Save the Whale Poop

April 27th, 2010

by Hilary Maybaum

Once upon a 1980s time, I came across some fecal matter while searching for whales in the Pacific Ocean. It was a milky brown color with a greenish hue and quite flocculent. A humpback mother and calf had just left the vicinity of our boat. The calf had been breaching, and scientific consensus was that this was his or her poo.

Exciting stuff! In the decade or so that my colleagues had been studying the Hawaiian humpbacks, no one we knew had ever collected whale feces. Why was that, I wondered, and more pressingly, what can we learn from studying it? We already knew that adult whales don’t eat in their Hawaiian breeding grounds, except perhaps, opportunistically, but what about the calves? There are plenty of nursing whales in Hawaii, which must mean that the opportunity to collect calf poo exists, right?
Not to be caught off guard the next time we came across potential whale poop, I returned to our research headquarters that night and built a couple of whale pooper scoopers—one for each boat. Makeshift equipment, typical for a graduate student: long wooden spoons duct-taped to a couple of wide-mouthed plastic jars (caps stashed in the cooler along with a dash of formalin solution). From that day forward, all boat staff and volunteers were notified to be on the lookout for whale poop, and instructions on collecting said substance became part of our bi-weekly fa fa.

In the remaining years of my whale studies, we never did collect any whale poop. And it’s too bad, because now, it seems, whale poop is big news. Climate scientists now think that whale poop may play a major role in mitigating climate change by recycling iron in the ocean.

Remember a few years back, when seeding the ocean with iron seemed like a good idea to reduce the effects of global warming? It all started in 1988, around the same time I stopped trying to collect whale poop, when the late John Martin, former director of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, made a strange comment at an informal seminar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Martin said: “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you an ice age.” What he meant, in his inimitable biogeochemical way, was that sprinkling iron dust in certain areas of the ocean’s surface could trigger massive algal blooms which, in turn, could potentially absorb enough heat-trapping carbon dioxide to cool the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s because algae, like land plants, take in carbon dioxide for use in photosynthesis, converting it into sugar and releasing oxygen as a by-product.

Mind you, whether artificial ocean iron fertilization would actually work is still a matter of debate. However, if enough whales keep pooping, we may not have to worry about it. Researchers at an organization called the Australian Antarctic Division, based in Tasmania, have found “huge amounts of iron in whale poo.” It’s a simple equation, really: the more whale poo, the more iron in the surface ocean, the more algal productivity, and the less carbon dioxide. Voila! A natural process with fewer side effects than artificial fertilization.

In retrospect, then, it’s probably a good thing that we never collected whale poop all those years ago. Who knows, we might have inadvertently sped up the effects of global warming.

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Humpbacks and herring

February 12th, 2010

One of the nicest things about keeping this particular blog is that I occasionally come across the names of folks that I worked with in the past. I already mentioned my sighting of Adam Frankel in this post. Today I caught cybersight of Jan Straley, a biologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, and another fellow whale researcher from the good old days.

Jan has been in Sitka since at least the 1980s, when I first met her, studying the humpbacks and other marine mammals that travel through Southeast Alaska. I remember her as an expert on the population structure and overwintering behavior of humpbacks in that region. It’s nice to know that she is still continuing in that vein. According to this recent Washington Post article, Jan thinks that the recovery of humpback whales, a species once hunted to near extinction, is impeding the recovery of the herring population in Prince William Sound.

The herring took a major hit as a result of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Their numbers have not yet returned to pre-spill abundance, and researchers want to know why. Humpbacks are only one of the suspects in this modern-day ocean mystery. I for one am glad to know that reliable researchers are teasing out the data. Important work, this. And I do enjoy vicariously catching up with the old whale folks of yore.

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Navy touts its own horn for sonar testing and marine mammal takes

February 3rd, 2010

Last month, the Navy received reauthorization for three of its marine mammal “incidental take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). Basically, these are permits to harass marine mammals for specific purposes allowable under the MMPA and ESA. Before you get your britches in a knot, you need to realize that ALL marine mammal researchers are required to obtain such authorizations when attempting to closely approach their subjects. I worked under one, my friends worked under them, and—for the most part—execution and enforcement of the terms of such permits are strictly adhered to.

According to yesterday’s press release from the Navy, their reauthorizations of the so-called "Big Three" represent ocean sites where "roughly 80 percent of active sonar training … takes place on established training ranges and operating areas." Now, here’s the part where you can get knotted. The Navy refers to this action (the reauthorization of their incidental take permits) as "an environmental accomplishment."

Hmm. The last time I checked, an environmental accomplishment was a positive action taken on behalf of our abiotic and biotic surroundings. Seeing the government’s approval of sonar testing as a positive action on behalf of the environment is quite the stretch, oh Naval colleagues. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Navy gets a lot of bad press when it comes to its testing of low- and mid-frequency sonar and its effects on marine mammals. So we can’t really blame them for spinning this dubious news in a positive light. Let’s just hope that they keep up the accurate reporting of marine mammal injuries and other “takes” during their testing exercises.

whale tail

Stock photo by Jon Sullivan

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NOAA pushes Navy to stop sonar testing at marine mammal hot spots

January 30th, 2010

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has acknowledged the link between certain types of sonar and negative impacts on marine mammals, including death. In an letter to the Council on Environmental Quality last week, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco proposed that marine mammal "hot spots"—areas where marine mammals are in high abundance—become off limits to mid-frequency active sonar testing. (Lubchenco is, by the way, the first woman AND the first marine ecologist to lead NOAA. Huzzah!)

According to this LA Times blog post, NOAA is also calling for a process to estimate the "comprehensive sound budget for the oceans." This is a huge step in developing a plan to protect marine species that rely on underwater communication. It’s critical, too, in light of the new findings that link ocean acidification with the decreased transmission of underwater sound (see this recent post.)

The letter from Lubchenco to the CEQ is available here (PDF).

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Kids say the darndest things at Science Online 2010

January 23rd, 2010

So there I was at the last session of Science Online 2010, awash in wonderment at how energized I felt (as opposed to a more typical end-of-conference malaise), and thinking that it couldn’t have gotten any better than it already was, when lo and behold along comes Stacy Baker and her students from Staten Island Academy. Their session, "Blogging the Future—The Use of Online Media in the Next Generation of Scientists," blew me and the 30-odd participants in the room right out of the proverbial water.

Here is Miss Baker’s introduction to her session:

As Miss Baker notes, each student talked about a passion of theirs related to learning and the web. All six of those presentations follow.

Watching (and recording) students’ presentations, I was struck by how articulate and sage they were. They reminded me of a program launched back in the late 1990s called ThinkQuest—an annual international website competition for students ages 9 to 19 years old. Now owned by the Oracle Education Foundation, ThinkQuest was originally founded by Advanced Network & Services, Inc., a company for which I actually worked in the early 2000s.

But I digress. My point is, I was as awed by the ThinkQuest websites as I was by Miss Baker’s students’ presentations. When kids are empowered to harness their own passion and creativity in using technology for teaching and learning, the results can be astounding. As adults, we don’t often give kids enough advance credit for this. We don’t hold them capable. I think it’s fear that keeps us from empowering them—fear that we will lose control, that we don’t know enough, that we aren’t good facilitators. Miss Baker and her students remind us of the positive learning that results when we sit back and let our kids do the technological driving.

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Reflections from Science Online 2010

January 19th, 2010

I just returned from Science Online 2010 in North Carolina, where participants spent up to four days immersed in science communication and its concordant technology. As a videojournalism volunteer, I was one of the lucky few to get a flip video camera in return for committing to post 10 related videos to You Tube. Here is a small collection of one-on-one interviews from the event.

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Science communicators unite at Science Online 2010

January 11th, 2010

Science Online 2010
It’s hard to hide my excitement about the event being held in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park this weekend. Science Online 2010 bills itself as an annual science communication conference, but is, at its heart, an unconference. Admittedly, I’ve never been to an unconference, so I’m not quite sure how to describe it, except perhaps that it is more participatory than your run-of-the-mill conference. According to the Science Online 2010 blog,

The ScienceOnline conference brings together scientists, bloggers, journalists, writers, educators, students, entrepreneurs, and others to discuss the ever-expanding role of the Internet in the practice and communication of science, and to share new tools and practices that facilitate these goals.

You can read more about the event and its history on this blog post.

Attendance at Science Online 2010 is limited to 250 participants, so it will be fairly cozy. The last conference I attended was about 10 times as large: the National Educational Computing Conference in 2005. That was well before I became a freelancer. And the last scientific conference I attended… well… I’m too embarassed to mention. Suffice it to say it was a long time ago. So long, in fact, that I feel like a conference virgin again, which partly explains why I haven’t signed up to lead any of the sessions or workshops. You see, there will be scientists. There will be science journalists and science bloggers. And I’m too insecure in any of those credentials to claim expertise at this time. Yes, I’m a scientist, but a nonpracticing one for the last 10 years. I’m also a science blogger, but with less than 10 posts under my shiny white belt.

Where does that leave me? As a proverbial sponge, I believe, soaking up the experience and wringing out the gems that I come across. And by wringing I mean sharing through tweets or blog posts. Despite the aforementioned insecurities, I am very secure in my ability as an editor and writer to cull, vet, synthesize, and express. Indeed, I can’t wait to do so.

Thus, for those unfortunate few who were closed out of the registration process, I’ll be there for you. Look for my tweets on @iescience between Thursday, January 14 and Sunday, January 17. Here are some other ways that you can participate in Science Online 2010 virtually (i.e., without a physical presence):

And, to those of you who will be physically present, it will be my pleasure to meet you.

UPDATE 1/12/10:
Parts of Science Online 2010 will be broadcast live online at and via Second Life at Triangle Park/128/129/25

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