How to tell if a whale is … just take a look at their earwax! 


Blue Machine

by Helen Czerski (Torva £20, 446 pp) 

We think of the sea as separate from our lives, a place to go for holidays, to travel across by ferry or where fish come from.

But, in fact, the oceans affect every single aspect of our lives. Their continuous transference of heat from the tropics to the poles, from ocean temperatures of up to 30c down to minus 2c, is a vital function for life on Earth.

But things aren’t always predictable. The great German 19th-century scientist Alexander von Humboldt first discovered that the oceans off the west coast of South America, where you would expect the temperature to be around 28c, are only 16c.

This vital cold current, welling up from the depths, has ‘a huge influence on global geopolitics, the Atacama Desert, a lot of fishermen, and a surprising number of pigs’, says Helen Czerski.

For life to flourish in the oceans requires both sunlight and nutrients. Unfortunately, the warm upper layer is usually short of the latter, while nutrient-rich deeper layers are short of sunlight.

From whales' earwax, it is possible to read the levels of average whale cortisol, ie, stress, and progesterone, ¿ pregnancy ¿ at any time

From whales’ earwax, it is possible to read the levels of average whale cortisol, ie, stress, and progesterone, — pregnancy — at any time

But off this coast of South America, the warm upper layers are driven away by steady winds, so that the deep cold currents can well up to the surface and receive sunlight as well.

‘The phytoplankton can gorge themselves silly on sunlight, stashing away solar energy on a monumental scale,’ says Czerski. 

The result is a teeming fishery almost unequalled anywhere on Earth. Everything else then feeds on this abundance of phytoplankton, from small fish to bigger ones, and seabirds to mammalian giants.

‘This narrow ocean region, covering perhaps 0.05 per cent of the global ocean surface, is responsible for 15-20 per cent of the entire global fish catch.’ 

So much fish, indeed, that much of it is dried and turned into fish meal for pigfeed.

We also learn that a bath full of sea water contains 5kg of salt; and that if you live anywhere along the Thames, up as far Teddington or Richmond, then you can correctly say you live on the coast of Britain, since it’s tidal.

Czerski also looks back in time to the end of the last Ice Age, around 9,000 BC, when the shallow seas around what is now the Bering Strait spawned a vast arc of submarine giant kelp forest, stretching from Japan, all the way round to Alaska and then down to California.

She writes that it’s impossible to dive into the environment giant kelp creates without being reminded of forests on land.

During World War II whaling virtually stopped, yet whales were still highly stressed due to noise pollution from the underwater din of the war - whales can hear sounds from hundreds of miles away

During World War II whaling virtually stopped, yet whales were still highly stressed due to noise pollution from the underwater din of the war – whales can hear sounds from hundreds of miles away 

‘If you look upwards, bright sunbeams sneak through the gaps in the canopy to stab into the forest, turning any kelp they touch to gold. 

‘If you look downwards, vertigo washes over you because the ramrod-straight garlands keep going and going until they disappear into the gloom . . .’

But my favourite revelation here concerns whale earwax. You may think this sounds less than appealing, but what it tells us is jaw-dropping.

The baleen whale produces earwax even though it is no longer necessary, and London’s Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in the U.S. own a collective 146 years’ worth of this earwax between them. 

From these specimens they can actually read the levels of average whale cortisol, ie, stress, and progesterone, — pregnancy — at any time.

The result is not very flattering for us busybody humans, because, thanks to us and our depredations, the past 150 years or so of whale life on Earth has been ‘patchy, but overall pretty terrible’, says Czerski.

Commercial whaling was at its peak in the 1960s, and whales were ruthlessly hunted around the world until only 1-2 per cent of the blue whale population was left alive by 1966: the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet, larger than any dinosaur.

And sure enough, as recorded in that precious wax, their cortisol/stress levels were sky high.

During World War II whaling virtually stopped, yet whales were still highly stressed. Why was this? 

Noise pollution from the underwater din of the war, when ‘humans filled the ocean with the sound of battleships, depth charges, torpedo strikes, submarines and plane crashes’, says Czerski. 

Whales can hear sounds hundreds of miles away. It must have been torture.

From our point of view, it was a monumental war between good and evil, full of heroism and sacrifice. 

Yet from the whales’ view point, all we did was cause extreme stress to these gentle giants, with our noisy baboon-like squabblings over territory.

Czerski is a wonderful writer. Most scientists could give you a handful of fascinating facts about their subject, no doubt, but few can string them together into such a compelling and elegantly written story, or convey complex ideas and novel perspectives with a few vivid phrases.

Blue Machine really does change the way you see the world.



Read More

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More