Last Friday they sighted in the waters of Galicia a blue whale, the largest animal in the world. An incredible – though not unprecedented – experience for scientists like Bruno Diaz, director of the Institute for the Study of Bottlenose Dolphins, based in O Grove (Pontevedra). The next day he broke a record: up 14 fin whales, the largest collective ever documented in waters of Galicia. The regeneration of the ocean and the effects of 35 years without hunting are felt in the Galician estuaries, where the appearances of these huge specimens are increasingly frequent, a phenomenon that begins to attract the attention of tourism agents in times of crisis of the sector.
“The 14 whales appeared about six miles off the coast at the height of the Cies Island (Vigo) in various groups of four or five. They were different specimens, and with them we saw hundreds of common dolphins, 30 bottlenose dolphins and also several porpoises. It was amazing, ”says Díaz, who coordinates the project Balaenatur, for monitoring blue whales within the Natura 2000 network. It is a new research and scientific dissemination program of the BDRI (for the acronym of the institute in English) that has the support of the Biodiversity Foundation of the Ministry for the Ecological Transition.
The results of Balaenatur, which began in 2020, will provide valuable information on blue, common and northern whales in Galician waters, essential to optimize the management of Natura 2000 areas and to guide decision-making for the conservation of these species. The experience of recent years, and events such as these days, allow us to venture that Galicia is experiencing an authentic expansion of cetaceans, especially striking when it comes to fin and blue whales. The proliferation is mainly related to the period that has elapsed since their hunting was definitively stopped: the last ones in Galician waters were killed in Marín and Corcubión in 1985.
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It is a situation that encourages us to think of the sighting as a tourist attraction, especially in times of crisis in the sector due to the coronavirus crisis. “It is a possibility that must be valued more as an incentive than as a guarantee,” recommends Bruno Díaz. There are operators that are already studying this possibility, but the captain of Chasula, Isidro Cadarso, who has spent 35 years walking tourists to observe birds and aquatic mammals, does not recommend it: “I have seen many whales, the last this weekend, but I would never sell a sighting trip because you never know when you will find them ”.
One of the last ones he found was almost run over by the Chasula. “We scared her,” he jokes. But encounters with these veritable sea monsters have a lot to do with chance, to the point that, as amazing as the finds are, BDRI expeditions often end without sightings. “You can find them or not, and if you do it, it will be unforgettable for tourists, but nobody can assure you that you will find the whales, ”he continues. To the regeneration of the species after the ravages caused by hunting, the veteran captain points to another theory: the abandonment of explosive fishing. “Although they have long been banned, until a few years ago they were still used clandestinely. At present they are practically exiled and that has contributed to the recovery of different species ”, he maintains.
But what the sightings speak of above all is the richness of the waters of Galicia, mainly in the strip between Vigo and Fisterra, where the outcrop phenomenon occurs with greater incidence. It consists of nothing more than the ascent of extraordinarily nutrient-rich water masses from deep areas to the surface, as a consequence of the north and northeast winds. With them plankton and phytoplankton emerge. This is how the food of the krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that, small as it may seem, is the favourite dish of whales, which can ingest it in amounts of up to 40 million kirlls per day. Does that diet ruin the balance of the ocean? “Quite the opposite. Fin whales are not invasive species, they are part of the ecosystem of the area, and through their depositions they contribute to the regeneration of the species ”, answers the director of the Balaenatur project.
The pantry seems to be overflowing, in view of the number of whales that have been seen in recent years. Increasingly, to the point that last Saturday’s find was the largest number of specimens ever detected by the BDRI team. “Fin whales and common dolphins surfaced everywhere, feeding alongside many sea birds, and it was really difficult to decide where to look ”, says the biologist and doctor in Ecology.
The sightings began to occur in recent years. The skipper of the Chasula remembers the surprise that the first one of her life caused her, in 2006. Since then they have multiplied, among other things because scientific expeditions in search of whales are repeated, but 2017 was a crucial year. Towards the end of the summer, two individual blue whales appeared on two excursions barely 15 days apart, first at the height of the Muros y Noia estuary, detected by a fishing boat, which recorded the majestic animal. And then a few miles from the Pontevedra, already on a BDRI expedition, who was looking for the first and found a different specimen.
The coloration and the dorsal fin certified that those huge cetaceans, the size of an eight-story building, were nothing but specimens of the mythical blue whale, the largest animal in the world, a species that was on the verge of extinction at the beginning of the last century and of which there are currently about 25,000 specimens in the world, just 400 in Atlantic waters. “It was an indescribable feeling”recalls Bruno Díaz, who was at the head of the expedition. The scientists’ conclusion is unanimous: the Galician coast is part of a new migratory corridor on its route to the south of the majestic cetacean.