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Major shipping routes could be changed to protect blue whales

Off the coast of Sri Lanka, a unique pod of blue whales circulate the waters all year round. Environmentalists are calling for shipping routes to be adjusted to keep them safe.

In 2008, a unique and endangered pod of whales was discovered in the Indian Ocean.

Most blue whales typically migrate far distances for food, but the group living off the tip of Sri Lanka are believed to stay in the region throughout the year, feeding on shrimps, and communicating with one another through distinct vocal sounds.

After studying the pod for almost two decades, scientists suggest that this specific pod could be a totally new subspecies of the blue whale. The researchers are now calling for shipping routes in the area to be changed to protect them within the busy port.

Altering the routes of cargo ships is both a feasible and realistic solution – a minor change would have a huge and immediate impact on their safety – unlike the lengthy task of clearing plastic pollution which has been a massive problem for cetaceans who ingest them.

This part of the Indian Ocean is a vital link between Asia to the Suez Canal, making it a busy, noisy, and dangerous area for the pod to live in permanently. The main port area has been coined an ‘obstacle course’ by marine biologists.

Blue whales can be up to 30 metres long and 150,000kg in weight. They’re the largest of all mammals, with a heart the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. They’re also at the top of the food chain, meaning they are important to maintain the balance of the ocean.

Considering this, it might be hard to believe they’d remain unspotted in the ocean, but they’re no comparison to cargo ships which can be up to 300 metres long. In the last decade, many whale carcasses have washed ashore with injuries caused by boat collisions.

In a port near California, shipping routes were altered after tankers and containerships frequently encountered whales migrating through the area. Following the change, California reported an 81 percent reduction in whale encounters.

Similar changes were made off the coast of Massachusetts, proving that simple, carefully planned changes to our everyday routines can help us live in better harmony with the natural world at no real cost to us.

Unfortunately, six decades of intense whaling activity wiped out almost 200,000 blue whales, bringing them close to extinction. Today, only 10,000 – 25,000 of them are estimated to be left in the wild.

Since the global ban on commercial whaling in 1986 whale populations have slowly grown, but taking steps to protect them – especially when they’re as obvious as redirecting ships – is something we’ll need to continue looking out for.

The case for protecting the pod off Sri Lanka is strengthened by the whales’ uniqueness. With their own dialect, prey of choice, and unique behaviours, the group has created its own culture which could be lost if changes are neglected.

We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that the requests of marine scientists and international conservation groups are heard by the Sri Lankan government to pass the bill for new shipping routes.