FACT OF THE WEEK: Whales play a crucial role in the carbon cycle

MORE ON THIS: In a previous Fact of the Week, we learned how plankton helps the oceans ‘biological pump’, a process that supports the global carbon cycle by removing carbon from the air and storing it in the deep sea. This week, we’re going to talk about the largest living creatures in the ocean, whales, and their role in the carbon cycle. Their movements, deaths, and even feces all contribute to the ‘whale pump’ which works with the biological pump to promote carbon storage.

Movement: When whales swim from deep waters to the surface, they move nutrients up with them. Bringing nutrients to the surface increases the food source for phytoplankton, which play the first part in carbon uptake.

 

Death: When dead whales sink to the ocean floor, they take with them all the carbon that has built up in their body over their lifetime. As the largest marine mammals, that’s a lot of carbon, similar to the huge amounts of carbon stored in old trees.

Feces: When whales swim to the surface, they poo, releasing large fecal plumes which are extremely nutrient-rich and widely consumed by plankton. As one of the larger whale species, sperm whale poop alone might remove hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon from the atmosphere by promoting plankton growth.

Before population declines due to industrial whaling, it is estimated that large baleen whales used to remove millions of tons more carbon than they do today. Scientists suggest that restoring whale populations could greatly increase ocean carbon storage again and may be just as effective as reforestation projects and ocean iron fertilization.

By Kaitlin Yehle

 

FURTHER READING:

  1. Whales Keep Carbon out of the Atmosphere.
  2. The Impact of Whaling on the Ocean Carbon Cycle: Why Bigger Was Better.
  3. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Roman J, Estes JA, Morissette L, Smith C, Costa D, McCarthy J, Nation JB, Nicol S, Pershing A and Smetacek V. 2014. 12(7): 377-385.

 

Plastic Free Life

Five practical tips to reduce plastic, starting today.

  1. Re-use glass jars. There are a ton of prepared foods you can purchase in glass jars; think pasta sauce, peanut butter, salsa, pickles and so on. Instead of buying plastic containers, re-use your jars for leftovers, packed lunches or keep them for storing your dry goods. Which brings us to the next tip…
  2. Buy in bulk. Many stores provide items such as grains, pasta, legumes, nuts and cereals for you to buy unpackaged. Simply bring your jars and measure out what you need. You’ll save money as well as the planet. Remember to check with customer service before you begin, as each store has a particular method for measuring weights. Hint: cotton bags are another great option when buying unpackaged items, and often have their weight printed on the tag (making it easy to deduct at the checkout).
  3. Say no to plastic produce bags. Many of us already bring reusable bags for our groceries, but go that little step further and use them when buying your fruit and vegetables too. Global estimates report that 2 million plastic bags are used every minute. That translates into an unsustainable amount of waste being produced each day! To learn more about the impact of plastic production on our environment, check out our previous blog The Last Straw.
  4. Stop unnecessary packaging. You’d be surprised at the amount of plastic that goes into producing and packaging store bought items; even worse for mail order. In 2012, containers and packaging accounted for 75.2 million tons of solid waste generated in the US alone. Try picking up clothes and other items at secondhand stores and yard sales instead. If you really must order something online, choose a company that promote sustainable packaging. Are your favorite company’s not on the list? Let them know how important the issue is to you,  companies like Dell and Stonyfield Farm are already improving their wasteful ways based on customer feedback!
  5. Use an eco-friendly water bottle. I’m sure you’ve heard this one before and if you’re using one today, awesome! If not, it’s time to make that change. Bottled water produces 1.5 million tons of plastic waste around the world per year, and requires 47 million gallons of oil to produce. It’s overpriced and not necessarily any cleaner than the water you get out of your tap. Don’t be fooled, grab a reusable water bottle today.

Some of these tips you may have heard before but it’s time to start implementing them today. If it seems like too much, just choose one and build up your environmental stewardship with time. You’ll be making a major change in our world and setting a green example for others in your community.

Sources

Earth Policy Plastic Bag Facts

Environmental Protection Agency Waste Management 

Food & Water Watch

Sea Turtles of Isla De La Plata

Sea turtles are one of the main attractions of the Isla De La Plata tour. Hundreds of tourists look forward to arriving at Drake Bay to watch turtles gather around the boat giving them one of the most amazing spectacles of their lives. Some rush to submerge their GoPros in the water in hope of catching an underwater glimpse of this ancient creature of the sea, while others prefer to take pictures them from the top of the vessel to get a wider perspective.

However, it was not always like this. Only 5 years ago, sea turtles were rarely seen at Drake Bay, Isla De La Plata. So what was caused this increase in sea turtle numbers in such a short time?

For year, captains from Isla De La Plata vessels would rush straight to the island and barely slow down until they reached Drake Bay. If they were asked by tourists or guides to slow down because of potential collisions with sea turtles, they would respond with “sorry, we need to arrive as soon as possible”. Captains did not much care about the sea turtles, as they were not tourist attractions and slowing down was considered a waste of their time. Luckily for the turtles, this was about to change in a drastic way.

 

Machalilla National Park hired a new manager, who ordered the park rangers to be alert of speeding vessels near Isla De La Plata and to enforce speed limits that had long been in place. The fining of a single vessel is all it took to begin to see a change in vessels navigating these waters.

At first, captains were a little reluctant to abide by the enforced regulations, but with time and the increasing numbers of sea turtles catching the tourists’ attention, they themselves started to sympathize with this wonderful animal.

Today, sea turtles can be easily be found in big aggregations around Isla De La Plata. The population seems to be thriving and the turtles have become a major feature in Isla La Plata tours. Sea turtles have not only stolen our hearts, but also those of the boat captains, who once did not care about them at all. Now when a captain is asked to hurry to the island they respond with: “no, the turtles need us to slow down to ensure their safety”.

Las Tortugas Marinas En La Isla De La Plata

Las tortugas marinas son una de las atracciones principales del tour a la Isla de la Plata, y cada año cientos de turistas esperan al momento de verlas rodear el bote y darles uno de los más increíbles espectáculos de sus vidas cuando llegan a Bahía Drake. Algunos se apresuran a sumergir sus Gopros en el agua con la esperanza de vislumbrar bajo el agua a estas criaturas ancestrales del mar, mientras otros prefieren tomarles fotografías desde la parte superior del bote para obtener una amplia imagen de su presencia.

Sin embargo, no siemprefue así. Hace solo 5 años atrás, pocas eran las tortugas que se podían observar en la Isla, y el tour a la isla no era promovido con la idea de observar tortugas. ¿Entonces, que cambio en tan poco tiempo? Hace tan solo 5 años, los capitanes de las embarcaciones que iban a la Isla iban tan apurados por ganarle a los demás botes y terminar el tour rápido que apenas disminuían la velocidad hasta llegar a Bahía Drake. Si algún turista o guía les pedían que bajen la velocidad para no chocarse contra tortugas marinas, ellos se molestaban y simplemente decían: “¡que tortugas ni que tortugas!, debemos llegar rápido a la isla”. A ellos no les importaban las tortugas marinas: ellas no eran atracciones turísticas y solo les hacían perder el tiempo al tener que bajar la velocidad. Afortunadamente, esto estaba a punto de cambiar…

Al Parque Nacional Machalilla llego un nuevo jefe de área, quien ordeno a todos los guardaparques que estén alerta de botes que no acaten la ley de bajar la velocidad cerca de la isla de la Plata, y de aplicar medidas estrictas a las embarcaciones que no cumplieran con esta regulación (que ya existía, pero que nadie obedecia). Tan solo basto una multa y demanda a una de las embarcaciones para que todo cambiara….y para recuperar a nuestra población de tortugas marinas en la Isla de la Plata.

Al principio, los capitanes estaban renuentes a acatar esta disposición, pero con tiempo y el incremento de observación de tortugas en la Isla de la Plata que atraían a los turistas, ellos mismos empezaron a simpatizar con estos hermosos animales, e incluso empezaron a alimentarlas con lechuga y frutas, para de alguna manera atraer a las pocas tortugas que aun había en ese entonces en la Isla, y que al mismo tiempo estas entretengan al turista.

En la actualidad, las tortugas marinas pueden ser encontradas fácilmente en grandes agregaciones en Bahia Drake. La población esta totalmente recuperada y se ha convertido en una importante parte del tour a la Isla de la Plata! Estos hermosos reptiles no solo se han robado nuestros corazones, sino también los corazones de los capitanes de los botes de turismo, a quienes antes no les importaban. Ellos ahora verdaderamente las aprecian mucho, hasta el punto que, cuando les dicen que se apuren para llegar rápido a la isla, ellos mismos responden: “No, las tortugas necesitan que bajemos la velocidad para estar a salvo”.

Celebrate Endangered Species Day

Endangered Species Day is a celebration of the nation’s wildlife and wild places and is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the importance of protecting endangered species. Started in 2006 by the United States Congress, Endangered Species Day occurs on the 3rd Friday of May to inspire people to take action in their everyday lives to help protect endangered species.

At Pacific Whale Foundation we research two endangered species: humpback whales and false killer whales.

As with many endangered species, both humpback whales and false killer whales are endangered due to human activities. The North Pacific population of humpback whales was hunted until only a few hundred individuals remained. Although their population has recovered immensely—recent estimates suggest approximately 20,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific—they and other large whale species are still at risk of vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. Our current research on humpback whales aims to reduce the risk of these collisions by determining which factors contribute to detectability of the whales.

The major threat for false killer whales is entanglement in longline fishing gear. False killer whales prey on economically important pelagic fish such as mahi and tuna. Unfortunately, this results in frequent interactions with fishing gear that lead to entanglement injuries and bycatch events. Research on false killer whales at Pacific Whale Foundation focuses on abundance, distribution and social structure, allowing us to better manage and conserve this species.

For Endangered Species Day 2016, try incorporating these actions into your daily routine:

Make purchasing choices to protect endangered species:

Opt for biodegradable packaging instead of plastics and other synthetic materials that contribute to the growing problem of persistent marine debris. Use the Seafood Watch app from Monterey Bay Aquarium to choose fish that are caught in ways that protect endangered species from threats such as entanglement and bycatch.

Visit a national wildlife refuge, park, or sanctuary:

One of the best ways to conserve endangered species is to conserve the places that they call home. National wildlife refuges, parks, and sanctuaries are often designated because they provide crucial habitat for endangered species. Whether it’s watching humpback whales within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary or trying to catch a glimpse of a manatee in Everglades National Park, visiting and supporting these protected areas goes a long way toward the conservation of these species.

Support experiences that respect wildlife and their habitats:

For your summer vacation, choose activities that respect wildlife and natural areas. Look for certified ecotourism companies with a focus on conservation and responsible management of endangered species.  For example, Pacific Whale Foundation is a certified sustainable tour operator with science, advocacy, and conservation at the core of its mission.

Adopt an Endangered Species:

Several organizations offer the opportunity to adopt different endangered species. Adoptions are a great way to support conservation efforts while getting to know the life history of individual animals. At Pacific Whale Foundation, you can adopt your very own humpback whale or false killer whale to help our researchers learn more about these species. We offer multiple levels of adoption packages, but all include an adoption certificate, sightings history, and sightings map of your whale.

Top 10 Ways To Celebrate Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to share 10 ways to engage with Mother Nature. You probably already recycle, so here are ten alternative ways to help the planet:

10. Participate in a citizen science project to help marine life.

  • Whale & Dolphin Tracker is a mobile web-application to report sightings of whales and dolphins so scientists can learn more about their patterns. You can log sightings in real-time and view them on a map or review profiles later. Visit log.pacificwhale.org to register with your smartphone.
  • Match My Whale is a web-based app to help researchers photo identify humpback whales by their flukes. Learn more and join today at www.matchmywhale.org

9. Visiting Maui? You can Volunteer on Vacation through Pacific Whale Foundation. Help clean up beach debris, remove invasive weeds, or work on other environmental projects on the island to “give back” while also creating meaningful and lasting memories of your time on Maui.

8. Help conserve Hawaii’s coral reefs. Eyes of the Reef offers free public trainings on how to report changes in the coral reef conditions in Hawaii. This helps resource managers detect the early onset of coral bleaching, disease, crown-of-thorn seastars, and outbreaks of invasive species.

7. Eat only sustainable seafood, both at home and while dining out. There are now many apps, like Seafood Watch, that will tell you what is safe to consume.

6. Get the most out of your binge-watching with our environmental documentary top picks:

  • “The 11th Hour” is Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2007 film featuring interviews with various politicians and scientists, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Stephen Hawking. It presents an interesting thesis: that human society possesses the technology to reduce our environmental impact by more than 90%.
  • “The Cove” won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010 as well as the Audience Award at Sundance. Not many films have caused as much public outcry as this expose on the fate of 23,000 of dolphins every year in Japan.
  • “An Inconvenient Truth” lit the fire of climate change awareness around the world. Originating from Al Gore’s speaking campaign after his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid, the film won two Academy Awards in 2006.
  • “Catching the Sun” captures the global race to lead the clean energy future. Premieres on Netflix April 22.

5. Do a bit of research and buy only from companies with sustainable practices. PWF Eco-Adventures prides itself on being eco-friendly and offers numerous “green features” as detailed on our website.

4. Reduce your carbon footprint by carpooling. Also, many employers, such as Pacific Whale Foundation, offer incentives for employees who ride the bus to work or who purchase ultra-high-efficiency vehicles. Contact your employer about your options.

3. Go paperless when possible. Sign up for online or mobile banking. Read the newspaper online. Use note-taking apps on your phone. Think twice about printing that email at work.

2. Cut down on plastic waste. Our marine debris surveys find that plastic is the most common source of garbage in Hawaii’s oceans. Plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of whales, dolphins and turtles. Choose reusable food and beverage containers, purchase items with less packing, and bring your own shopping bags.

1. Watch the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change signing ceremony on April 22. Find out more about Sustainable Development Goals and the need to limit global temperature rise. All sessions will be livestreamed on http://webtv.un.org

Leave us a message in the comments and let us know how you are choosing to spend your Earth Day. 

Isla de la Plata

The Ecuador research team had a special trip to Isla de la Plata last week, on a very sunny day with calm winds. Most days the team spent searching for humpback whales within Puerto Lopez. However, when calm weather allowed, they traveled to Isla de la Plata, allowing them to see other species besides the humpback whale.

On the way to the island the team saw nazca and blue-footed boobies in a feeding frenzy together with pantropical spotted dolphins. Once the team arrived at the island they were delighted to see a beautiful male orca. Although this sighting is not uncommon for the island, this is the first time they documented a male orca. A group of humpback whales was also observed close by and it is not uncommon to see orcas attacks humpback whales in waters around Isla de la Plata.

On the return trip from the island several groups of active humpback whales were observed traveling south, potentially beginning their migration route. The whales are always inspiring the team to move forward, bringing out the best in them, and research should always serve to protect them, to speak for them, and above all to create new life opportunities for people. A change that is well echoed in the town of Puerto Lopez, which owes its transformation to the whales.