Yep, whale poo. It genuinely is nature’s secret eco warrior – keeping ecosystems in the ocean and on land healthy and thriving, and helping fight climate change. Find out how!
Who doesn’t love whales! Our giant cetacean cousins inspire awe and exhilaration – intelligent, beautiful, playfully social, and long lived – maybe we see reflections of ourselves in them. It’s incredible to think that whales were brought to the brink of extinction by rampant human greed and short sightedness in just the last century. Thankfully, in our more enlightened age, whales are increasingly protected, and numbers are recovering. And, we are starting to understand that healthy whale populations are crucial – not just from the point of view of a human moral responsibility to prevent extinction – but because whales are needed to protect the planet! That’s right, we are finally beginning to realise that whales are ecosystem engineers. And whale poo is nature’s secret weapon!
The Whale Pump
Yep, we’re going to talk all about whale poo. Whales poop plumes of liquid feces which are floucculent (my new favourite word of the day) in nature – meaning that they consist of a loose aggregation of particles, fluffy or woolly in nature. Fluffy poo! Why is this important? Well, whales feed deep down in the depths of the ocean. However, all that pressure is not conducive to bowel movement, so they excrete their fluffy poo in much shallower water. By doing so, they move important nutrients – nitrogen and iron in particular, up through the water column, close to the surface. This is known as the whale pump.
Phytoplankton and Poo Power
And whales, being big animals, release a lot of these nutrients. This in turn fertilizes phytoplankton, tiny plant like organisms, which are the basis of the ocean food chain. No whale poo, no food in the ocean. Think this sounds rather implausible? Well, back in the 1970s, researchers proposed that the great reduction in the large whales of the southern oceans would lead to an increase in the population of krill, their major prey. That kinda made sense – if there’s no whales eating all the krill, there should be more krill to go round. But that’s not what happened. Instead krill numbers are in long term decline. Why? Because without a fully functioning whale pump, surface waters just aren’t rich enough to sustain the plankton blooms that krill need to thrive. And scarily, right now, the whale pump action is currently estimated at a mere 5 percent of historic values.
Every Breath You Take
Phytoplankton don’t just feed the ocean food chain though. These tiny plant like organisms float at the ocean surface, and use the magic of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide, sunlight and water to produce oxygen and sugar. Through the sheer mass of phytoplankton in the ocean, they are responsible for half the planet’s oxygen – quite literally the very air that we breathe!
Not only that, but whale poo powered phytoplankton also function as a carbon sink. When they die, they descend to the bottom of the ocean, sequestering an estimated 2 billion tons of carbon in the ocean every year. How’s that for a carbon footprint?
Whale Poo Saves the Rainforest!
Yes, that’s right! There is some pretty new research that shows that whale poo is instrumental in maintaining the health of land based ecosystems. By pooping nutrients in the water, whales help to fuel plankton growth. These are eaten by little fish, who are then eaten by bigger fish. Down the food chain, fish travel up rivers and head deep inland, to be eaten by predators – spreading the nutrients that started in our whale poo all over the land and deep into the forest. Think that’s a bit implausible? Well, scientists have estimated that certain forest nutrient pumps may have declined by over 80%, in part because of the removal of large animals such as whales.
We Need Whales
All this serves as a super compelling case for more protection for whale populations globally. Saving whales for their own sake is important and laudable. But it’s time we wake up to the fact that whales are actually saving us. We need their planet saving fluffy poo for life to flourish. Save the Whales, and Save the Planet!
Inspired to find out how we can protect whales? Sign up to a Ninja Whale Defender Course! Or Join us for whale watching tours in Cabo San Lucas & Baja! Contact us today to find out more, or sign up!