Living On Whale Poo
Never poo-poo poo poo. Without whale poo, our ocean ecosystem would fail. Who’d have thought? Even more surprising, some forms of whale excretion are more valuable than gold. Here are some facts about whale poo to fertilise mind.
- Whales are the largest animals on Earth, ever.
- The more that whales eat, the more they poo.
- Whale poo is really, really big.
- The effect of whale poo on the ocean is really, really big.
Whales act like the giant fertilisers of the ocean, said Vanessa Pirotta, a marine ecologist at Macquarie University.
‘Whales feed in one area and poo in another … so they can move huge amounts of biomass from one area to another,’ said Dr Pirotta.
Whale poo is rich in nutrients such as iron. These nutrients are suspended in the faeces at the ocean’s surface, which means they fuel blooms of microscopic phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is at the bottom of the food chain; they feed the smallest fish, which provide the bigger fish and so on, all the way up the food chain.
We humans, as apex predators, need phytoplankton.
Some people refer to this as the iron pump,’ Dr Pirotta said, referring to the environmental cycle that nourishes us.
So, we need whale poo, lots of it, and Nicolas Pyenson of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History agrees. He is co-author of a new study published in the journal Nature that has, for the first time in history, put a figure on the amount whales eat and the importance of whales to our survival on this planet.
Tons. Well over three tons a day. More than all the all-you-can-eat buffets Homer Simpson ever encountered, put together. But these food fests are good for us all.
‘Our results say that if we restore whale populations to pre-whaling levels seen at the beginning of the 20th century, we’ll restore a huge amount of lost function to ocean ecosystems,’ Nicolas Pyenson says. ‘It may take a few decades to see the benefit, but it’s the clearest read yet about the massive role of large whales on our planet.’
Ambergris – Floating Gold
The second type of whale excretion is not as important but just as valuable to some—Ambergris – worth about $40,000 per kilo.
Marine scientists are unsure if ambergris qualifies as poo or vomit. They do know that it is a lumpy, waxy substance created in the gut of the blue whale. The wax coats the sharp and indigestible beaks of the squid that comprise a large part of the whale’s diet. The ambergris lump is expelled to float in the ocean until washed ashore. By then, it had lost all stinkiness and absorbed the delicious scent of the sea. And that is the magic of ambergris: the ability to absorb and hold aroma. This makes it worth more than gold to parfumiers.
Why Protection Is Important
However, ambergris is protected, and with good cause. Whales were hunted close to extinction in the 20th century. Countries like Japan and Norway still hunt whales for no good purpose, yet Iceland has suspended their whaling ‘industry’ because there is no viable market. Imagine the reaction of such unscrupulous operators to the idea of butchering a whale to retrieve ambergris?
Protecting whales from hunting, pollution, net entanglement and environmental degradation are why we have established the Gowings Whale Trust. Help us keep the poo pool full. Check out the full story at the ABC, with some fantastic images (not of poo).
And thanks to all the scientists searching for new ways to save our whales. Thank you for your valuable work and for giving us an excuse to mention poo 17 times in one story.
Let’s make it a round 20?