To mark last week’s World Whale Day (February 18) this blog explores the importance of whales to Galapagos from the late 18th century to today’s ground-breaking scientific discoveries.
The existence of whales in the Galapagos Islands has helped shape its history, including the vegetation and wildlife densities that we see today. Back in the 18th century, an exploration expedition visited the Islands to determine whether there were whaling opportunities there. It found an abundance of whales, attracted to the waters around the Archipelago by the rich feeding grounds which exist due to the confluence of several large oceanic currents. The expedition’s findings are thought to have sparked the whaling industry that dominated the Galapagos Islands for much of the 19th century, supplying whale oil for lighting, amongst other things. The trade decimated the sperm whale populations in Galapagos, and fur seals were almost hunted to extinction for their skins. Whalers were also behind the introduction of goats to the Islands, which decimated the local vegetation, and the decline in the giant tortoise populations, both in order to feed the whaling crews. Whaling ended in the second half of the 19th century due to low whale numbers, and reduced demand for whale oil.
Thankfully, during the 20th century whale populations visiting the Islands bounced back and over 20 different species have now been identified in the area. They are a huge draw for tourists, especially as some species of whale can be seen year round, including sperm whales, Bryde’s whales and orcas, though the cooler months between July and November are best for whale watching. Other species that are regular visitors include blue, humpback, minke, sei, and short-finned pilot whales.
A group of scientists from Dalhousie University in Canada have been studying sperm whales in the Archipelago since 1985, studying their vocalisations and taking photos to identify individuals. However, their numbers declined in the 1990s and by 2000 there were none left, and none were reported again until 2011. There are different theories as to why this might have occurred including El Nino effects or increased food availability elsewhere. When the scientists returned in 2013, none of the sperm whales they saw matched the population studied between 1985 and 1999. The new population’s vocalisations, however, matched those of two clans found across the Pacific that had previously rarely or never been seen in Galapagos. This suggests that sperm whales in Galapagos have gone through a ‘cultural turnover’ where individuals that speak one dialect completely replace those that speak another. Until now, such replacements were unknown outside of humans!
Written by GCT’s communications and marketing officer, Clare Simm