4 July 2020. Anyone watching blue, humpback or sperm whales can clearly see and hear the power-packed spout that comes just before they suck in a deep breath. Are whales and dolphins noticing that the air is cleaner these days since the coronavirus lockdown? Do they sense there is less ship traffic as economies almost everywhere have scaled down? The risk of a whale getting caught in a fishing net, hit by a container ship, disturbed or displaced by engine noise or an oil spill may be less now – at least for a while.

It seems like years since my last in-person pre-pandemic meeting. In February, I boarded a plane for Perth, Australia, to join 30 other scientists in a week-long scientific workshop to identify whale habitats around Australia and New Zealand. With passing concern I noted that Wuhan, China, was reporting a new SARS-like Corona virus and there were a growing number of cases.

I remember looking at the map to see if Wuhan was coastal. It was upstream on the Yangtze River. The Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, went extinct in 2006 but I briefly wondered if there were still some endangered narrow-ridged finless porpoises there. The IUCN Red List map indicated yes, possibly. Still, I could see that Wuhan itself was far inland in central China’s Hubei province. It seemed remote from our work mapping the areas that are important to whales, dolphins and other marine mammals in the South East Indian Ocean and all around Australia and New Zealand. This was our 6th ‘Important Marine Mammal Area’, or IMMA, workshop since late 2016 during which time we’ve identified and mapped habitats in the Mediterranean, the South Pacific and Indian ocean, and the waters around Antarctica.

In mid-February, after our workshop in Perth, I flew home. With 45 candidate IMMAs under our belt now going for review, I felt good. Stopping in Singapore, however, I felt panic when nearly everyone was wearing a mask and passengers were being quizzed and checked for signs of the virus or of having travelled through China. The airport was full of people, and I had a long layover. I looked for a quiet corner, as far away as possible from the constant people traffic. My connecting flight from Singapore to Paris was half full due to many cancellations and I had four seats to sleep on. Landing in Paris there were fewer masks but there were storm-related issues in the UK leading to cancelled flights. I made it back home after a succession of aborted train journeys, replacement buses, and taxis. As the spread of the virus intensified in China and was starting to spread to Italy and around Europe, I was just happy to be home in Dorset.

With my colleagues at Whale and Dolphin Conservation and at Tethys Research Institute in Italy who have formed the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, we have all been working from home the last few months, polishing up the 45 new areas that we’ve identified and getting them ready for the independent review panel that will decide if our recommendations are taken forward. For those that are approved, we will put them on e-Atlas and promote them, and begin talking to policy makers about protecting these important areas of ocean to keep the species who live there safe. We don’t yet know what will happen when our next expert workshop is scheduled to meet later in 2020 in Costa Rica to map the marine mammal habitats for the Pacific waters from northern Mexico to the tip of Chile. We need to stay flexible for now.

Our Important Marine Mammal Areas are modelled after the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) which BirdLife has had great success with over the last few decades. Whale and other marine mammal habitats were relatively unknown compared with bird sites and the data remains widely scattered and much of it unpublished. What the IMMA has managed to do is to create a robust biocentric product that is based on expert assessments of existing data to identify the habitats vital to various populations.

It is as close as experts can come to determining what the whales themselves might protect if they could draw some lines around their favourite hangouts for feeding, breeding, raising their calves, singing and socialising.

IMMAs answer the fundamental question: what are the most important areas of the ocean to focus our efforts for protection?

After the pandemic is contained and the economy begins to return, what will this mean for the future of whales, dolphins and porpoises and their ocean and river habitats?

At the same time as we focus on our own health and wellbeing, restoring the health of our ocean planet will be fundamental. Addressing the climate emergency with some of the urgency the world feels now would be a good start.

Some of the lessons we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic apply also to the climate emergency:

• we depend on good science and scientists — surviving the virus, developing vaccines, evaluating the climate situation and the economy;

• we need to hear the truth and know it’s the real story — fake news puts everyone in the world in the position of becoming a victim; and

• we are all connected — one person’s actions affect many others, even the whole world.

Thinking about it, I can see that all three of these lessons have implications in our efforts to ensure healthy seas for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.

For more information, go to https://marinemammalhabitat.org