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.