Protecting Blue Whales: An Economic and Environmental Issue

Published on 19 May 2021 at 12:42

Blue whales are the biggest known mammals to have ever existed, individuals longer than 30 metres. They come to this world weighing as much as a hippo and gain about 90 kilos per year as they grow old. 


Gravity limits the size of land animals to what their skeletons can support, the ocean’s buoyancy spears them of this limitation. 


While whales may not be able to swallow a human, as they wouldn't be able to fit a person down their throat, they may kill one by knocking him out with their vocalizations.


Blue whales produce a 188 decibels song loud enough to overpower sounds of jet engines and which allows them to communicate with each other from long distances, from over 500 000 miles away. 


Without teeth, they lack the ability to tear apart their prey, so it would likely be impossible for these baleen whales to eat a human. 


Indeed, they eat krill by swallowing huge amounts of water, and then, through their jaws, push the water out of their mouth helped by brushes, instead of teeth, which are thin enough to let the water through but thick enough to catch krill.


Blue whales feed on krill at around 100 meters below the surface. They have been recorded making 180° rolls during lunge-feeding, allowing them to engulf while inverted. When they eat, they almost dance around.


They live as long as humans. The average life span of a blue whale is about 80 to 90 years. A blue whale's age is most reliably measured using ear plugs. As one set is laid down per year, the number of layers is an indicator of age.


That sounds even more striking when one knows they are sentient animals. They can feel pain, fear and distress. 


The Blue whale was hunted almost to the point of extinction by whalers until the International Whaling Commission banned all blue whale hunting in 1966. 


There have been continued efforts from the international community to limit the exploitation of whale meat, oil, bones and ambergris. Oil can be produced from their fat, and the ambergris that can be found in their excrement or vomit and be used to produce perfume. 


Blue whales are a key to resolving the climate change they themselves suffer from. Blue whales face numerous threats. Endangered whales have to face global warming, pollution, ocean acidification, noise and ship strikes. Overfishing threatens their food supply and hundreds of whales are entangled in fishing gear every year.


They clarify water as ‘ecosystem engineers’. Blue whales are filter feeders. They are a subgroup of suspension feeding animals that feed by straining suspended matter and food particles from water, typically by passing the water over a specialized filtering structure. 


The tides of excrement that these mammals produce are also surprisingly relevant to the climate. Their iron-rich faeces creates the perfect growing conditions for phytoplankton. 


In other words, whales fertilize the surface of the ocean with nutrients that are fundamental to the health of ocean ecosystems, the global nutrient cycle, and the carbon cycle.


Green peace envisages three steps to end their slaughter. Hold governments accountable for ending all commercial whaling. Persuading countries voting with Japan to reconsider their approach and vote to protect whales. Continuing exposing black-market whale meat trade to create a public discussion in the Japanese media.


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted an indefinite global moratorium on commercial whaling by 1982 and in 1994, declared the Southern Ocean to be a sanctuary for whales.


Unfortunately, the moratorium doesn’t prevent loopholes in the IWC convention. Country members may lodge an objection to an IWC decision within 90 days and be exempt from it.


Among the countries that have circumvented the moratorium figure, what would commonly be seen as most progressive countries where one wouldn’t expect such treatment: Japan, Norway and Iceland. 


Norway lodged an official objection to the moratorium in 1982 and has not been bound by it ever since. It continues to hunt minke whales in the North Atlantic. 


Iceland left the IWC in 1992 only to rejoin in 2003 with a reservation to the moratorium, resuming commercial whaling in 2006.


As for Japan, it exploits a loophole that allows countries to kill whales for “scientific research.” 


Also, ever since expeditions on the moon, NASA has been using whale oil in their space program to lubricate spacecraft such as the Hubble space telescope and the Voyager space probe. Incredibly, Sperm whale oil doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures, which are commonly found in outer space. This has been tolerated because there doesn’t seem to be a substitute. 


Sperm whales were named after the spermaceti, a waxy substance found on their heads, which was used in oil lamps and candles.


Whales as a whole are pretty extraordinary. Sperm whales can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on 3,280 feet dives in search of squid to eat. 


Another surprising anecdote is that 1% of sperm whales’ puke constitute ambergris. The foundation of a very expensive fragrance which can be recovered from the stomachs of whales. These animals literally defecate pink gold: they are superior. 



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