Yes, you read the title right, we’re talking whale ‘poop’, whale ‘crap’, whale ‘feces’, whale ‘excrement’ or whatever you want to call it. Easily the biggest mammals on the planet, can you imagine the size of the dumps these guys take? Well, I know you’re probably thinking about it right now, since we put it in your head and are imagining crude whale sized poop, sinking to the ocean floors like bricks tied to led, tied to a grand piano. However, that’s just not a true picture of what happens in reality.
Whales actually poop almost liquid fecal matter, which appears like a dispersed cloud or plume at the surface. This slurry of fecal matter doesn’t sink nor is it produced in the depths of the ocean like you would image, but rather it floats at the surface where the whales go to do their business. What’s even more, is that their waste, is what microscopic phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain thrives on for nutrition. This makes whale poop crucial to the marine ecology and to us.
Essentially, whales like the humpback whale, right whales, baleen whales and most other species of whale dive to the depths of the oceans to feed on tiny crustaceans and krill in large quantities. The krill itself, feeds on plankton that dies and makes it way to the bottom of the ocean in high concentrations. In other words, making the krill a very rich source of iron, nitrogen and other nutrients for the whales. By feeding on these nutrient rich creatures at the depths of the oceans and later coming up to the surface to defecate, the whales are actually transporting the nutrients to the surface. Scientists call it the Whale Pump.
Researchers have found whale poop to be extremely loaded with iron and nitrogen in particular. Both extremely essential nutrients for the sustenance of phytoplankton, pooping whales complete a very important cycle that has been overlooked in the past. With diminishing populations of whales, due to commercial whaling the ecology the importance of their contribution to the ecology is being brought back to the forefront, and very rightly so.
Larger populations of whales would produce more of the nutrients that would help increase phytoplankton and ultimately more krill populations for the whales to feed on again. Apart from being the base of the marine food chain, phytoplankton plays an important part in terrestrial ecology as well, as it’s responsible for over 50% of the world’s oxygen supply. In doing so, through photosythesis, they absorb a large portion of the CO2 that we’re spewing out at an alarming rate. In fact, about 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere is taken to the deep ocean each year by plankton. Which is a huge deal and which is why even small changes in the growth of phytoplankton can affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which would feed back to global surface temperatures.
Save the whales, save our planet.
*Image credits: Photo by Nolleos on flickr