- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
The first day of whalewatching was bright and crisp, with a “mighty” wind from the north. Both humpback whales and finback whales were sighted. The naturalist took note of two of the sightings. One, the last sighting of the trip, was of several humpback whales that appeared to become curious about the boat. He reports that they approached close to the vessel and just spent time milling around and spyhopping.
The second sighting of note involved a humpback whale that defecated. Everybody poops. And, realistically, whale poop makes everybody in the business a five year old boy. But if you were to think about this sighting a little differently, you might understand us a little better.
When you think about the ocean as a big, fluid environment, it is very much like the atmosphere that we all experience on a daily basis. Gravity pulls things down, causing them to settle on the bottom. Gravity is kind of like the feeding (or trophic) levels in the ocean. The phytoplankton is at the top. It uses CO2 and Nitrogen and Phosphorus to make simple sugars that it uses to provide itself with energy. The tiny animals, the zooplankton, eats the small plants and sinks just a little bit lower in the ocean waters. Then bigger zooplankton eats the tiny ones, before sinking a little lower. Now the little fish eat the zooplankton, dropping down even more. And bigger fish eat the little fish.
Whales also eat the little fish. There bodies, just like our bodies, break down the chemical compounds their food is made of and utilize certain elements and compounds to build energy and proteins. What is left over they, like us, eliminate from their bodies as waste. They poop. When they do this at the surface, like in this sighting, they are bringing the nitrogen and phosphorus and other compounds back to the surface, where the phytoplankton can use it as a basis for their photosynthesis.
In other words, whales are extremely important to the environment because they bring necessary nutrients that would be lost to the bottom back up to the surface.
So when your naturalist says, “And that brown slick in the water is exactly what you think it is,” don’t cringe. It is ok to become your inner child. Let’s face it, for more than just centuries we have used cow manure to feritlize our fields. This is the same thing.
If we want our ocean to recover, part of that recovery is going to need to include the recovery of the various populations of whales. Contrary to what some people might think, marine mammals are not competition just because they eat fish. The more fish they eat, the for fertilizer they create. Therefore, the more fish there will be.