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Baird's beaked whale © Robert Pitman

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Creating a safe haven for whales and dolphins in the Southern Ocean

Emma Eastcott

Emma Eastcott

Emma is WDC's head of safe seas. She helps ensure whales and dolphins are free from unintentional threats including pollution, collisions with vessels and accidental entanglement in fishing gear.

The ocean around some of the UK’s remote overseas territories is teeming with life, including whale populations returning from the brink of extinction. The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands marine protected area was designated in 2012, but is under ongoing review. We’re joining forces with other ocean advocates to urge the local government to strengthen existing protections and create a safe haven for whales for their sake, and our own.

I’ve always been fascinated by the sea and spent countless hours as a child exploring craggy rockpools around the UK. But nowhere has captured my imagination more than the ocean spanning the isolated and icy polar regions. A world where penguins huddle in freezing winds, where myth-like narwhals swim with unicorn horns, and blue whales plunge to the ocean’s coldest depths.

Whales diving below the surface with their flukes above the water and ice caps in the distance.
In these serendipitous icy landscapes, I can only imagine the thunderous applause of flukes meeting the surface of the water. © reisegraf

Whilst these remote wildernesses feel a million miles away from my warm office, I am all too aware of the pressures these precious ecosystems face. Once viewed as the frontiers of human endeavour, the polar regions now confront existential threats from climate change and increasing human activities such as industrial fishing.

Sperm whale calf

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A remote haven for wildlife

The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) are facing these challenges. Situated in the Southern Ocean, this remote and mostly uninhabited chain of islands supports diverse marine life. They are home to some of the world’s largest populations of marine mammals, including Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals, as well as various bird species like chinstrap penguins.

Chinstrap penguins
Antarctic fur seal

What an incredible place!

Experts in the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, a group co-founded by WDC, have identified this area as an Important Marine Mammal Area. Known as IMMAs, these areas are places that scientists have agreed are important habitats for whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals, and in need of special conservation protection measures. IMMAs aim to ensure that our enormous climate allies have safe spaces for feeding, resting, and breeding without disturbance from  human-generated threats such as noisy ships or getting caught in fishing nets.

 

Sperm whale
Whales offer us hope. It's vital we protect them.

The waters around SGSSI are rich in nutrients and krill and support a diverse food web. This ecosystem serves as a critical habitat for vulnerable whale species such as fin, sei, and southern right whales. As these magnificent beings go about their daily lives, they play pivotal roles in our battle against the climate crisis so it’s vital we protect them and help restore their populations.

South Georgia and South Sandwich Island Scotia Arc IMMA

The South Georgia and South Sandwich Island Scotia Arc IMMA

It’s been named the Scotia Arc Important Marine Mammal Area, and we hope that protecting it more fully will allow these species to recover. Certain large whale populations are recovering following an almost complete decimation of their numbers due to commercial whaling in the early 1900s. Humpback whale numbers have increased to around 90% of their original pre-whaling population, and the world’s largest animal is starting to return – the majestic blue whale.

Blue whale at surface
Once numbering over 350,000 individuals, commercial whaling devastated blue whale populations to a mere 10,000-25,000 today. © Daniel Conde

Ocean under threat

But the ocean and our climate allies are suffering because of the climate crisis, and our participation at COP28 aims to throw a spotlight on the profound impact it’s having on marine wildlife. Sadly, like many parts of our planet, the Southern Ocean is enduring these consequences. Krill populations which sustain the rich diversity of life in this region are predicted to decline due to the increasingly warmer and more acidic ocean. As krill is the main food source for baleen whales in this area, this will likely have significant knock-on effects on these ocean giants.

Humpback whales feeding
An adult humpback whale can consume up to 1360kg of food each day.

But that’s not all. Human activities like krill fisheries also pose a threat to these fragile ecosystems and the species that inhabit them. They can put additional pressure on krill populations and reduce food available to whales. Fisheries also focus their efforts where krill are most abundant and easiest to find and this can overlap with key feeding sites for species such as whales. This heightens the risk of collisions with vessels and unintentional entanglement in commercial trawls, known as ‘bycatch’. These incidents can seriously injure or even kill whales. Tragically, over the past two years, at least three humpback whales have died as bycatch in the region's krill fisheries. Action must be taken to protect our climate allies from these unintended but serious impacts.

Trawler fishing boat
Every year, hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins around the world are accidentally killed in fishing nets and ropes.

The need for protection

In 2012, the local government designated parts of the ocean around SGSSI as a marine protected area (MPA), and its five-year review is scheduled for this December. I am proud to be representing WDC at the upcoming workshop in Cambridge, where I’ll contribute our knowledge and expertise to ensure that whales and dolphins in the area are safe and free from harm.

We’ll be supporting the Great Blue Ocean’s campaign aimed at strengthening these protections and creating a South Atlantic Marine Wildlife Sanctuary. We are calling for the government of SGSSI to significantly expand the no-take zone around the South Sandwich Islands - meaning no activities like fishing or drilling could take place. We’ll urge them to close offshore areas of South Georgia to krill fishing, to help whale populations recover and come back to their ancestral homes. Plus, we’ll be asking them to set a more precautionary catch limit for krill around South Georgia.

Sperm whale pod at surface of the ocean
We can make a big impact on one of the world’s biggest challenges, by getting behind the world’s biggest creatures.

We can’t save the world without saving the ocean, and we can’t save the ocean without saving the whale. Taking action now is critical to protect these precious ecosystems, giving these threatened and often unique species a chance to recover and build their resilience to climate change. The UK government must step up to meet their commitment to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030 (the 30×30 target), both at home and overseas.

It's thanks to our supporters that we’re able to participate in these high-level meetings where critical decisions are made. We make sure that leaders know that we must save the whale to save the world. Protecting our precious ocean is a key step to achieving this.

WDC team outside the Houses of Parliament with 'Save the whale. Save the world' and 'Stop ignoring the ocean' banners
Together, we can create a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.

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