Whales and Climate Change

Happy Baby Whale!

A few weeks back a number of us were down in Baja California visiting the friendly whales of San Ignacio Lagoon. For those not familiar with this mysterious and delightful phenomena, the gray whales of Baja seem to enjoy frolicking with humans – a behavior that began decades ago when humans slaughtering them was still within their living memory (if whales remember this sort of thing).

These days we humans go out onto gray whale nursery lagoons where, fairly predictably a mother with her baby will come over and play. On one of our forays we had six mothers and their babies cavorting with us! (That was over a ¼ million-pound playgroup!)

There is no way to know why these animals like to play with us. Speculation is inevitable; are these animals deep thinkers? Compassionate? Or are they just simple minded, playful, and innocent? We can’t ask them. And even if we could, (to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein), we probably wouldn’t understand their answer.

But it is hard not to understand their play! And when the mothers nudge their babies toward our boats they do what all burbling babies do; the roll around, act goofy, yield to our inquiring hands, splash water at us, and sometimes gently bounce the boats.

After more than a century of global whaling the only remaining gray whales are in the eastern and western Pacific. They are coastal animals that migrate between feeding areas, and the protected lagoons that serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for the newborns. They have been doing this for millions of years.

Which brings up an interesting point: Gray whales have survived many cycles of climate change; through times when the ocean was 10m (32’) deeper than it is now and our current coastal areas were inundated with seawater, and times when the ocean was 130m (425’) shallower, and one could have walked to the many coastal islands surrounding the continents.

This suggests an adaptability in these critters to feeding, breeding, and birthing behaviors that has allowed them to survive. They even recovered after 100 years of whaling brought their Pacific populations down to just a few thousand animals. Now there are between 20,000 and 30,000 navigating the eastern coast of the Pacific.

But in earlier times there were so many whales of all sorts that they actually impacted the global climate. Millions of whales conveying and converting food from the deep sea into nitrogen and iron-rich poop raining down from the surface. All this poop fertilized the phytoplankton at the base of the food chain, and sequestered massive amounts of carbon from the seawater and the atmosphere.

When there were millions more whales in the ocean, there was also much more life up and down the food chain to support all of this feeding. And along with this, the ocean was probably much louder than it is today – with the songs of all of this life.

You might call all this hopeful: that animals other than humans have had an impact on climate, and that they have survived many catastrophes along the way. And on top of that, they play well with others!

Splash! – Photos by Claire Peaslee

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