News Stories

Whale Poop Saves the Ocean

Whales may sing in the shower, but when they poop, they drop huge turds which work with the ecology of the ocean, playing an enormous role in its nutrient and carbon cycles.

And as if there wasn't enough trash ALREADY floating in our oceans, an undersea volcano near New Zealand has thrown up nearly 10,000 square miles of pumice onto the surface of the Pacific Ocean. This is almost 10 times as large as the state of Rhode Island. Pumice is a byproduct of lava that has cooled quickly after a volcanic eruption, and it's so lightweight that it floats.

On the Wired website, Brandon Keim quotes marine biologist Joe Roman as saying, "Whales and marine mammals (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show) can fertilize their surface waters. This can result in more plankton, more fish, and more whales."

Roman calls it the "whale pump," which describes how whales feeding at depths in the ocean the carry nitrogen they get from the plankton they eat to the surface, discharging it in "flocculent fecal plumes." In other words, whales can be thought of as the fertilizing bees of the ocean.

When marine biologist Eddie Kisfaludy flew over the Pacific Ocean near the coast of California and photographed a pod of 40 blue whales (the largest creatures on Earth), he saw one of them discharge a "plume" as large as itself. According to Keim, whale turds are composed of "a loose aggregation of particles, fluffy or woolly in nature," which is why they float.. They provide a way for the ocean's surface to be constantly recharged, stimulating the growth of plankton and feeding everything that eats them.

Roman and zoologist James McCarthy have calculated that, before commercial whaling, the whale pump distributed three times more nitrogen across the Gulf of Maine than it took in from fertilizer runoff or the atmosphere. Today, when some whale species are close to extinction, whale poop still adds more nitrogen to the ocean than all the rivers and streams running into the Gulf combined (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to these shows).

Brandon Keim quotes marine biologist Andrew Pershing (who must be a dog owner) as saying, "I'm glad I don’t have to pick that up." Maybe it will get sucked up by the pumice?

On CNN, Todd Sperry quotes one New Zealand sailor as saying that it's "the weirdest thing I've seen in 18 years at sea."

Sperry quotes the New Zealand Navy's Lt. Tim Oscar as saying, "The lookout reported a shadow on the ocean ahead of us, so I ordered the ship's spotlight to be trained on the area. As far ahead as I could observe was a raft of pumice moving up and down with the swell. As we moved through the raft of pumice we used the spotlights to try and find the edge--but it extended as far as we could see."



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