Unknown Population of Blue Whales Discovered in Waters of Southern Chile

Three scientists stand on a hillside on the remote island of Melinka in Southern Chile. In the distance, across the shimmering waters of the Gulf of Corcovado, are the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountains.

All three are peering through high-powered binoculars, scanning the horizon methodically.

Suddenly, biologist Yacquiline Montecinos spots a spray of water piercing the horizon, six miles or so off shore.

"There … whale. Blue whale," she says excitedly. Montecinos has seen hundreds of these spouts, but she still gets excited when she finds one.

And why not? She is part of a team researching a previously unknown population of blue whales, the biggest mammal on the planet, bigger than the biggest dinosaur. They can be up to 100 feet long and 100 tons.

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It is thrilling to see, but it is also serious science.

'We Have Whales'

Over the hill on the water's edge sits the tiny fishing village of Melinka. One of the buildings houses the modest research station of Centro Ballena Azul: The Blue Whale Center, home to 11 scientists who share a passion for the sea. Several have been waiting all morning for a sighting from the team on the hill.

The job is tedious at times, until the radio call comes in that two blue whales have been spotted.

"We have whales," crackles the voice on the radio. Researcher Juan Pablo Torres writes down the details.

In a well-rehearsed routine, Torres and two other scientists head for the fishing docks to retrieve their research boat, load up their gear and steer to the waters of the Gulf.

Marine Biologist Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, director of the Blue Whale Center, oversees the research at the center. When you see him standing in the prow of the center's 20-foot research boat he looks like a modern-day Captain Ahab, but he is not out to kill the whales, he's out to catalogue them.

"I think there are two whales," says Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete as the boat bounces through the waves, "but we'll confirm everything when we're closer."

Spotting those spouts at sea level takes a trained eye.

"There are two there!" says Hucke-Gaete.

It is a spectacular sight: animals so big, moving with such grace. It is almost as if they are swimming in slow motion.

"I find it beautiful," said Hucke-Gaete, who has seen hundreds of blue whales in Corcovado, but still gets excited. "It's one of the most beautiful spectacles I could have ever dreamt of. They're amazing."

Especially because a century of commercial whaling almost pushed the blue whale to extinction. The slaughter peaked in 1931, when 29,000 were killed in one season. By the time hunting blue whales was outlawed in 1966 it is estimated that the population had been reduced by 99 percent, from perhaps half a million to just a few thousand in all the world's oceans.

"The numbers that were left after the commercial whaling was so low that everybody thought that it was over for the blue whales," says Hucke-Gaete.

Unexpected Discovery

Almost as amazing as these whales themselves is the story of how this population was discovered. In 1997, a group of scientists boarded two ships to comb the 2,500 miles of Chile's pacific coastline and do a count of blue whales. In that entire time, they found just 40 whales — "it was bad news," says Hucke-Gaete.

But then a small group of those scientists decided to soak up the stunning scenery. They hopped on a cruise ship to enjoy the trip home. That ship passed through the Gulf of Corcovado.

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