Pygmy whales spotted off East Timor in record numbers “extremely hungry”

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Pygmy blue whales, which are smaller than other blue whales but can still reach 24 meters in length and weigh up to 90 tonnes, have been sighted 100 meters off the coast of East Timor.

Mike Double, chief scientist at the Australian Marine Mammal Center’s Australian Antarctic Division, said identifying 500 blue whales in one season was incredible.

Fishermen have played a key role in reporting whale sightings.Credit:Charles Darwin University

A previous study by the Center for Whale Research in Fremantle estimated the population of blue pygmies that migrate along the west coast of Australia to be 700 to 1,500. But this research team only managed 200 observations in six years. around Perth Canyon, west of Rottnest Island.

“We still don’t know how big this population is,” Double said. “We know that in the past it was targeted by whalers, especially Soviet whalers.

“These whales behave differently from the humpback whales and blue whales of Antarctica, where we have the classic migration from calving grounds in the Great Barrier Reef or near Broome, all the way to Antarctica to gorge on. , then head north again.

“They are very temperate, tropical whales and they don’t have that orderly migration that we see with humpback whales.”

The results of the study were also praised by Lindsay Porter, vice-president of the International Whaling Commission, who said she had succeeded in “providing valuable information on the status and health of the species”.

Amid excitement over the scale of monitored blue whales passing through East Timor from September to November, however, their condition is cause for concern.

Edyvane, who is also chairman of East Timor’s national maritime tourism body Assosiasaun Turizmu Maritima, said many animals were underweight.

“We’ve had skinny whales before. But this year we saw a lot of them and you could actually see their spine, their individual vertebrae and also the ribs of some of them, ”she said.

No less than 25 blue whales have been spotted in a single day during the last season in East Timor.

No less than 25 blue whales have been spotted in a single day during the last season in East Timor.Credit:Charles Darwin University

Observers, including Edyvane’s field officer, Timorese ecologist Potenzo Lopes, noted fierce and prolonged feeding activity by the whales, which usually moved quickly through the waters near Timor.

“They would spend the whole day feeding themselves and trying to find every bit of food they could. They were clearly extremely hungry, ”she said.

With record water temperatures recorded this year in the Wetar Strait and whale breeding areas further north in Indonesia’s Banda Sea, Edyvane said climate change was a potential driver of resource depletion. food.

Changing oceanographic conditions have impacted whale populations elsewhere at least indirectly, including by diverting food stocks from endangered North Atlantic right whales, sending them into shipping lanes where they have been. struck by large ships.

Former President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, is the boss of the country's maritime tourism association.

Former President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, is the boss of the country’s maritime tourism association.Credit:Bradley Kanaris

Scientists also suspected that climate change had contributed to the massive stranding of gray whales in the United States and Mexico, although their populations had also increased significantly, increasing competition for food.

“They would spend the whole day feeding themselves and trying to find every bit of food they could. They were clearly very hungry.

Field Officer Potenzo Lopes

Edyvane admits that much more research needs to be done to determine the reasons for blue whale malnutrition.

For Ramos-Horta, who is patron of the East Timorese Marine Tourism Association and the country’s foremost champion of marine conservation, the number of whales seen in the latest study was “mesmerizing.”

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He has long wanted the entire area around Atauro Island, located 25 km north of Dili, to be declared a protected marine park where fishing is highly controlled.

But he also believes that preserving the underwater wonders is the responsibility of others in the region as well.

“Marine life in Timor-Leste or marine life in Australia or Indonesia is our common marine life because most of these species are migratory,” he said.

“So there has to be a concerted effort, especially from Timor-Leste, Australia and Indonesia, to work together.”

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