Saving the whales

Posted on 11 April 2011

Whale extinction avoided – for now…
Whale extinction avoided – for now…

It may be the flash of a tail, a plume of vapour or, if you’re lucky, the giant body breaching the surface. Anybody who’s ever seen a whale will tell you it’s an unforgettable experience. And we’re determined to make sure it’s an experience future generations can enjoy.

What’s at stake?

The whale is one of Earth’s most magnificent creatures. But over the last two centuries, they were hunted mercilessly for their meat and oil.

By the turn of the ’80s, rampant, uncontrolled whaling had pushed several species to the point of extinction. The world’s great whales, including blue, fin, sei and humpback whales, had been almost totally wiped out.
WWF Founder Sir Peter Scott was determined that the mass extinction had to stop.

The story so far

“Save the Whales,” in which we played a key part, is one of the best-known and most successful conservation campaigns ever in the huge awareness and public participation generated and the achievement of effective conservation results. It eventually led to a global moratorium on commercial whaling, which came into effect in 1986.

But although there is a ban on commercial whaling, some governments have bent the rules by killing whales for “scientific research” – with the meat from these “scientific” catches going straight to the supermarket. Around 1,000 whales are killed for “scientific research” annually.

We strongly oppose this, and are fighting to help devastated whale populations to recover.

Virtually the whole of the Southern Ocean – a vital whale habitat – was declared a whale sanctuary in 1994, thanks to the lobbying efforts of WWF and many other organizations. Today, the Southern Ocean sanctuary links to another whale sanctuary in the Indian Ocean. However, much work is still needed to clamp down on unmanaged “scientific” whaling which still occurs in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

In the late 1990s we helped convince the governments of France, Italy and Monaco to create the Ligurian whale sanctuary. It covers 80,000 sq km between the coasts of northern Corsica, northwest Italy and southwest France.

Did you know?

Blue whales are the largest known animal ever to have lived on Earth, reaching around 30m in length and weighing up to 180 tonnes. A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle car. They eat tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill – up to 40 million of them a day!

Facts and stats

  • Around 35,000  –  whales killed since the 1986 international moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect.
  • 130 – number of western north Pacific gray whales in existence. Only around 30 are females of breeding age, making this one of the world’s most endangered whale species.
  • 330,000 – blue whales killed in the Southern Ocean before the ban on commercial whaling. Today, there are thought to be only 2,300 blue whales left in the whole Southern Hemisphere.

What next?

Today, some great whale populations are recovering, especially the humpback. But 6 of the 13 great whale species including the immense blue whale are still classed as endangered or vulnerable.

Whaling isn’t the only threat they face: other dangers include getting entangled in fishing gear or hit by ships, pollution, overfishing depleting their food sources, being bombarded by noisy activities such as oil and gas exploration and development. The impact of climate change on whales and their habitats is complex too, and not yet fully understood.

We’re working together with partners to address these threats in a number of ways:
  • In Chile, we’re working with the government, communities and the salmon fishing industry to protect an important nursing and feeding ground for blue whales.
  • In Canada, we helped change a shipping lane in the Bay of Fundy to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from collisions with vessels.
  • In Russia, we’ve worked with partners to get an oil pipeline rerouted away from the feeding area of western gray whales. But oil and gas projects are expanding in this fragile area, so there’s much more to do if this critically endangered whale is to have a realistic chance of survival.

We’ve had some success in reducing these threats to whales. But there’s a long way still to go.

What you can do

Find out more about our work to save whales:

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, mate and give birth in the Bay of Málaga, Colombia.
© Diego M. Garces / WWF
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), California. Digitally enhanced.
© / David Fleetham / WWF
The carcass of a female Northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) killed by a ship collision, Nova Scotia, Canada.
© Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF