Some Whales Like Global Warming Just Fine
Humpbacks and bowheads are benefiting—for now, at least—from the retreat of polar sea ice: It's making it easier for them to find food.
In May 2009, Ari Friedlaender, an ecologist with Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, was cruising along the Western Antarctic Peninsula when he encountered something he’d never seen. In Wilhelmina Bay, the water was so thick with humpback whales that “we couldn’t count them fast enough,” he recalls.
In the end, he and his colleagues counted 306 whales feeding on an immense aggregation of krill. It was the highest density of humpbacks ever documented in the region.
The humpback population has been recovering ever since commercial hunting was banned in 1966. But the whales are also being helped by another factor: climate change.
In the past, there wouldn’t have been any humpbacks at all in Wilhelmina Bay in May, because the sea would have been covered with ice. The whales typically departed their feeding grounds along the Western Antarctic Peninsula by April, migrating thousands of miles north to spend the winter breeding in tropical waters.
But the sea ice is now advancing nearly two months