Island megafauna

If we could bring whale populations back to their pre-whaling days, the International Monetary Fund estimates it would be equal to restoring four Amazon rainforests. Capturing 1.7 Gigatons of CO2 each year, fully-restored whale populations would offset 5% of all human-derived annual CO2 emissions every year.

Although conservation efforts and whaling bans have helped the recovery of whales, many whale populations remain half of what they once were. Even now, there are an estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins killed each year from fishery bycatch, ship strikes and other human impacts. This annual loss is equivalent to cutting down five million trees in carbon terms, with dangerous knock-on effects given whales are keystone marine species.

A third of all existing species of whale and dolphin have been identified around Madeira. One of the most frequently sighted species is the sperm whale, which uses the waters around Madeira for feeding, resting, mating and calving. This fascinating species that has inspired numerous tales regularly dives to depths of 1,000 – 2,000m to catch squid, which it hunts by sound. We still know very little about this species, however, especially how it interacts with the marine environment – which is essential for coordinating effective conservation efforts.

Here at MARE-Madeira, we are privileged to be able to research unique and vulnerable marine megafauna species like the sperm whale and monk seal. Some of our current work is determining the distribution of these animals, using satellite tracking to identify movement patterns. Other work is investigating the health of our megafauna and relating this to the levels of toxins and plastics in their environments. While pollution and other human pressures continue to increase, we hope our research can aid conservation efforts to reverse this tide — for Madeira’s waters are an important oasis for many megafauna species, and we hope it will remain so for generations to come.

Photo credits: Pilot whales by Sandra Marco; whales by Massimiliano Rosso; lookout by Rita Ferreira