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FEATURE: Science

Save the Whales!

Monsters Well-Designed for the Earth's Ecosystem

by Hugh Ross

Amid extremists' clashes over philosophy and tactics, international efforts to preserve a healthy population of the world's largest cetaceans became fodder for comedians. Meanwhile, recent discoveries have provided new reasons to resolve these conflicts and get on with the business of managing whales as part of mankind's assigned role of managing all the planet's resources for the benefit of all life (see Genesis 1:28–30).

Whales provide a prime example of resource management gone wrong. For nearly three centuries, the whaling industry drove whale species close to extinction, endangering itself, the whales, and an oceanic ecosystem that we're finding has a direct impact on important greenhouse gases and fishery stocks. A growing recognition of the danger to whales and whaling led to the creation of various regulatory agencies, such as the International Whaling Commission. Human nature being what it is, however, disagreements over appropriate hunting quotas and the lack of an effective enforcement plan, not to mention different attitudes towards cheating, have perpetuated whale management problems, to our detriment.

Whale of a Factor

Meanwhile, a team of researchers has provided fresh motivation to solve these problems. A group of eight Australian and German biologists and oceanographers, led by Flinders University biologist Trish Lavery, has discovered that sperm whales play a crucial role in regulating the earth's greenhouse gases—a key factor in global temperature control. Despite releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere, the world's largest mammals actually help subtract far greater quantities of this greenhouse gas than they add.1

The sperm whales' contribution to relieving the planet's greenhouse effect emerges from the enormous creatures' pattern of eating and defecating. Just how big are these animals? Adult male sperm whales grow up to 67 feet in length and weigh up to 63 tons. With a jawbone as long as 18 feet and 50-some teeth, the sperm whale is the only predator capable of feeding on the giant squid and the colossal squid, which themselves can be up to 50 feet long and inhabit the darkest depths of the world's oceans.

Sperm whales have been known to dive down 9,800 feet, or nearly 2 miles, in search of squid. Their hunt requires a series of dives that may last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes each, with only an 8-to-10-minute rest period between dives. To make such deep and prolonged dives requires some special features that suggest amazing design. For example, sperm whales can hold their breath longer than any other air-breathing creature. Their uniquely flexible ribcage permits lung collapse, which reduces nitrogen intake, thus minimizing the effects of the bends. In addition, their blood has an extremely high red-blood-cell count and can thus store a huge quantity of oxygen, which the whales can conserve by drastically lowering their metabolism. Scientists also believe that the distinctive spermaceti organ in the whales' forehead enables them to regulate their buoyancy, another feature allowing for such ultra-deep dives.

The research team led by Lavery observed that sperm whales tend to defecate while resting briefly on the surface. As they do, some 85–90 percent of the iron they ingest as part of their extremely iron-rich squid diet is expelled in the form of ferrous salts. Since most of this fecal matter is liquid, nearly all of the iron is efficiently delivered to the upper, light-absorbing (photic) layer of the ocean waters.

This photic layer is the zone where photosynthetic plankton, or phytoplankton, thrives. Phytoplankton represents the base of the food chain for all oceanic life. The more phytoplankton, the greater the total biomass the oceans can support. Just as importantly, phytoplankton pumps more oxygen into the atmosphere than all other forms of photosynthetic life combined, and it removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than all other living things combined. Meanwhile, the main factor in the growth of phytoplankton, particularly in the southern oceans, is the availability of soluble iron.

Lavery's team discovered that sperm whales play a crucial role in delivering the necessary iron to the phytoplankton. By the team's calculations, the 12,000 sperm whales that populate the ocean surrounding Antarctica deliver 55 tons of iron per year to the phytoplankton dwelling there. This same phytoplankton "colony" makes use of that iron in the photosynthetic process to remove 440,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Given that these 12,000 whales respire 176,000 tons of carbon annually, the net effect of the process is removal of 264,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. In other words, sperm whales are playing a part in greenhouse gas control.

Boon for Others

Paradoxically, sperm whales' predatory activity actually stimulates the growth of giant and colossal squid populations. The 440,000 tons of carbon delivered to the deep Southern Ocean as a result of the sperm whales' iron fertilization provide extra food for deep-sea fish stocks, which in turn provide extra food for the squid, which makes for more and bigger squid. In other words, even though sperm whales prey upon giant and colossal squid, the greater the population of sperm whales, the greater the population of giant and colossal squid—and of all fish species the deep oceans support. (The same kind of positive-feedback loop occurs between baleen whales and krill and all the sea life krill support.)

To put this situation in the negative, the reduction in sperm whale populations brought about by industrial whaling dramatically reduced the phytoplankton biomass, which reduced the surface and deep fish populations, which in turn reduced the giant and colossal squid populations, with the end result that, according to the Lavery team's calculations, at least 2 million more tons of carbon remain in the atmosphere annually.2

Thanks to these biologists and oceanographers, we now know that whales are a boon to resolving a global warming problem from greenhouse gases, as well as to the health and wellbeing of all other species ­living in the oceans. Lavery's team concluded that the need to respond to the observed warming of the earth's surface represents, by itself, sufficient reason for the nations of the world to work together in returning the world's whale populations to their pre-1750 (pre-industrial whaling) numbers.

What these researchers discovered also hints at one possible reason why God would have created a sequence of whale species, gradually transitioning them from freshwater locales to partly salty river estuaries to seas adjoining continental landmasses and finally to all the oceans of the world. Astronomical research tells us that the sun grows slowly and progressively brighter—and hotter—as it continues to convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion in its core. (The increasing core density causes the sun's nuclear furnace to burn hotter.)

It seems reasonable to suppose that, as God was preparing the earth for humanity's arrival, he compensated for the increasing solar luminosity, at least in part, by creating more and more species of whales, gradually increasing their range and population. In this way, he would have set in motion a critical, life-enhancing cycle whereby the range and population of whales provided greater fertilization of the earth's photic zones, resulting in a progressively greater removal of greenhouse gases from the earth's atmosphere. Thus, even as the sun brightened, the temperature on the earth's surface remained ideal for more and more life, both quantities and kinds, through the progressive removal of greenhouse gases from the earth's atmosphere.

At the very least, this research has shown us that sperm whales must not be taken for granted. They are a unique species, designed like no other to serve the planet's living creatures, particularly its human beings. As the Psalmist declares, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein."3 Every life form that God has created on earth in some way enhances the quality of life for all. 

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