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First, there were teeming whales until droves of whalers came. Then it went quiet. A century later, whales slowly began to come back. No whalers. Does the recent arrival of a gray whale at Walvis Bay indicate that whales are again having a whale of a time?
As every Namib toktokkie knows, the Benguela Current is very productive, and supports extraordinarily high biodiversity, a complexity covering the range from bacteria to whales. Speaking of the latter, Walvis Bay is not only known as whale bay for historic reasons. Today, the bay is still very important for cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Bottlenose dolphins frequent almost the entire bay and Heaviside dolphins favour the waters beyond the tip of Pelican Point.
Of the baleen whales, humpback and southern right seasonally frequent the bay, and various other cetaceans come from time to time. This is the last station in life for some stranded, injured, traumatised or ill individuals, though some recover in this haven and can again have a whale of a time. Thanks to diligent monitoring by the Namibian Dolphin Project and the Walvis Bay Strandings Network, our knowledge of cetaceans and ability to improve their conservation is improving.
Now, along comes this one gray whale. Until the end of the 17th century, this species used to occur in the North Atlantic Ocean. Then, whaling drove the Atlantic population to extinction, and only one individual was seen there since (in the Mediterranean in 2010). Populations still persist in the North Pacific. Gray whales are masters of migration, their annual movements from Alaska to Mexico and back again amounting to some 20 000 km. That total distance, but one-way, is about as far as it is from the gray’s Pacific range to Walvis Bay, by whatever route.
Not only is the distance an amazing feat, imagine the many risks it has somehow skirted, including risks of entanglement and fatal injuries from fishing gear, collisions with boats and ships, and ingestion of polluted mud in unfamiliar feeding grounds. Gray whales feed on small benthic creatures, such as amphipods and polychaete worms, which they filter from the mud of shallow seas. Our gray whale is rather skinny. Hopefully it can feed from the sulphurous mud.
But it may be cut off from its kind. Gray whales emit low-frequency grunts, rumbles, moans, croaks, and loud clicks and bangs to communicate. The oceans have, however, become so terribly noisy that it is difficult for whales to communicate. In particular, seismic and sonar blasts for mineral prospecting and other nautical purposes can damage whale hearing and drive them away. Individuals may disperse to remote havens where they while their days away alone and isolated from their population. Our gray whale’s story is, however, not yet over. We can only hope that it will somehow reconnect with companions.
Zophosis moralesi is delighted that here is a haven for cetaceans to have a whale of a time. Let’s foster Walvis Bay, true to its name.
©Joh Henschel, EnviroMEND, firstname.lastname@example.org
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