The World Cetacean Alliance believes that cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) represent our best hope for protecting marine species and habitats, as well as the global human community that relies on our oceans for its very survival.
Interest in whales and dolphins is reaching new heights. Central to wildlife documentaries that draw millions of viewers; topping lists of things to do before we die; and viewed in the wild by 13 million holidaymakers each year, cetaceans are undoubtedly the most popular group of marine animals on Earth!
The cultural importance of cetaceans dates back for millennia, with whales and dolphins revered as deities, guides and protectors. However, in recent times the need to reconnect with cetaceans has never been more apparent. Whale watching, the practice of observing whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their natural habitat, has seen a recent surge in popularity as humans continue to be enamoured by these majestic creatures.
From hunting cetaceans and capturing animals for captivity, to dangers from fishing net entanglement and plastic waste, whales and dolphins face continued exploitation – with numbers of many species in decline. Of the 88 species known to science, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies three as Critically Endangered, seven as Endangered, six as Vulnerable, and five as Near Threatened.
Studies have shown that whales and dolphins are increasingly important drivers of economic growth for tourism and related industries. It is increasingly apparent that responsible whale watching tourism will be essential to secure a prosperous future not only for cetaceans and the people that rely upon them for their livelihoods, but also for our oceans.
Cetaceans are ecosystem engineers. They modify habitats in a way that increases species richness and habitat productivity. As a result, cetaceans are important for maintaining the health and stability of the environment they are living in. Whales modify habitats by a simple mechanism called a whale pump. They feed at varying depths, but they generally defecate at the surface. These massive clouds of poop provide a big boost of iron and nitrogen to many ecosystems, directly benefitting the marine food chain and renewing fish stocks.
The 88 species of cetacean living in our seas and rivers are important indicators of the state of the marine environment. Threats to whales and dolphins also affect the entire ecosystem, and since cetaceans are especially sensitive to them, they act as important indicators of the health of our oceans. It is therefore vital that we study cetacean populations and focus on the protection of cetacean species and habitats.
Many species, especially large whales, undertake long migrations between their breeding and feeding grounds. For example, humpback whales can travel more than 10,000 km every year between the poles and the tropics. Given the migratory nature of these animals, their protection requires international collaboration.
Whales protect our planet’s health by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere. They sequester thousands of tons of carbon throughout their lifetime through their activities. Not only do whales eat (store) large quantities of prey, their poop provides vital nutrients for phytoplankton to grow and absorb CO2. Finally, when whales die and sink to the ocean floor they lock up more carbon away from the atmosphere. The ability of whales to be natural CO2 regulators is one of the biggest reasons why whales are important, to limit the impact of greenhouse gases and our warming climate.
Cetaceans live in complex social societies and have incredible cognitive skills. Some species have been proven to show an intelligence and self-awareness comparable to those of apes and elephants, and there is evidence that they are more compassionate than humans! Cetaceans also have culture: unique ideas, songs, customs, and social behaviour that are passed from generation to generation within a society. The disappearance of a population of cetaceans therefore takes on extra significance, because we are likely losing unique cultures that have developed over thousands of years!