Those of us living along the pacific coast have the good fortune to be able to observe whales from land or even be able to get up really close to them with a short boat ride. Most whales spend their time at very remote locations and much of their time underwater so knowing how many there are and how they are doing presents a real challenge.
The ban on whaling in 1986 was the major turning point in the dramatic downward trend in the whale population and the International Whaling Commission has been doing observations and report status and estimates of the population and trends for the last decades to provide insight into the health of the population.
Between the many whale species and world locations, a full and complete picture requires an extensive description. Their general finding is that the whale population is in a lot better shape and growing by about 3-5% per year though they remain an endangered species.
Some highlights worth mentioning are the Humpback whales in the South Atlantic where an estimated 25000 whales were caught in the early 1900s reducing the population to about 450. Today the population is viewed to have regrown to about 25.000. Generally, the humpback whales are believed to have regained about 93% of the original population.
The grey whales feeding and traveling along the Pacific coast that can often be seen from Bodega Bay are thought to have grown from about 125 animals in 1998 to 230 in 2017 with a population in all the North Pacific estimated to be 25.000 to 30.000.
Another great trend is the blue whale population in the southern hemisphere estimated in 2004 to have around 2300 animals and growing by approximately 8% per year. The Pacific population is estimated to be of similar size and trend and now in 2021, some 25.000 animals are believed to exist worldwide. This is still far below the 200.000 to 300.000 animals estimated to have existed before hunting began. These animals - the largest in the world with a length of up to 100 feet and weighing up to 200 tons – the same as 33 fully grown elephants - remain rare and endangered but sightings are increasing, and the trend is positive.
Not all whales have risen above the numbers where they are no longer considered endangered or are in a growth trend. The North Pacific Right whale population in 2021 is estimated at less than 50 (yes fifty) and in the North Atlantic less than 500. It obtained the name” Right Whale” from the fishermen who considered it the right whale to hunt because it was the easiest to spot, kill and retrieve. While it is no longer hunted it remains endangered by entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with large ships which can lead to fatal incidents.
Beyond boat collisions and fishing net entanglement, the main challenges facing the whales are climate change as well as chemical and plastic pollution which erode their habitat. Further, despite the whaling ban in 1986 some nations like Japan, Iceland, and Norway continue fishing in the local waters to sustain their livelihoods.
Even small everyday modifications of our human behavior can help improve whale - and other animals - living conditions. Reducing the consumption of plastic bags and containers means less end up on the oceans where pollution is experienced even on the beaches and waters of remote islands in the pacific. Less CO2 emissions help keep the earth's temperatures where they are which means the marine life can flourish as it has in the past to sustain the marine food chain – the base of the whale’s existence. Just small things like ensuring to roll up used fishing lines and take home anything brought to the beach makes a positive contribution.
For anyone wanting to take an active part in helping whales thrive one can support conservation programs like the ones organized by the Pacific Whale Foundation, purchase clothing made from natural fiber instead of synthetic ones, and one can even adopt a whale through some of the foundations. Taking part in activities to clean up beaches wearing sunscreens that does not contain materials toxic to coral reefs as well as volunteering with the Pacific whale Foundation are other options.
After all – who does not want to get a chance to watch these magnificent animals?