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Sperm whale group © Vanessa Mignon

Great Whale Conveyor Belt

Baleen whales undertake some of the longest migrations on Earth.  These extraordinary journeys have a transformative effect on the transport of vital nutrients through the ocean, in a process known as the ’Great Whale Conveyor Belt.’ 

Whales transport and release thousands of tonnes of nutrients – including iron and nitrogen, which are vital for species such as phytoplankton, krill and fish to thrive - through their poo and pee, the shedding of dead skin, placentas and even their carcasses. However, the full scale of this process has never been quantified, until now.  

The data collection has been completed, and the team has been analysing the information to understand and quantify the movement of the different nutrients that these whales provide.  

This study will help us understand how other whale populations circulate nutrients via the Great Whale Conveyor Belt, strengthening our arguments for protection of these remarkable species, the recovery of their populations and the creation of safe migration routes that benefit the whole marine ecosystem. More whales doesn’t just mean more whales, it means a healthier ocean, more abundant with life.

Gray whale
A gray whale breaches © Tim Stenton

How do whales move nutrients around the oceans?

Some examples of how far whales are moving nutrients around the world:

  • Southern Hemisphere humpback whales travel 8,300 km to breeding grounds off Costa Rica from the Southern Ocean.
  • Gray whales can travel 22,511 km round trip between Russian feeding grounds and breeding grounds in Baja California.
  • In the Arctic and North Atlantic, many species move from high latitudes, off North America, Iceland, and Europe, to breeding areas in the Caribbean and off the West coast of Africa.

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