Protecting the Gentle Giants

November 3, 2009
"Wisdom is timeless. Unfortunately for us and our global ocean, time is running out." - Jean-Michel Cousteau

Every man who appreciates the majesty and beauty of the wilderness and wildlife should strike hands with the far-sighted men who wish to preserve our material resources—all living creatures from woodland to seashore--from wanton destruction. Above all, we should recognize that the effort toward this end is essentially a democratic movement. But, this end can only be achieved by wise laws and by a resolute enforcement of laws." - President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

When filming our documentary, America’s Underwater Treasures, I had the privilege to swim and dive with the majestic humpback whale off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. Our presence there was possible only by a special permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, and my OFS expedition team, including my daughter Celine and son Fabien, were able to observe these creatures and document their behaviors in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. We were expertly guided by Dr. Scott Spitz and the staff from NOAA. At times, up to 30 gentle giants surrounded us. It was absolutely a phenomenal experience, one I will never forget.

Populations of these endangered humpback whales once thrived across the globe. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, however, whaling was a prominent industry that decimated humpback whale populations to a historical low of only a few thousand in the Northern Hemisphere. In response to these declines, commercial whaling was banned worldwide in 1966 in an attempt to restore whale populations. In America, humpback whales were listed as endangered in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are also provided protection as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

These protection measures seem to have been successful. Researchers estimate that along the west coast of North America, humpback whale numbers have been increasing by 10 percent every year for the last 15 years. Current available estimates for worldwide humpback populations range from 50,000 to 60,000 whales. For these reasons, NOAA is considering delisting the humpback whale from the Endangered Species list. Many environmental organizations are discouraging this move, arguing that in the face of ocean acidification, climate change, and habitat destruction, humpback whales are still at risk.

The fact that delisting is even being considered is truly a milestone in humpback recovery. There is no doubt that populations are experiencing an increasing trend, indicating that the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act really can be effective at helping species recover.

More research should be done before finalizing the decision to delist the humpback whale. With the many environmental changes that our world is facing, we must be sure that populations are stable and resilient enough to handle environmental and anthropogenic pressures once they are no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act.

With all the new research that alarms us, and all the new proposals that now excite us, the overarching philosophy of conservation that drives us is still a century old. President Theodore Roosevelt was a visionary who, I believe, would stand beside us now in defense of our ocean: "It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man…for himself and his children."

Wisdom is timeless. Unfortunately for us and our global ocean, time is running out.

While sitting in a zodiac, surrounded by humpback whales in Hawaii, Scott Spitz summarized it best: “ While we may not depend upon whales for food, the whales depend upon the same fish that we feed on. The entire marine ecosystem is interlinked. So the study of one endangered species, whether it be a whale, a fish or a shark or an invertebrate, is very important because, everything that we learn about each piece of the ecosystem improves our ability to manage the entire ecosystem at a sustainable level. And the ability of these whales to recover is in some ways reflective of the ability of the ocean to recover, if the right policies are in place .”

Jean-Michel Cousteau, President