Whales have been hunted by humans for centuries, all across the planet. Yet it wasn’t until the late 18th century that whaling began to have a more significant impact on global whale populations. This was due in large part to the advent of the Industrial Revolution across Western Europe and the United States, as machines and factories began to replace hand production.
Whale oil, obtained from the blubber of whales, was in great demand as both a lubricant to ensure the smooth operation of all of these new machines and factories, and also as an illuminant to light the homes and streets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Whales were also exploited for a variety of other goods and materials, including soap, perfume, clothing, fishing hooks and whale meat.
In the 19th century, advances in technology such as the development of exploding harpoons and steam powered ships allowed whalers to exploit richer whaling grounds and kill more whales. In the early 20th century, these technological advancements opened up the massive stocks of whales in the southern ocean to exploitation.
As technology continued to develop and demand for whale products grew, by the mid-20th century most species of large whale were being rapidly pushed toward extinction. After a lengthy battle, the International Whaling Commission voted in 1982 to ban commercial whaling, a ban which came into effect in 1986. Since then, while many species and populations have rebounded, many others have not.
Whale Conservation Today
Many people believe that commercial whaling is no longer a significant threat to whale populations, and that whales have fully recovered and no longer need our protection.
Sadly, they are wrong. Whales in our oceans today face more threats than ever before, and these threats are intensifying and diversifying. Some of the primary threats whales face are: climate change, bycatch/entanglement in fishing gear, plastic pollution, noise pollution, chemical pollution, and ship strikes.
It is not only the variety of threats that pose significant challenges to whale conservation today. It is also the complexity of the problem, and the difficulties we face in understanding how these different threats pose risks to different species and populations of whales.
First, these different threats challenge different species. The larger toothed whales for example, such as orca and sperm whales, tend to be at a greater risk from chemical pollution because they are at the top of the food chain, and toxicants bio-accumulate up the food chain and into their bodies. Smaller species that live near coastlines, such as the almost extinct vaquita porpoise, might face a greater risk from being caught in fishing nets and drowning.
In addition, members of the same species living in different areas might face different threats. A bottlenose dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico might be at great risk of chemical pollution owing to run-off from the Mississippi River and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, whereas a bottlenose dolphin living off the coast of Japan might be more susceptible to being caught in a dolphin drive hunt, such as at Taiji, where the documentary The Cove was filmed.
Some species of whale travel across massive distances during their annual migrations between summer feeding grounds and winter calving/breeding grounds. This means that they might face different threats throughout the year. During the summer season, the greatest threat a blue whale might face is a lack of food owing to the effects of climate change, but if the whale passes through waters closer to humans during the winter calving season, it might face threats such as ship strikes and noise pollution
Ocean Alliance was founded with the intention of protecting whales and their ocean environment through research and education. Born in an era of commercial whaling, Dr. Roger Payne believed that more could be learned from a live whale than a dead one.
Today, we engage in many activities across a range of programs to meet these goals.
Ocean Alliance has always strived to adopt the approach that has seemed most needed at the time. Dr. Payne is often considered one of the fathers of modern whale biology, and before his research, little was known about these magnificent creatures, particularly by the general public. Dr. Payne set about changing this, starting with his pioneering discovery that humpback whales sing songs. link to songs Discoveries such as this engaged the world and put whales in the public eye. This public awareness was crucial in the ultimate ban on whaling. After the ban, Ocean Alliance focused on making people fall in love with whales by bringing them closer to the public than ever before. Ocean Alliance was involved in over 40 documentaries, including some of the first ever underwater shots of whales, during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
As the 1990s wore on, the current sleuth of threats which whales face became more and more pronounced. Under this pressure, Ocean Alliance began to conduct cutting edge research, trying to determine what was really happening to whales in our oceans. This was typified by the Voyage of the Odyssey, link to Odyssey info a massive 5-year program which collected the first ever dataset on pollution in our oceans from every major ocean, using just a single indicator species: the sperm whale.
Our toxicological work dominated our activities until 2012, when CEO Dr. Iain Kerr recognised the immense role drones could play in increasing our understanding of, and thus our ability to protect, whales. Since then, we have focused on facilitating drone use to help save whales.