Saving whales may save us all
You are Whale-Come for this Poo-tiful Day! See what I did there? I was able to craft an appreciation for whales and their feces in what some would say was an incredibly clever and punny (there, I did it again) title. Perhaps the “some” would only be me, but you are still reading so I will continue…..
Cape Cod whale watch captains often refer to humpback whales as “dumps”. In the spring and summer, as the VHF radio traffic buzzes nonstop, it’s not uncommon to hear a voice crackle over the radio reporting “I have a couple of dumps on the corner” or “two dumps and a finner out east”. The double entendre of referring to a whale as a “dump”, perhaps because humpbacks are so frequently seen taking a “dump”, should make you grin for reasons beyond potty humor.
Some years ago, I wrote a blog about why we should be thankful for the millions of gallons of defecation whales added to the Gulf of Maine each year. Each summer, I love to take the opportunity to educate our Cape Cod tourists about the volume of whale poo generated off our coast each day. Their reaction to my information is particularly interesting if I tell them when they are incidentally getting a taste of the salty bay water as they take a swim (never mind that salt water taffy is a local staple). The reality is that the fact that I exist on this planet is due in large part as a result of whale poo, which only increases my fascination with the stuff
We have known for a while that whales are an important part of the ecosystem and recently released research not only confirms it, but shows that whales are actually helping to drive the ecosystem. According to this latest research, large whales help to keep the planet healthy both while they are alive and even when they die, providing they are left in their watery world to fulfill their roles as “ecosystem engineers”.
Because large whales often feed at the depths of the ocean but choose to relieve themselves at the surface, they move nutrients throughout the water column creating what the researchers refer to as the “whale pump”. Using the surface as their bathroom stall is the perfect setting to fertilize the tiny, plant-like phytoplankton which spend their time in these sunlit waters, photosynthesizing to produce their own food. The happy byproduct of that process is most of the earth’s oxygen that mammals breathe, a food base for commercially valuable fish, and the absorption of carbon. The phytoplankton are like a tiny army fighting climate change, fed by whale poo. Because large whales migrate, traveling thousands of miles each year, they create a mass transit system for nutrients across ocean basins.
Just like all of us, there comes a day when each whale must meet his/her maker, however, that doesn’t mean they stop working. Even in death, whales play a role. A “whale fall” or carcass, that sinks to the depths becomes host to a mini-ecosystem of its own, supporting generations of bacteria, crabs, snails, and worms, each of which goes on to play their role in keeping the oceans healthy as a result.
The lesson here is that whales do their jobs quite well if left in the oceans to do them. Whales are NOT our competitors in the oceans, vying for the same foods that we eat. They may, quite literally, be our saviors. Perhaps it is time to view whales not as a food source, but as the producers who cultivate our foods; not as a source of entertainment, but as the engineers that enable us to live a life where we can be entertained.
Whaling and captivity are not “cultural” choices that we can afford to ignore. Ship strikes and entanglements are not someone else’s problem. Pure and simple, saving whales is not reserved for those often stereoptyped as “tree huggers”, it’s for any one of us who wishes to continue to eat and breathe.
So let us properly pay respect to the poo, and the whales who generate it, before it’s poo-late.