By Madushka Balasuriya
“Save the cheerleader, save the world,” proclaimed the hit 2006 TV series Heroes. “Save the whales, save the world,” proclaims Asha de Vos in 2017. While the former ended up with an unsatisfactory turn of events leaving avid fans of the show asking whether it was ever necessary to save the cheerleader, Asha’s rallying call might just have a little more substance.
Asha is of course, arguably, the foremost authority on blue whales in the country if not the region. Her work has been featured in leading scientific journal Nature, National Geographic, as well as several other local and international publications, while she’s also a TED Fellow sharing her work in the field of marine biology.
As she addresses a hall quite literally packed to the brim – extra chairs had to be smuggled in, such was the demand – with people of all ages latching on to her every word, Asha scarcely gives the impression of a woman who has given this speech a thousand times before.
She spends a large chunk of her lecture simply filling in the audience on the exact nature of climate change, her goal being to create as holistic an understanding of the challenges the world is facing at present. This is especially important in light of the younger members in the audience – the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) of Sri Lanka’s monthly lecture series usually brings in a wide array of participants, however Asha’s mix of youth and exuberance lends itself particularly well to the younger generation.
“It’s my favourite kind of audience, a lot of friendly faces I’ve known all my life. I’m also really excited to look around and see all these kids in the audience. I’m grateful to many of you, who haven’t come here on your own but brought a friend, a cousin, a grandparent, a child, a colleague, you are creating change just by doing that.
“We need to be having more conversations about what’s going in our oceans and the planet and that’s only possible if we have a community to talk with. And by bringing people into these spaces you are creating that community that is going make change.”
Listening to Asha, it’s nearly impossible to discern the strain such work might put on her psyche. Concealed completely is the frustration only known by those who have given their lives to fighting a seemingly lost cause. Earlier this year a leading climate scientist, Sir Robert Watson, found his way to Sri Lanka, where in several discussions with stakeholders he voiced his concern that goals to keep global warming down to a 2°C limit might have passed us by.
“I personally don’t think we can stop it at two degrees, we’re on our way to three. But we have got to stop it being four, five and six. It’s hard to be totally optimistic, but I hope the world doesn’t fall off a cliff,” he said at one point during his visit.
Watson’s somewhat jaded outlook is common among those in the field of climate science. However in a post-truth world filled with climate change deniers, some now even present in the White House (!), the infectious optimism of individuals such as Asha is refreshing.
In fact, 45 minutes is all it takes for her to sift through the broad spectrum of challenges facing whales and propose a solution, one that could have far reaching effects for the world. It all boils down to understanding the co-dependent nature between whales and the planet.
Of oceans and whale poop
Global warming is real, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Empirical and anecdotal evidence alike suggest the planet is getting hotter on a daily basis, and increased carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions are the root cause. Co2 is being released into the atmosphere from a combination of both human and natural sources, namely the burning of fossil fuels, industrial processes, and plant and animal respiration. However while the world is slowly but surely getting their act together on putting in place more sustainable production practices, little to no attention is being paid to one other major contributor: oceans.
Oceans, which are commonly known as carbon sinks – a natural environment that is able to absorb carbon dioxide – result annually in over 40% of the natural Co2 emissions in to the atmosphere, making it the largest natural source of Co2 emissions. This takes place as the ocean contains dissolved Co2 which is released into the air at the sea surface. However the ocean also absorbs Co2 as part of the diffusion process between the ocean and the atmosphere; the ability of the ocean to conduct this process depends on organisms such as phytoplankton – microscopic plants which live in all of the world’s oceans – which perform the crucial process of converting Co2 into oxygen via photosynthesis.
“50% of the oxygen we all breathe is generated in the ocean,” rattles off Asha. “More than 90% of heat produced by greenhouse emissions are actually stored in ocean, but of course there is a limit to how the ocean can handle too. The ocean sucks up more heat than we previously thought, and to be fair the ocean is doing its part. It’s a natural climate change buffer. Without it, a lot of that carbon is going to end up in the atmosphere and exacerbate the impact of climate change and global warming.”
So how do the whales come in to the equation? Simple, whale poop. “When whales dive to the depths of the ocean to feed, they dive in areas where there are nutrients, nutrients with iron, which you don’t find in the surface waters of our ocean in steady supply. And then when they come up to the surface to breath, because they’re mammals and can’t stay too long underwater, they bring those nutrients with them.” More specifically, they poop near the sea surface. These “faecal plumes,” as Asha puts it, help fertilise the surface water and thereby provide phytoplankton with necessary nutrients to flourish.
It’s not just the whale poop however that is crucial, the act of the whales themselves diving to the depths of the ocean and back creates a phenomena known as ‘upwelling’. This process, which occurs most commonly due to winds blowing away surface water, brings cold water from the depths of the ocean to the surface. As the cold water at the bottom of the sea is rich in nutrients, something lacking in the warmer surface water, this fertilises the surface water, making it ripe for biological productivity.
As a matter of fact, whales are so important to the ocean ecosystem that even dead whales are preferable to none at all. Whale carcasses act as carbon sinks taking nearly 200,000 tonnes of Co2 to the bottom of the ocean with them, that is equivalent to the annual emissions of 80,000 cars, while also providing a nutritional food source to marine life.
Save the plankton, save the whales
So it’s clear to see that whales offer plenty in the way of assisting the ocean in its role of carbon neutraliser. However that may not be the case for much longer. Climate change is causing a whole host of chain events which are putting the existence of whales in danger.
For one, scientists estimate that 20% of the phytoplankton in the Indian Ocean alone have been lost due to rising sea surface temperatures. This means a 20% decrease in food source for krill, which are in turn the primary food source of whales.
“Phytoplankton are the basis of all marine food webs or food chains, meaning that if you get rid of them eventually there will be nothing left. It’s a plant that everything else depends on,” explains Asha.
“It’s like a spider’s web. If you tap one side of spider web gently, the whole thing vibrates. It’s because everything is interconnected. That’s exactly how a food web works. We are all part of a larger whole.”
Krill however are also available in colder areas of the planet – namely in the Arctic – as juvenile krill are known to feed on algae that grows under the surface of sea ice. When the sea ice melts in the summer months, whales travel long distances to feed on the large biomass of krill that infiltrate the water.
“However as ice cover melts permanently, scientific evidence shows that the amount of ice that reforms is less every year,” adds Asha. “The edges of the sea ice is getting smaller, which means whales that depend on these krill have to migrate much longer distances just to get their food. So they’re burning more energy and once they get there they realise there’s not as much food as needed.”
On top of this scientists are also predicting that all the ice in the Arctic will be completely gone by 2030, which brings with it even more problems.
“As the ice melts you have more commercial activities happening in these waters, you have more ships travelling through, more oil and gas exploration. And as we all know when you have ships and whales in an area the likelihood of them colliding and killing whales is higher. Not to mention the impact any potential oil spills could have on marine life.”
Save the whales, save the world
In a nutshell, whales are in danger from nearly every conceivable angle, be it overfishing, the risk of being hit by passing ships, rising sea surface temperatures, or starvation. All of these factors are down to climate change, which is the most pressing concern for us and our future generations. So it stands to reason that saving the whales might very well might be in our best interest.
“The ocean is not going to survive if we don’t look after it, if we don’t stand up and do our part. The simple things. Do you really have to drive everywhere? Can we not start thinking about public transport or walking, it’s really good for you. Apart from that switch off your lights, switch off your air conditioning. Don’t use single use plastics, the production of single use plastics makes so much carbon dioxide, and emits so many greenhouse gases into the environment.”
In this day and age, the pleas for energy conservation, while increasingly urgent, run the risk of rapidly becoming background noise. Asha is well aware of this but firm in the belief that communication and awareness is the only way forward, her optimism shines through.
“Think about the fact that we all share the stories that we learn; if we talk about these problems, if we help create awareness, the more people become aware the more obligated and responsible they’re going to feel,” she passionately urges the audience towards the end of her presentation.
“And that is going to help make a change. Because frankly we have sat very comfortably and gone on with life as per usual, but now it’s time for us to curb our activities and to think about the fact that well maybe now, let’s save whales not just because they’re beautiful and charismatic but because they have an incredibly important role in the ecosystem and by saving them, ultimately we’re saving ourselves.”