Whale tales

At 21, I thought my life was all planned out and my life purpose clear. A week ago, I woke up from a dream where I discovered my real-life purpose was to clean up oil spills in the ocean and save the whales. In my head, I thought, "what do whales even do for us?"

Words by Andrea Martinez

It was a very selfish thought in the first place. But following that dream, I started to educate myself on the importance of these mammals. Learning about the importance of these giants, especially when it comes to the ‘whale pump’, has turned my world around and I started making more conscious decisions in my everyday life. Here’s what I learned.

For decades, whales have been in danger of extinction, a fate that was mainly caused by humans – and continues to be mainly caused by humans. However, there are options to help these mammals adapt to the damage to their population numbers caused in the past. Whales play a vital role in our marine ecosystem, and they are keeping us alive. Today, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list includes five cetacean species and 19 subpopulations of cetaceans classified as ‘Critically Endangered’.

The so-called great whales are some of them. The term refers to 13 large cetacean species, including blue, fin, sperm, Southern right, North Atlantic right, North Pacific right, bowhead, humpback, gray, sei, Bryde’s, Antarctic minke, as well as common minke whales. They are all baleen whales, with the exception of the sperm whale, a toothed whale. Great whales have been a target of whaling throughout history due to human consumption of their oil and the uses of their different body parts. Climate change, ship strikes, polluted water, and a lack of knowledge when disposing of fishing nets are some of the threats all whale species, and especially the great whales, face today.

And this should very much matter to us. Great whales help provide at least half of the oxygen we breathe and combat climate change. Whales can capture significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere and deliver nutrients to parts of the ocean where they would otherwise not be found. The Whale And Dolphin Conservation describes the role that whales play in creating half of the oxygen as follows: The process begins with whales feeding on small animals such as krill deep in the ocean. Whales then swim up to the surface to breathe, circulating nutrients there. This is known as the ‘whale pump’. Once whales are on the surface, they release their faeces that have essential nutrients in them that phytoplankton and tiny plant-like organisms need to survive. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton absorbs about one-third of human-generated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Phytoplankton produces half of our planet’s oxygen. By repeating this whale pump process, ocean habitats are created, and all the nutrients acquired from whale faeces support fish populations and a healthy marine ecosystem.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website explains: “Scientists estimate that 50 to 80% of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean. Most of this production is from oceanic plankton — drifting plants, algae, and some bacteria that can photosynthesize.” However, to establish the exact amount of oxygen production from plankton is hard as the phytoplankton population constantly changes.

Despite their importance, including the major role the whale pump plays in creating oxygen, whales face various human hazards. After two major whaling periods in the past, whales are still hunted in some parts of the world. Furthermore, when migrating or sleeping, whales risk getting hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear left in the ocean that is not disposed of responsibly. The pollution in ocean water caused by humans also an issue, and climate change is another major threat to whales and every ocean creature. Some scientists believe some whale and dolphin populations may not have time to adapt to changes in sea temperature, acidification, rises in sea levels, the loss of icy polar habitats, and the decline of food sources due to climate change. And, of course, the ever-increasing threat of deep-sea mining noise pollution could seriously harm the ability of whales to communicate with each other, while disorienting them. Some sources estimate that one deep-sea mine could send noise as far as 500km across the ocean.

As difficult as it seems to help these mammals adapt and support their families, there are undoubtedly ways humans can help from home. Essentially, what needs to happen is for people to realise how important whales are and for big corporations and businesses to change their ways. We need them to reconsider their vast advances in deep-sea operations and the use of fossil fuels. After all, we need more whales in the ocean to help combat the impacts of climate change. A healthier ocean needs more whales. I believe educating is the best way to start making a positive impact. Education is how we influence the next generation of ocean advocates.


Photographs by Ocean Image Bank – Ron Watkins, Michele Roux, Francois Baelen, Hannes Klostermann, and Lewis Burnett

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