SEA MARVEL Celebrates World Whale Day
SEA MARVEL indeed, from the smallest planktonic organisms to the largest Fin whales, one can find marvellous creatures around the Maltese Islands. For many, the presence of whales around these small islands is astonishing. Around 14 species of whales have been reported from the Mediterranean Sea and four of these confirmed in Malta. The latter include the Long-finned pilot whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, Sperm whale and Fin whale. Research in Maltese waters to study cetaceans (dolphins and whales) has been and still is fundamental to better understand the conservation needs of these species. It is through dedicated professional research that different whales in Maltese waters could be recorded. In fact, Prof Adriana Vella at the University of Malta and the lead scientist of the Conservation Biology Research Group has dedicated over 25 years of scientific field surveys focusing on dolphins, whales, and other vulnerable species.
Fin whales are the biggest animals in the Mediterranean Sea ranging from 20 up to 27 meters and the second largest animal in the World. Sperm whales on the other hand are smaller than Fin whales and range from 16 to 20 meters in length. Sperm whales are toothed whales feeding primarily on large squid and therefore often deep dive in search of their prey. The long-finned Pilot whales clearly show females (around 5-6 meters) to be smaller than the males (6-7 meters) in size are also deep divers and often prefer to be in large social groups. The most elusive and deepest diving of the whales are the Cuvier’s beaked whales that size around 7 meters.
SEA MARVEL, an Interreg Italia-Malta project, has at heart important thematic dates to commemorate an aspect to help achieve conservation of the marine environment, and this includes the World Whale Day (16th of February). This day helps us remember the importance of whales as part of the intricate marine ecosystem and valuable biodiversity.
In fact, whales are indeed ecologically essential to the wellbeing of our seas and have been found to aid in mechanisms to mitigate climate change impacts. Whales are responsible to keep a stable ecosystem through their feeding behaviour where they feed in the depths of the ocean in pitch darkness and then travel to the surface of the sea, where theyrelease faecal plumes which are rich in Iron and Nitrogen, a mechanism known by biologists as the “whale pump”. These nutrients are often scarce in the surface waters and once in the surface these nutrients fertilise the surface water and sustain the phytoplankton, organisms at the base of all marine food chains. The ecological and economic importance of whales is being highlighted by the SEA MARVEL team also among secondary schools through dedicated discussions with the students.
The incredible adaptations of these whales to use echolocation to find food in darkness also ends up making them extremely vulnerable to the increasing diversity and intensity of anthropogenically caused marine noise. So, noise pollution, apart from plastic and other forms of pollution are putting these extraordinary creatures in danger.
Raising awareness on the importance of whales among the young generation is important to ensure their future survival considering the ever-increasing pressures and threats faced by these animals. These animals suffer from pollution and from intense marine traffic apart from being affected by natural catastrophic events, as we humans do. The latest heart-wrenching suffering brought about by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria may have also affected whales. It is being reporteda that the Cuvier’s beaked whales’ strandings in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, were due to theseearthquakes. Cuvier’s beaked whales have also stranded along Malta’s shores in the past and it is therefore important to study in detail the causes of such deaths to learn and improve management of our marine environment.
The Italia-Malta Interreg project SEA MARVEL is working to understand and study whale distribution in the central Mediterranean sea, especially in Natura 2000 sites and their immediate proximity to bring to the fore their needs too.