Chile: Expedition to the end of the world, where humpback whales are thriving

by Barinia Montoya on 20 March 2020 | Translated by Theo Bradford

Mongabay Latam joined an expedition to the Francisco Coloane Marine Park near the southern tip of Chile, where the humpback whale population has risen dramatically — from 40 individuals in 2003 to 190 in 2019.

The park, established in 2003, remains without a management or administrative structure, but that is changing with the development of a conservation and sustainable development plan underway. Although the whale population in the area is growing, threats remain, including entanglement in fishing gear, contamination from nearby salmon farms and ship traffic and noise pollution from coal mines.

This is the story of how, after centuries of exploitation, the humpback whale has managed to recover in the waters of southernmost Chile. It is also the story of how the park where the recovery is unfolding has become one of the best spots in the Pacific Ocean to admire these giants.

Mongabay Latam sailed for three days in the remote waters of the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, located in Chile’s Magallanes region. Icy winds and near-constant rain make it one of the most hostile places in the world for sailing, but also one of the most pristine. Practically untouched by humans, the park spans the most isolated corners of the Strait of Magellan, encompassing hundreds of green islands densely covered in virgin forest.

The goal of the expedition, organized by the Chilean arm of the New-York based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS Chile), was to explore the financial complexities of conservation. It provided Mongabay Latam the opportunity to observe firsthand what experts consider one of the most successful cetacean conservation projects in the world. In 2003, only 40 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) frequented the park, but scientists have recorded as many as 190 in recent years. That nearly fivefold increase in less than two decades was the result of a combination of conservation strategies on the part of Chile and other countries.

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