The importance of whales (and their poo).
We may be clean sailors but we love whale poo. Here's why whales are our Climate Giants in more ways than one, and deserve our full protection, globally.
There are few better sights in the world than seeing a whale fluke from your sailboat. The knowledge that right underneath the surface of the ocean, that same ocean that carries your boat, lives this huge majestic creature, is just awe inspiring. Whales come in many different sizes but if you’ve ever been lucky enough to spot a blue whale or humpback, you will appreciate their sheer enormity. They make most of us and our sailboats look tiny.
What most of us don’t know is that their size is actually also responsible for what we consider to be one of nature’s most compelling stories: whales play a huge role in moderating our climate - as our partner Whale and Dophin Conservation say: they are Climate Giants.
So how does that work? That whales don’t use kerosene or gasoline to travel the tens of thousands of miles on their yearly commutes is obvious, but how do they actually help moderate climate change?
It starts simply - because whales are huge and organic matter is mostly composed of carbon, they carry huge amounts of carbon in their bodies. Up to 30,000 kg to be precise.
As whales grow, this carbon is removed from the atmosphere and is therefore not warming our planet. When whales die (at the respectable age of 50 for humpbacks and 80 for blue whales) they sink to the bottom of the ocean and take all that carbon with them, which gets buried in our seabed for thousands of years. What happens there is amazing: 30 tonnes of food arrives in a place where life is dark, mysterious and strange but thriving nonetheless. But that is a different story. (Read Rebecca Gigg’s the World in the Whale for more on this topic)
But mostly we want to talk about living whales. Because the 30 tonnes of carbon is nothing compared to what they take out of our atmosphere when they’re alive. It’s an interesting and intricate story featuring three protagonists: pumps, poo, and plankton.
Protagonist 1: The Pump
When whales feed, they dive down to enormous depths to find the nutrients they need. When they then come back up to the surface to breathe (they are mammals, remember) they release enormous buoyant faecal plumes. That is a scientific way of saying they do enormous poo’s and that poo floats. We’re talking up to 200 litres of poo here - never underestimate a whale's bowel movement.
Protagonist 2: Poo
The poo that is released may be smelly but it’s also a delicacy: the iron and nitrogen that it contains are exactly what our third protagonist needs to thrive - phytoplankton.
Protagonist 3: Phytoplankton
Phytoplankton are tiny algae that live on the surface of the ocean. They thrive on nitrogen and iron and thus they love whale poo. Where whales feed and bring nutrients to the surface through their pump action, phytoplankton will be abundant. And there are two things that phytoplankton are very good at: they take huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere AND they produce huge amounts of oxygen.
So, whales are at the root of an ecosystem engineering feat that no Silicon Valley startup could ever beat. The genius of it is unimaginable. Let’s look at some numbers:
Researchers have calculated that whales remove as much greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere as four Amazon rainforests combined would.
That is 26.800.000 km2 of forest, covering three times the whole of the United States with forest. In the process of doing this, the ocean’s phytoplankton produces about half of all the oxygen in our atmosphere. Phytoplankton releases about half of the oxygen we breathe.
Every other breath you take, you can thank our oceans and this magnificent cycle taking place within them.
But where there are protagonists, there will be antagonists. In our story there are many. Each of them poses a threat to whales, and thus to the carbon-capturing and oxygen-producing services that whales provide us with.
Threatening whales, threatens our climate.
The anti-whale Antagonists
Let's look at the top five antagonists threatening the life of whales and therefore the fragility of our ocean ecosystems:
- Entanglement in discarded fishing nets: Fishing fleets throw old nets overboard or simply lose them. As they drift around our oceans, whales, dolphins and other animals get entangled in them and loose their ability to feed, mate and migrate.
- Ship collisions: Our seas get busier and busier, and some our busiest shipping lanes overlap with whale feeding or mating grounds. Disoriented by the noise ships make, whales fail to get out of their way in time and don't survive the blow.
- Pollution: Plastic soup and pollution dramatically reduces the amount of healthy food whales have access too. Decreasing populations are the obvious result
- Whaling: although disputed and on the decline, whaling is still a practice. The recent Faroe island massacre in 2020 was a somber example and testimony that the practice is far from extinct.
- Noise pollution: communication through sounds is everything for whales. It helps them feed, navigate, socialise and care for each other. As humans caused underwater noise increases (shipping, drilling, mining, pipelines) so whales lose their ability to do perform these vital tasks
So, if we want to save the climate, we should save the whale. And this is where the plot thickens: one very interesting perspective on whale conservation is that whales are actually worth a lot of money!
Because they sequester carbon and because carbon removal has a price on the international market, whales should actually be paid for their services. Ralph Chami of the International Monetary Fund has calculated that each individual whale provides carbon removal services for an economic value up to $2000000,- !!!
If you’d put a price tag on a whale you’d be looking at 2 million! But whales don't accept credit cards nor cash for their services. They are just born to do what they do. So instead, that money should go to their conservation and the regenerations of the ecosystems that they thrive in.
And that’s exactly what NGO’s like our partner Whale and Dolphin conservation are doing with the Climate Giant Program - they are mitigating threats to whales and they are helping to create favourable conditions for whales to thrive. They work with shipping lines to avoid whale collisions, they work with companies to avoid plastic pollution, they work with the fishing industry to collect end-of-life and ghost nets, they lobby against the whaling industry, and they’re striving for Marine Protected areas where fishing is forbidden.
All these activities are crucial to preserving whales and thus, to allow them to do what they do so well: stabilise ecosystems and our Earth’s climate.
As clean sailors we support this cause with all our hearts, because we realise how crucial the ocean we sail is to the wellbeing of all living creatures on earth.
Our whole ocean and the ecosystem services it provides takes care of coastal resilience, cooling, biodiversity, protein production and sustenance for animals, plants and people all over the world.
Let’s celebrate the ocean, let's celebrate whale poo and lets’s be Clean Sailors.
With words by Erik Roscam-Abbing and illustrations by Marta Musso