The biggest little whales

The discovery of the Pygmy Blue Whale shows how much we still don't know about the world's whales - and how important it is to protect them.


When we talk about whales, a lot of the words that come to mind describe how big they are: ‘enormous’, ‘huge’, ‘giant’, ‘largest-ever’, ‘leviathans’. We measure them by double-decker bus, multiples of elephants, and comparisons to dinosaurs.

So it might surprise you to learn that some whales have totally different descriptions – like the ‘pygmy blue whales’ which make the Indian Ocean home.

Pygmy blue whales are a tropical subspecies of blue whale, and though they are only a few metres shorter in length, they are often about half of the overall weight of a blue whale in the Antarctic.

The discovery of many subspecies of whales is relatively recent. So many whales, especially big ones like blue whales, were annihilated by commercial whaling in the 19th and 20th Century, that we are only now understanding the full impacts for local populations, species and the ocean as a whole.

It was only when whaling countries came together to form the International Whaling Commission that we began to understand just how many whales were being hunted, and even then there was disagreement on how species were recorded.

A pygmy blue whale underwater, illuminated by shafts of sunlight

© Greenpeace / Paul Hilton

We’re still discovering new species and subspecies of whales

Current science is showing us just how much we still don’t know about the world’s whales – from their breeding habits to their communications and culture – and the discovery of new subspecies and species is still happening.

But why does that matter? Well, when we realise that a type of whale (or any other animal) is actually made up of separate populations or subspecies, we quickly realise that they are at more risk than if they were one big population. Local availability of feeding and breeding grounds, and any human disturbance is more important, because they are more specialised and limited in range.

Globally, industrial-scale commercial whaling reduced the number of blue whales to an estimated ONE percent of their previous abundance. We may already have forever lost some subspecies or distinct populations without even realising.

Indian Ocean pygmy blue whales are not the same as their Antarctic cousins. They face increasing threats from the industrialisation of our oceans, with ocean noise, ship strikes, and habitat destruction being big threats to their ongoing survival, as well as the global threat from climate change.

Yet at the same time we know that not only are these animals incredible in their own right, but they are also heroes in tackling climate change, and keeping our wider oceans healthy and full of life.

These big ‘little’ whales have a huge role to play, and the only way to secure their future now is to properly protect their ocean home. For long-lived, far-travelled animals, that means making sure that large areas of ocean are set aside as ocean sanctuaries – protecting vital feeding and breeding grounds, but also giving them space to live and thrive.

In 1986—thanks to an overwhelming amount of public support—commercial whaling was banned worldwide. Now global cooperation is urgent again – to create a network of ocean sanctuaries to protect whales and their home.

The Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise has voyaged to the Indian Ocean, to document the threats our oceans face, and put pressure on governments to protect them.

Join 3.5 million people worldwide and sign the petition to call for protection of whales and the oceans they call home.


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