Earth Day

Protect Whales, Protect the Planet

Humpback whale breaching in the ocean

A Conversation with Pacific Whale Foundation

We're diving deep into the importance of marine conservation and the crucial roles whales play in maintaining the health of our oceans with a team of experts from Pacific Whale Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting whales, dolphins, and other marine life through research, education, and advocacy. Here, we also discussed their ongoing efforts to promote sustainable practices and protect our planet's natural resources. So grab a cup of tea, sit back, and join us in this insightful conversation about the significance of whales and the importance of environmental stewardship.

Leaf Shave: What resources would humans lose without whales?
Pacific Whale Foundation: Without whales, humans would lose an essential part of the ocean's ecosystem. Whales are known as "ecosystem engineers" because they help remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere through a process known as "whale pump." When whales feed at depth, they bring nutrient-rich water to the surface, which stimulates the growth of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton absorbs CO₂ during photosynthesis, and when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the carbon with them, effectively sequestering it for centuries to millennia. Whales also provide important nutrient cycles that affect marine habitats, helping to keep everything in balance. When whales feed at the surface and defecate, they release nutrient-rich fecal plumes that help fertilize surface waters. This stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, which forms the base of the marine food web. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the global oxygen production, and they also play a vital role in absorbing CO₂ from the atmosphere. Whales also have cultural and spiritual significance for many indigenous and coastal communities. They are often considered sacred animals, and their presence in local waters is deeply intertwined with the cultural identity and traditions of these communities. Protecting whales is not only important for their ecological value but also for the cultural heritage and well-being of human communities.

LS: Are whales safe in captivity? Such as aquariums or zoos?
PWF: Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are highly intelligent marine mammals that should not be kept in captivity for the purpose of entertainment. Pacific Whale Foundation acknowledges there is scientific value to studying captive cetaceans and that they may provide information or knowledge which can otherwise not be obtained and which may be used to conserve or enhance wild populations. However, educating the public about cetaceans does not require that they be put on public display. In fact, such displays provide the public with a false picture of how these animals live in nature. Captive cetaceans for public display encourage people to consider wildlife as isolated objects, rather than as integral parts of an ocean ecosystem. 

LS: How intelligent are whales, as compared to say a cat or a dog? Are whales smarter than humans?
PWF: While whales and dolphins possess very high levels of intelligence compared to other animals, it is challenging to compare the intelligence of one species to another, because we can only interpret this through our human perspective. What we do know is that whales display social behaviors such as forming complex family bonds, advanced communication strategies including songs, and cooperative hunting strategies.

LS: What is the smallest known whale? What is the biggest known whale? What is the lifespan of a whale?
PWF: The smallest cetacean species is the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) at just under five feet (1.5 meters). Sadly, experts have deemed these little whales to be the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Bycatch from illegal fishing around the Gulf of Mexico has contributed to a sharp decline in the vaquita population in recent years. On the contrary, the largest known whale currently is the blue whale which can grow up to 100 feet (30 meters) and weighs up to 200 tonnes.

LS: Are the barnacles on them bothersome?
PWF: No, barnacles on whales do not typically cause any harm or distress. The relationship between whales and whale barnacles is generally considered a commensal one, meaning it has no cost or benefit to the whale, while the barnacle benefits.

LS: Do all whales produce ambergris?
PWF: No, not all whales produce ambergris. This waxy substance is a byproduct of the digestion process of male sperm whales. It usually passes through the whale undigested and can be found floating in the ocean or washed up on shore. Ambergris is highly sought after due to its unique smell and is used in the making of expensive colognes and perfumes. In the USA it is illegal to collect, keep, or sell ambergris because sperm whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the use and collection of any product from an endangered species. 

LS: How many different kinds of whales are there?
PWF: There are currently 94 recognized species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises collectively called "cetaceans" around the world.

LS: How many times can whales mate and birth?
PWF: Humpback whales have a single baby, called a calf, on average every 2-3 years and are pregnant for approximately 11 months before giving birth. Growing and then nursing a calf requires a lot of energy from the mother, so it is rare for a humpback whale to give birth in successive years. In contrast, sperm whales give birth every 4-6 years, with gestation lasting 14-16 months.

LS: Do whales remember human faces?
PWF: It is uncertain if whales can remember human faces.

LS: What are some practices we can start to help whales in everyday life?
PWF: To help protect whales in our everyday lives, we can choose sustainable seafood options when purchasing food or eating out, buy locally-made products to minimize the amount of worldwide shipping traffic, and avoid single-use plastics whenever possible. To support the role of whales in carbon sequestration, humans can work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adopting sustainable practices in energy production, transportation, and other human activities. To support the nutrient-cycling role of whales, humans can reduce pollution and nutrient runoff into the oceans, which can disrupt marine ecosystems and negatively impact the availability of nutrients for phytoplankton and other marine organisms. Promoting sustainable agricultural practices on land, reducing the use of fertilizers and chemicals, and protecting coastal habitats can also help maintain the natural nutrient cycling processes in the ocean. We can promote responsible and sustainable whale watching and ecotourism practices, which prioritize the welfare of whales and their natural habitats. This can include guidelines for responsible whale watching and promoting conservation awareness and education among tourists and local communities. We can also support organizations like Pacific Whale Foundation and other conservation initiatives to help protect whale populations worldwide. 

We hope our conversation has shed light on the vital importance of protecting not just whales, but also our planet's natural resources. The crucial role that whales play in maintaining the health of our oceans is just one reason to continue to raise awareness and take action toward a sustainable future for all.

Thanks again to Pacific Whale Foundation for all the work they do—it’s truly inspiring, and we are so proud to support their mission. Stay tuned for our update on how much we raised with Berryblue to donate to whale conservation.

Want to learn more? 

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Watch Ocean Guardians, a film by Pacific Whale Foundation

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