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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI:

South Georgia blue whales five decades after the end of whaling

Susannah V. Calderan*, Andy Black, Trevor A. Branch, Martin A. Collins, Natalie Kelly, Russell Leaper, Sarah Lurcock, Brian S. Miller, Michael Moore, Paula A. Olson, Ana Širović, Andrew G. Wood, Jennifer A. Jackson

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Blue whales at South Georgia were heavily exploited during 20th century industrial whaling, to the point of local near-extirpation. Although legal whaling for blue whales ceased in the 1960s, and there were indications of blue whale recovery across the wider Southern Ocean area, blue whales were seldom seen in South Georgia waters in subsequent years. We collated 30 years of data comprising opportunistic sightings, systematic visual and acoustic surveys and photo-identification to assess the current distribution of blue whales in the waters surrounding South Georgia. Over 34,000 km of systematic survey data between 1998 and 2018 resulted in only a single blue whale sighting, although opportunistic sightings were reported over that time period. However, since 2018 there have been increases in both sightings of blue whales and detections of their vocalisations. A survey in 2020 comprising visual line transect surveys and DIFAR sonobuoy deployments resulted in 58 blue whale sightings from 2430 km of visual effort, including the photo-identification of 23 individual blue whales. Blue whale vocalisations were detected on all 31 sonobuoys deployed (114 hours). In total, 41 blue whales have been photo-identified from South Georgia between 2011 and 2020, none of which matched the 517 whales in the current Antarctic catalogue. These recent data suggest that blue whales have started to return to South Georgia waters, but continued visual and acoustic surveys are required to monitor any future changes in their distribution and abundance.