Three scientists first learned about "whale falls" in the 1980s and have since made hundreds of dives in a tiny submarine designed to collect data. They say a whole community of organisms can thrive for up to a century by sucking the fats and sulfides from one whale skeleton. But with this knowledge comes a realization: two centuries of commercial whaling have taken a tremendous toll on the ocean floor.
Dead whales in the ocean are like fallen trees in the forest. Just as decomposing wood turns into a powder to nourish plant nutrients in the soil, the sediment that falls from a whale's carcass turns the sea floor into a rich environment ideal for clams, mussels, enzymes, bacteria, worms and other mysterious deep sea scavengers.
At the Deep-Sea Biology Symposium held in England this summer, marine biologist Craig Smith told conference attendees that commercial whaling has reduced the number of whale carcasses by up to 95 percent, and many species of sea scavengers who would have been feeding on these skeletons are most likely extinct or going extinct in areas where intense whaling has persisted. "The possibility that whaling has caused species extinctions at the remote deep-sea floor gives me new appreciation for the scale of human impacts on the ocean," Smith said.