Why does whale poop help us fight climate change?

Adélaïde Fouache

snorkellers around a turtle

We humans seem to have a fascination for anything that is different from us, that we do not understand. That fascination usually turns into a thirst for knowledge about whatever we set our eyes on. The seas and oceans on our planet are some of the most unknown places. According to NOAA, humans have explored as little as 5 percent of the underwater world, and up to 91% of ocean species have yet to be discovered. Everyday, we discover something new. Everyday, we learn how the underwater world is unique in many ways.

Human Impact on Marine Animals

Marine animals, whether small or big, cute or deadly, are of interest to many, although it seems to be one-sided. It is true that whales, sea lions, fish and other marine animals show some kind of interest in humans by getting close to people, spyhopping, breaching, or trying to eat underwater cameras, however their interest is short-term. Once their curiosity is satisfied, they go back to their life of feeding, socializing, playing and otherwise, yet we feel special when they pay attention to us even in the slightest. Some would look at these animals as commodities, as things to make money from, others as almost “magical” creatures because they are rarely seen in their daily life, but in both cases, they can be viewed as creatures who can help us realize how small we are, and how much still needs to be understood.

Animals of the deep oceans are adaptable to their environment, but with everything that we put them through, they might be out of adaptation options, hence why some species are endangered, or close to extinction. Unfortunately, our way of life is impacting marine animals more than we would have ever thought, and that fascination for them has turned deadly for many species. Whether it is from touristic and recreational activities such as marine parks, whale watching, snorkelling, swimming with dolphins and sharks, fishing, or overfishing, our consumption of plastic ends up being eaten by marine animals. Additionally, climate change, cargo ships, and tourist cruises in the seas all contribute to the pollution of their habitat, which makes it clear that we are driving these animals towards extinction. Photos, videos, and stories about seeing turtles with plastic around their throat, about fish and other animals washing up on the shores with their bellies filled with plastic, or dying from oil spills in their habitat have been seen in the media for years. The NGO Sea Legacy has released a short video series called “entangled” showing a humpback whale being entangled in an abandoned crab pot, demonstrating how our overconsumption of marine animals can impact those who live underwater. It is one of the reasons why it is thought that large-bodied marine mammals are at a higher risk of extinction, although capturing and killing species such as whales or sharks for consumption or entertainment might also play a role in the disappearance of big marine mammals. 

How Marine Animals Inform Us of Our Past, Present, and Future

We love them, we are fascinated by them, but we “love them to death,” and despite all the negative aspects we bring into their life, they are vital for our planet’s survival, as they contain the key to knowledge of the past, present, and future.  For example, the little skate, also called “walking fish” helped us better understand the evolution of vertebrates and human evolution in general, while other animals helped us understand what was roaming the seas millions of years ago. 

Currently,  animals such as whales are also helping us fight climate change by counteracting ocean stratification (where warm water stays on the surface while colder water is stuck in deeper water because of rising temperatures) by creating a “biological pump” when going deeper for foraging, then back to the surface to breathe and defecate. It breaks the layers of the stratification, allowing the underwater ecosystem to survive and thrive, and the whales’ poop is filled with nutrients needed for the phytoplankton to absorb carbon dioxide in surface waters, improving the quality of the seas and oceans the marine mammals live in. Marine vertebrates also stock a huge amount of carbon in their body, or defecate carbon-filled excrements, preventing the carbon from being released into the atmosphere. The observation of sea creatures and oceans in general can also lead to discoveries of new technologies needed for the next generations to thrive.

Humans have a huge impact on the animals of the sea, and similarly, they have an impact on us even though we are not always aware of exactly how. Our way of life physically and mentally affects them in ways we would not have thought of a decade ago. By driving them to extinction through various activities that are detrimental to the environment, we risk losing knowledge of what was, what is, and what will be our seas and oceans. We can all do our part to mitigate the impacts on marine life by modifying a few simple behaviors such as reducing or eliminating our plastic consumption, supporting companies who help reverse damage to the oceans, and by not participating in marine animal entertainment and exploitation activities. By being aware of how humans contribute to the negative impacts on marine life, we can slowly begin to improve ocean life around the world. We have not found the balance between learning from marine animals and risking their life, seeing how many species are going endangered or extinct recently, but it would be interesting to think of how to mitigate our impacts on them on the long term so we do not reach the extinction of all underwater species that we know. 

Sources: Duke University, Greenpeace, NOAA, Norwegian Blue Forests Network, One Green Planet, SeaLegacy, Science X, Science Daily, Smithsonian