‘Save the Whales’ was a shining success. Now can humpbacks save us from ourselves?


Programming Note: Watch The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper: What Whales Tell Us tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Antarctic Peninsula CNN —
About 15 billion miles from where you sit, two 12-inch golden records are hurtling through outer space with multilingual greetings to the universe from 55 humans and one humpback whale.
With a playlist curated by astronomer Carl Sagan and inspired by the way humpbacks use low frequencies to send messages across entire oceans, they were launched on NASA’s two Voyager probes in 1977.
“As much as the sounds of any baleen whale, it is a love song cast upon the vastness of the deep.” Sagan wrote of the golden records.
And, since 95% of the planet’s biggest species had been harpooned to oblivion at the time, it could’ve easily been the kind of love song that ends in tears.
But almost a half-century later, the comeback of the humpback is arguably the greatest success story in the history of conservation. While artificial intelligence could one day help us understand the lyrics of those songs in space, new science is putting a dollar value on the life of a whale — and finding they provide so much more than blubber and song.
“They’re literally seeding the upper parts of the ocean with the opportunity for plant life to grow,” veteran marine ecologist Ari Friedlaender explained while bobbing on a Zodiac raft off the Antarctic Peninsula. “And that’s what feeds the food for whales, birds, seals — everything. They’re basically farmers recycling nutrients and there’s more food available to them the more they’re around.”
CNN followed an international team of whale experts throughout 2023, from Friedlaender’s lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz to humpback breeding grounds off the Pacific coast of Colombia, and their feeding grounds at the bottom of the world. While Friedlaender has been collecting whale data for more than 25 years, his work found new relevance after a team of economists from the International Monetary Fund estimated a single baleen whale provides about $2 million worth of Earth services, both in life and death.
When baleen whales gulp vital nutrients like iron and nitrogen from the depths of the sea and defecate at the surface, they serve as the ocean’s biggest fertilizer pumps — feeding the tiny phytoplankton which produces half the world’s oxygen and captures as much planet-warming CO2 as four Amazon rainforests while holding up the bottom of the food chain.
“That’s the gold,” smiled Chris Johnson, the global lead of whale and dolphin conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, as he held up a whale stool sample jarred from the chilly Antarctic water.
“We have the poo. Repeat, we have humpback poo,” Eva Prendergast, the British polar scientist at the helm, radioed back to the Ocean Endeavor, the cruise ship serving as base.
The team interacted with dozens of whales over the course of four days in Antarctica. They used specialized camera drones to measure body size and suction-cupped tags slapped onto the animals’ backs with a long pole to record the way they move while capturing whale’s-eye-view video.
A team uses a crossbow with hollow-tip darts to collect biopsies from afar. WWF’s Johnson said the whales are not harmed by this — to the whales, the dart feels like


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