Why whales are essential to the health of our oceans Whales are more than just beautiful creatures—they play a vital role in the ocean's ecosystem. Marine biologist Asha de Vos explains why protecting whales is crucial for protecting the entire sea.

Why whales are essential to the health of our oceans

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And this week, we are diving back into the sea for Part 2 of our ocean series. And I want to start with the biggest underwater creature there is - the whale, which, despite its size, can be really hard to spot.

ASHA DE VOS: They're huge, but they live in this gigantic space - 70% of our planet, right? So you just stand and stare out at the horizon, and you hope that an animal will turn up.

ZOMORODI: This is marine biologist Asha de Vos. And before she ever had a chance to see a whale, Asha fell in love with how they sound. Back in college...

DE VOS: I did a project on sperm whales and their acoustics. And I was listening to this cacophony.


DE VOS: And I was just like, you know, this world sounds so remarkable.

ZOMORODI: These are the clicking sounds that sperm whales make.

DE VOS: So sperm whales are the largest toothed whales. And so when we listen to them, they just have these beautiful patterns, series of clicks that they use for communicating with each other, for finding their food and stuff like that.


ZOMORODI: And this is a humpback whale.

DE VOS: They have the most complex songs. They're super beautiful. They evolve. I mean, it's quite magical.

ZOMORODI: But Asha says whale songs are more than beautiful. They help whales echolocate, to find food and navigate their environment.

DE VOS: Their eyesight isn't very good. And so their world really depends so heavily on their ability to hear.

ZOMORODI: And, of course, to communicate with each other, like...

DE VOS: Mothers probably reprimanding their babies...


DE VOS: ...Partners looking for mates, right?


DE VOS: Calling out, hey, beautiful. There's a response, right? They have to talk to each other. How else are we going to have more whales in our future?


ZOMORODI: Asha grew to love whales even more when she finally had the chance to observe them up close.

DE VOS: It all began with an encounter with six blue whales and a floating pile of whale poop off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka. And that's literally my eureka moment.

ZOMORODI: Because, Asha says, whale poop - yes, whale poop - is pretty spectacular.

DE VOS: Oh, my goodness. It is the most beautiful animal poop ever.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Wait, what is so beautiful about whale poop?

DE VOS: It's bright red. Literally, it's, like, brick red in color, and that's because these whales feed on shrimp. So one thing is it's really easy to find for researchers like myself who think whale poop is the bee's knees.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

DE VOS: But, you know, it is - like, poop is a clue to the secret world, right? Like, it allows us to learn more about what they feed on. But it's also incredibly important for our environment.

ZOMORODI: Here's Asha de Vos on the TED stage.


DE VOS: As whales dive to the depths to feed and come up to the surface to breathe, they actually release these enormous fecal plumes. This whale pump, as it's called, actually brings essential limiting nutrients from the depths to the surface waters where they stimulate the growth of phytoplankton that forms the base of all marine food chains. So really, having more whales in the oceans pooping is really beneficial to the entire ecosystem. Whales are also known to undertake some of the longest migrations of all mammals. As they do so, they transport fertilizer in the form of their feces from places that have it to places that need it.

But what's really cool is that they're also really important after they're dead. Whale carcasses provide a feast to some 400-odd species, including the eel-shaped, slime-producing hagfish. Whale carcasses are also known to transport about 190,000 tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of that produced by 80,000 cars per year, from the atmosphere to the deep oceans and therefore help to delay global warming. So over the 200 years of whaling, when we were busy killing and removing these carcasses from the oceans, we likely altered the rate and geographical distribution of these whale falls and, as a result, probably led to a number of extinctions of species that were most specialized and dependent on these carcasses for their survival.

ZOMORODI: You know, I don't think I ever realized how important whales are to all the life cycles that are taking place in the oceans. And it sort of sounds like 200 years ago, that was the ideal. Like, the ecosystems were thriving. Whales are pooping. They're dying in exactly the right places. And life in the ocean is flourishing. Then, of course, we humans come along, and we kind of screw everything up.

DE VOS: Yeah. So we basically reduced populations of whales by, you know - down to maybe, like, 10- to 20% of pre-whaling numbers - right? - which is a huge blow because these are gigantic animals that, as you can tell, have many roles to play in the oceans, right? And these things are so deeply interconnected that, you know, it's almost like a game of Jenga. You take a piece out, and you take another piece out, and it starts to wobble. And then you take that third piece out, and it all collapses because everything's so deeply intertwined, right? So you think about that drastic impact that we had over those, you know, years of whaling and the long-lasting impacts. And we're still trying to recover from that.

ZOMORODI: Over centuries, humans have treated the ocean as a place of endless resources. Now, between overfishing, carbon emissions, pollution and more, our oceans are in trouble. But it's not too late. And so today on the show, saving our seas - an SOS from the ocean. From our small individual actions to big community efforts, what we can all do to stop the destruction of our underwater ecosystems and why conservation isn't just about saving marine life but also saving our planet.

This isn't the first time that we've tried to save the ocean and the whales. In the '70s, the Save the Whales movement became one of the most successful conservation campaigns ever.


CHEECH AND CHONG: (Singing) Save the whales. Oh, funky momma, save the whales.

ZOMORODI: Mainstream culture fell in love with whales. There were bumper stickers, T-shirts, fliers, petitions and even entire albums, like Roger Payne's "Songs Of The Humpback Whale."


DE VOS: That concerted effort, those voices, really made a difference because, as a result, there were - you know, it was a domino effect. The International Whaling Commission moved forward and put down this moratorium to stop whaling. And so it was a time of change. And the whales that are coming back today, that's all thanks to the work that was done, you know, a few decades ago by people coming together and saying this is not going to work. We have to protect our whales. Let's save the whales.

ZOMORODI: So the Save the Whales movement really worked for stopping commercial whaling worldwide. But whales are still facing a lot of issues today. First - ship strikes.

DE VOS: All across the world, we have these massive shipping highways transporting goods throughout the world. And these shipping lanes often overlap with really important areas for these whales, like their feeding grounds, for example. And so they can actually hit them, and it can be lethal. And these animals can die.

ZOMORODI: Another problem - fishing nets.

DE VOS: If they get entangled at depth, they can't come up to the surface to breathe, so they drown. And as mammals, they do have to come to the surface to breathe. And if they get entangled at the surface, they can't dive down to the depths to feed, so then they can starve.

ZOMORODI: And finally - something we hardly ever think about in the ocean - sound pollution.

DE VOS: Now, in areas where you have heavy ship traffic for example what can happen, especially with species like blue whales, is that their sound and the vocalization that they create is at the same frequency as noise created by the ship. So it's like being at a cocktail party, for example. Everyone's talking at the same time, and you know someone said your name, but you don't know where that sound is coming from. You know, it's just a murmur of sound. And so for whales, if everything's at the same frequency - if I'm talking to you and someone's also talking across us at the same volume, at the same frequency, then I can't hear you. So how do I find my mate?

ZOMORODI: But it also must be, like, pretty exhausting for these animals to have noise constantly bombarding them day in and day out.

DE VOS: Yeah. You know, I think it is incredibly stressful. And there's this, I think, a beautiful study that was actually done off the East Coast of the U.S., and they were looking at stress hormones in whale poop samples, right? And so when 9/11 happened, they looked at the samples. And very surprisingly, they found that the whales were less stressed soon after 9/11.


DE VOS: Exactly, right? So they stopped the shipping in the Bay of Fundy for a short period of time. Ship noise dropped. And that was reflected in the stress levels of these whales, right? So we don't think about that. And stress is - you know, it's a silent killer, right? Like, it can impact reproductive capabilities. It can affect mother-calf pairs, right? If there's too much noise, the mother and calf maybe can't communicate. What if they get separated, right? There's a lot of knock-on effects as a result as well.

ZOMORODI: OK. So someone listening is like, all right, I get it. You - the ocean is interconnected. And whales, they affect so many other creatures. And clearly, humans have a big impact, too. But what if that person listening is like, I don't even live near an ocean. What can I possibly do?

DE VOS: Yeah. So, you know, I always tell people - you know, we always say all roads lead to Rome. I always say all waterways lead to the ocean. If you live anywhere, there's typically some water source, whether it's a tiny spring or the water in your tap or a big lake or a river. Everything that goes in there washes out into the ocean, right? And so we are connected.

I think we can all make a difference. I think we can all start to think about our individual lives, our individual capacities, our consumer habits - right? - like, what plastics are we using? Where are we dumping it? But also, just simple things like sharing these stories, right? You know, we talk so much about the conservation issues, which create apathy, right? But I want people to talk about the conservation wins. I want people to talk about that magic, about how beautiful blue whale poop is - right? - how amazing their sounds are and the fact that that's how they see the world. I want people to remember that there's a lot of amazing things that happen out there, and that ocean does truly, truly keep us alive.

ZOMORODI: That's marine biologist Asha de Vos. You can find her full talk at ted.com. On the show today - an SOS from the ocean. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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