In one of the most remote and wild areas of Chilean Patagonia, where a human being rarely transits, at least 337 dead whales have been found, among corpses and skeletons. “We were dumbfounded, in shock. It seemed an apocalyptic image to us. We have never seen anything like it, ”says the director of the Huinay Scientific Center, the Chilean-German Vreni Häussermann, a specialist in the ecosystems of this part of the world and responsible for the discovery. "There are many areas that we could not reach, so it is highly likely that there are more dead species," adds Haussermann, who together with the expert Carolina Gutstein carried out an investigation on this stranding of baleen whales, one of the most numerous of which there is knowledge.
Although the causes of the event are not yet public, since they will soon be included in an article in the National Geographic magazine, the scientist anticipates that the action of human beings has been ruled out: “We are discussing natural causes and at the moment there is no interaction human. In any case, as this 2015 large mortalities have been registered in other areas of the Pacific, Alaska and British Columbia, it is pertinent that we ask ourselves what is happening? Häussermann indicates that very few mass mortalities of this type of whale, the baleen whales, are known because this species does not usually live in groups. Large strandings typically occur in toothed whales, such as dolphins.
The find occurred by chance. Last April, Häussermann was on an expedition within the framework of a project funded by the Chilean Government on the ecosystems of Patagonia. As he is used to exploring the most remote areas, together with his team he got a boat to reach the Gulf of Penas, a place with very cold, intense wind and big waves. When four of the researchers went diving, they entered a fjord and found the first dead whale. “Seeing one is nothing that special, but then we saw more and more. The entire coast of the fjord is full of corpses ”, says the scientist. They counted more than 20 and, 200 kilometers to the south, another five bodies. In all, considering the skeletons, it was more than thirty.
The event seemed very strange to them, they notified the authorities and, as it was predictable to find more bodies, they suggested a fly-over. The National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca) in May carried out a new expedition together with the Prosecutor's Office and the Investigative Police (PDI), with the support of the Chilean Navy, but they were unable to observe the area from the air. According to the scientist, this team took some samples, but the bodies were already decomposed. “The goal of his expedition was to establish whether there had been an anthropogenic cause, which was ruled out. We were very disappointed that the institutions themselves did not fly over, ”says Häussermann.
The scientist and her partner Carolina Gutstein, a paleontologist with the Council of National Monuments, raised funds with National Geographic to carry out an aerial expedition. They considered that, without knowing the extent and area where the whales had died, they would never be able to explain what had happened. At the end of June they succeeded and that was when they made the great discovery: “Three hundred and five carcasses of whales and bones of at least 32. We took more than 10,000 photographs and recorded hours of videos. We knew we would find more than in April, but never in these quantities. We stayed on the plane counting out loud. In some phases, more than once a second we marked the GPS to identify the location of the bodies ”, points out the director of the Huinay Scientific Center, founded by the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and Endesa.
The researchers counted about five accumulations, says Häussermann, although from the air they observed solitary corpses and others in small groups. The area where the bodies were found goes from the Gulf of Penas to Puerto Natales, an area of about 500 kilometers. As they did not reach all the sites they had planned, however, it indicates that the stranding is probably even more numerous: “It is an area so remote that you cannot get there in a plane without having the possibility of refueling, what is not possible in Patagonia ”.
The controversy over silence
Members of NGOs, researchers and academics have accused the scientific team responsible for the finding of keeping silent about the dead whales and putting public health at risk, reports EFE. "Hiding the information for five months and not declaring it to the corresponding authorities is a serious lack of ethics on the part of the scientists in charge," said Susannah Buchan, oceanographer and cetacean specialist. The Association of Veterinary Doctors of Wild Fauna of Chile published a statement stating that "the concentration of these toxins in the environment must be very high" to kill marine mammals. "Having a history that suggested an event of these characteristics was imperative that the authorities, scientific community and the general population were informed and alert ”, indicates the letter.
On the reasons they had for keeping silent, Vreni Häussermann explains that it took months to analyze the photos and videos and only in October did they achieve a definitive figure. "We are convinced that in order to help whales, a good and deep study must be carried out, because it is the only way to adequately reach the people who make the decisions," adds the person responsible for the discovery in Patagonia.
The researcher says that it is essential to investigate the causes of what happened, because that way you can know if it could happen again and if it is possible to avoid it. According to the samples from the first expedition, everything suggests that the 337 corpses correspond to the Sei whales, which usually inhabit these icy areas of the planet. The scientist says that they are little known and that their population in the Southern Hemisphere is not even known with certainty. They are big, about 16 meters, but not as big as the blue ones.
In the National Geographic publication, the researchers will relate the causes of the deaths, will discuss the implications for the conservation of this type of whale, how many may have died and where. For next January, the summer time in the south of the planet, a new expedition is scheduled with the Aysén Prosecutor's Office, which has reopened the case, according to the scientist. “It is impressive to imagine that 300 or so many whales have died, that nobody has noticed it and that we, who were passing by there by chance, have been the involuntary witnesses of this fact,” says Häussermann.