Whales have become some of the world’s most beloved creatures, but could they save us from global warming?
Until the late 20th century, whales were largely believed to be man-eating beasts, as depicted in stories such as Pinocchio, Jonah and Moby-Dick. Consequently, the whaling industry faced little public opposition when brutally hunting species to the brink of extinction. At its peak, this industry was the fifth largest sector of the economy, with whale products used in everything from oil lamps to corsets to perfumes. Then, in 1967, the humpback song was first recorded by the US navy listening for Soviet submarines and their eerily beautiful tunes captured the attention of the world. The long complex rhythms and almost otherworldly pitches sparked curiosity and affection, and from there, the ‘Save the Whales’ campaign blossomed.
Thanks to the efforts of activists, it is now common knowledge that blue whales grow to be the planet’s largest species on a diet of only microscopic crustaceans and the odds of them mistaking you for a snack are zero. Slowly, they became known as gentle giants of the ocean and slaughtering them became abhorrent. At long last, commercial whaling was banned nearly worldwide in 1986.
Thankfully, the campaigning was not too late. Despite the 2.9 million whales killed in the twentieth century alone (90% of many species and 99.9% of blue whales), many populations, including the blue whale, are recovering. This is hopeful news for future generations who only a few decades ago were on a trajectory to experience these marvellous creatures through museum exhibits.
However, six of the thirteen great whale species remain endangered, and populations are only a fraction of pre-whaling levels. Complacency is not an option. This comes with the discovery that our quest to save the whales is about far more than just the whales. Like all of earth’s organisms, they are vital components in the intricate networks that maintain atmospheric balance.
The average whale accumulates thirty-three tonnes of carbon in its biomass – more than any other animal. After a natural death, they sink to a watery grave on the seabed and store this carbon for centuries. Whales also excrete faeces rich in nutrients such as iron, nitrogen and phosphorous crucial to the growth of phytoplankton which globally has the carbon capturing capabilities equivalent to 1.7 million trees (or four times the Amazon rainforest). Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, this means whales are silently slowing the rate of global warming.
But human activity is hindering whale carbon capture – something we cannot afford with sea levels rising at alarming rates, drought-plagued crops, and forest fires wreaking havoc. Norway, Iceland and Japan still allow commercial whaling and as waters grow busier with shipping traffic and fishing boats, the risk of collision injuries, pollution poisoning, and entanglement in nets increases. Combined with human noise pollution interfering with whale communication, damaging their hearing and disrupting migration, these factors force whales from critical breeding and feeding grounds and cause populations to dwindle further from pre-whaling numbers.
As the climate clock ticks towards apocalypse faster than ever, saving the whales has never been more important. There is hope in these carbon-siphoning mammals but only with action. By reducing human threats, we can help them return to their pre-whaling glory days and continue their fifty-million-year long reign of the oceans. In return, they will help us slow or perhaps even reverse the climate change clock.
Links to organisations working to save the whales: