The Miraculous Tale of the Whale


Written for The Ocean Agency | 2 July 2016

Last week, I really needed to hear some good news about the ocean, a story that would cheer me up, a story about nature bouncing back from catastrophe.

I had just returned from a gathering of the world’s best coral reef scientists in Hawaii where shocking facts were confirmed that I’d been hearing for a while now – climate change is going to wipe out most coral reefs. We are committed to about 25 years of continued ocean warming due to greenhouse gas emissions already in the system. This will take us beyond their maximum temperature tolerance. The global bleaching event, which has just killed 22% of Great Barrier Reef this year, is really just a taste of what’s to come.

Coral reefs are our planets most diverse ecosystem with up to a million species. They are both the nurseries of our global fish stocks and one of our best natural medicine cabinets, full of future cures. The fact that we are committed to virtually losing them, certainly ranks as a catastrophe. Quite frankly the situation is depressing, which is why I needed a good news story so badly.   

Like most people, I already knew a bit about Humpback Whales - I was aware we had nearly wiped them out. We had hunted them down until they were close to extinction. I also knew that, since we stopped commercial whaling, their numbers had recovered reasonably well. However I had no idea to what degree. What I found out surprised me.

By 1966 we had hunted Humpback Whales down to their last 4% (compared to their pre whaling population). Just 5,000 individuals survived. If we’d killed any more, their scarcity and limited genetic pool would have made any recovery increasing unlikely. But we didn’t. Instead we stopped killing them just in time. We stabilised the system, by removing hunting, and we allowed nature to do what it does best. Flourish.

I was expecting Humpback Whale numbers to be up to 20 or 30% from their original numbers. However their recovery has been far more impressive than I expected. There are now around 80,000 individuals (65% of their original numbers) and their numbers are still improving at about 8% per year. That’s phenomenal recovery.

Understanding nature’s ability to recover so strongly, gives me hope for coral reefs. There is no reason to think an ecosystem, like coral reefs, can’t bounce back in the same way.

Like we did with Humpback Whales we will take them to the brink - less than 10% are likely to survive the committed warming already in the system and that’s just the global issue. There are increasing threats from over fishing and pollutions on a local level too.

However we have time to halt the warming and protect the surviving reefs on a local scale from other threats - to stabilise the system and stop the decline. If we do this in time nature can go to work. By the end of this century we could be seeing a similar recovery to the miraculous recovery of Humpback Whales. It’s a vision for the future that makes me want to double our efforts to protect coral reefs.

The simple fact is we have no choice but to stabilise global warming to under 2 degrees C (above pre industrial temperatures), the science is clear on this. The consequences would be too catastrophic for humanity if we don’t. It is a massive task to achieve this but action is finally ramping up and every government knows we have no other option.

The good news is, by saving ourselves; we’ll still have the potential to save coral reefs. By stabilising the global temperature under a 2 degrees C rise, nature will go to work, creating not just new reefs but reefs more resilient than ever.