Unknown Population of Blue Whales Discovered in Waters of Southern Chile

Scientists head to Chile, home to rare blue whales, the world's largest mammals.

ByJeffrey Kofman
March 17, 2008, 11:30 AM

MELINKA, Chile; March 17, 2008— -- 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.

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

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.

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.

"When they were entering the gulf, they started seeing blue whales," says Hucke-Gaete, his voice filled with excitement as he recounts the unexpected discovery. "And they saw another one, and then they finally saw 60 in less than four hours."

It seemed the scientists had stumbled on a large and unknown population of blue whales, but it wasn't easy to confirm their findings.

It took Hucke-Gaete six years to raise the money to come back the Gulf to confirm that what they saw in 1997 wasn't just a one-time occurrence. Each year since 2003 the scientists have been in Corcovado from January to April — the Southern Summer — and so have the whales. They have learned that the whales come to this vast Gulf to feed and nurse their young. Corcovado is a previously unknown refuge that may help save the species.

"The significance of the place is that this is a place they feed; this is a place that is important to them and not only for the adults, it's for calves," explains Hucke-Gaete. "If we find calves, that means the population is recovering and that carries on a big responsibility for us: we need to take care of this place."

Normally whales have to be studied at deep sea and great expense. Corcovado offers a unique opportunity to track the whales close to land for an extended time.

Hucke-Gaete says it's difficult to study whales in part "because they spend 90-98 percent below the surface. So it's really, really difficult. It takes lots of time and lots of patience."

With meager budgets that are mostly consumed by gas that costs $9 a gallon, the scientists spend their days studying the habits and habitat of the whales, photographing and indexing each whale — no two dorsal fins are the same — and collecting tiny samples of their skin. The samples, he says, are "enough to tell us what population this whale belongs to, to know the sex of the animal, to identify it genetically like a forensics lab, that we identify these animals."

They hope to travel to the Museum of Natural History in New York this summer to conduct genetic tests on the samples to see how the Corcovado whales are related to others in the oceans.

Blue whales are not just the largest animals on the planet, they are also the loudest. Researcher Susannah Buchan has come all the way from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to study the sounds these whales make. Like all the science here it takes extraordinary patience, but what she is recoding and hearing is itself extraordinary.

"They vocalize," Buchan explains. "They do talk to each other. Why exactly, we're not entirely sure."

She's also not entirely sure that the sounds she's recorded really are from the blue whale, because they are unlike anything anyone has heard before. Buchan describes it as "sort of like a whistle, like a high whistle."

Buchan played some of the sounds for us. At first we heard a very low repetitive sound usually associated with whale, like a jackhammer. Then an extraordinary high sound.

"We're very cautious about saying that this is a blue whale vocalization. This is what I have been recording near the whales. But I really can't say if this is blue whale vocalization just because the sound is so high."

If the sounds can be confirmed they may help match this population with others — like an acoustic DNA.

"It is really exciting," says Buchan. "It's fascinating because so little is known about this animal. It astounds me how little is known, how little we know about this area about these animals here but also blue whales all over the world. "

If the species is to survive and rebuild its stocks, the Gulf of Corcovado could be critical. But this pristine habitat here that survived almost unscathed through the 20th century is being invaded by industry, in particular salmon farms. Salmon are not native to the Southern Hemisphere, but about 25 years ago Norwegians discovered the cold waters of the South Pacific are ideal for farming salmon from the North Atlantic. Now Chile is about to overtake Norway as the biggest producer of salmon in the world — providing 60 percent of the salmon Americans eat. But at huge environmental costs: contaminating the waters with feed and harmful chemicals and spreading disease.

It is not just the whales who are threatened by the salmon invasion. There is concern that the entire fragile eco-system is being destroyed. Which is why the Blue Whale Center, the World Wildlife Fund and others are lobbying the government of Chile to declare the Gulf of Corcovado — all 10 million acres of it — a Marine Protected Area. CLICK HERE to view a map of the proposed Marine Protected Area.That would allow traditional fishermen and salmon farming to continue, but would restrict growth and strictly monitoring environmental impact.

"It's absolutely extraordinary," says Cathy Plume of the World Wildlife Fund as she describes the incredible diversity of the ecosystem here, "we don't even know what's under these waters."

The World Wildlife Fund is looking at ways to balance the proposed protected area with the much-needed jobs in this remote region.

"If we don't control this area, the salmon industry will continue to grow here. Fishing will continue to grow here and you won't have the whales coming in here anymore, they won't have their food stocks, they won't be bringing their young in. We've got to keep that happening and the way to do that is just to create a marine protected area that's multiple use — keep people happy, and keep the whales happy."

Not just blue whales but also a population of Humpback Whales. Not nearly as big, but just as breathtaking. These waters are so rich with life and so unexplored the scientists continue to uncover new secrets of the sea here. Protecting the blue whale would protect all the other creatures here too.

"I love animals," says Hucke-Gaete, "I love the sea. Particularly I love whales. I usually work with species that have been very close to extinction and now they are recovering somehow. I like to think that they will recover fully someday and if I can help, if we can help, that's the best thing I can do in my life, just to right the wrongs. "

To give a species on the verge of extinction a second chance.

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