The Mem­ory of a Blue Bio­sphere

A team of sci­en­tists is try­ing to un­der­stand why blue whales are re­turn­ing to Chilean seas af­ter thirty-three years with­out a sin­gle sight­ing.


The his­tory of the blue whale in Chile os­cil­lates be­tween life and death. I t was 1787 when the first one was hunted in Chile’s seas. Iquique, in the north, was where the pur­suit of the world’s largest mam­mal be­gan, and it would con­tinue for cen­turies. The prospect of cap­tur­ing this abun­dant source of fuel and meat at­tracted in­ter­na­tional whale­boats to the seas to the south of Chile, which they saw as an in­ex­haustible source of wealth. Al­most 200 years later, in 1983, of­fi­cials recorded the last blue whale killed by hu­man hands, in Talc­ahuano. What brought the hunt­ing to an end was not com­pas­sion, but rather eco­nomics.

The blue whale had aban­doned the Chilean seas.

The plun­der­ing of this species has re­duced its num­bers, so that to­day th­ese wa­ters are home to only four per­cent of the to­tal world­wide pop­u­la­tion. The Gulf of Cor­co­v­ado, in the Los La­gos re­gion of south­ern Chile, served for cen­turies as a cra­dle of refuge for the species to which the whales reg­u­larly re­turned. But in­dis­crim­i­nate whal­ing fi­nally drove them away and forced them to aban­don the place in or­der to sur­vive.

“This is some­thing that has hap­pened in many parts of the world, where whales were hunted to the point of ‘com­mer­cial ex­tinc­tion,’ where there are so few of them as to make whal­ing op­er­a­tions un­prof­itable. The an­i­mals left vol­un­tar­ily, or their num­bers were so re­duced as to make it all but im­pos­si­ble to ever see one,” says Nadine Lysiak, a re­searcher at the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tu­tion.

The ex­tinc­tion of equi­lib­rium

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mans and whales in south­ern Chile was not al­ways an­tag­o­nis­tic. The in­dige­nous peo­ples lived to­gether with the whales in to­tal har­mony, and their cul­ture’s daily prac­tices and rit­u­als were at­tuned to the bio­sphere. The so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion of th­ese in­dige­nous peo­ples al­lowed them to suc­cess­fully adapt to a com­plex en­vi­ron­ment, with ex­treme tem­per­a­tures and food sources that were al­ways verg­ing on scarcity.

But this sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship goes back mil­lions of years, to when the first micro­organ­isms es­tab­lished the bases for a bi­otic com­mu­nity that made sub­se­quent life pos­si­ble. Lay­ers and lay­ers of ecosys­tems or­ga­nized them­selves in such a way as to make their health and growth de­pen­dent upon the ex­is­tence of liv­ing be­ings in re­la­tion with one an­other.

Those in­hab­i­tants of an­cient Chile were elim­i­nated by a cul­ture that promised to hold the key to suc­cess, and made plun­der­ing the seas and gen­er­at­ing ma­te­rial wealth into struc­tural con­di­tions for hu­man hap­pi­ness. The fu­ture seemed to hold the same tragic fate for the whales which, at the be­gin­ning of the 21st cen­tury, are hardly ever seen in the world’s south­ern oceans.

Prom­ises of life

It was in 2003 that of­fi­cials recorded the re­turn of a blue whale to Chilean seas. And poli­cies de­signed to pre­serve the Gulf of Cor­co­v­ado in its nat­u­ral, un­spoiled state gave cause for hope: it seemed it was still pos­si­ble to step back from the point of no re­turn. “The Gulf of Cor­co­v­ado was al­ways home to blue whales. They his­tor­i­cally trav­eled through its wa­ters. Those found there to­day may very well be the grand­chil­dren and chil­dren of whales that in­hab­ited th­ese wa­ters in the past,” sug­gests Daniel Quiroz, an an­thro­pol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Chile.

It was in this con­text that the Meri Foun­da­tion—a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Chile, whose mis­sion is to pro­tect the Me­limoyu Na­ture Re­serve in north­ern Patag­o­nia—and the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tu­tion set out to dis­cern, sci­en­tif­i­cally, why the whales were re­turn­ing to the area. For four years, both NGOs tracked th­ese mam­mals which, gen­er­a­tions later, re­turned to the site of their birth to re­sume their older way of life and bring bal­ance back to an ecosys­tem desta­bi­lized by dis­as­trous hu­man ac­tions.

Daniel Casado doc­u­mented this im­por­tant turn­ing point in “Patag­o­nia Azul,” a film that shows all the work done by the con­ser­va­tion­ist del­e­ga­tion. The Chilean pho­tog­ra­pher trav­eled with sci­en­tists on their ex­pe­di­tions through the south­ern seas for about a month at a time, over the course of four con­sec­u­tive sea­sons. “It was my good for­tune to be able to take part in this long- term project with world- class sci­en­tists. They are at the fore­front of whale re­search and marine science,” says Casado. Re­fer­ring to the pri­mary ob­jec­tive of his film, he adds “what the doc­u­men­tary tries to show is Chile’s wealth, a wealth which can­not be mea­sured in terms of ex­tractible re­sources. An­other aim of ours is to open peo­ples’ eyes to the sea. It is about show­ing the beauty of our oceans, as well as the im­por­tance they have in main­tain­ing the bal­ance of Chile’s ecosys­tems.”

Ev­ery year, an i nter­dis­ci­plinary team made up of pro­fes­sion­als from Chile, the United States, Italy and other coun­tries sails to the wa­ters of Cor­co­v­ado to bet­ter un­der­stand why th­ese an­i­mals are re­turn­ing to the world’s most south­ern seas. The field re­search en­com­passes dis­tinct tasks: col­lect­ing plank­ton and biopsy sam­ples, tak­ing aerial pho­to­graphs and, the fo­cus of

“In­dis­crim­i­nate whal­ing fi­nally drove them away and forced them to aban­don the place in or­der to sur­vive.”

the cur­rent stage of re­search, col­lect­ing and an­a­lyz­ing data that will, in the fu­ture, lead to a greater sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing of what is caus­ing the whales to come back. This, ac­cord­ing to Amy Ap­prill, an as­so­ci­ate sci­en­tist at t he Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tu­tion: “What the science in­volves is the gath­er­ing and con­sol­i­da­tion of data to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what is go­ing on. In this way, we can cre­ate a body of sci­en­tific facts that will help us de­cide how best to pro­tect ecosys­tems and in­ter­act with the land. A solid un­der­stand­ing of what is draw­ing them to Cor­co­v­ado, what they are do­ing there, and how they are feed­ing is still lack­ing.”

Thanks to in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by D-TAGs—a de­vice that sci­en­tists at­tach to the whales to make au­dio record­ings and track their move­ments— the en­vi­ron­men­tal group is get­ting closer to solv­ing the mys­tery. “There is so much that can be done with the D- TAGs. I deal mainly with acous­tic anal­y­sis, ob­serv­ing the sounds emit­ted by the whales. The next step will be in­te­grat­ing data from th­ese songs with the rest of the data col­lected from the ap­pa­ra­tus: the whales’ move­ments, depth, and di­rec­tion. Then we will see how th­ese mea­sure­ments are cor­re­lated with the sounds they make,” says Leaela Sayigh, a scholar from Hamp­shire Col­lege, re­gard­ing the im­por­tance of th­ese de­vices.

The fu­ture of the sea

There are many paths. One sim­ply leads to ex­tinc­tion. The change is so great that hu­man be­ings can no longer live, and we die out. On the se­cond path, some small groups of hu­man be­ings sur­vive this change. But they sur­vive in very dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. And the fi­nal path is one in which we re­flect, and use our un­der­stand­ing and tech­no­log­i­cal skill to act more wisely

and put an end to en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.” With th­ese words, the Chilean bi­ol­o­gist and philoso­pher Hum­berto Mat­u­rana re­ferred to the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios fac­ing hu­man­ity. Ex­tinc­tion, an ir­re­versible process, stands in con­trast to hu­man­ity us­ing its un­der­stand­ing as its pri­mary tool for im­ple­ment­ing the changes that would be fa­vor­able to life. The search for bal­ance be­tween hu­man be­ings and na­ture rep­re­sents hu­man­ity’s most hope­ful al­ter­na­tive.

The long- term goal of the Meri Foun­da­tion is to pro­voke a cul­tural shift that moves in this di­rec­tion. The data ob­tained from its re­search will be shared with the larger com­mu­nity, with the goal of cre­at­ing a col­lec­tive con­scious­ness that keeps the whales from em­i­grat­ing out of the area again. The vi­tal im­por­tance of the whales is based on the cru­cial role they play in main­tain­ing eco­log­i­cal equi­lib­rium. They are an “um­brella species” that acts as a sup­port for the di­verse nat­u­ral ecosys­tems that have made the south of Chile such a fer­tile place.

The abun­dance of un­spoiled land­scapes, an­i­mal species, and po­ten­tial for tourism make it pos­si­ble to dream of a Chile com­mit­ted to sus­tain­abil­ity, a coun­try that uses its nat­u­ral re­sources guided by the phi­los­o­phy of con­ser­va­tion rather than of ma­te­ri­al­ism and ex­ploita­tion. The chal­lenge for the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity will be to trans­mit the in­for­ma­tion gen­er­ated through its re­search be­yond aca­demic cir­cles and into the com­mu­nity at large. For its part, the greater com­mu­nity is fac­ing a paradigm shift that of­fers a new model for how to un­der­stand de­vel­op­ment. Af­ter decades of bi­ol­ogy un­der­stand­ing evo­lu­tion to be about the dom­i­na­tion of the strong­est, this new view sees a dif­fer­ent way for­ward, with all ac­tors work­ing to­gether and with co­op­er­a­tion as the most im­por­tant fac­tor de­ter­min­ing the di­rec­tion that evo­lu­tion takes.

“It is not just about show­ing the beauty of our oceans, but the im­por­tance they have in main­tain­ing the equi­lib­rium of the ecosys­tem.”

Left page / Página izquierda: The “Khronos,” and the sci­en­tific crew of MERI, sail dur­ing the last hours of light in search of whales on the shores of Aysén, in the vicin­ity of Santa Bár­bara. La “Khronos”, y la trip­u­lación cien­tí­fica de MERI, nave­gan du­rante las úl­ti­mas ho­ras de luz en busca de bal­lenas en las costas de Aysén, en las cer­canías de Santa Bár­bara. Left / Izquierda: The pre­cise mo­ment. Leigh Hick­mott, an oceanog­ra­pher at St. Andrews Univer­sity and Open Ocean Con­sult­ing, in­stalls through a car­bon bra pole the D-Tag de­vice on the whale. The de­vice at­taches to the whale through suc­tion cups so it won’t bother the an­i­mal. All their move­ments and vo­cal­iza­tions are recorded in great de­tail. El mo­mento pre­ciso. Leigh Hick­mott, Oceanó­grafo de la univer­si­dad de St. Andrews y del Open Ocean Con­sult­ing, in­stala a través de una pér­tiga de fi­bra de car­bono el dis­pos­i­tivo D-Tag en la bal­lena. Este dis­pos­i­tivo se ad­hiere a la bal­lena a través de ven­tosas, para no generar ninguna mo­les­tia al an­i­mal. Se reg­is­trarán con gran de­talle to­dos sus movimien­tos y vo­cal­iza­ciones.

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