How Kelp Gulls Are Skinning Southern Right Whales Alive in Argentina

by Owen James Burke

blackbacked

Photo: Dennis Drenner/Washington Post

Every June along the beaches of the Valdes Peninsula in southern Argentina, southern right whales return to rest, breed and give birth in the placid waters before returning to Antarctica, if they can make it: hunting of the southern right whale was put to a stop in the 1970s, but the majestic mammals now have a new, albeit unlikely predator to contend with.

The kelp gull (Larus dominicanus), also known as a Dominican gull or a black-backed gull, is among the most voracious of all the seabirds, and will stop at nothing for a meal. They’ve even been known to swallow small sea ducks and puffins whole. This largest member of the gull family appears in the throngs along the beaches where the whales come to nurse, primarily drawn to the sea of fish carcasses at an adjacent dumping ground for the local fishery.

Piles and piles of fish carcasses line the beach, offering up a Las Vegas style all-you-can-eat buffet for the gulls. But these winged epicureans, being such relentless hunters, have a taste for everything and stop at nothing. With the whales so tranquilly nursing their calfs in the calm, shallow waters, their backs are an easy target for anything thrifty and hungry enough. Flocks of the birds gather and target the mothers and their calfs — the easiest to prey on — pecking open holes through their skin so they can tear into their flesh.

The gashes, which tend to be about 8-inches long and straight into the flesh, have, as can be imagined, caused the whales a great deal of strife. Not only do they have huge chunks missing from their flesh, but they’re forced to breach rapidly for a quick and heavy breath so that their less exposed to predation from above, which can also make for complications between the mother and the calf while nursing. Research conducted in 2008 reported that up to 77% of the whales examined bore these gashes.

Government agencies have begun a cull on the gulls, while environmentalists are urging for better facilities and management of fisheries waste.

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Read more on The Washington Post — OJB

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