While you weren’t looking, whales have been helping almost every creature on the planet in ways that aren’t instantly apparent. And they’ll continue to do so as long as they swim across our oceans. With the turn of the 21st century, scientists have dived deeper into their world than ever before but the identity of whales is still shrouded in mystery and we’ll never know the full extent of the impact they have on us.
Protecting whales is imperative to our existence but it’s also important to know the how and why behind it. Why protect something that’s seemingly disconnected from us in the first place? Because, it’s time we recognise whales for the ecosystem engineers that they are. Until recently, people regarded whales as too rare to have any major impacts on Earth’s oceans. But as it turns out to be, whales help regulate and support a vast spectrum of marine organisms along with regulating the health of the ocean itself. Whales consume vast amounts of plankton, which would otherwise multiply at unprecedented rates, while themselves acting as sources of food for predators like sharks and orcas.
Even after their deaths, whales don’t stop contributing to ocean health. A phenomenon known as “whale fall,” in which their immense carcasses sink to the seafloor, provides a feast to some 400-odd species of marine life. With the food and shelter whale carcasses provide, they support biological communities living on the ocean floor for years, if not decades. The carbon capture potential of whales is truly startling. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives, which ranges from 30 to even 90 years. When they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale collects 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere. A tree, on the other hand, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.
As is obvious, large creatures like whales produce equally large amounts of poop. What is not obvious is how this has a big positive impact on oceans. Whales consume their food in deep, nutrient-rich waters and poop near the surface, thus helping churn nutrients from the bottom to the top. Their feces also stimulate the growth of plankton and other microorganisms that are the lowest rung of all oceanic food chains. More whale poop means more phytoplankton, which means less carbon in the ocean-atmosphere.
Humans have always killed whales, and to date still do, that too in large numbers. So much so, that we’ve replaced them at the top of the food chain, a place that rightfully belongs to them. But, do we need to hunt whales at all today? At its peak, commercial whaling was more for whale oil than it was for their meat. Today, it’s unnatural to think of using whale oil as fuel like in the old days. Even the communities that look at whale meat as a delicacy are declining. This means in today’s day and age, whaling makes no sense, not even of the economical kind. However, whaling still occurs and is affecting all species of whales. Some species, like the blue whales, have been reduced to only 3 per cent of their previous abundance.
Hopefully, this article is your gateway to researching these marine giants and finding more and more ways in which you could help them. Because, the simple truth is – we’ve needed whales more than they’ve ever needed us.