The study of whales yields treasures

  • Dr. Iain Kerr speaks on the importance of whales during a talk at the Amos Fortune Forum in Jaffrey. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI

  • Dr. Iain Kerr speaks on the importance of whales during a talk at the Amos Fortune Forum in Jaffrey on Friday, July 15, 2016. (Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, July 19, 2016 6:54AM

Why whales?

That was the question posed by Dr. Iain Kerr during Friday night’s Amos Fortune Forum. The answer, he said, is because whales, along with humans, are among the only animals residing at the top of the food chain of the ocean. At the same time, things like whale fall – dead whales falling to the bottom of the ocean – and whale waste acting as a fertilizer for plankton and plant life on the top 50 feet of the ocean, mean whales become an important part of the ocean’s balancing act.

When something is wrong on one level, it shows in whales, making them the canaries in the coal mine of our ocean’s health.

And as the ocean covers most of the planet, its health is something we should be worried about, said Kerr.

“Who called a planet 71 percent ocean ‘Earth’?” asked Kerr.

Kerr is the CEO of the Ocean Alliance, an organization recognized as an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding by scientist Dr. Roger Payne in 1970.

Kerr recently returned from a research trip to the Sea of Cortez, where he and his team were collecting samples from whales using a drone to collect the material expelled from whales blowholes – a machine that his team charmingly calls the SnotBot.

Not long ago, said Kerr, his team would collect the same biological information – including ocean health indicators like how much heavy metal the whales were absorbing – by taking a small biopsy, about the size of a pencil, by essentially sticking the whales with a pole. But through collecting biological information by drone, said Kerr, the process has become much less invasive, allowing scientists to gather information without the whale ever knowing.

“These animals are blowing out a treasure trove of biological information,” said Kerr.

Ocean Alliance began with a focus on whaling, said Kerr, and though there have been major breakthroughs in protecting whales from hunting, there are more potential threats to the species than ever – including ocean acidification, rise in water temperature, increasing plastic and other types of pollution.