Our world is full of diverse predators and prey of various sizes and species. Nevertheless, it is a world that can only survive as long as it is in balance. The balance can only exist as long as predators get to hunt and the hunted get to replenish themselves. Thus, we show you another side, another reason why a predator plays such a huge role in shielding our planet against further anthropogenic harm.
A humpback whale is one of the world’s largest animals as it can grow up to 18 meters long and weigh up to 40 tons. These negatively buoyant creatures such as the filter-feeding baleen and sperm whale are indispensable as they stockpile tons of carbon during their lifetimes like humongous swimming trees. A mature tree absorbs up to 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide each year. However, next to these gigantic marine whales, there’s simply no comparison. A single whale, with an average lifespan of 60 years, stores about 33 tons of carbon dioxide. Therefore one whale is equivalent to about 1500 trees. With inadequate space/land used up for housing and agriculture, the importance of these whales is crystal clear.
Fig: How much is one whale worth?
To make the everyday public understand the value of these prized mammals, Ralph Chami, the assistant director of the International Monetary Fund, decided to create a price tag per whale. The nature-loving economist took in his own hands to drive home how precious these creatures were. He took the per ton of carbon and multiplied it by the quantity that a single great whale could store in its body. The final price tag for a whale turned out to be two million dollars. Clearly, whales are indispensable.
Since a whale is negatively buoyant, its carcass will sink to the bottom of the ocean and the carbon stored in it is taken out of the atmospheric cycle for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Fig: How does ‘whale pump’ work?
But the service provided by the whale goes one step forward with a so-called ‘whale pump’. The whale feeds on tiny marine organisms such as plankton and krill which can be found in the depths of the ocean. When they come back to the surface, they release massive fecal clouds into the sea. These floating masses of urine and feces are rich in iron, phosphorus, and nitrogen which are the exact substances plankton needs to grow and more plankton is just what the planet is in dire need of.
Plankton captures an estimated 40% of all the carbon dioxide produced worldwide and it contributes at least 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. It would have taken four Amazon rainforests to capture an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. It has now been discovered that the plankton is blooming along the migratory routes of whales which is the pathway between their breeding and feeding grounds.
Whales can also segregate the nutrients they excrete via their ‘whale pump’. They are known to excrete iron into cold waters and nitrogen and phosphorus into warmer oceans. Thus the more whales there are, the more plankton there will be and more carbon can be stored and possibly be replaced with oxygen. Thus with the directly proportional relationship with whales, plankton, and oxygen, its unique geoengineering is vital in prolonging our survival on planet earth.
However, all whales face this common tragic fate, their path to the underworld is at the obscure and dreary sea bed. What is worse is that thousands of whales die unknowingly due to ship collisions due to this reason. This sunken evidence has sent the whale population spiraling down the drain, especially when the shipping routes cut through or overlap with the migratory routes of the whales.
Very few survivors are found in photographs while in rare cases, dead whales wash up ashore. While most of the whales perish without any evidence or recording, the few that have been documented are dreadful sights that we do not want to see nor repeat in real life. The International Whaling Commission has stated a total of 1200 collisions between whale and vessel.
However, experts say that the actual number of deaths is way higher than what had been reported. One of them is Micheal Fishbach, the founder of Great Whale Conservancy. Some consider it ten to twenty times more than the reported number as a whale is denser than the water it displaces and sinks to the bottom of the sea, unnoticed and unaccounted for. Thus the full scale of the problem is well hidden from public view.
Whales have a low reproductive rate- one calf every one to three years, thus this is considered a grave threat even more so to the endangered species. Ship strikes are a painful backlash for the recovering population of whales. The massive container ships, oil tankers must be able to detect whales at a sufficiently large distance to slow down or change direction.
But such a ship can be maneuvered only at a slow pace and take miles to correct the course already taken. On the other hand, whales have poor eyesight and haven’t learned to see nor detect the hulls of the ships that add to the noise pollution in the ocean. Thus it is up to us to find a way to survive in a better world with both our shipments and our whales.