Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A whale for Monkey Island

Before Christmas I made a trip out to Monkey Island to inspect the whale. It is very impressive.
It is a full-grown Humpback whale, one of the commoner species around the coast but an infrequent strander. I checked again some time later and it had gone. Suspicious disturbance of the vegetation nearby suggested that a hole had been dug and the creature buried. It must have been a huge task and it’s quite unnecessary.
A decaying whale is part of the food chain. Gulls feed on it and as the tissues break down the nutrients support a whole ecosystem. If it is buried, the nutrients aren’t lost but they unavailable to marine life – thousands of species from gulls and Giant petrels to sea lice and bacteria are scavengers, cleaning up the ocean’s leftovers.
At sea the carcasse floats for some weeks then sinks once the gas-filled innards rupture. The body on the seafloor, called a whale-fall, keeps the neighbourhood in takeaways for 25 years or more. One group of decomposers being succeeded by another. The flesh eaters have their turn, then the oil eaters and finally the bone eaters. They don’t leave much. Often the earbones of the whale, fist-sized lumps of very hard bone, are all that remain after 100 years.

I collected a dozen barnacles from the whale; the whale is a protected species but the barnacles growing on it aren’t, so fair game I guess. The largest barnacles are tennis-ball sized. There is not much flesh in them but the shells are very solid. They are embedded in the skin of the flippers and lips.
They travel the world as guests of the host, contributing nothing to its well-being; not using pain but slowing it by reducing it’s streamlining.
It’s more likely that nets and ropes will snag it if it has a good crop of barnacles.
As the barnacles only live on whales, the breeding cycle must be fairly haphazard.

Often we are best just leaving the dead stuff for nature. She has an army of helpers.
We can use the same argument with freedom campers. Human waste is the most biodegradable substance on the planet. It is produced in equal quantities by freedom campers, picnickers, tour bus passengers, schoolchildren and anyone else who gets caught short along the road, so why pick on the freedom campers, most of whom are very responsible and decent folk?
We should be encouraging people to camp out away from the towns where they can enjoy the starry sky, the lack of traffic and the dawn chorus. Freedom campers provide a presence in reserves and laybys that deters vandalism. Many clean the area of rubbish before leaving. We try to clean up the world but maybe we should just leave things to nature.

One Northland group has purchased a beach groomer to remove all the untidy seaweed from the beach. Does that sound like the sort of place you would like to visit?