In front of Christ Church Cathedral in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) town of Stanley rises a four-branched arch made of the lower jaws of two blue whales. It stands as an adornment for the church, a local curiosity and landmark, a memorial to the whaling communities of the past, and a commemoration of the 1933 centennial of British administration of the islands. To the eyes of the researchers attending the Falkland Islands Science Symposium this week, it’s also a reminder of the lingering mystery and shocking vulnerability of even the largest animals in the world.
A few blocks up the hill from the arch, reassembled bones and skeletons of sperm whales and other whales are displayed by a local metal worker who campaigned to end whaling in the islands, in part through the creation and display of humpback-shaped signs throughout town, one of which is still on display.
Some 35 miles from town, dozens of other bones of other sperm whales rest on a beach where the giants stranded themselves long ago.
While some of the bones are slowly sinking into the earth like the one above, giving a glimpse of future paleontology in the making, others like the lower left jaw below still arc well up off the ground.
Its pointy end evidently proved an irresistible scratching post for a local sheep, a bit of whose wool remains there—a temporary adornment to a timeless natural memorial.
All these sites have been visited by delegates from across the Americas attending the science symposium being held in Stanley. They are meeting to discuss the rich potential for research in these remote and beautiful islands.
At dusk that evening, on a boat to observe the countless sooty shearwaters returning to roost, water spouts in the distance drew everyone’s attention to the presence of living whales ahead of us. To Scott Baker of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and a National Geographic grantee, the whales’ large size and low but prominent dorsal fins identified them as most likely Sei whales. Little is known or understood about these large filter feeders, so learning of their activity in these waters, Baker is eager to begin a project to track and observe them here.
Where whalers once planned these animals’ slaughter, scientists now plan their study and protection.