A Whale of a Time

Whales rule the oceans. These majestic giants sit at the the top of the food chain, triggering a trophic cascade. In a previous blog, we discussed how wolves can change the course of rivers. Here we see how whales effect climate change and how one amazing team of scientists are now able to monitor the health of whale populations through drone technology.

Their very presence allows the entire marine ecosystem and humanity to thrive. 

Poop-tastic

It is often argued that the slaughter of whales, and other marine predators, such as sharks and dolphins, is beneficial to humans as this provides a more abundant supply of fish for us to eat. Every year, the Norwegians murder minke whales, the Danish kill pilot whales and the Japanese take part in their own prolific massacres. The damage is monumental. As whale populations have declined, so have the numbers of fish. Allowing whale populations to recover could instigate the same recovery in fish populations

More whales means more fish

But how does this work? As the apex predator, surely their feeding will diminish the population of their prey: fish? The beauty and mystery of natures defies all logic once again: 

  1. Whales dive into the depths to feed
  2. They return to the surface to breath leaving behind a trail of excrement
  3. Whale poop is a buffet of vital nitrogen and iron for plant plankton
  4. The water columns are stirred disseminating these nutrients throughout the marine levels
  5. Plant plankton (phytoplakton) feeds animal plankton
  6. Animal plankton (zooplankton) feeds fish 
  7. Fish feed whales (and us)

Now here is the exciting part. Phytoplankton are the tiny plant-like organisms residing in the photic zone, i.e. near the waters surface where the sun is. They create their own food through photosynthesis, a process requiring light to react with water and carbon dioxide, creating oxygen (which we breathe) and glucose (their food). The phytoplankton need carbon dioxide. An increase in their population means more carbon dioxide is being absorbed and removed from the atmosphere. Phytoplankton produce 70% of the world's oxygen. The World's eye has been focused on saving our other oxygen supply; the rainforest, and now it is time to save the other; the ocean and all of it's inhabitants. As the primary producer of oxygen, ocean conservation is more critical than ever. 

Let's recap; more whales mean more faecal plumes, meaning more phytoplankton, meaning more CO2 absorption, meaning lower levels of CO2 in the atmosphere i.e. addressing climate change, and more oxygen so we can breath easy. 

Whales effect climate change. 

SnotBot

Now we have established the critical role that whales play, we must find a way to track and measure the health of whales out in the wild. Ocean Alliance and the Olin College of Engineering has succeeded in this endeavour, with their pioneering SnotBot, a drone which hovers over a breaching whale, collecting the biological matter from it's blow (snot). 

This biological matter stems straight from the whales lung cavity, providing researchers with a plethora of data on overall health, including information on bacteria, viruses, DNA, stress levels, reproductive cycles and hormones. Previously this information was collected via sampling darts, which in addition to being very invasive could also give a skewed image of the true health of the animal. 

The SnotBot originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2015 raising an amazing $229,819 to undertake three expeditions to Patagonia, the Sea of Cortes and Frederick Sound to conduct their research. 

We now have lift off and the drones have taken to the skies. 

And that's not all

With the ever growing use and accessibility of drones, this team are also democratising science and conservation. The aim of the project is to eventually make the technology available to everyone. You will not even require a boat to collect your own whale snot, the drones can be flown from land. 

Another example of technology uniting science and the people to collectively engage in the conservation of Planet Ocean.