From Iceland — Ask A Marine Ecologist: What Is The Importance Of Whale Poop For The Ocean?

Ask A Marine Ecologist: What Is The Importance Of Whale Poop For The Ocean?

Ask A Marine Ecologist: What Is The Importance Of Whale Poop For The Ocean?

Published April 26, 2019

Aliya Uteuova
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So much of Iceland’s history and a great deal of current controversy revolves around the largest animals on the planet—whales. But did you know that a pound of “whale poop” could be worth 7,000 USD? We asked Joe Roman, a visiting Fulbright conservation biologist at the University of Iceland: why is whale poop so valuable?

Most whales live on diets of fish. So you might see fish scales and even squid beaks in their poop. There are also a lot of nutrients and micronutrients in whale feces, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and iron.

It is those nutrients that are of most value here. Whales can dive hundreds of meters beneath the surface to feed. When they come up to breathe, they rest, digest, and often defecate. They release nutrients in their poop near the ocean surface, where there’s enough sunlight for photosynthesis to occur. Whale poop fertilizes ocean gardens—increasing the growth of algae, zooplankton and even fish populations. This can enhance the productivity of the oceans and increase marine resilience.

For more than a thousand years, perfumeries have used ambergris, a substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, as the base note of fragrances. There is a common myth that ambergris is whale poop, but alas, it is their vomit. Ambergris is extremely rare and found in whales that die a natural death or those killed by whalers. When ambergris is first released, it resembles poop, but like a fine wine, it improves with age. Unfortunately for budding Icelandic entrepreneurs, ambergris wouldn’t make much of an industry today. Many perfumeries use synthetic alternatives and trade in products of sperm whales, an endangered species, is restricted. If you happen to find a light waxy lump along the coast that smells of an old church or Brazil nuts (descriptions vary), it could be floating gold.

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