A whale watch is the crown jewel of a visit to New England. A massive creature breaches out of the water in a majestic display of torque, seemingly defying gravity as she reaches for the sky. Time slows and you gasp. We watch spellbound as she crashes back to the water and slips gracefully beneath the waves. We are understandably in awe of the spectacle of what we see above the water line, but what happens during all that time whales spend beneath the waves? Why do whales matter? W20’s spring event keynote presenter Dr. Asha de Vos’ lifelong devotion to understanding and protecting whales can shed light on both why whales are important to us and how to defend these majestic creatures.
Dr. de Vos, founder of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project is no stranger to the importance of demystifying the value of these leviathans of the sea. She evangelizes about whales as ecosystem engineers whose poop is an ocean fertilizer upon which all other ocean life depends. During their deep dives, whales then provide mixing, bringing those deep water nutrients up the water column with their massive frames so that other marine animals can also benefit from them, including phytoplankton which uses these and other ingredients in the process of photosynthesis. You could say that whales are among the largest cogs in a system of interlocking levers and pulleys that drive the healthy ocean we all rely upon: one that regulates our weather, provides us with half of the oxygen we breathe, and supplies 2 billion people with their daily protein.
“Save the whales, and you save our fish,” de Vos explains.
But that’s not all. As Dr. de Vos reminds us in one of her many TED Talks, whales are knitted into the very fabric of our history, mythology, and identity. The iconic North Atlantic right whale, which graces our license plates here in Massachusetts, was once so abundant in Cape Cod Bay in the 1500s that “you could walk across their backs,” de Vos says.
Today, right whales in our waters in New England number in the hundreds. The critically endangered whale just this past summer had a record number of deaths from fishing line entanglements and ship strikes. According to Vice President and Senior Scientist at the New England Aquarium Scott Kraus, without human introduced stressors, the North Atlantic right whale can live up to 100 years. Sadly, this year is the first time since the monitoring of these animals began that no calves have been spotted in the predicted breeding grounds off the coast of Georgia. Scientists are sounding the alarm that unless something is done about the many threats facing these animals, they may become extinct within the next twenty years.
Time is running out for these animals, so what is to be done? “We only have whales in our waters now because of the ‘Save the Whales’ movement of the 1970s,” de Vos points out, “after whaling in the 1800s nearly decimated the population.” (The Right Whale was so named because it was then the right whale to kill, because it floated to the surface, making it easily transportable by towing and had abundant whale oil.) It was ordinary citizens who stepped up to fight for the end to commercial whaling and put the Marine Mammal Protection Act in place.
Dr. de Vos’ work today in her native Sri Lanka protecting the blue whale has involved an unorthodox combination of engaging citizens, fishermen, entrepreneurs and young people in science through the organization she founded, OceanSwell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education non-profit. “I’m committed to the idea that all conservation is local and that solutions to conservation can come from all corners of the globe,” she explains. “Discoveries might not come from scientists,” she adds. “They might come from ordinary people who are passionate and can become involved,” de Vos wisely sums up.
At this moment in time, when our beloved New England right whales are like a canary in the coal mine demanding us to take action against multiple threats facing our ocean including plans to resume oil and gas drilling off of our shores, the weakening of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, plastic pollution, and ocean noise, Dr. de Vos offers a timely message of hope and a blueprint for moving forward. Each of us can take up a bucket in the brigade to save this icon.
Join us to welcome Dr. de Vos on May 15th at Think Big: A Passion Lived. An Ocean Saved.
Blog contributor and W2O Dir. Laura Parker Roerden is Executive Director and Founder of Ocean Matters