World whale day has fallen on 21st February and in honour of this, it’s time to find out more about these beautiful marine giants.
The two types of whales
All species of whales are separated into two types: baleen and toothed. The baleen whales are named after their filter-feeding system. This system is constructed of long material (called baleen) which is attached to the whale’s jaw. The whale will firstly take a large mouthful of water. Then it will filter the water out whilst the baleen traps the food within. The diet of Baleen whales consists of algae, krill, plankton and small fish. Their counterparts, the toothed whales, are exactly how their name suggests. They have teeth which they use to hunt their prey such as fish, seals and squid. An extraordinary example of this is the Narwhal which is famous for possessing a large ‘tusk’. This ‘tusk’ is in fact a protruding canine tooth.
The vital role whales have in our ecosystem
Although you might not look at these beautiful creatures and realise it, there is a lot we must thank whales for. They are vital to the marine ecosystem and help to provide half of the oxygen we breathe whilst combatting climate change. This is because they supply nutrients to phytoplankton (tiny plant-like organisms) which go on to use these nutrients alongside carbon dioxide, the sun’s energy and water to photosynthesise. By doing this, the phytoplankton absorbs thousands of tons of carbon each year and releases oxygen in return.
Whales are fundamental in this process because it is the nutrients that they provide which allows the phytoplankton to photosynthesise. After feeding at depth, the whales come up near the surface of the water to defecate. This process fertilises the phytoplankton which go on to produce half of the world’s oxygen! Therefore, I think we should give whales (and phytoplankton) a lot more credit and respect. They are helping to fight climate change every day whilst providing the air we breathe.
What threats are whales facing?
Unfortunately, whales have numerous threats which have caused many of their species to become endangered.
Plastic Pollution: Plastic pollution is extremely dangerous for whales and impacts them in several ways. They can get entangled in debris or fishing gear which stops them from being able to surface for air and tragically leads to them drowning. Another impact is ingesting plastic. This may happen due to the whales mistaking the debris/fishing gear for prey and eating it themselves or they may ingest fish that have already consumed plastic. Either way the plastic ends up in their digestive system and if too much builds up it can tragically kill them. Also, once in the water, the plastic releases chemicals which can have a detrimental affect on the whales. It can lower their immunity, affect their reproduction and cause diseases.
Climate Change: Due to climate change, the oceans temperatures have been rising and the currents changing. This means that marine life is becoming displaced and the whales are having to migrate further for their food source. This can even lower their rate of reproduction.
Ship Strikes and Whaling: Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of deaths for whales as surfacing whales are often hard to see for ships. Often busy fishing lanes overlap the whale’s areas for feeding and breeding and collisions occur. On top of this, even today there are a few countries which still allow whaling! This barbaric industry has been known to deplete whale populations and endanger the species.
Noise Pollution: Whales heavily rely on their hearing, using sounds to find food, navigate, communicate and detect danger. However, when ships or other vessels such as gas/oil rigs impede the whale’s ability to hear, due to releasing other noises, it can disrupt these essential abilities and interrupt their communication between each other.
How can we help protect whales?
Reduce your waste/pollution: Always dispose of your rubbish appropriately and focus on recycling as much as you can. Try to also reduce your plastic consumption. A great way of doing this is to try and avoid single-use plastic products. Also go litter picking once and a while to stop litter making its ways into our oceans.
Sustainable seafood: Overfishing can be detrimental to the marine ecosystem and whales alike so try to research where your seafood is coming from and ensure it is being responsibly sourced.
Responsible whale watching: Whales are beautiful and amazing creatures, so it is understandable for people to want to see them. If you are looking to have this experience research the companies, you use. Whales are not made for captivity and often lead stressful, degrading lives which weaken their immune systems and leaves them vulnerable for diseases. Instead look at seeing them in the wild, either by land or boat. There are many responsible operators who will have minimal impact on the animals and their environment. These can be seen by the Whale Sense logo.
Donate/Educate: Find a responsible organisation that helps in the conservations of whales and donate what you can or simply use the power of words. A lot of these changes are simple and easy to make so discuss them with friends and family and help spread awareness of how important whales are and how we must help them.
So lets all spread the word this world whale day on how amazing these creatures are!