A corridor for blue whales, humpbacks, and more marine wildlife

Once home to a whaling station, Chile's Guafo Island teems with biodiversity

A humpback whale feeds in the waters near Guafo Island, Chile

There’s an old whaling station from the 1920s hidden in a temperate rainforest on the remote Patagonian outpost of Guafo Island. Its rickety bones have, in recent decades, mostly disappeared, but if you look closely, you can still make out fallen chimneys, scattered boiler bricks and ghostly foundations of long-gone buildings – all of which call to mind an era when some whale species were hunted to near extinction.

View of Guafo Island from the water

With a total area of only 83 miles and 47 miles of coastline, Chile's Guafo Island is an uninhabited haven for wildlife

The plant’s location here was no accident. Guafo lies in the Gulf of Corcovado, a vast waterway separating mainland Chile from the much larger Chiloé Island. Thanks to freshwater input from melting Andean glaciers, it has the perfect conditions for an abundance of krill, making it the most important feeding and breeding grounds in the Eastern South Pacific for blue whales. It’s also a frequent stop in the austral summer for other cetaceans, including humpbacks, orcas, sei and southern right whale

Today, in 2023, this corridor once known for the pillaging of animals, is now teeming with them. That’s why Yaqueline Montecinos, Marine Biodiversity and Ocean Policy Coordinator at WWF Chile, has moored a research vessel near the old whaling station. Within an hour of arriving in a nearby fishing cove, she spots a distant spout. Then, a humpback whale emerges from the steel-blue waters, carving a path in and out of waves along the cloudy horizon. A few minutes later, it even wows her with cinematic acrobatics.

“This place is home to such a massive amount of biodiversity,” she says from the vessel’s bow as sea lions bound down slippery rocks and a pod of Peale's dolphins scurries nearby. Another humpback rises from the distant sea before slapping its white-tipped tail, launching a burst of oceanic fireworks.

Blue whales, though present, prove harder to find – even though they’re the largest (and loudest) animals on Earth, weighing close to 200 tons. Before whaling, it’s estimated that there may have been as many as 250,000 of them roaming the oceans each day in search of the four tons of krill needed to survive. Now, they number anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000, making them among the most endangered great whales on Earth.

Their recovery is notoriously slow. Yet, new protections in Chile might aid in the process. Last July, the government created a 394-square-mile Marine Protected Area in the Gulf of Corcovado: The Tic-Toc Golfo Corcovado Marine Park. Though a management plan is still forthcoming, it’s hoped that it can include measures to limit shipping traffic, much of it for industrial fishing and aquaculture operations. Shipping traffic poses the whales’ biggest modern threats here, both for collisions and noise pollution, which impedes communication and breeding habits.

WWF Chile's Yacqueline Motecinos monitors whale activity from a dinghy

“During many centuries of colonialism, injustice, land removals, and loss of rites, there has always been the need, from generation to generation, for new people to take on the role of defenders of the land and sea,” says Patricio Colivoro, a Huilliche leader. 

Other conservation initiatives are similarly under way to protect a wider swath of the whales’ habitat. Ten Indigenous communities, with the support of the WWF, are working to create an 870-square-mile indigenous people protected area around Guafo known as a Coastal- Marine Space for Indigenous People (ECMPO for its Spanish acronym), which would be administered by members of the local Huilliche community. Two of them have joined Montecinos on her trip to Guafo and speak of ancestors who, out of necessity, worked here in the whaling industry.

Montecinos says the location of the proposed ECMPO is as strategic as that old whaling station. “You can imagine it as the gateway to the Gulf of Corcovado from the Pacific Ocean,” she explains. “So, if we have conservation protection and conservation actions planned here, we should have a positive impact on all of the whales that navigate through the Gulf of Corcovado.”

South American sea lions play in the Guafo Island surf

A trio of Magellanic penguins swim off the island's coast

The marine biologist spends five days at Guafo, watching as the humpbacks return nearly every day to the same spots at similar times. She heads off in a dinghy with the Huilliche delegation to see the creatures they’re both trying to protect, all the while discussing how the WWF can further support the Coastal Marine Space for Indigenous People initiative.

“This is such an intact area,” she says on the final day, sitting on a sandy Guafo beach eight-hours by boat from the nearest town. “The intervention from human activity is so little, so I think it’s still possible to preserve what we have and to be able to keep it as it is.”