The Current

A gory 'pinata': Here's what happens when a whale dies in the ocean

Whales enrich the ecosystem around them by falling to the depths of the ocean when they die and serving as a feast for a “bewitching menagerie of strange organisms,” says an award-winning Australian science writer who has been studying the marine mammals.

Rebecca Giggs explores what whales tell us about the world and our impact on it

A humpback whale breaks through the surface of the Pacific Ocean at the Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park in Colombia, on Aug. 12, 2018. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

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Originally published on Dec. 9, 2020.

Whales enrich the ecosystem around them by falling to the depths of the ocean when they die, serving as a feast for a "bewitching menagerie of strange organisms," according to award-winning Australian science writer Rebecca Giggs.

"It's almost like spring takes place. It's like the seasons have changed because you get this huge input of energy and all of these animals appear seemingly from nowhere," Giggs, who has been studying the marine mammals, said of the phenomenon known as whale fall.

"You get octopuses, you get strange kinds of worms that exist only on whale bones … and they have these roots that extend into the marrow of the bones, which they consume," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"It's almost as though this sort of very gory body becomes like a pinata. It's just full of all these amazing … creatures."

Whales aren't just important to other underwater animals. Giggs explores what whales tell us about the natural world, and humans' impact on it, in her new book Fathoms: The World in the Whale.

Like the sea creatures that swarm their carcasses in the ocean, people often flock to dead whales as a kind of "body we can mourn" when they wash up on shore.

That's partly because we've become more conscious of the changes taking place in the ocean, from rising sea levels to an accumulation of litter and marine acidification, Giggs said.

"So when something as huge and mammalian as a whale — something that we can kind of empathize with — arrives on the beach, then I think there is this moment of thinking, like, here is something that we can kind of catalyze our grief through as well."

We're also drawn to whales because we want to encounter something we've "saved," Giggs said.

Indonesian veterinarians examine a dead sperm whale after it was beached in Banda Aceh on Aug. 4, 2016. The whale was found dead on Aug. 4 and its beaching is believed to be caused by strong currents during its migration, according to an official from Indonesia's Natural Resources Conservation Agency. (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images)

During the 20th century, she explained, the marine mammals were "pushed to the brink" by industrial whaling. By the time the movement to save the whales started in the 1970s and 1980s, many whale populations had already dropped to "perilous levels."

"So it's also about an encounter with our own benevolence, our own feeling of we acted as a global citizenry to save these animals — the largest animals on the face of the planet," said Giggs.

Whales contribute to clean air

Whales also play an important role in keeping the planet healthy while they're alive — thanks, in part, to their poop.

When they eat, Giggs said, they dive down into the deep sea to feed on squid, krill or other small organisms. But they come back up to the ocean's surface to defecate, creating a kind of manure that allows plankton to flourish.

"Plankton are even more important than our rainforests in terms of the way that they trap carbon and the way that they emit oxygen," she explained. "So the activity of a whale actually has a measurable effect on the chemical composition of the air."

She said some people argue whales have a crucial role to play in the climate. A 2019 report produced by the International Monetary Fund, called Nature's Solution to Climate Change, found that one whale is as beneficial to the environment as thousands of trees. The IMF regularly publishes reports and research on economic development issues, including those related to climate change.

Rebecca Giggs is the award-winning Australian author behind the new book Fathoms: The World in the Whale. (Simon & Schuster)

But what draws us to whales is not just their sheer size, environmental power, or the fact that sighting certain kinds of them is rare.

They are a wonder to us because they augment our moral capacity, and help us appreciate how climate change impacts other creatures on Earth.

"This form of caring for something that's remote and a bit mysterious and unknowable and unmet by us is a kind of political imagination that we need in this moment," she said. 

"Because the environmental movement we're in, we're going to be called to extend our compassion to all of these people and organisms that we don't encounter — be that future generations, or the people who live on the equator who are facing ... the exigencies of climate change in its most extreme manifestations now."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann.