Whale poop is good for the sea and sky. Here’s why.
I never thought about it, nor would I dream that it would be good for our rivers, bays and oceans.
I am so imbued with “Scoop the Poop” as the only way to deal with dog waste, that I think of all poop as being bad for the waterways.
Photographer Jane Norris brought all this to mind recently when she sent this photograph of whale poop floating on the ocean surface off Virginia Beach.
Early-bird whales have already begun migrating to and through our area. Norris was serving as a volunteer on one of the last of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s Dolphin Discoveries Sea Adventures Boat Trips not long ago when a humpback whale swam into view.
Not only did Norris photograph the whale, she photographed its poop.
“I had read about the benefits of whale poop,” Norris said, “but I was surprised to actually see the excrement for the first time. I usually only photograph the beauty in nature, but I knew this was important.”
Though it’s not exactly the most photogenic thing out on the ocean, it sounds like floating whale poop could well be called a beautiful part of nature.
Norris had learned that whale poop is really good for the ocean environment. It fertilizes the plankton floating at the surface that many animals feed on.
Simplistically, floating whale poop might be compared to a farmer’s tractor spreading fertilizer across the fields.
It’s logical that when you see a whale, you might see its poop – whales come to the surface to do their business, and lightweight poop floats along the water’s surface.
“But when whales feed it’s often at great depths,” explained Alexis Rabon, boat programs coordinator and special projects at the aquarium.
When the whales return to the surface to breathe (and poop), they mix up the deep water and shallow water nutrients with the sheer bulk of their size moving through the water column, then when they reach the surface, they may poop and add more deep-water nutrients to the surface water.
“This is called the ‘whale pump’,” Rabon said.
Like the farmer with his tractor, the whales with their poop spread nutrients for surface plankton and small fish to eat. They in turn are fed on by larger fish.
To cast whale poop in an even better light, all that well-fed plankton also soaks up carbon dioxide. When the plankton dies and sinks to the bottom, the carbon dioxide is carried out of the atmosphere.
“Some estimate that these plankton blooms may help remove thousands of tons of atmospheric carbon each year,” Rabon said.
When Norris first told me she had learned that whale poop was good for the oceans and indeed for the world, too, I immediately thought of dog waste and fertilizer. Both are the last thing we want in our waterways.
There are at least two factors that make dog poop and fertilizer so bad for the ocean. One is the bacterial component of dog waste, Rabon said. The other is that both run off into the waterways in great concentrations, over-fertilizing the water, and causing dead zones right close to home.
The whales on the other hand, don’t eat meat like dogs. They feed on ocean-grown nutrients deep in the ocean and bring them to the surface in their poop, fertilizing plankton near and far.