Images of krill and blue whale via wikipedia
Amid all the bad news about marine ecosystems needing life support around the world, there is a tiny spot of happy news today on the ocean beat. Actually, a big spot, a blue whale-sized spot. In an incredible show, blue whales are crowding into Monterey Bay this month to feed on krill. But blues aren't the only animals drawn in to the feeding frenzy. Many species of whales and dolphins, birds, fish, and other animals are all on hand to take part in the annual event. More than just a spectacle for humans, it shows us how important one species can be to an entire marine system and the delicate nature of a food chain. Last Thursday alone, passengers on a three-hour whale watch tour saw 8 blue whales, 80 humpbacks, 400 Risso's dolphins and 150 norhtern right whale dolphins, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Krill feed on plankton, and in turn become food for everything from fish and birds to gigantic blue whales.
Krill as a reliable food source has never been so important. Blue whales are an endangered species numbering only about 2,000 in the Pacific and 8,000 worldwide. The krill that sustain the whales along their migration route from Mexico to Alaska has been small the last seven years due to a lack of upwelling currents that bring nutrients to the surface where the krill feed. The shortage has also impacted the survival rate of some seabird species, sea lions, and salmon among other species.
But luckily, the conditions have been just right this year to offer abundant krill to the migrating mammals. And that also makes this feeding spree extra exciting for visitors.
"It's very unusual in terms of just the sheer number of animals," Daniel Palacios, a Monterey oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Sacramento Bee "The bay is abuzz."
"It's incredible," said Hein Koelman, visiting from Germany with his wife and four children. "You see that nature is so beautiful."
Survival of One Species Often Means Life or Death for Dozens of Others
The reliance of an ecosystem on a single species has also been made incredibly clear when following the migration of sardines, as illustrated in the incredible documentary Wild Ocean. Every year off the coast of South Africa, billions of the fish migrate up the coast, sparking a feeding frenzy for everything from sharks and dolphins to whales and seabirds. And of course, people. But as the sardines are overfished by humans, the shrinking food source has caused damage to the ecosystem as a whole, threatening collapse of several species.
Another cornerstone species upon which entire ecosystems rely is coral. Coral reefs are home to countless species of marine flora and fauna. As the health of a reef fails, the impacts trickle out ocean-wide as food sources and safe habitats shift.
Spectacles like the one taking place right now in Monterey Bay remind us of these important links in marine ecosystems. And there is nothing like spotting a giant like the blue whale to imprint it into a viewer's mind.
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