Whale in Antarctica

Less takeaway could help save the planet

Published on
January 22, 2021
Written By
Julia Leong
Curation Producer
If we all thought of our houses as vessels on voyages at sea, on which we had to conserve the resources we have, we would see our consumption and the world very differently. Maybe we wouldn’t order UberEats so much”.

 Enter Dr. Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist and receiver of the Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence in 2019. Vanessa gave a TED Talk in 2019 about what whale snot tells us about whales and the ocean. She partnered up with a drone engineer to develop a drone that captures whale snot, making her the first marine biologist to use drones to collect whale viruses. “Whales are deeply tied to what is going on in the environment”, Vanessa explains, having published an international review on drone protocols for marine animal research. She is also currently writing a paper on whale behaviour.

What impact has the pandemic had on our environment?

COVID-19 is without a doubt leaving a mark on our environment. We are still observing and determining the scale of its impact, both good and bad.

For example, there have been more whale sightings. Last year, there was a mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania in 2020. Does this change in marine activity have a direct correlation to COVID-19? Vanessa asserts, “as a scientist, we need to keep our minds open, and look at many variables”. The view she leans towards is that it’s been an unprecedented time. “We’ve seen a huge variety of activity and we don’t know what is going on yet, and we may never know”.

“The 9/11 crisis saw less aviation activity during its aftermath, and thus less ocean traffic. When we observed animals before and after this period, we saw that vessels had been causing stress in marine animals”, Vanessa reflects. The ocean had time to regenerate, even in a small capacity. Likewise, this pandemic has seen a dramatic decline in ocean traffic with less shipping and aviation activity.

Are the increases of marine animal activity directly linked to COVID-19, or are we overestimating the virus’ impact? Vanessa challenges, “There has been a phenomenal amount of shark interactions this year. Is the East Australian current drawing in pools of water and nutrients and bringing the sharks closer, or do we have more people in the ocean?” She concludes that there is always more than one variable at play.

Regrettably, COVID-19 has its blatant negative impacts on the environment too. Leaders around the world are busy managing the effects of the virus, and their decision-making has become more pragmatic. This may contravene with progress in the environmental sector. More plastic takeout containers are being used, and investment in coal for the economy has only grown. “I can understand why the environment is not a priority for leaders’. No matter what discipline we are speaking of, it is an unprecedented time”, she explains. “It is our job as scientists to keep the environment front of mind. If we have to use takeaway containers, we should be trying to recycle when we can. Taking small actions such as saying no to single-use cutlery makes a difference”.

What can we do in 2021 and beyond?

Having experienced a lot during her many travels, Vanessa shares one of her most memorable trips, a 53 day voyage to Antarctica on board a vessel. As a marine mammal observer, she spent time near the Totten Glacier on a Sabrina SeaFloor Expedition. They drilled the ocean floor two kilometres deep to look at ancient DNA and past climatic changes. Her role was to make sure no whales were around and to ensure that the expedition’s level of operations didn’t acoustically harm marine life in the area. “When you are on board, you are reliant only on what is on the vessel, as there is nothing around you for days. We learnt how to conserve resources such as drinking water and avocados as we knew we had two months ahead of us at sea”. Instead of littering in the marine environment like some other voyages do, this vessel disposed of waste through compacting rubbish to be incinerated. “When you start to think of the fumes, you think of all your actions, and it is very sobering”, she reflects.

“If we all thought of our houses as vessels on voyages at sea, on which we had to conserve the resources we have, we would see our consumption and the world very differently. Maybe we wouldn’t order UberEats so much”.

“One of the most amazing moments in my life was seeing the Southern Lights. The aurora illuminates the water like pool lights. Shards of light green light dance above you”, Vanessa shares. “If we make good choices, we can return to see these things”. That should be an incentive for us to make sure that the environment is still there for us to pass onto the next generation for knowledge. “In marine biology, we call that cultural transmission”.

While one doesn’t need to delve deeply into whale snot, we should all heighten our awareness, consciousness and curiosity about how intertwined and connected our lives are with the environment. We can start by being more mindful of our consumption, perhaps eating less takeout and using less plastic. We can also start to have initial discourse with individuals and businesses we know. Asking them if they are aware of certain issues, gathering their views, and then looking into how you can be more aware as a group is another big step we can take.

Vanessa suggests, “Changing one person’s perspective helps us as humans to remember to prioritise the environment”. Can we make a difference by simply starting a conversation?

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Environment
Speaker
Photo of Julia
Written By
Julia Leong
Curation Producer

Writer/UX Designer based in Melbourne with a keen interest in innovation and social causes.

Photo of Julia
Written By
Julia Leong
Curation Producer

Writer/UX Designer based in Melbourne with a keen interest in innovation and social causes.