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More blue whale sightings in Arctic waters

This photo of a blue whale was taken in the Hinlopen strait between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet on Svalbard last autumn.

Record numbers of blue whales were spotted off the coast of Svalbard and Jan Mayen Island, but researchers say the increase in sightings doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in whales.

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For a creature of enormous proportions—the largest animal, in fact, in existence—the blue whale is surprisingly hard to spot.

Blue whales stretch up to 30 meters long and can weigh as much as 200 tons, but are rare near Norway. Years of hunting depleted the population until the International Whaling Corporation issued a protective order in 1966. Depending on species, the breed is most commonly found in the North Pacific Ocean. 

Since the Norwegian Polar Institute began Marine Mammal Sightings Database in 2005—which prompts scientists and tourists to record whale sightings in and around Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen, where the whales sometimes wander—just 74 sightings of the whale have been recorded, with only a single whale recorded in some years.  

But the in the last few years the Marine Mammal Sightings Database has recorded record numbers of blue whales—last year documenting several dozen whales over the course of the  summer season, when whales who winter in the Atlantic commute North in search of krill and plankton.

Professional surveys have recorded 1,000 animals have been near Iceland, according to Nils Øien, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Research who specializes in whales.

“It shows that the Denmark straight is becoming a main migration routes for blue whales, leading them to the areas around Iceland and West of Spitsbergen.”

The Institute of Marine Research is in their last year of a six year whale surveying project, which tallies Norwegian whales systematically. Though they won’t release their final figures until after the summer season, Øien urges caution when interpreting the increase in sightings. 

 “Incidental sightings provide very little towards absolute numbers,” he said.

The Marine Mammal Sightings Database will remain active throughout the summer season.