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Championing the cause of the southern right whale

From hanging out of helicopters on whale counts to number crunching behind a computer, Belgian-born scientist, Dr Els Vermeulen, has spent the last 20 years researching southern right whales. This is her story.

© Courtesy of Whale Unit, University of Pretoria
Els photographed during an aerial survey of southern right whales off the South African coast.
Early days

As a Belgian national, I left my home country about 20 years ago in pursuit of a dream to work with whales and dolphins. My first move was to Argentina at the age of 21 where I was given the opportunity to conduct fieldwork on the southern right whales for my master’s degree.

I can remember as if it were yesterday, how nervous I was. I had never seen any kind of whale before in my entire life, yet I had worked towards this moment all along. But suddenly it hit me: what if I didn’t like working with whales?

I put on a brave face when I arrived in this South American country as a young student with very few skills (including not a word of Spanish) but very big dreams! And so, what began as a three-month placement, eventually became eight years of work with southern right whales and bottlenose dolphins through an NGO I self-initiated relatively soon after obtaining my MSc. Perhaps you can guess that I liked working with whales after all…

After my PhD, which I submitted to the University of Liège in Belgium in 2014, I felt it was time to move on, and so I moved to Australia where I worked for nearly two years around Melbourne.

© Courtesy of Whale Unit, University of Pretoria
Els’s love spending time in the field while conducting whale research.
South African odyssey

But soon after that, I fell in love with South Africa – or better said – with a South African! So now, at the age of 40, I have been living in this most beautiful country for nearly six years and have two young South Africans of my own.
Living here in South Africa has brought me lots of joy, not only personally but also professionally. It almost feels like it closes the circle of having lived and worked near the main right whale breeding grounds (Argentina, Australia and South Africa).

During my second post-doc at the University of Pretoria I was given the opportunity to step into the very big shoes of the belated Professor Peter Best, whom I had admired since I was a child, and to lead the Whale Unit with its huge associated intellectual property on many species of marine mammals. For a moment, I felt again like that young student arriving in South America with not a word of Spanish. But as I like a good challenge, I accepted the offer wholeheartedly.

Now I get to take this research forward, especially the work on southern right whales, which was initiated in the 1960s. With 52 years of data, it is one of the longest running research programs in the world. This is why it is not only the iconic animal of our unit but also the basis of our collaboration with WWF South Africa to ensure ongoing support for this critical research.

© Jean Tresfon
Southern right whales are known for their trusting nature, one of the reasons why they were almost hunted to extinction.
What we know

Since the late 1960s, the South African population of southern right whales has been researched through annual aerial helicopter surveys, during which we photograph, and subsequently identify, each female that calves along our shore. It is the most fun part of my year, where I feel like GI Jane hanging out of a chopper with the most incredible views of these huge animals!

But more seriously, this work was initiated to monitor the recovery of the right whale from commercial whaling, which had driven the species to near extinction.

These animals are true gentle giants which are easily approachable as they are generally docile and slow swimmers and remain close to shore. Due to this gentle nature, the old whalers quickly deemed them to be the “right whale” to hunt, from whence they get their name. As a result, during the whaling era, the global population of about 100 000 animals was reduced to only 60 females by 1920. Just imagine that – only 60 females in the entire world!

Because they were close to extinction, the right whale was one of the first whales to receive international protection from commercial whaling and their numbers have bounced back to roughly 20 000 individuals today. This is a remarkable recovery, and a true conservation success story. It shows how together we can make 

© Courtesy of Whale Unit, University of Pretoria
Els’s team want to continue their ongoing research to find the answers to what is happening to our whale population.
Sentinels of the deep

But over the last decade, this story has taken a more ominous twist. Since 2009, very few whales have been seen along our coastline and their numbers have been fluctuating strongly. In addition, the females are taking longer to produce a viable calf.

It is clear these whales are being affected by something that they haven’t had to deal with before.

Using drones, we were able to tell that our southern right whale females have gotten substantially skinnier over the past two decades. Even on a global scale, our females are the skinniest. Although losing weight is what many women would like, it is not good if you are a large mammal that needs energy to produce a healthy baby.

Our research quickly started to point towards a feeding-related issue. Knowing these whales only feed in the Southern Ocean, and not along our coastline, it is clear that these whales are telling us a story about some drastic changes occurring in the Southern Ocean. It’s a story we cannot and must not ignore!

We started digging a little more into the foraging ecology of the species, and found that our right whales have also drastically changed where they eat over the past decade, likely due to decreased food availability in areas where they used to find it.

What climatic and oceanographic variability lies at the heart of this, we do not know yet, but we intend to find out. The southern right whales are clearly acting as a sentinel, bringing to coastal South Africa an important message about large-scale environmental changes in the vast Southern Ocean, which is undoubtedly affecting many other marine species.

© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF
Diver with southern right whale
Whales still need our help

Although the southern right whale population has increased since they were given international protection, it is important to remember that their current population is only a fraction of what they once used to be and so they still need to be viewed as a species in recovery.

Southern right whales need our attention and help to ensure that they can continue to thrive into the future in an ocean that is ever-changing.

Els Vermeulen Photo
Els Vermeulen, Research Manager of the Mammal Research Institute’s Whale Unit at the University of Pretoria

As a scientist, Els is happiest behind her computer crunching data or writing project proposals, or even better, on a boat near the whales.

What you can do

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