Three fin whales, each bigger than the Courtmacsherry whale-watch boat, were spotted off the Old Head of Kinsale last week. The lucky whale watchers were so overwhelmed by their size, and nearness to the boat, that they hardly spared a glance for the minke whale also sighted.
How magnificent are fin whales, second largest living creatures on earth. They can sustain speeds of 37kph with bursts of over 40kph recorded.
The American Museum of Natural History director Roy Chapman Andrews called the fin whale “the greyhound of the sea ... for its beautiful, slender body is built like a racing yacht and the animal can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship.”
Although enormous, they are not predatory, filter feeding on tiny krill or small pelagic fish. Like other giants, basking sharks, whale sharks, and other whales, they are harmless other than through accident. Their sheer size, in fact, helps reduce global warming, now a huge concern. So far, 2019 has been the warmest ever recorded on earth.
Ireland was lucky, and temperate. In central Europe, the heat was murder, a ‘new’ heat, worse than in north Africa, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia or the Namib Desert.
I never felt so poleaxed by the sun as I did on the Austrian border this July. Everybody sought shade. We pitied the field workers, and the animals of the field. It was a burning world; everywhere the forests burned.
Forests are carbon sinks. As they burst into flame, millions of tons of carbon were released. Reservoirs were drained by aircraft carrying water to douse the flames; the aircraft used carbon-disseminating fossil fuels to power their engines.
Whales, because of their size, store huge amounts of carbon in their bodies. In nature, when they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean taking this carbon with them and keeping it out of the atmosphere.
The Japanese have recently returned to killing whales, an indulgence, not a necessity as it once was. Whale meat on a sushi board or dinner plate releases carbon into the atmosphere. If Japanese argue that today they kill only smaller species, such as minkes, it is only because in the past they so grievously reduced larger species that there are fewer to kill.
The oceans are the primary and, perhaps, final reserves of panaceas for our environmental ills. Nature cannot solve the problems, redress the balance, as it once could — not unless the Earth is all but humanity-free as it once was.
In our now frontline battle against the warming of our planet, they must be treasured and given the respect once given to the gods. Among the millions of organisms that live out of sight of our terrestrial eyes, thousands can help save us from apocalypse.
Their applications are legion. We feed on meat, high-protein food. Protein consumption has been an evolutionary tool in our development. We can find it in sources other than meat, but meat is convenient, and proven. While it may soon be grown in laboratories, we have until now sourced it through farmed animals, predominantly cattle.
Here in Ireland, since and before the Táin Bó Cúailnge, cattle have been part of our landscape, cohabitants with man. However, the methane naturally emitted by cattle can, if continued at present rates, carry the planet over the edge of sustainable warming.
The output of our seven million animals is insignificant compared with herds in India (305 million) or Brazil (230 million). According to UN data, cattle, alone, are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There is hope that this can be curtailed. Studies, demonstrated that feeding ruminants a diet consisting of 1% to 2% percent red algaes of warm and temperate seas reduced their methane emissions by over 90%; Asparagopsis taxiformis has shown 99% effectiveness. Wild supplies would not be adequate to meet demand.
This algae and others are already being experimentally farmed. In Ireland, seaweeds are not yet harvested for cattle feed. BioAtlantis of Tralee, Co Kerry, was, last week, again curtailed in its application for a licence to harvest kelp in a small part of Bantry Bay; the Government has yet to fulfil the legal procedures to grant it a licence.
Legal procedures may be shorthand for reluctance to allow exploitation before thorough assessments of the kelp resources and their sustainable level of exploitation are definitively established (see www.seaweed.ie).
Any move to exploit the sea must be undertaken with the greatest care, respect and vigilance.
The winner of last week’s festival parade in this village was a giant fish, the scales made of cut-up plastic bottles. A labour of love for the world’s oceans in whose bosom may lie our planet’s salvation.