By Michelle Winnard, Communications Officer, Falklands Conservation 

Sei whale by Caroline Weir, Falklands Conservation

In a big step for international whale conservation, the Falkland Islands have been confirmed as a hotspot for a globally endangered and enigmatic species; the sei whale. This recognition comes in the form of being listed as a Key Biodiversity Area for sei whales, and follows five years of surveys and data collection from Falklands Conservation, with support from many groups including the RSPB. Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) represent some of the most important sites in the world for global diversity of life. The ‘Falkland Islands Inner Shelf Waters KBA’ is the first in the world for sei whales, and covers the complete inner shelf waters of the Falkland Islands to 100 m depth. It will form an incredibly important part of whale conservation and marine management in this remote UK Overseas Territory.

Whales are some of the largest and most charismatic animals, so it is a surprise to many that there are still some whales which we know very little about. The sei whale is one such species. They are found across the World, but usually live in deep offshore waters; as such we know almost nothing about their global movements or their lives at sea. Even today, a lot of the biological data that scientists have about sei whales comes from measurements and observations from whaling vessels - sei whales were one of the last whales to be heavily hunted in the southern oceans in the 1950s to 1970s.

Unusually and remarkably however, each austral summer and autumn their tall blows are a common sight from the windy coasts of the Falkland Islands. Sightings have been increasing over the last few decades, hopefully hinting to a recovering population. By the mid-2010s, the regular and sustained nearshore population at the Falkland Islands was virtually unique, and offered an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about this endangered species and their lives in the Falklands.  

Additionally, whilst human marine activities in the Falkland Islands are relatively low compared to other regions in the World, who knows what the future may bring? New industries have been proposed in recent years including oil extraction and industrial coastal salmon farming, whilst already-present activities may continue to grow. This newly confirmed KBA, and the data behind it, ensures that Government and Industry have accurate and robust information available in order to make the most environmentally-conscious and sustainable management decisions; both for the long-term benefit of the wildlife, and the livelihoods that depend on a healthy and strong natural environment.

Falklands Conservation began whale surveys in 2017, led by Cetaceans Officer Dr Caroline Weir, and funded by an EU BEST 2.0 grant. This was one of the first systematic surveys to focus on sei whales anywhere in the world, and the first small boat survey ran on 9 Feb 2017. Small boat surveys proved to be a good way to survey the sei whales, providing a stable platform from which photographs could be taken of the dorsal fins and flanks. Many sei whales are fairly poorly marked, but there was enough variation in fin shape, scars, and patterns on the flanks to be able to identify at least 87 separate individual whales in that first season alone. Five years later and the identification catalogue now stands at well over 500 distinct sei whales.

From the first season of surveys in Berkeley Sound, near the capital of Stanley, it became clear that the sei whales were using these waters as a summer feeding ground; faecal samples showed that the whales are gorging on large swarms of lobster krill which are abundant in the region. Over the five years of research many new approaches have been added to the survey toolbox to learn even more. Biopsy samples are now regularly taken; analysis can reveal genetic diversity and how populations are related both locally and globally, whilst studying the small blubber samples can give insights into the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations. Audio recorders have been set underwater to listen in to the conversations of the whales, helping to discern what they are up to when they can’t be seen from the survey boat. Additionally, an RSPB-funded yacht survey in 2018 explored the waters off West Falkland, and allowed the abundance of whales across the islands to be estimated. Since 2019 the bulk of the surveys have been funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Plus scheme.

However the work has not been without its challenges. As Conservation Manager Dr Andrew Stanworth pointed out “I’d been told a few times in the last couple of years that ‘there’s a reason that no-one knows much about sei whales’!” These whales are sleek and fast, and nowhere near as tolerant of boats as other whale species. They often have a shallow surfacing movement that shows very little of the identifiable marks on their flanks. Anyone who thinks that being a whale researcher sounsd like a breeze, hasn’t spent 8 hours or more standing on a tiny boat in challenging weather, looking for sleek grey whales that are reluctant to be found in rough grey waters.

Sei whale nicknamed 'Wonky' photo by Caroline Weir

It is this hardship that makes the success of the KBA application even sweeter. Dr Weir has spent thousands of hours on boat surveys since 2017, catalogued tens of thousands of photos, and dedicated immeasurable time and effort to ensuring that this research gathered the important data to drive forward sei whale conservation both locally in the Falkland Islands, and worldwide. Dr Weir added, We are incredibly proud of achieving this Key Biodiversity Area for endangered sei whales, which is the culmination of five years of pioneering and challenging field research that has really highlighted the importance of the Falkland Islands for this poorly-known species. It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations appear to be thriving, and fantastic to now see that work translating into global recognition and contributing to the future conservation of these amazing animals.”

ID work, photo by Maria Taylor

Importantly, the work has also captured the attention and imagination of the local (human) population in the islands. Over 40 volunteers have assisted with the boat surveys, and many more have reported sightings and photographs to add to the data being collected. During the process of applying for KBA status, local stakeholders including Government and Industry representatives were also engaged and supported the KBA application. With public support, this new KBA and the data behind it offer the Falkland Islands an incredible opportunity for whale conservation, and to ensure a long-term sustainable relationship between human activity and the fantastic wildlife that also calls the Falkland Islands home.

For more updates on Falklands Conservation’s whale project, find us on Facebook.

Falklands Conservation’s UK office is based at the RSPB Lodge in Bedfordshire. Both organisations are BirdLife Partners, and RSPB support Falklands Conservation with expertise, advice, and financial support. RSPB funded aspects of the Falkland Islands whale research, including genetic sampling, and six weeks of fieldwork across West Falklands which were crucial to investigate many aspects of sei whale behaviour, abundance, and genetics, and which contributed directly to this KBA confirmation.