The Whales and Us

The Whales and Us

By Paul Wright

Whales have been on my mind a lot lately. Whales? Aside from being inherently remarkable creatures that share the world with us, they also reflect back to us humans something essential about ourselves. They remind us what we may be missing when we look out our window to see what’s there.

I still recall the wonder of watching two whales vigorously tumbling together just off the coast of South Africa, and noticing the uneasy, awestruck sense of connection I felt with them.

The Importance of Whales…Commercially

Anyone who has ever read “Moby Dick” will remember that, not so long ago, whales were much-coveted prizes. Fleets of ships roamed the oceans to hunt down. Once harpooned, a whale’s body was secured to the side of a ship and flensed. Stay with me here, please. The whaler’s crew systematically stripped off the whale’s blubber and then processed it into oil.

Whales, you see, were the beating heart of what preceded the petroleum industry. They were the prime source of the stuff that once lit homes, textile mills and street lamps. Whale oil was also a main ingredient in products as varied as soap, lipstick and pharmaceuticals. During World War I, the British government classified whale oil as a critical resource for fighting the war.

The Whales and Us
Whales are essential to a healthy ocean eco-system.

Aside from all of the other drama that has made this year so memorable, 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the Save the Whales campaign. While the 19th and 20th centuries were the highwater mark for commercial whaling (with nearly three million killed in the last century alone), the full-bore slaughter of whales continued until someone noticed that the oceans contained a lot fewer of them and decided to do something about it. An international uproar led to a moratorium on killing whales – though one riddled with some large loopholes – that has brought the numbers back from the brink.

The Importance of Whales…and Us…Environmentally

There are many reasons whales deserve our attention. But one I recently discovered is their impact on the world’s climate. And climate change. Whales? Yes.

Let me share two examples. If you’ve ever seen a whale up close, you can imagine the turbulence its body mass produces from swimming around in the ocean, especially when it dives and ascends to the surface. This turbulence churns up large volumes of water, along with the nutrients in it. It also creates water columns that bring those nutrients to the surface. The turbulence contributes to the growth of plankton – a major food source for whales.  Plankton is also a major producer of oxygen in the atmosphere that also explains why oceans absorb so much carbon dioxide.

Fewer whales = fewer plankton = less oxygen = less carbon-absorbent capacity in the oceans. The mass harvesting of whales has also succeeded in deleting from the oceans an enormous amount of biomass that would once have represented a huge reservoir of carbon. Imagine planting a thousand trees or more – that, recent research reports, is the carbon equivalent of a single whale. (If you want to read up on whales, I’m happy to recommend “Fathoms: The World in the Whale” by Rebecca Giggs.) Our mini-science lesson is almost over. What remains to be said here is this: Because whales help modulate the climate, their absence damages an important climate mechanism on which humans depend, a reminder that none of us exists in a vacuum, although we may act that way.

The Whales…and Us…We’re Interconnected

The Whales and Us
Fewer whales = fewer plankton = less oxygen = less carbon-absorbent capacity in the oceans.

We may appreciate the notion of rugged individualism, but our species participates in Nature’s great ecosystem of ecosystems, quite as much as salmon, ants or honey bees, or, for that matter, the trees right outside our manors. And one cardinal rule of systems is that any systemic change triggers merciless feedback, whether we like it or not.

We are the reason whales are turning up dead with innards full of plastic and other junk. All the garbage we’ve dumped into the oceans. We’re the reason why their much-depleted numbers and noise pollution from our ocean-going vessels now make it harder for them to find one another through their “songs.” The whales…and us are connected. This something we overlooked when we pell-mell tried to pursue them to extinction. Along with the lesson that natural resources are neither unlimited, nor all about us.

This is why sustainability matters. Plant-based diets, recycling our trash, shifting to alternative energy sources – all of these are steps toward a sustainable future that recognizes our belonging to something called Nature. They’re a start. The good news is that we no longer look to whales as a vital source of energy. The bad news is that, when we shifted our sights to a petroleum-based economy, we still missed the Nature connection. The next time you look out your window or take a walk, let your curiosity guide you. Consider the whales…and us.

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, Nov. 25, 2020. Email Paul Wright at

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