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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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A dolphin plays in front of the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay

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Orcas in Australia

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An orca named 'Hulk' off Caithness, Scotland

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Minke whale - V Mignon

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Sponging dolphin in Shark Bay

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Whales, trees and butterflies – how we’re giving a voice to the ocean at COP26

I’m in Glasgow representing WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation at COP26, the UN’s 26th climate conference. This is the first time WDC has attended one of these and it’s because we have something important to say - we desperately need the world to wake up and listen to the ocean, for without protecting it, we won’t emerge from the climate and biodiversity crises. It’s set to be a fairly intense couple of weeks so it felt like a good time to reflect on how I ended up here.

My first memory of helping nature was when I was around six years old. With the Beaver Scouts and my family, we cleared a small woodland glade of rubbish and fly-tipped waste. At the end of the day, the sun dappled through the hazel coppice and a butterfly landed on my hand. Of course, we don’t know if butterflies can say thank you, but that’s what my young mind decided it meant. I often credit that experience, and that individual butterfly, for shaping my whole life.

Big Whale

Whales are fighting climate change in a BIG way. Will you help them?

From trees to seas

So, I grew up and went off to university and have had several jobs in the environment/conservation sector but the last few years I’ve been working in the woods, managing projects that restore native biodiversity and make habitats more resilient to our changing world. Then I heard about whales and the fascinating role they can play in helping us restore the ocean, which is essential in tackling the climate crisis. So from the trees to the seas, here I am now at WDC.

Long have we known of the benefits of increasing the number of trees across the planet. We all know that they remove carbon from the atmosphere and provide precious habitat for native species. We certainly need more of them and a lot of the time we can leave nature to deliver us the goods. In many instances, trees will plant themselves with little to no human intervention. Trees are just part of the solution to the twin climate and biodiversity crises, but the potential of the ocean is staggering and untapped.

Humans have cut down trees for thousands of years. Humans have also caught fish for thousands of years. For a long time this was done in balance; humans using only what they needed. Since the industrial revolution however, this has become grossly unsustainable and nature is rapidly reaching a tipping point, from which we will be unable to recover. Here in the UK, we take so much that we would need nearly another two planet Earths for the rest of nature to keep up with our way of life. There is no harmony when we view the forests and the ocean purely as an extractive resource and not for the immense value of the services they provide. We need to move to a way of thinking and a world system where we do not look to take, we look to see what nature can give us.

Artwork of a whale shape made out of thirty thousand tries

Restoring balance

The ocean covers over 70% of the planet’s surface and contains 99% of the liveable space. It is bursting with biodiversity. We need to give the ocean the attention and care it needs, just like in recent years, we have been caring more for trees and woods, restoring them to their natural richness. It’s hard for many people to care about a big blue mass of nondescript water, despite it being essential to life as we know it - and that is where whales and dolphins come in.

Whales and dolphins are our ocean cousins. Much like humans they are intelligent, they solve problems, live in family groups, suckle their young and have complex languages. They even use tools to manipulate their environment, and teach their friends how to use them too! They have distinct cultures across populations, just like us. They are the masters of their environment, as humans are of the land. We know from recent studies that they also act as ‘ecosystem engineers’, meaning they maintain the environment around them via their behaviour, self sustaining their home. Whales and dolphins help to keep the ocean healthy just by doing what they do - like trees do on land. So just as we need more trees, we need to manage the ocean much more sensitively and allow whales and dolphins to recover their populations and restore balance to them.

A large group of common dolphins fleeing attack by orcas churn the sea into a white froth. © Christopher Swann
A large group of common dolphins fleeing attack by orcas churn the sea into a white froth. © Christopher Swann

WDC is attending the UN climate conference for the first time and my colleagues and I will be pushing the case for whales, why it’s important to consider them in climate mitigation planning and what we want to see countries doing in the immediate future.

This is what we’re asking governments to do:

  1. Restore the ocean as if our lives depend on it. Because they do
     By committing to protecting at least 30% of the ocean by 2030
  2. Recognise whales as our climate allies
    By supporting the recovery of whale populations to pre-whaling levels to fight the climate crisis
  3. Invest in whales
    By drastically increasing funding for ocean-based solutions to climate breakdown. As highlighted in the Deloitte, MCS and WDC policy paper A Drop In The Ocean, Billions of dollars are designated for addressing climate change, yet less than 3% of these funds are allocated to nature-based solutions. And only 1% to the ocean. That needs to change ... fast
  4. Put people at the heart of ocean recovery
    By ensuring conservation is embedded in and led by coastal communities
  5. Protect every whale - for their sake and ours
    By changing policies to prevent the killing or harm of whales, keeping them safe as an 'international public good' and holding to account people who harm them

You can help us by:

  1. Following what we are doing at COP26 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn and sharing our posts
  2. Becoming a Climate Giant Hero
  3. Talking to your employer about becoming a Climate Giant Project partner.

We’ve treated our planet poorly for far too long. We’ve cut down the trees, drained the wetlands, burned the moors and used the ocean as a dumping ground. We desperately need to restore balance to our planet and allow nature to thrive, for it is nature that has allowed us to thrive.

So, remembering that butterfly that landed on my finger nearly 30 years ago, nature shapes our whole lives, and we need to restore balance and harmony for humans to survive. That will return if we give it a chance. Restoring whale populations will go a long way to restoring our ocean, so let’s give them and us a fighting chance at COP26 and get their message out there.

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