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Whale sightings off Chile raise hope

HuntingWhale (animal)ChileEnvironmental IssuesSciencePetroleum Industry

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

During the Southern Hemisphere summer and fall, binocular-equipped spotters in Melinka seek out blue whales' signature spouts, which sometimes send spray jetting 30 feet into the air. The hilltop lookouts radio word to waiting Blue Whale Center researchers, who board boats to rendezvous with the goliaths.

Offshore, the surprisingly sleek blue whales -- their skin seems closer to a leaden gray-black -- undulate through the water like enormous snakes, their booming respiration like rhythmic bellows in the salt air. The whales survive on krill, a tiny crustacean that, in a paradox of nature, sustains the world's largest creature. Some studies have suggested that global warming could be reducing krill populations, threatening whales.

More than 1,000 miles to the south, near the tip of the continent, biologist Juan Capella carries on his mostly solitary research in a far-flung corner of the Strait of Magellan, known for its gale-force winds and mountainous swells.

The treacherous channels between the Atlantic and Pacific have long attracted adventurers, from the passage's Portuguese namesake (Ferdinand Magellan) to Sir Francis Drake to Charles Darwin, who, near Tierra del Fuego, described a pair of sperm whales "jumping upright quite out of the water," then falling back with a noisy splash "like a distant broadside."

In summer months, the waters of tiny Carlos III Island hold a profusion of marine life: sea lions frolicking in the water and lounging on the rocks, curious dolphins and a riotous mass of seabirds -- cormorants, skuas, giant petrels, albatross and penguins, which stand guard over nests in the roots of gnarly, wind-bent trees. Condors coast on the thermals.

Where the whales are

And the star attraction: humpback whales. Unlike the krill-devouring blue whales, the humpbacks here feed on plentiful sardines. They sometimes work in groups, herding the fish against forests of kelp, drawing sea lions and birds eager for a treat.

"A juvenile," Capella says of a humpback that has suddenly and startlingly leaped out of the water, like a submarine-launched missile. "He's here with his mother. It's good to see her back."

For more than a decade, Capella has studied the resident whale population, identifying most by characteristic tail marks. He has tracked their migration more than 4,000 miles north, to breeding grounds off the Colombian coast.

"The whale has generated legends since antiquity, like the story of Jonah," Capella says. "It was the base of an industry that generated wealth for hundreds of years. But we know very little about the whale. Here we have a natural laboratory."

patrick.mcdonnell @latimes.com

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