This article was written by Veronica Frans, research assistant at SAERI, as part of the Darwin Plus-funded project ‘Marine Spatial Planning for the Falkland Islands’. The FIG Environmental Planning Department financially supports this whale study via their Environmental Studies Budget. This article was published in the Penguin News on 23 October 2015 as part of an MSP series of 4 articles.
When’s the last time you’ve seen a whale? Have they always been around, or did they suddenly just reappear? The story behind the whales in the Falklands is currently incomplete. Commercial whaling activities in the early 1900s had nearly decimated whales throughout the world, including here. Annual captures of as many as 463 whales at New Island Station were recorded then. These were solely of the large baleen whales – mainly sei and fin whales. Since then, according to anecdotes heard while talking with people, in particular with FIGAS pilots, these whales may well have been doing a comeback to the beautiful Falklands’ shores, and in great numbers. So could there be a success story here, of a possible recovering whale population?
Typical sightings of baleen whales (two blows of humpback whales)
Whether it’s being noticed or not, something is happening with the baleen whales here in the Falklands. The problem is, no one has actually studied them until now! It means that we have very little data to determine what is happening. They’re here now, but the questions are: are they returning? Are their numbers increasing? Is there a seasonal pattern for their presence? Are there hotspots where they can be found? All these questions need answers. If the whale population is increasing, they may interact with ships and potentially collide with them. This is a serious issue faced in other countries with high whale density. Therefore, understanding the pattern of recovery of the whales in the Falklands and mapping their current distribution is needed for the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) project. This project was described in the last couple of Penguin News and aims to provide scientific tools to FIG to co-ordinately manage the marine environment. In order to identify areas of potential risks and plan for the future, we need to identify areas used by whales, and whether their numbers are increasing.
But do we really have no data to answer these questions? Well, although there aren’t much actual data that exist, you (yes, you!), may be able to help fill in the data gap. This is called citizen science where scientists recognise that local inhabitants, as a group, have a huge amount of knowledge about the environment in which they live – especially historical knowledge. This can be harvested to fill in gaps for scientific studies. As part of the MSP project, a study currently underway addresses these questions on whales and is using this concept of citizen science to accomplish it. Information is being gathered by interviewing people, and the goal is to determine where and when they could and can be found, in the past and now. MSP is addressing the gaps in knowledge that exist, and it is hoped that maps can be produced to inform FIG for management, and also the tourism industry for development purposes.
Building a map of whale sightings with Ben Berntsen at Elephant Beach Farm.
Getting historical information on whales therefore largely depends on eyewitness accounts. In September, I went on fieldtrips to camp (on the East and West Falklands and some of the outer islands), visiting people and interviewing them. I asked for their first-hand knowledge on whales, having them indicate on a map when and where they have seen whales over their lifetime. Whether someone can provide one sighting or 30, or whether they know which species they saw or not, any input is helpful to the study because it is working to build strength in numbers. Preliminary results from 38 interviews thus far indicate that whales have been seen as early as November and as late as August in more recent years. The majority of sightings have been in January and February, according to 68% and 87% of these interviewees. Some of the earliest whale sightings were in the 1940s and 50s, but only 8% of interviewees have attested to those years. The majority of people have first seen whales in the 1990s and 2000s, and are still seeing them up until now.
Map illustrating a sample of the data from 3 people interviewed on whale sightings from the 1990s until now (2015).
More information is needed to obtain robust results, which will happen through more interviews, analyses of data recorded from FIGAS pilots, Falklands Conservation and other sources, and looking into commercial whaling archives. In terms of interviews, I will continue to contact people over the next few weeks. As a newcomer to the Islands, the study has given me the privilege to see many amazing places and meet so many welcoming and friendly people. I would like to thank those who have already participated in this study and also welcomed me into their homes. If you have any questions, my email is VFrans@env.institute.ac.fk. For more information on the overall MSP project, you can check SAERI’s website.