The ocean is one of the lungs of our planet, and whales help it to breathe. We already know that whale poo plays a vital role by fertilising microscopic plants called phytoplankton, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation are helping to fund a study that will help show just how important this process is. In this guest blog, Graduate student Dana Bloch gives us an insight into the early findings of the project and the life of a whale researcher.
Growing up, I was drawn to whales, especially humpbacks. They have interesting lives and behaviours, and something about them just feels a bit mysterious. My awe was reinforced by knowledge as I went through school and college, and I realised my academic interests lay in oceanography and earth science. Learning about how whales impact carbon and nutrient cycling in the ocean was a light bulb moment for me − could I do research that satisfied my academic curiosity about how whales interact with their ocean environment, and still get to study whales in the water? Through a lot of work and patience, yes.
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From love to research
In 2019 I connected with Dr. Heidi Pearson and developed a master’s thesis project that I started officially in the autumn of 2021. The focus is to understand the role humpback whales have on nutrient cycling in Southeast Alaska, an area in which these questions have yet to be investigated. This is a multifaceted project, because to understand the impact whales have on their environment here, we first need to map the local oceanography, an effort that has been historically lacking in Southeast Alaska.
Better understanding the role whales play in fighting the climate and biodiversity crises is vital so that we can put forward a strong case to governments to increase their protection. © Sarah Mastroni
I collect ocean data (including salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, and nutrient concentrations) all over Southeast Alaska, in partnership with the Alaska Whale Foundation. To give me a broader picture in terms of the area and timeframe covered, I also use temperature and salinity data, collected by the Alaska Troller’s Association. All this information will tell us when and where the surface water may have low nutrient concentrations, and would therefore benefit from nutrients from humpback whale poo. Even in these early days, I can see clear patterns that indicate some regions may become nutrient-limited more quickly than others.
The next step is to test how phytoplankton respond to the nutrients in the whale poo. Although I am based in Fairbanks, Alaska for school, and a small bay in Southeast Alaska for field work, I found myself in Juneau, Alaska in early April. Here, snow-capped mountains tower above the road, and you can spot whales from the windows of some houses (I didn’t, it was a little early in the season, but people do in the summer). It is also where Dr. Pearson lives and has a lab in which we conducted the experiment. Dr. Pearson, undergraduate student Francesca Johnson, and I conducted a similar experiment in the spring of 2022, which was a pilot run for this year. From that experiment we learnt a lot, and this year our results are really promising. The general premise is to expose phytoplankton to whale poo, and measure how they respond compared to conditions where there is no poo. We have three basic conditions, one with just seawater, one with seawater and an inorganic nutrient source, and one with seawater and fecal matter.
Our preliminary results are promising. It appears most conditions with fecal matter showed more growth over the four-day incubation than the condition with just seawater.
Now I am back in Fairbanks, but not for long. I’ll head to the small bay in Southeast Alaska in mid-May for another field season, collecting data and on the hunt for whale poo. This work would not be possible without funding from WDC and their brilliant supporters, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities and collaborations it has enabled.
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