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



  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.


Field season in Australia is underway

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia research program is off to a great start this year. Based out of the town of Hervey Bay, we observe the whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia, travelling south to their Antarctic feeding grounds. We have had some amazing whale encounters, and we are already starting to see mothers arriving with their calves. Our research staff and volunteers have been going out daily since mid-July to photograph the humpback whales that migrate through the region. The whales in this population mate and have their calves in the tropical areas of northeast Australia and Oceania. The bay is relatively shallow and protected by Fraser Island, offering a nice area for the whales to stop over during their long migration south.

Working from the MV Amaroo operated by the Hervey Bay Boat Club, our researchers take opportunistic identification photos of the underside of the whales’ tail flukes. Since each fluke is unique to the individual, these photos allow us to compare the fluke of each whale we see in the field with our catalog of known whales to determine the history of sightings for each animal. Additionally, the team tries to get photos of the dorsal fins and body of the animal which helps us assess overall body condition as well as any lesions or scars that may indicate injury or poor health. To learn more about our Australian research projects, visit our website. To try your hand at matching fluke photos from our South Pacific catalog, create an account and get started at Match My Whale.


PWF Ecuador Hosts Training for Tour Operators

Under the coordination of the Ministry of Environment and Machalilla National Park, Pacific Whale Foundation Ecuador provided a free training during the months of August through early September. The gathering was a unique opportunity for Puerto López residents to learn from National Park representatives. Specifically directed towards those in constant interaction with whales, the training was attended by park rangers, guides, and captains of Machalilla National Park.

Collectively, the training brought together about 90 people including both veteran guides with many years of experience and new ones who will help with future protection. We were delighted to have the talkative guides with all their questions and even the silent captains who needed teambuilding games to loosen their tongues a little!

Participants received valuable information in the format of three different presentations. The talks covered topics such as correct boat practices in the presence of whales, and we were also able to share whalewatching statistics as well as our recent research findings. Pacific Whale Foundation’s Cristina Castro, Ph.D., Researcher Director of Ecuador, presented information regarding a whale that was photo-identified in Ecuador and a couple of years later was also identified in South Sandwich Island, a migratory distance of approximately 10,000km. Attendees were fascinated by this topic and expressed a great interest to learn more.

It is opportunities like these that encourage us in our 18 consecutive years of research, conservation, and education. We are committed to training and educating the residents of Puerto Lopez, following through and moving forward with research, and above all, sharing everything we know to protect and conserve humpback whales in our beloved Ecuador.

Expedition down under

Pacific Whale Foundation researchers arrived this week in Hervey Bay, a quaint community in northern Queensland. For the next few months, I will be documenting research efforts and managing our little shop as humpback whales make their annual migration from the subtropic waters of eastern Australia to their feeding grounds of Antarctica. Stephanie Stack, M.Sc. PWF’s Senior Research Biologist and Research Assistant Laura Behm will be photographing flukes and recording data of daily sightings for ongoing research in the area.

Began in 1984, Pacific Whale Foundation’s Australia humpback whale research program is the longest running study of this population. The overarching goal of PWF’s research is to advance understanding of humpback whale biology, population status and impacts of human activities on the population. PWF’s Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale ID Catalog is a compilation of 31 seasons of research, combining detailed data on life history, behavior, spatial distribution, and human impacts.

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Promising partnership in Guatemala

Whalewatching continues to grow globally with new markets emerging. Guatemala is the latest country seeking to develop whale watch operations off its Pacific coast focusing on the annual migration of humpback whales that migrate through their waters December through June. The humpbacks are thought to be en route to/from their breeding and calving grounds off Costa Rica, and likely spend their summer months feeding near central California northward to BC, Canada.

Greg Kaufman, founder of Pacific Whale Foundation recently traveled to the small coastal community of Montericco, Guatemala — best known for its 20km- long nature reserve of coast and coastal mangrove wetlands — to speak with tour operators about whalewatching and learn first-hand their challenges and whale observations.

The department of tourism, INGUAT, reached out to Kaufman for advice on this new developing industry. They stressed the importance of wanting to take a scientific approach to cultivate sustainable tourism in the area. Kaufman shared his thoughts on regulation and responsible practices.

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#PWFSaveTheWhales: 35 Ways to Save the Whales on our 35th Anniversary

35 yearsThirty five years ago, Pacific Whale Foundation was founded with the primary goal of saving the humpback whales, which were dangerously close to extinction in 1980. Now, our mission is to protect our oceans through science and advocacy. In our 35 years as an organization, we’re proud to have had ocean conservation victories on behalf of the whales.

A few highlights from years past include stopping the operation of a high speed ferry through calving grounds, banning plastic bags in Maui County and banning smoking and tobacco use at Maui County beaches and parks, banning the display of captive cetaceans in Maui County, and helping to designate the false killer whale as an endangered species. Learn more here.

However, humpback whales are not “out of the woods” yet. Humpback whales are still on the endangered species list and still have many threats facing them. At the top of the food chain, whales have an important role in the overall health of the ocean. Though whale protections and public awareness of the inhumaneness of whaling have improved, unfortunately seven out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable, even after decades of protection.  What are threats to whales and how can we help save them?

There are a lot of ways to make a difference for the whales, no matter where you live. Each time you take action to save the whales, document it and use the hashtag #PWFSaveTheWhales to show the world how YOU are standing up for the whales.

  1. Don’t delist! Keep Humpback Whales on the endangered species list.
  2. Marine debris, trash in the ocean, is now a major threat to whales. Leave the ocean cleaner than you found it.
  3. Stop whaling in Japan, Norway and Iceland (where over 1000 whales a year are killed for commercial hunting in Iceland, including fin whales).
  4. Support the International Whaling Commission’s ban on Japan’s “scientific” whaling and support non-lethal whale research instead.
  5. Oppose cetacean captivity around the world. PWF successfully petitioned to ban captive marine mammals in Maui County in 2002.
  6. Ship strikes are major causes of whale fatalities. Do your best to buy local to avoid excessive shipping.
  7. Naval sonar testing is believed to be harmful to cetaceans, oppose testing in your region and learn more from Pelagos Institute.
  8. Report any stranded marine mammals with NOAA’s smartphone app.
  9. Entanglement is a primary threat to cetaceans. Learn more and help out NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network, of which PWF is proud to be a part.
  10. PWF has found that reduced speed of whale watching boats lessens the risk of whale-vessel collisions. Learn more from our Be Whale Aware program and choose responsible ecotourism whenever you travel.
  11. Wherever you live, do your part to reduce climate change and rising sea surface temperatures. Rising temperatures in the ocean change where whales’ feeding grounds occur.
  12. Become an armchair whale scientist. Support noninvasive whale research and participate in PWF’s citizen science fluke ID project. http://matchmywhale.org/
  13. Support marine education and do your part to share your knowledge about whale conservation.
  14. Removing dams is not only salmon friendly; it also helps increase fish food supply for orcas in the Pacific Northwest.
  15. Buy sustainable seafood. Your choices will guide responsible fishing and make the oceans healthier. Learn more from Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch.
  16. Whales need a safe home, support the founding and enforcement of Marine Mammal Protected Areas worldwide.
  17. Support bans on trade in endangered species products and be sure to not purchase products made with endangered species.
  18. Encourage the U.S. to uphold the ban on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission.
  19. Use less plastic in your everyday life: it accidentally ends up in whales’ bellies.
  20. Use monofilament recycling bins to dispose to used fishing line. Check out Pacific Whale Foundation’s fishing line recycling program here on Maui.
  21. Support our conservation efforts and learn more at http://www.pacificwhale.org/content/conservation-programs.
  22. Set a good example as an ocean steward by respecting the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s approach limits, which is the law.
  23. “Adopt” a whale with Pacific Whale Foundation.
  24. Education is how we influence the next generation of ocean advocates. Share what you’ve learned.
  25. Check out “Dolphin SMART”, a program by NOAA that identifies responsible dolphin watching tours.
  26. All drains lead to the ocean. Use eco-friendly cleaning products.
  27. Cut the car: Bikes, buses, skateboards, feet, use ‘em!
  28. Oil and gas development produce noise and pollution in the ocean that disturb whales, look into renewable energy options.
  29. Support our efforts in promoting responsible boating. Check out our Be Whale Aware program as a guide for responsible boating and navigation around large whales.
  30. We don’t know everything about whales yet. We need research that better identifies areas that are important in whales’ life history for better protection.
  31. Be part of the solution: Join a local environmental group and volunteer your time, wherever you live.
  32. Say “No” to plastic bags: Plastic bags are estimated to kill over 100,000 birds, turtles and marine mammals each year. Invest in reusable bags.
  33. Avoid products with contaminants such as PCBs, which are harmful to orcas and other marine mammals.
  34. Wean off our oil dependency- oil spills drastically affect marine mammal populations.
  35. Become a member of PWF and help our efforts in science and advocacy.

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Twitter: @PacificWhale

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