Of Whales and People: Sharing the Ocean with the Gardeners of the Sea

By José Truda Palazzo, Jr., Writer and consultant, Institutional Development Officer of the Brazilian Humpback Whale Institute

Eons ago, the first humans marveled at their presence, as our distant ancestors acquired skills not only to make and use tools, but also to wonder about the Universe of things and beings surrounding them. The first coastal humans most certainly directed their curious gaze at the ponderous ocean, the stars overhead, and yes, the presence of great whales.

Bangudae3The Bangudae petroglyphs show whaling scenes dating back to some 7,000 years ago. Photo by Ulsan Petroglyph Museum, licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0.

These first coastal peoples must have considered whales both as part of their spiritual world and as an asset to draw from in times of need. Besides the eventual use of beached carcasses, whaling has most likely developed as far back as 7,000 years ago, and the beautiful petroglyphs of Bangudae in the Republic of Korea bear witness to its beginnings. As in most other natural resource uses, however, humankind has abused the treasures at its disposal. Over many centuries, species after species succumbed to the harpoons. A veritable mining of whales brought most to the brink of extinction. Scientists estimate that, in the 20th century alone, the unabated slaughter deprived the global ocean of more than 3,000,000 of these animals.

It wasn’t the weight of international law or scientific advice which ended global commercial whaling; civil society outrage did. From the 1970s onward, nation after nation was forced to abandon whaling by growing citizen protests. Thus, whales became the first universal symbol of our poor stewardship of the planet and galvanized popular demand for governments to change course. As a result, the International Whaling Commission finally approved a moratorium on commercial whaling entering into force in 1986. Despite loopholes, legal and political skirmishes, since then, for all practical, purposes commercial whaling became a thing of the past. Small pockets of the activity survive to this day but are being challenged regarding their commercial future by the lack of viable markets for dead whale by-products.

Whale Carbon XLRecent scientific findings have highligthed the importance of whales for the functioning of ocean ecosystems and carbon sequestration. Infographic courtesy of GRID-Arendal

The end of whaling isn’t the end of whale “appropriation” by humankind, however. Much to the contrary, by reacting at the eleventh hour to their near extinction, our species rediscovered the values of whales alive. In one major development, the ancestral mystic awakened in our minds by the presence of these great beings came back in the form of whale watching – a reconnection with the ocean for millions of people around the world. It is also a source of sustainable jobs and income for hundreds of coastal communities in more than 100 countries and territories, generating, according to pre-pandemic surveys, more than two billion US dollars in revenues.

BPS SaltoWatching whales in their natural environment has become a powerful ocean awareness tool, while generating sustainable jobs and income in coastal communities such as Porto Seguro, Bahia, Brazil. Photo by Sergio Cipolotti, Brazilian Humpback Whale Project. 

Further, the progress of non-lethal research initiated in the 1970s with Dr. Roger Payne’s discoveries of humpback whale songs and individual photo-identification by natural markings, and currently encompassing all sorts of technological advances from drones to acoustic arrays to satellite tags, has lifted the veil over the secretive lives of most great whales. Their study flourished in many coastal nations on pair with the recovery of their populations and ever more frequent presence. Combined with an increasing knowledge about the functioning of ocean ecosystems, scientists were able to start evaluating the actual importance of whales to the global carbon cycle, sequestering and depositing thousands of tons of carbon in the deep sea with their carcasses, while at the same time sustaining deep-sea biodiversity. They are also aiding phytoplankton productivity by fertilizing the upper layers of the ocean with their poop, acting as gardeners of the sea on a giant scale. International Monetary Fund researchers estimated that these ecosystem services plus whale watching revenues make current global whale populations worth more than a mind-boggling one trillion US dollars. Together with Duke University and IMF scholars, our Institute has estimated that Brazilian whale populations alone are worth US$ 82 billion.

IMG 20180806 WA0011Collaboration between researchers and the private sector, such as the voluntary placing of observers in coastal navigation barges traversing humpback whale breeding grounds in Brazil, is essential to ensure impacts on recovering whale populations are minimized. Photo by Enrico Marcovaldi, Brazilian Humpback Whale Project.

Whales are not fully saved yet. New challenges for their conservation emerge in the form of acoustic pollution, ship strikes, and, of course, climate change. These are much more complex and wide-ranging threats than whaling and require, once again, society-wide mobilization to solve. In Brazil, we are trying to contribute through practical steps which involve government agencies, industry stakeholders, and our own research and conservation NGO. For 26 years now, national oil company Petrobras has funded our Humpback Whale Project, making it one of the longest-term corporate sponsorships for whale research and conservation in the world. A Working Group on Ship Strike Prevention coordinated by us has voluntary participation of all cellulose and shipping companies operating in the main humpback breeding ground, taking initiatives such as seasonal route detours and on-board observers, which have prevented strikes on whales for many years now. One such company, Veracel, is funding the development of a new automated whale detection system for ships. We also work regularly with coastal communities on capacity-building. Similar initiatives are fortunately popping up in many other countries.

EspacoBJ4Using the natural interest of children about whales to promote ocean literacy, in interpretive centers such as the Humpback Whale Space of Praia do Forte, Bahia, Brazil, opens pathways to a better future for everyone. Photo by Enrico Marcovaldi, Brazilian Humpback Whale Project. 

Whales are becoming, once again, the flagship species for raising awareness about how all lives are intertwined on Earth, and how we can benefit from restoring the ocean to a healthy state. Their story clearly shows that humans can reverse the damage done to the ocean (and the planet), and by doing so, explore novel ways in which to interact with - and sustainably profit from - the invaluable treasure of marine biodiversity.

This article is part of an online series dedicated to the UN Ocean Decade. One story will be published each week that is related to initiatives, new knowledge, partnerships, or innovative solutions that are relevant to the following seven Ocean Decade outcomes. Access the special digital issue dedicated to the Ocean Decade here.

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