The Importance of Whales in the Atlantic Ocean
The Azores Archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is a paradise for whales and dolphins. The intricate topography of the underwater landscape, the absence of big-scale pollution, an abundance of food, and legal protection make it a sanctuary for cetaceans. Some stay in the area all year round, many pass by on their migrations to enjoy the quiet and rich waters, to mate and feast. This is a very vulnerable and important place — not only for the animals but for all of us.
Why whales are important for the oceans and the climate
By now, most people have understood that every living being has an impact on the ecosystem they are a part of and therefore on the climate as a whole. Whales are no exception to this rule as they play a significant yet almost subtle role in the oceans. They are so-called “ecosystem engineers,” just like beavers and other animals, which have a very strong impact on the world around them.
One of the most important aspects of their influence is what scientists call “the whale pump.” The big cetaceans feed in the depths of the ocean but always travel back to the surface. When they excrete, they release iron and nitrogen and therefore fertilization for phytoplankton, which is one of the most important elements of a functioning ocean. The vertical movement of the whales also mixes the water and helps the plankton to stay afloat in a zone where they can live and reproduce.
Phytoplankton is found at the base of the food chain in the sea. If it would vanish, the entire ecosystem would collapse. It also photosynthesizes and produces around 50% of the oxygen we breathe (source) and binds CO2 in large amounts and for thousands of years.
Whales are also vital for the balance within the food chain as they act both as predators and prey. They control populations of fish and smaller species and are hunted by other whales and sharks. Even when they die due to old age or diseases, they still act as food for others, as their nutritious bodies sink to the ocean ground where they are consumed over the course of many years by the animals living there. When the numbers of whales decline, so do the numbers of fish and other oceanic wildlife.
If populations of whales and their relatives, like dolphins and sharks, are allowed to recover, they could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change. They would not only regulate the oceans and make it a healthy ecosystem overall but also help us absorb and bind the problematic CO2 far quicker and more efficiently than any technology ever could.
Why the Azores are crucial for the protection of cetaceans
The nine Portuguese islands are not only in a remote location in the North Atlantic but also offer a unique underwater landscape. Cornered between three different continental plates and shaped by volcanoes, the submarine landscape around the islands has a depth of 1000–2000 meters. The landscape is defined by 460 seamounts and other seamount-like features, and the complex oceanic circulation allows perfect conditions for rich and colorful sea life, including whales, dolphins, and sharks. The exact number of whale species is unclear, as many just reside in the area for a few weeks before moving on during their migration, but there is certainty that way over twenty different cetacean species enjoy the waters around the Azores.
Far away from both America and Europe, they can live with little to no disturbance or direct pollution. As the population of the Azores is low, there is only limited human interference. Legal protection does not allow big-scale fishing where the animals could end up as bycatch. Of course, beyond the horizon of what is visible from the islands, companies from other countries, unfortunately, break this law unnoticed, but close to the volcanic archipelago, the animals are safe to recharge, feast on the rich nutrition in the water and, in some cases, mate and raise their babies.
Researchers and marine biologists from all around the globe gather here to engage in the vast scientific exploration of the cetaceans. They track the whales and their routes across the ocean, create dive profiles, and expand the big library of sound recordings and photographs of the different species.
The collection of data is crucial for the understanding of the ocean and its inhabitants. The more we know how everything is connected, the easier it gets to protect this ecosystem and fight against climate change. Multiple organizations and science teams work on the islands, but even the small touristic whale-watching boats are doing their part. They help collect photographs and other data of each animal they see during their tours. Most of these companies interact gently with the wild animals, being aware of their significance. The tourists that get to see the magnificent giants usually feel the compassion of the skippers and researchers on the boat and, therefore, will leave the tours with a higher motivation to protect the wildlife in the Atlantic.
The bloody history of the islands
Unfortunately, the islands have not always been a peaceful place for cetaceans. After the Azores were populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, there was little to no protection for wildlife on land, let alone in the water. While the small population only went fishing for their own survival and did not threaten the populations of sea life, other countries soon realized the potential of the ocean surrounding the archipelago. During the 18th century, American ships started to pass by the islands, killing whales in big numbers. They hired the Azoreans, which were desperate for work, as cheap employees on their ships. (source / source)
Quickly the island people realized that there was a market for the gentle creatures they had often seen from their fishing boats. Mostly for the spermaceti, the fatty organs, which would be turned into oil that was used for lighthouses, street lamps, as a lubricant, and as soap in Europe and North America. Back in the day, the islands were often completely isolated from the outside world, especially during the harsh winter storms. Money and jobs were rare. Therefore, it was simply necessary to make use of every available opportunity, including whaling. So the hunting began.
Their target was the sperm whale. These majestic whales can live up to 70 years and dive to a depth of 1000 meters. They communicate through a language of clicks and live together in small but very loving families which have unique sequences of those clicks, called codas. They are also the most common resident whale species in the Azores archipelago.
Due to their limited resources, the inhabitants of the Azores never used advanced technology or big ships to hunt and kill the animals. They traveled on small wooden sailing boats, about half the size of a grown sperm whale, and threw harpoons at the whales with their bare hands. Many whalers never returned from those dangerous trips.
Once an animal was dead, a flag was put into place on their back, and a motorized boat would come to pick up the heavy body, dragging it to one of the little coastal harbors. There, the community would come together to get the whale out of the water and cut it into pieces. The nearby factories would then transform them into products for export.
It was hard, excruciating labor, and there was nothing nice about it. The shorelines were drenched in blood, the smell was horrifying, and sharks were everywhere, trying to get a piece of the dead giant. The payment was low but better than nothing. Only in 1986, when whaling was officially banned in Europe, the dangerous and depressing tradition came to an end. By then, over 12.000 whales* and many sailors had lost their life.
Protection is key
Some of those men who were at sea during those hunts are still alive today, and Azorean people are proud of them and what they did. Not the killing, but the surviving. Monuments remind of the crews that perished, and museums tell the history without being ashamed. But while they honor the past, the islands have gone through an incredible transformation in their relationship with whales and dolphins.
The islands are still known for their whales. But only as a tourist attraction and as a highly interesting place for marine biologists. The old whalers gave their knowledge about the animals, where to find them, and how to approach them to immigrants who wanted nothing more but to explore those incredible creatures and their underwater world. Only with their help, the organizations of today can work as smoothly as they do. Some of those whale hunters still sit in the watching towers, called vigias, on land and locate the animals, sending the coordinates of surfacing whales to the tourist boats and science expeditions.
Many people who live on the Azores and interact with the animals regularly can spot certain individuals due to their familiar fluke prints, markings, scars, or fin shapes. The islands and the oceanic wildlife are closely connected, and the relationship goes way beyond the bloody history of the last century.
The number one goal of today is the protection of ocean life. Even the government has strict rules these days that ensure the safety of the animals and maintain a healthy environment for them. The work of the scientific community and passionate activists help collect new and exciting data that is helping the world understand more about whales, dolphins and why it is so important to protect the ocean as an ecosystem and the wildlife that can be found within.
The Azores proof: People and politics can change. It has only been forty years since whale hunting was a normalized practice on the archipelago, and now the hunters have become the guardians of the ocean. The killing turned into the protection of a world that is so different from the one on land and yet so intertwined with all of us on a global and local level. It shows that change is indeed possible. Saving the oceans is possible if we simply let them live.
*While these numbers are big, they are nothing compared to the global rate. Even today, after the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, many thousands of whales are killed every single year. According to the WDC, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, around 40.000 big whales and 100.000 smaller whales and dolphins are being killed every year. This does not include the massive bycatch of dolphins in the fishing industry or the bycatch and active hunting of sharks.