16 May 2013

A lost whale brings new significance to Namibia's coast

The confirmation, two days ago, of the presence of a grey whale in Walvis Bay, Namibia has caused some excitement not only locally but also throughout the international community of whale & dolphin researchers and beyond.

Grey whale in Walvis Bay, photographed on Sunday, 12 May 2013.

Grey whales (scientific name: Eschrichtius robustus) used to inhabit the Atlantic, but were extinct by the 18th century, possibly due to whaling. In 2010, a grey whale was sighted in the Mediterranean, far from the known existing populations in the eastern and western North Pacific. This more recent Namibian sighting is the first known record ever for grey whales in the southern hemisphere. Simply put, assuming it came from the Pacific, this whale has travelled a very long way. 

But for me at least, this sighting does more than just raise questions about which route the whale took to get to Walvis Bay, why is it there and whether grey whales will start to expand their range. It also highlights what an incredibly unique place Walvis Bay is.

Few people have heard of Namibia, formerly a British and German colony in southwest Africa. Since the inception of the Namibian Dolphin Project (NDP) in 2008, its team has collected data on the whales and dolphins of Namibia's coast, revealing an astonishing diversity and abundance of marine life in the region. Walvis Bay was the NDP's first research site. It is sheltered from the prevailing strong southwesterly winds of the region and provides a natural harbour along an otherwise mostly straight and unforgiving coastline that stretches well into Angola. It is the 'Gateway to southern Africa' - the main port through which imports enter and exports leave southern Africa, and a major fishing harbour. It was a key whaling area for North American and European whalers in the 18th and 19th centuries. It also offered the NDP a kind of natural laboratory, if you will - providing a way to study the dolphins and whales that spend time in the bay, without having to brave the challenging elements of Namibia's offshore environment. Thanks to Walvis Bay, we now have basic information on whales and dolphins in Namibian waters - which species are there, what threats they face - something that was, until recently, largely lacking. 

Walvis Bay also supports a marine wildlife-watching industry. Bottlenose dolphins and Heaviside's dolphins are present almost daily, and Cape fur seals haul out along Pelican Point, the long sandspit which separates the bay from the wild Atlantic Ocean. The marine wildlife-watching industry brings a great many benefits to the town of Walvis Bay, providing employment and income to the town's inhabitants and attracting visitors to the area. It has heightened awareness, among both locals and visitors, of southwest Africa's unique and diverse marine wildlife. This is important in Africa, where the marine environment is often overlooked, and especially in Namibia, where the glamorous terrestrial mammals - lions, elephants, rhinos - get most of the attention in terms of conservation. Walvis Bay supports a complex, rich ecosystem, complete with its own superstars. Southern right whales and humpback whales visit in the winter. Dusky dolphins and unusual species such as pygmy right whales occasionally appear. Ocean sunfish and leatherback turtles are summertime visitors, and the bay's lagoon is designated a RAMSAR site (a wetland of international importance) due to its colourful, astonishing bird life - flamingos, pelicans and myriad other species. 

The flamboyant shapes and colours of Walvis Bay's bird life.
Walvis Bay is also a hub of human activity and as growth in African nations accelerates, this is unlikely to abate any time soon. The fishing industry, shipping, whale- and dolphin-watching tourism, coastal tourism, commercial and housing developments all jostle for space along the coast and in the sea. These industries are important to Namibia's economy, but many of them also depend on a healthy, functional marine ecosystem. If the sea’s resources - fish stocks, whales and dolphins, bird life - are not protected, eventually the industries that rely upon them will suffer. A port expansion for Walvis Bay is planned; if it goes ahead, it may seriously impact the small bottlenose dolphin population that inhabits the bay year-round. Plans for marine phosphate mining, a destructive process which is banned by many countries worldwide, likewise pose a threat to Namibia's marine environment. Walvis Bay should be recognised for what it is - a gem on the Namibian coastline, linking local communities, visitors and researchers alike with the marine environment and providing a window into the wellbeing of that environment. 

Researchers have recently proposed 'de-extinction' - bringing back extinct species, made possible through recent advances in cloning technologies. Yet the natural world seems to have recovery plans of its own - grey whales may be re-populating the Atlantic; whilst southern right whales, once eradicated from Namibia's coast by whaling, are now expanding northwards from South Africa back into Namibian waters. But these adventurers bring with them a warning. Second time around, can we learn from our mistakes? The threat of whaling may be (almost) gone, but can we recognise, and mitigate, the impacts we still have on the oceans and their inhabitants? A good way to meet this challenge would be to afford more protection to unique areas such as Walvis Bay, where one lost whale is currently getting a lot of attention. 

Many thanks to John Paterson (Albatross Task Force) for the use of his grey whale photographs. 

No comments: