Whales ‘Generate and Promote Life’

A Chilean expert on the world’s largest animal describes why he sees them as ‘the trees of the sea’

At an age when kids dream of growing up to be astronauts or baseball players or ballerinas, Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete already knew that he wanted to study whales. His obsession with marine mammals began at age 8, when he saw his first whale—an orca. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that he finally met the muse that would inspire his research: the blue whale.

Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete
Centro Ballena Azul

When the largest animal on the planet seemed destined for extinction, Hucke-Gaete—now a marine biologist, researcher, and professor at Chile’s Universidad Austral, and founder of the Chile-based nonprofit Centro Ballena Azul, or Blue Whale Center—discovered a natural feeding and nursing refuge for blue whales in the country’s Patagonia region.

In his most recent scientific paper, published Feb. 1 in the journal Scientific Reports, he detailed one whale’s dramatic struggle to avoid nearly a thousand vessels, which pass through its feeding grounds in Patagonia daily.

Q: Why should the world care about what happens to blue whales in Patagonia?

A: Because the blue whale is iconic. And because today it’s a perfect symbol of two important aspects of human nature: our unbridled push to exploit nature and our ability to make amends for bad decisions and actions in our past.

Q: When it comes to blue whales, what kind of bad decisions are you talking about?

A: By 1966, the whaling industry had reduced the blue whale population in the Southern Hemisphere to less than 1% of its original size. Imagine that you have 300 Facebook friends, and that’s the total population of your species—and that after a catastrophe, you’re left with three. That’s what happened to the blue whale. It’s incomprehensible that humans brought the world’s largest animal to the brink of extinction; our destructive capacity is incredible.

Q: And yet the species survives.

A: Right, which is why I talk about our ability to make amends. I’d like to think that we’ve learned and that we’re capable of helping this majestic species recover. The whaling industry is a nightmare of the past. But today there are other new threats to the oceans that prevent a rapid recovery of overexploited species. If we succeed in facilitating the recovery of the world’s largest animal, it will be a significant achievement—a sign that we can reverse the mistakes of the past, and a powerful beacon of hope amid the troubling outlook for global biodiversity.

Q: Why do we call Patagonia a “climate refuge”?

A: Climate refuges are areas that—because of their climatic characteristics, how pristine they are, and their relatively low impacts from human activities—are supposed to better withstand and potentially mitigate the negative effects of climate change. Chilean Patagonia has certain characteristics that make it worthy of that title, if we protect its ecosystems. A lot of scientific literature indicates that Chilean Patagonia is an important sink for atmospheric carbon, largely due to its fjords, macroalgae forests, and the whales’ feeding areas. We need to study these natural systems in greater detail, protect them, and minimize the human-produced threats that could limit their effectiveness in quietly helping to ease the effects of climate change.

Q: Can you say more about how blue whales interact with this refuge?

A: Blue whales come to Chilean Patagonia to feed, and they stay in the area for up to six months. Importantly, they arrive with their young. Mothers teach their calves not only how to feed themselves and deal with threats before weaning, at 6 months of age, but they also show them that Patagonia is still a place where their food will be assured. Generations of blue whales have maintained this tradition and return year after year. It’s our responsibility to maintain and improve the conditions that make these magnificent animals visit us and fulfill their role in Chilean Patagonia’s marine ecosystems.

Q: You’ve been very interested in whale feces lately. That’s not something that typically comes to mind when we think about conservation.

A: But whale feces is really interesting!

Q: OK. Tell us more.

A: Research over the past 10 years indicates that large whales fertilize the photic zone of the oceans …

Q: That’s where the photosynthesis of phytoplankton occurs?

A: Right, on the surface. And it’s where large whales excrete liquid feces (or, more elegantly put, a fecal plume), stimulating the proliferation of phytoplankton, which in turn absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and releases oxygen. Remember that 50% of the oxygen produced on Earth is generated in the sea through phytoplankton. So restoring whale populations could increase productivity by making essential nutrients available in areas considered low in chlorophyll, increasing the availability of these nutrients in the ocean.

Q: A recovery of the whale population would do what, exactly, when it comes to carbon absorption?

A: During their long lives, blue whales harbor literally tons of carbon in their own bodies; in that sense, you could think of them as the trees of the sea. When a whale dies, its body, with all that carbon, sinks to the sea floor. Scavengers eat the whale remains and continue to enhance marine productivity. And after a few years, other organisms begin colonizing the whale bones—and what was once the whale’s body houses a complete ecological community that can last for up to 50 years.

Q: Nature recycles, or reuses, the whale’s carcass, in other words.

A: Yes. Whales are life: They generate and promote life. If we think about it, it’s quite a smart process, and we should listen and understand the message that the whales are conveying to us. Marine ecosystems are resilient. That’s why science and education are so important if we hope to improve as a human species; we’ve ignored too many lessons because we haven’t devoted enough effort to understanding the ecological processes that keep ecosystems healthy.

Q: What do you hope will happen as a result of the publication of your latest paper?

A: We hope that it generates awareness, and that structural changes occur in the way we do things on a day-to-day basis. When it comes to whales being struck by boats, there are aspects that can be changed relatively simply. Measures could be established to regulate maritime traffic, especially during the months when whales need Chilean Patagonia to feed and care for their young. But those are only the first steps toward resolving and minimizing the effects of human activities in Patagonia.

Q: What else would you like to see?

A: Conservation in Patagonia is not just about saving whales. We have enough evidence that industries with a heavy presence in this maritime area—such as the salmon industry and others—are causing profound changes at the ecosystem level. So we need to act quickly, using measures including marine protected areas, so that Chilean Patagonia continues to be not only an important refuge for unique ecological communities but, perhaps more importantly, a refuge that helps minimize the impacts of global climate change.

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