maintaining ecological equilibrium. They are an “umbrella species” that acts as a support for the diverse natural ecosystems that have made the south of Chile such a fertile place.

The abundance of unspoiled landscapes, animal species, and potential for tourism make it possible to dream of a Chile committed to sustainability, a country that uses its natural resources guided by the philosophy of conservation rather than of materialism and exploitation. The challenge for the scientific community will be to transmit the information generated through its research beyond academic circles and into the community at large. For its part, the greater community is facing a paradigm shift that offers a new model for how to understand development. After decades of biology understanding evolution to be about the domination of the strongest, this new view sees a different way forward, with all actors working together and with cooperation as the most important factor determining the direction that evolution takes.