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Die-off of 337 sei whales in Chile is largest known to science

By Karen Graham     Dec 2, 2015 in Environment
The carcasses and skeletal remains of over 330 endangered sei whales have been found in a remote inlet in Patagonia in southern Chile. The die-off is the largest ever recorded.
German biologist Vreni Haussermann led an aerial expedition in June and again in August of this year to assess the full expanse of a sei whale die-off recorded in April.
On May 9, Digital Journal reported on the April 21 discovery of over two dozen endangered sei whales on the southern coast of Chile on the Gulf of Penas. Haussermann was leading the group of scientists who found the whales.
Because the Chilean Fisheries Service did not carry out observation flights, the scientists got funding from National Geographic for their own flights. The aerial expedition revealed a shocking find. Haussermann told the Associated Press on Tuesday, "It was an apocalyptic sight. I'd never seen anything like it."
Haussermann is the director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, and her team focuses on marine research. They have been collecting samples since June, and while she declined to reveal the results of any testing, they will be published in a scientific journal later this year.
The team counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons of whales through aerial viewing and satellite imagery in the remote Aysen area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales in southern Chile. The cause of death of the whales is not known at this time, but human intervention has been ruled out.
The Aysen region of southern Chile is the least populated region in the country, with a number of ice fields that have formed many lakes, channels and fjords. The climate is classified as a cool oceanic climate. It rains almost constantly and its remoteness makes overland travel difficult. The region explored is about 2,000 Km from the capital, Santiago.
"They probably died at sea, we don't know exactly where, but they didn't just die by stranding," said Carolina Simon Gutstein, a paleontologist at the University of Chile who was part of the team. Sei, humpback and blue whales belong to the rorquals family, the largest group of baleen whales. These whales are not seen gathering in large groups.
Sei whales are sometimes called pollack, and adults can be longer than 15 metres (50 feet) and weigh 18 tons or more. Most of the sei whales found in April averaged 33 feet in length. Marine scientists say global warming is putting undue pressure on whale populations worldwide, killing off their food supplies and forcing changes in migratory routes.
More about patagonia inlet, largest dieoff, baleen whales, sei whales, Endangered species
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