Rising from the depths of the North Atlantic, the archipelago of the Azores creates an oasis for marine biodiversity, where 28 species of cetaceans have been recorded until now (Silva et al., 2014). This corresponds to one third of all cetacean species in the world! Some of these species, like the sperm whale or the Risso’s dolphin, are resident, while others, like the blue, fin, sei and humpback whales, are migratory. These last ones are the biggest animals that have ever lived in our world and, every year, here in the Azores, we are lucky enough to witness one of the biggest migratory events of our planet.
But what makes the Azores such a special place for these animals?
Well, the answer lies in the strategic place where the Archipelago was born, creating a complex relationship between the bathymetric features of the area and the oceanographic dynamism around the islands (González García et al., 2018). These conditions give the Azores a high capacity for retaining particles (like nutrients) and organisms (like plankton) that are drifting in the oceanic currents surrounding the archipelago (Sala et al., 2016). All these variables create a variety of habitats for megafauna making the Azores one of the places in the world with the highest cetacean biodiversity (Afonso et al., 2020).
Big migratory whales (blue, fin, sei and humpback whales), undertake yearly migrations from the warm temperate waters where they breed and give birth to the cold and productive polar waters where they feed. During these massive migrations, the big whales that cross the North Atlantic see the Azores as a gas station in the middle of a superhighway. For instance, blue and fin whales might stop here for some days to feed on the food that they might find but then will continue their journey towards the north (Tobeña et al., 2016; González García et al., 2018; Pérez-Jorge et al., 2020). Basically, they stop here to eat some “petiscos” (Portuguese for snacks) before the main course. Learn more about the baleen whales that visit the Azores.
Despite the size, mysterious nature, and sometimes isolation of these animals, these long migrations are becoming more and more challenging for the whales worldwide, making it almost impossible to avoid the consequences of human activities.
For the first time, the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) released a global report titled as “Protecting Blue Corridors” that analyzes the satellite tracking data from over 1000 migratory whales worldwide for the last 30 years. This study was only possible due to international collaborations of over 50 research groups, with the leading marine scientists from Oregon State University, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of Southampton, and others. The report gives new extended information about the migratory routes (the blue corridors) of whales across all oceans emphasizing the threats that these animals face every year. Entanglement in fishing gear, pollution (e.g., plastic and sound) and climate change are just a few of the obstacles that these animals must face. Every year, an estimated 300.000 cetaceans die due to the entanglement of fishing gear, making it the deadliest obstacle (Read et al., 2006). Check our articles about entanglement, luckily not so frequent in our tours and what to do if we encounter a stranded dolphin or a whale.
Many whale species are nowadays still considered “Endangered” or “Vulnerable” by the IUCN even after decades of protection under the IWC moratorium, published in 1982 and in force since 1986 ceasing the commercial whaling of all whale species and populations around the world.
In the Azores, five of the most sighted whales are currently considered within the 3 “threatened” categories established by the IUCN. Both fin whale and sperm whale are considered “Vulnerable” (population size reduced in at least 50% during the last three generations) (Cooke, 2018a; Taylor et al., 2019) and blue whale and sei whale “Endangered” (the population size reduced in at least 70% during the last three generations) (Cooke, 2018b; 2018c). The extreme case is the North Atlantic right whale that, according to the WWF report, hit the lowest population size of the last 20 years with only 336 individuals left! The last time this “Critically Endangered” species was sighted in the Azores was in the year of 2009, and 101 days before that, the same individual was sighted in the Bay of Fundy (Canada), proving that this species also goes under longitudinal movements (Silva et al., 2012; Cooke, 2020a).
But what can we do to protect all these whales?
The same report says the solution lays in protecting the blue corridors, the migratory routes used by these animals. Of course, this conservation measure goes beyond national and international borders, which means cooperation between local, regional, and international levels is a must! Using this strategy, we can focus in protecting various species at the same time! BUT the benefits of protecting blue corridors extends far further than “just” whales. More and more evidence show that the big whales play a vital role in maintaining our oceans healthy and productive. Whales influence the marine ecosystems in many ways: as consumers of tons of fishes and invertebrates; as the prey of other marine mammals (like the orca); as the reservoirs of great amounts of carbon; as transporters of nutrients in a vertical and horizontal ways (Roman et al., 2014). Due to the importance of the big whales the International Monetary Fund estimates the value of a single great whale as more than 2 million US$, which evaluates all the global population of great whales of 1 trillion US$ (Chami et al., 2019). Did you know that a single whale can capture the same amount of carbon of around 1500 trees (Chami et al., 2019)!? So, maintaining a healthy whale population around the oceans can be one of the solutions to help the fight against climate change!
And if this was not enough, the importance of whales in society has been tracked since ancient times, enhancing community cohesiveness and cultural identity, inspiring artists worldwide, and with a strong educational potential, which finally translates into an increased interest in conservation and environmental awareness (Cook et al., 2020b).
In 2021 the non-profit organization Mission Blue classified the Azores as a HOPE SPOT, meaning that this archipelago is an essential area for the health of our oceans. The founder of Mission Blue, Sylvia Earle said: “The Azores Archipelago is a magnet for life. It really is a magical place.” She continues, “Launching the Azores as Hope Spot is so logical – just ask the whales”.
If you are in the Azores, that means that you are in one of the best places in the world to enjoy the company of the biggest animals that ever lived in our planet. Around springtime, the big whales come and visit us, so if you are not still convinced about how amazing this archipelago is and how fantastic these animals are, come and see by yourself 😉
Written by Inês Coelho, Maria Ernesto and Laura González Garcia
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