On Thursday, several news outlets announced that blue whales that been sighted along India’s western coast for the first time in a century. But researchers say that this may not be quite accurate.

Whales, they say, are regularly sighted in the region. It's just that the fishermen who see them may not have been able to identify the precise species, said Ketaki Jog, who was part of the Konkan Cetacean Research Team that spotted the animals off Malwan on March 28.

“Marine mammals are present everywhere, just because we don’t see something or that we haven’t seen for a long time, doesn’t mean they weren’t there," Jog said. "Drawing these conclusions is not accurate.”

A more accurate description would be that this is the first time that marine researchers in the Konkan have been around long enough to spot and identify blue whales. 

This is not to suggest that the sighting of the blue whale was insignificant. For one, it suggests that Malwan could be a good place to study blue whales, a valuable piece for knowledge for future research about the world's largest living animal. In the 1800s, blue whales were estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands. Now, there are an estimated 10,000 left.

A rarity 

“We have been here for three years for now and we saw blue whales just once,” Jog said. “That is the kind of rarity we are looking at.”

It took the research team a month to verify that the mammals they saw were indeed blue whales, and they sought the help of international experts to do so. “There are very distinct markers to identify whales in theory,” Jog said. “But in practice, you can’t really see all of those in the water. That is why we had to check seriously before we released the news.”

Baban Ingole, the marine mammal expert at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, concurred with Jog. He pointed out that Malwan probably lies along the migratory route of the blue whales.

“This is the first time along this coast, particularly around Malwan, that an extensive study has been launched, with people who have been trained as experts,” he said. “People might have seen it earlier, but it is likely that it has been 100 years since there people who knew how to see it.”

The Konkan Cetacean Research Team is a young group. They began to study small marine mammals, primarily porpoises and dolphins, in the coast along Malwan, in 2012. In 2013, they got funds from the United Nations Development Fund to continue their study. That was also the year they began their association with Maharashtra’s Mangrove Cell.

Sustained studies along the coast have begun to be conducted only recently, Jog said. This is another reason for the long gap between sightings.

Important study

“There were marine studies earlier, but they were not of a lengthy duration,” she said. “This kind of study is important in terms of looking at the continuity of species in different parts of the world.”

There are other inaccuracies in the media reports, including one that links the sighting of whales with climate change. Jog dismissed this.

“It is very premature to make conclusions on what the whales were doing or where or why it was going,” she said. “Pinpointing any reason now based on what we have is scientifically wrong.”

Source: UNDP

All the team knows about the blue whales is that they are blue whales. They will not be able to identify their subspecies with their existing data. That said, blue whales are no strangers at all to the sea around the Indian coast.

Blue whales have been seen along the western and eastern coasts of India before, along Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A carcass of a blue whale found in 1972 is even on display at the Vadodara Museum.

Whales in the Indian Ocean

Pygmy blue whales are often found in the sea around Sri Lanka, which is home to one of their largest permanent feeding grounds. Blue whales are also regularly spotted along the Pakistani coast as they make their annual journey from Antarctica to the north and back, Ingole said. Sightings are common in Karachi, where news of blue whales washing up along the shore is reported as matter-of-fact occurrences.

For now, the team’s present term of research ends in June with the beginning of the monsoon. If they get more funding, they will resume their work in October.

It will need much more research and many more sightings before Malwan becomes a blue whale hub for the Konkan, Jog pointed out. All they know for certain now is that this area is probably good for whale sightings.

The Maharashtra government has already suggested that it might attempt to develop Malwan as a tourist hub for these whales. Sindhudurg district has already set the trend – it is being sold as a hotspot for viewing whale sharks.