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Humpback whales – Alaska

WDC funds pioneering research project

Whales are our allies in the fight against the climate crisis. Among other things, whales stimulate the production of oxygen in the sea by fertilizing the smallest algae in the upper sea layer (phytoplankton) with their excretions. Through their diving behaviour they promote the exchange of nutrients between layers in the sea (the so-called "whale pump").

WDC is helping to fund the University of Alaska Southeast's study of the ‘whale pump’ in the North Pacific, the first time such a project has taken place in the region. Fieldwork began in May 2022 and seeks to determine the extent to which migratory humpback whales circulate nutrients and carbon in Southeast Alaska and their impact on marine productivity and carbon sequestration.

Researchers in Southeast Alaska © Alaska Whale Foundation
Researchers in Southeast Alaska © Alaska Whale Foundation

The whale pump and its importance in Southeast Alaska

Photosynthetic organisms form the basis for all other life in the sea, just like plants on land. With the progressive warming of the oceans, the photosynthetic primary production (i.e. the growth of plants, algae and certain bacteria) with the help of light and nutrients, is expected to decrease. In this context, whales play an important role in the nutrient and carbon cycle, in particular through the so-called "whale pump".

Whales excrete nutrient-rich faeces on the sea surface and thus stimulate the primary production of phytoplankton - which in turn promotes the binding of carbon. 'The whale pump hypothesis is intriguing, but quantifiable data on it is limited,' explains Dr Pearson, Associate Professor of Marine Biology who is leading the research. 'This project will empirically test the theory, by determining if and how humpback whales facilitate nutrient and carbon cycling, and ultimately, their impacts on marine productivity and carbon sequestration.'

What are the project goals?

This study is designed to investigate the role of humpback whales in nutrient and carbon cycling in Southeast Alaska. The central questions are:

  • Which water layers do the nutrients contained in whale droppings come from? This makes it possible to assess whether and to what extent the whales drive the fertilization of the upper water layers.
  • What is the concentration of nutrients in whale droppings compared to seawater?
  • Are the nutrients excreted by the whales easily usable by the phytoplankton so that their growth rate (= primary production) is increased?
Collecting faeces from a humpback whale © Sarah Mastroni
Collecting faeces from a humpback whale © Sarah Mastroni

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