I took this picture of a breaching humpback whale last week, from the cliff top at Cape Naturaliste, West Australia. We were fortunate during our time there to sight regular small groups of these huge and mysterious creatures, passing by on their annual migration. We’d had the same experience from Sydney’s North Head two weeks earlier, and what struck me most on both occasions was that it was not so much us as the whales themselves who were truly blessed.
Their good fortune was that enough people around the world cared sufficiently to prevent them joining the dodo, the passenger pigeon and too many other creatures on the list of animals no longer here due directly to our actions. The humpback may truly be said to be back from the brink.
During the last century humpbacks were hunted to the very edge of extinction. A global population estimated at well over a hundred thousand was reduced by over 90%, as the result of inadequately controlled commercial cropping of what turned out to be a very finite natural resource. It was, if not unthinking, supremely misguided, and in the North Atlantic just a few hundred individuals remained by the time a hunting moratorium was introduced by the International Whaling Commission, in 1966.
The good news is that stocks have recovered significantly in the decades since, to the point that numbers have returned to, by some estimates, 75% of their former levels. There are still dangers of course, from collisions with ships, entanglement in netting, pollution of the seas, and perhaps also changes in the availability of food species such as krill, due to over-harvesting and a possible rise in sea temperatures.
Nevertheless, I’d say it’s a conservation success story to know that the enigmatic song of the male humpback may still be heard in the oceans of the world. It could so easily have turned out otherwise, and our planet would have been a quieter and sadder place.
Picture copyright A.P.Jessett