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Off Chile, resurfacing

In the waters where they were once hunted to near extinction, whales might be making a comeback.

April 28, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

STRAIT OF MAGELLAN, CHILE — From the earliest days of exploration, mariners in Chile's cool southern waters marveled at the abundance of whales. A Jesuit naturalist wrote of the sea "boiling" with the spouts of the leviathans.

Among 19th century Nantucket boatmen, the island of Mocha was notorious as the stamping grounds of "Mocha Dick," an ill-tempered sperm whale riddled with harpoons. Why Herman Melville opted to substitute "Moby" for "Mocha" remains unclear, but literary detectives believe the vengeful whale helped inspire his dark classic.

Now, almost two centuries after the commercial carnage of Melville's era and 22 years after an international whale-hunting moratorium went into effect, some whales appear to be making a comeback off Chile's coast, where a proliferation of islands, fiords, peninsulas and straits creates tens of thousands of miles of shoreline.

In recent years, researchers combing remote crannies of this elongated coast have confirmed the presence of two seasonally resident populations of whales, including 100 to 150 humpbacks here in the glacier-rimmed Strait of Magellan.

Farther to the north, closer to the seas once frequented by Mocha Dick, they've tracked several hundred blue whales, believed to be Earth's largest animal, at 100 feet long and more than 100 tons -- bigger than any dinosaur. A separate population of blue whales feeds off the central California coast between June and October.

"The likelihood is that they were not completely hunted out, and these are remnant populations," says Bruce Mate, who heads the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and who worked to tag Chilean blue whales and track them via satellite. "It just wasn't commercially viable to hunt till the very last whale."

The bleached bones of butchered whales, sea lions, elephant seals and other ocean mammals still litter some Patagonian beaches like driftwood. Forest and surf have reclaimed whaling stations such as the long-abandoned plant at Eagles' Bay (Bahia de los Aguilas), not far from Cape Froward, the southernmost point on the South American mainland.

Though encouraged, conservationists say it's too early to celebrate the comeback of a creature pursued to the verge of extinction. Oil from sperm and right whales hunted off Chile's coast was once a prized staple, a globalized commodity with parallels to today's petroleum.

"It could be we're just seeing more whales now because of increased interest and tourism," says Barbara Galletti, who heads Chile's Cetacean Conservation Center.

Push for protection

With the International Whaling Commission scheduled to hold its annual meeting in Santiago in June, activists are pushing for a law that would declare a permanent whale sanctuary throughout Chile's territorial waters, where Yankee whalers once confronted Mocha Dick.

"This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength," J.N. Reynolds Esq. wrote in 1839 in the Knickerbocker, a New York magazine. "From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted -- he was white as wool!"

Today, scientists here are trying to unlock the secrets of the whales' migratory odysseys and assess the latest potential threats -- not harpoon-wielding Homo sapiens, but global warming and pollution. Of special concern are the salmon farms that have proliferated along Chile's dismembered coast, befouling sheltered stretches favored by whales and other sea life.

Little is known about the ecological fallout from the ongoing boom in the production of salmon, an introduced species mostly exported to the United States, Europe and Asia. Researchers worry about contamination, disease and parasites spreading from the tightly packed fish pens, as well as competition for food stocks. Whales could also become entangled in salmon nets or be injured in collisions with boats.

Researchers have been using darts to collect whale fat samples to study them for potential contaminants and other information.

"Our hope is that this can tell us more about the animals' health, their gender makeup, their genetic diversity," says Juan Pablo Torres, a marine biologist at Chile's Blue Whale Center who is collaborating on genetic testing with the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Conservationists are pressing the Chilean government to grant some measure of protection to the blue whale habitat off Chiloe Island, a vast swath of ocean that serves many interests: salmon farmers, fishermen, shipping firms. No consensus has emerged.

"I believe in protecting the whales, but the fact is we can't live on whales," says Luis Miranda, mayor of tiny Melinka, a salmon-farming center facing the Gulf of Corcovado, a vital blue whale haunt.

Weighing threats

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