“If any other mortality event like this occurs, it is important for us to have early detection so that we can send scientists to take samples. When a whale dies, you want to know why, and you have to take samples during the first few days. If too much time has passed, the whale decomposes, and we can no longer analyze the cause of death.”
Monitoring from Outer Space
The south of Chile has a complex coastline, with a hostile climate that makes it hard to detect these mortality events using traditional research, making it an urgent necessity for scientists to have a more cost- and time-efficient method. On October 16, 2019, the British Antacrtic Survey (BAS), an entity from the U.K. whose mission is to carry out studies in Antarctica, published an article in the PLOS Journal reporting on a new technique for working with these types of events, using high-resolution satellite images in order to quickly and efficiently obtain information about future strandings.
“With these images, we can effectively survey the area to stay up-to-date with respect to these events. This whale species is on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is classified as endangered, thus generating a major concern. In 2015, we requested a satellite image and had to assess it manually. Now we have a much larger opportunity to monitor what will happen during the next few years, especially in the year of El Niño, so as to avoid traveling to the place of the findings, whether by boat or by plane, which is extremely expensive and involves major logistics.”
An Apocalyptic Event
In 2015, the San Ignacio del Huinay Foundation, a non-profit institution founded by Enel and the Catholic University of Valparaiso that aims to study and preserve the biodiversity of the Chilean Patagonia in the Los Lagos Region, carried out a boat expedition to take inventory of invertebrate fauna in the Central Patagonia, specifically the Gulf of Penas and the Gulf of Tres Montes.
“We had never been to those places, because they are very hard to access. One day we saw a few dead whales, and we thought it seemed strange. As we continued, we saw one after another, and then we stayed the night. We toured around the fjord and saw a total of 26 dead whales, that is not normal.”
Dr. Häussermann adds that the expedition continued 200 km further south, near Puerto Edén, where they found four corpses. This motivated them to perform a flyover in order to get a broader view.
“It was something totally apocalyptic, and it really scared us. The truth is it was very unreal. In Seno Escondido we saw 80 dead whales. That is unheard of. The area is very isolated, and that is why no one noticed the death of these whales. Normally, when a whale dies, within a day or two someone has already discovered it.”
Since 2015, these expeditions are carried out twice a year with scientists from all around the world to monitor the fjords and see if there are any other mortalities, to study the whales in the area, understand their ecology and be able to help with their conservation. “Tags” have also been implemented to monitor the whales and analyze their behavior. “We know very little about this species. They live far from the coast, they are described as oceanic, but in the Central Patagonia, they have been known to enter the fjords, which are 4 to 15 meters deep. We don’t know why they do that,” says Häussermann.
Cause: Climate Change
“Baleen whales are individualistic, each one does their own thing, with no concern for the others. If one is found near another, it is because there is a lot of food. It is not normal for them to die in large groups, so that was something that was very unique,” indicated the scientist from the San Ignacio del Huinay Foundation, who claimed that the “red tide” was responsible for this event, with the presence of increasingly intense toxic algae as a result of climate change. An increase in drought conditions and high radiation mean that less fresh water enters the fjords, leaving surface salt water that facilitates the appearance of the red tide which harms the marine wildlife.
This year, Chile will host COP25, and one of the main topics to be addressed will be caring for the oceans and Antarctica. For Vreni Häussermann, environmental awareness in the country is just now starting to develop, and there are many people that blame others, without taking responsibility in terms of preserving and taking care of our oceans.
“We need protected marine areas in all regions across the country in order to preserve the oceans for future generations. For decades, we have known the negative effect of climate change. If we had acted earlier, it would have been easier, but now we have to make a greater effort. This is an unprecedented situation that requires unprecedented measures. We will all have to participate in this change.”