From Poop to Plankton: Working Together to Conserve our Ocean’s Gardeners

Posted: November 6, 2017 - 16:41 , by Stacey Kerr
Asha de Vos, P.h.D. holds two bottles of freshly collected blue whale poop off the coast of Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Oceanswell

Guest blog written by Environmental Visual Communication student Meghan Callon

The world’s largest animal creates the world’s largest poop. By simply going about their daily functions, blue whales supply the “miracle grow” of the sea. They fertilize the ocean’s surface waters! But there is more; whale poop may help lower our carbon footprint. From the ROM’s recent “Out of the Depths” Blue Whale Exhibition to the upcoming Canada’s Oceans: Towards 2020 Symposium, the ROM has had a big focus on our oceans this year. In fact, there have been many eyes on Canada’s oceans recently. The Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference was held in Halifax, NS, just two weeks ago, bringing together some of the greatest ocean thinkers from around the world. There, Dr. Asha de Vos gave a keynote speech describing her journey to understanding how blue whales act as our ocean’s gardeners.

Asha de Vos, the first Sri Lankan to have a PhD in marine mammal research, has started an important conversation about the role of whales within our oceans. As a child, Asha had a critical and curious mind; a trait that continues to drive her work today. In 2002, Asha encountered the most beautiful and intriguing pile of poop that she had ever seen. Bright red and floating near the surface, she knew that it must have come from a whale. In fact, these vibrant feces were produced by a Northern Indian Ocean pygmy blue whale, leading Asha to uncover the crucial function of whale poop within the sea. 

The ocean’s miracle grow! Bright red blue whale poop will provide essential nutrients to microorganisms that form the base of the food chain. Photo Credit: Asha de Vos

Asha’s work emphasizes that whales are more than just beautiful animals: they are ecosystem engineers. They feed in deep waters, then excrete these so-called “fecal plumes” when surfacing to breathe. This provides nutrient-rich fertilizer to microorganisms living at the surface. Phytoplankton thrive on whale poop and form the base of marine food chains. More whale poop leads to more phytoplankton, which leads to more zooplankton and fish, which feed the whales…and the cycle repeats.

Additionally, like all plants, phytoplankton take in carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen (50-70% of the oxygen that we breathe!). What does this mean? It means that conserving whale populations may actually help stabilize ocean food chains and mitigate climate change! 

The fecal cycle: Whales poop which feeds the microorganisms, which are eaten by krill, which are eaten by whales, and the cycle repeats itself. Art by: Meghan Callon

After 200 years of whaling, whale population sizes have been reduced by 60-90%. Returning these populations to their historic size is key to the resiliency of our oceans. The Royal Ontario Museum has played a vital role in this conservation by fostering an appreciation for blue whales. Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story opened in March, 2017 and closed in September, 2017. This special exhibit drew in approximately 208,000 pairs of curious eyes, including those of Dr. Asha de Vos.

A key contributor to the Blue Whale exhibit is Dave Ireland, Managing Director of Biodiversity at the ROM. Like Asha, Dave has a passion for whale poop. As an Environmental Visual Communication student at the ROM, I had the privilege to speak with both Dave and Asha to learn more about their views on these extraordinary animals, and their extraordinary excrement. 

Asha de Vos and Dave Ireland are interviewed at the Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story Exhibit in May, 2017. Photo Credit: Meghan Callon

What prompted your research/passion for studying whale poop?

DAVE:  I was tasked with answering the question, "why should people care about blue whales?" and the easy answer of "because they're iconic and have intrinsic value" didn't seem like a compelling enough reason for most people to move to action to protect whales. The idea that they are ecosystem engineers was not new to me, and if we could show that whales have a direct benefit to humans then we felt people would connect better to their conservation. So I traveled down the whale poop story / rabbit hole, and quickly met Asha de Vos (online). Her work was exactly what we wanted to leverage to help people see the value of whales. It was so simple too: whale, krill, plankton (carbon), poop... repeat. Simple enough for people to understand that biodiversity is incredibly interconnected and provides our clean air, water. Perfect!

ASHA:  Whale poop was my eureka moment. The eureka moment behind the launch of the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, which is the first long-term research project on blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean. When I saw a pile of whale poop off the South East coast of Sri Lanka I realized that these whales that were out here were doing something really unusual: they normally feed in cold waters, yet here they were pooping in these warm, tropical waters meaning they were feeding somewhere close. I felt like Sherlock Homes. There was this whole excitement… like wow there’s a mystery out here that needs unravelling. And that’s really what sparked my interest. It is easy to see whales as charismatic and beautiful, but when you start working with them you learn that they are so much more. Everything on the planet has a particular role that keeps Earth functioning at its best. We should save the whales not only because they are beautiful, but because, in the end, they and their by-products help keep us alive. 

Dave Ireland, Managing Director, ROM Biodiversity Photo Credit: Meghan CallonAsha De Vos, P.h.D., National Geographic Explorer, Ted Fellow, and founder of Oceanswell Photo Credit: Meghan Callon

What is the benefit of having exhibits like the ROM’s blue whale exhibition?

DAVE: Major, temporary exhibitions are an excellent way to tell contemporary and current stories. The tragic death of nine blue whales in 2014 might have only sparked media attention and public interest for a short period if it were not for the exhibition. We were able to keep this story alive for more than 3 years, and provide some answers to our audience about the events that unfolded. In an way, we were able to extend the life of "Blue". It would be unfair not to mention that major exhibitions are also a significant revenue generator for museums and cultural centres as well.

ASHA: These animals live out in the ocean and only a very small percentage of the world’s population is ever going to have the privilege to get out there and actually see them live. So we need to create more engagement with the oceans. The only other way to do it is to have exhibits. For example, at the ROM blue whale exhibit you got to stand side-by-side with one of the largest animals that has ever lived. It is mind-blowing when you stand there and realize that we are a very small speck on this planet. I think this is a really important perspective for us humans. On a personal note, as a child I went to puppetry classes in Sri Lanka at the National Museum, which housed a blue whale skeleton on the ceiling. I genuinely don’t remember anything about the puppetry classes, but I do remember lying on the ground below it thinking, “wow, what on earth is that?”. And the intrigue that was caused by those bones really peaked my curiosity. [Exhibits] are opportunities for people to get out there, to learn. The ROM exhibit was particularly exciting because there were so many interactive and innovative elements to it. There was such a variety of methods used to tell the story of this one blue whale and to make people connect and engage with it. It was all very exciting. We need to empower people with knowledge so that they can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem.

Asha De Vos gives an enthusiastic talk about whale poop at the Royal Ontario Museum. Photo Credit: Meghan Callon

So, now what?

Asha knows that marine conservation requires a vast team; it cannot be accomplished alone! As a National Geographic explorer and Ted Fellow, she continues to share the stories of these amazing animals to millions of people world-wide. She recently founded a new non-profit organization, Oceanswell, with the goal of growing a team of “ocean heroes”. Oceanswell is Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education organization. During her keynote speech at the recent conference with the Society for Marine Mammalogy, Asha described the need for more inclusivity and diversity in our ocean conservation efforts. The ocean is one big connected body, so we need to be having global conversations.

To continue this conversation, the ROM is hosting an Ocean Symposium on December 4th and 5th, 2017 in partnership with Sea Legacy, OceanWise, and the Ecology Action Centre. You too can be part of the discussion! Buy tickets and register at http://www.canadasoceans2020.ca

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