Can Whales Save The Planet?

They’re vital to our ocean ecosystems and we need to do more to protect them.

Photo: UCSC / WWF-Aus / Chris Johnson
Photo: UCSC / WWF-Aus / Chris Johnson

Whales are majestic and massive, but even bigger than their size is the role they play in maintaining ocean health and keeping our planet cool.

Estimates from 2019 suggest whales can sequester an average of 33 tons of CO2 throughout their lifetime — and for lengthy periods after they die, as well. That means a single whale can capture as much carbon as 1,375 trees. Unlike most terrestrial organisms, which release their carbon into the atmosphere after death, whales sink to the bottom of the ocean and maintain their body weight in carbon for centuries to come.


Pictured: NowThis' Senior Correspondent Alejandro Alba (@MrAlexAlba)

Whales also help with the transportation of important nutrients, such as phosphorus and iron, throughout the marine ecosystem, which helps stimulate phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are organisms that feed off nutrient-rich whale poop to flourish. They also generate more than half of the world's atmospheric oxygen.

As a bonus, they also help capture about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, which is estimated to be 40% of all CO2 produced globally. So if we have more whales, we have more phytoplankton — which means more carbon capture and less impacts on the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, whales are at risk of extinction. 6 of the 13 great whale species on the planet are now classified as endangered or vulnerable, and biologists estimate there are more than 1.3 million whales left globally. For context, it's believed there were about 4 to 5 million whales prior to the introduction of industrialized whaling.

Pictured: Alba, alongside Ari Friedlander, Professor of Ocean Sciences at UC-Santa Cruz

Humpback whales are known to be resilient and are considered one of the biggest conservation success stories of the 20th century. But according to Chris Johnson, global lead for whale and dolphin conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, there’s trouble ahead.

“We're seeing these cumulative impacts from fisheries, bycatch, ghost nets, plastic pollution, increased ship traffic, and underwater noise all working together to impact populations worldwide,” Johnson told NowThis. “And that's why we need to protect blue corridors for whales and their critical habitats.”

Blue corridors are thought of as superhighways that facilitate the movement of whales and other large marine animals between critical ocean habitats that are used for feeding, mating and giving birth.

So, can whales save the planet?

Yes, they’re vital to our ocean ecosystems, but like Johson said, we need to protect them.

One solution is implementing a program that compensates shipping companies for altering their shipping routes to reduce the risk of collisions. Governments can also help by joining the 30 x 30 pledge, which calls for the protection of at least 30% of the ocean by 2030.

Then, there are efforts by organizations like the Antarctic Southern Ocean Coalition and WWF to designate protected marine areas.

The designated areas provide long term conservation protections for the marine life within them. These beautiful creatures must be protected one way or another, because they keep our planet, well, blue.