Fin whales, once considered endangered, have staged a stunning comeback

The whales are back.

Fin whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, have returned in huge numbers to their ancestral feeding grounds off the coast of Antarctica, according to research published Thursday.

In the journal Scientific Reports, researchers for the first time shared details of massive feeding frenzies among fin whales near Elephant Island. More than once, the researchers observed about 150 whales — lunging and diving with mouths wide open — gulping down krill.

The scientists also completed abundant estimates, finding a higher concentration of fin whales there than in other regions known for sightings, including off the coast of California.

Previous research suggests only 1-2% of fin whales survived commercial whaling, which took off in the southern hemisphere in the early 20th century and continued until restrictions in the 1970s.

Documentation of feeding frenzies in densely-populated waters where whales gathered generations ago and before they were hunted at industrial scale suggest the species has rediscovered an important habitat and that the population is recovering.

An aerial view of a fin whale aggregation
An aerial view of a fin whale aggregation.Helena Herr

The species’ strong return to the feeding grounds rich with krill is “raising hope that fin whales are on their way to pre-exploitation numbers,” the researchers wrote in the Scientific Reports paper.

Video footage of the fin whale “aggregation,” as the researchers call it, first caught public attention in a 2019 BBC documentary called “Seven Worlds, One Planet” that was narrated by David Attenborough, the famous British commentator. The researchers on the Scientific Reports paper, who collaborated with the documentarians, added new data and further analysis of the whales.

“I’d never seen so many whales in one place before and was absolutely fascinated watching these massive groups feed,” said Bettina Meyer, a co-author of the study who is a biologist and professor at the Alfred Wegener Institute, in a news release.

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