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Whale fall (wikipedia.org)
491 points by maze-le on May 17, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 111 comments

Biologists reacting to a Whale Fall discovery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZzQhiNQXxU

Odly, this reminded me of the classic honey badger video...


I really loved hearing them talking in meters

But no rhyme.


    The video's incessent patter
    Reveals a trait rather amiss;
    Though charmingly exhuberent,
    And with requisite meters,
    It lacks any concept of rhyme.

Was fascinated by the bone eating worms and their symbiotic relationship with the bacteria that digest the fats and oils from bone.

Osedax: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osedax

Thanks for the video!

Their excitement made me so happy!

If you enjoy this at all, you may want to subscribe. The channel is always like this. Fantastic stuff.

Yes! Something that touched me a lot was also that they showed excitement together with some very real competence and detailed knowledge.

I'm guessing you're not a whale?

I mean, I'd love to have my body be so useful after I die.


you made a bad joke FTFY.

Tremendous. Are there any great deep sea docs out there?

Blue Planet I and II are top quality.

They really are!!!

At least for the second one, they talked about how they invented new camera equipment and imaging techniques. Amazing work!

That was incredible! Thanks for sharing!

While not exactly the same, the concept of "whale drift" has existed in Icelandic law [1] for almost 8 centuries, and still applies today. It specifies to whom a whale carcass would belong to, depending on the situation, and so forth. The concept of "whale drift" also exists in the Icelandic language, and is used to point out an event as a stroke of great luck.

[1] Hvalreki (whale drift) in Icelandic law, from Jónsbók in 1281: https://www.althingi.is/lagas/150b/1281000.401.html

Whale fall described in chapter 81 of Moby Dick:

Now, this occasional inevitable sinking of the recently killed Sperm Whale is a very curious thing; nor has any fisherman yet adequately accounted for it. Usually the dead Sperm Whale floats with great buoyancy, with its side or belly considerably elevated above the surface. If the only whales that thus sank were old, meagre, and broken-hearted creatures, their pads of lard diminished and all their bones heavy and rheumatic; then you might with some reason assert that this sinking is caused by an uncommon specific gravity in the fish so sinking, consequent upon this absence of buoyant matter in him. But it is not so. For young whales, in the highest health, and swelling with noble aspirations, prematurely cut off in the warm flush and May of life, with all their panting lard about them; even these brawny, buoyant heroes do sometimes sink.

It might be me personally, but I can't stand old, long-winded and effervescent writing. My eyes start to jump around in it, and I can't maintain focus. It makes me wonder how our writing and media will be perceived in a hundred or more years.

Entire patterns of thought become antiquated as our communication wiring adapts to the ever increasing pace of society. Social media is driving dopamine hits from shorter and shorter forms of engagement.

It's amusing to think that Harry Potter might one day read like an opaque relic.

> Entire patterns of thought become antiquated as our communication wiring adapts to the ever increasing pace of society. Social media is driving dopamine hits from shorter and shorter forms of engagement.

I think you are extrapolating a little too much from your personal experience. An obvious counterexample to our society trending to "shorter and shorter forms of engagement" is the rise of long-form podcasts and long-form independent reporting.

Plenty of people still enjoy literature and the way in which it can convey ideas that non-fiction does not. My impression is that you'd have the same reaction to more recent fiction by, say, Cormac McCarthy or David Foster Wallace. I'm not sure Harry Potter is exactly a fair comparison of a work that aims for the same register as Moby Dick. As far as I know, 19th century literature with a simpler prose style (for example Sherlock Holmes or Poe's short stories) is still entirely accessible to someone with basic reading comprehension.

I think the opening paragraph of Moby Dick is one of the most memorable of all the novels I have read; I think it would be hard to drive home the emotion with the same gravity in fewer words, and I'll paste it here in case I can con someone else into reading it :)

> Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

The "Catskill Eagle" sermon from Chapter 96 is possibly the most beautiful prose ever written by an American. I don't understand how it is legal to get a HS diploma in this country without having read that book.

don’t go online for a week and try again.

your brain will click right in.

I tried reading Moby Dick several times and gave up because I felt a similar reaction to the prose. I finally opted for an audiobook version that was reviewed well for its lively narration. I loved it and subsequently bought a copy to reread certain passages. It's really a great example of literary engineering.

Whoa, apparently they are rather important for carbon sequestration!

See the section on the impact of whaling:

> However, it is suggested that the removal of large whales might have reduced the total biomass of the deep sea by more than 30%.[24] Whales stored massive amounts of carbon that were exported to the deep sea during whale fall events. Whaling has thus also reduced the ability of the deep sea to sequester carbon.[24]

I found this video for those who want a visual example of what this can look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZzQhiNQXxU

The spacing of them and the specialization of scavengers is surprising.

When I woke up this morning, I had no idea that deep sea whale carcases would constitute an entire hidden global ecosystem, but that's just another day on HN I guess.

I had the same thought, which made me think how little we know about the ecosystems on earth, which made me think it's even more important to protect the environment. We destroy things before we even know they exist.

I get conflicting thoughts about this. Sometimes I feel we must have killed countless deep sea dwelling species without ever seeing them. Then sometimes I'm amazed by the resilience and scale of the ocean and wonder if somehow, very few species have gone extinct because of us.

The sheer biomass we've removed from the ocean is staggering though, and the cascading effect on the deep sea ecosystems must be immense. There is so much less food to fall down there now.

Nurse logs are awesome, and really highlight that circular nature of life.

I'm on the BC coast, with a few acres of mostly-forest, and have some examples of these right in the yard. Even the stumps of much larger trees logged long ago, support fair-sized younger trees today.

Funny, I watched an episode of « Our planet » called « Deep waters » yesterday that is quite related to this article. Life at these depths is really fascinating.

Also from the BBC/Attenborough, there’s an episode of Blue Planet II which shows a whale fall and the subsequent process of consumption by different species that follows.

I agree, it’s fascinating!

This makes me wonder whether or not by overfishing (and many other economic activities) at the upper layers of the oceans we have caused significant ecological destruction at the lower layers. How far does the domino effect go?

It’s mentioned in TFA - up to 30% of biomass

Is it possible to do falls for other creatures? For example, a Human fall, where instead of being buried when you die you are lowered into the ocean and allowed to fall deep into its depths, where you become a new ecosystem.

Or perhaps you wouldn't make it all the way down because you'd get eaten all at once by some larger creature? Or destroyed by pressure?

I cannot speculate to the author's reason for submitting this article, but it is interesting to conceptualize our recent civilizational advancements as a Whale Fall made possible by cheap and abundant energy. What happens when we run out of whale to eat?

I imagine that the submitter, like me, might have heard about it from the link a few days ago in


That is exactly the case! I heard the term for the first time in this SSC article, clicked the Wikipedia link to fulfill my curiosity and was kind of awe struck by the whole process, so I thought I'd share it here...

I've never heared of this term before and it's interesting to read people's interpretation before they knew what it means.

I thought this may be a colloquial expression of IT infrastructure admins when all their Docker hosts suddenly fail.

I initially thought it might have something to do with high roller[1] gamblers.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_roller

or a bowl of petunias thinking "oh no, not again"

Ha! How did I miss that! Re-watched the original TV series only recently.

Somebody laid a joke there:

> In the past three years whale fall sites have come under scrutiny, and new species have been discovered, including potential whale fall specialists

I was confused by this statement at first, too. I thought it meant 'specialists' as in 'scientists who study whale falls'. But I believe it actually means species that specialize in living in whale falls.

this line is so sad. yet another damage caused by humans:

>It has been suggested that the whaling industry has had an effect on the biological pump through the elimination of many large whales, reducing the amount of whale falls. The effects of this on benthic whale fall community assemblages is not well understood.[24] However, it is suggested that the removal of large whales might have reduced the total biomass of the deep sea by more than 30%.[24] Whales stored massive amounts of carbon that were exported to the deep sea during whale fall events.

>Whaling has thus also reduced the ability of the deep sea to sequester carbon.[24] Carbon can be sequestered for hundreds to thousands of years in the deep sea, supporting benthic communities.[24] It is estimated that, in terms of carbon sequestration, each whale is equivalent to thousands of trees.[25]

One reads stories of pork/etc carcasses that aren't being processed right now, perhaps we could ship those onto barges and into the ocean and dump them overboard to seed new pockets of offshore life on the sea floor.

How could we dump it to the bottom without surface-dwelling scavengers tearing through the carcass?

Torpedo them down there

Besides, when does anything that we try to do to improve the nature, actually help it? Besides limiting our access to it, of course.

From what I've been able to gather, scuttling ships to provide artificial reefs works: it increases the surface area of part of the ocean, which in turn leads to an increase in bio-density and species variety.

Note that this is a vague impression of a topic I know next to nothing about; I could easily be wrong here.

That's somewhat fatalistic and cynical, but there's a kernel of truth in your sentiment. We have of course done good and meaningful work when it comes to environmental protections and preservation - sure, we could argue that perhaps we haven't done enough and should do more, but the effort is there.

I'm not sure if our primary goal in "improving nature" is to help "nature" or simply keep nature sustainable for humans and future humans.

good point, yes. what about the loads of hormones and antibiotics pumped into these? would we want those also to enter the ocean floor biology ?

That is among the more fascinating things I've read in a long time.

This is just like the economy. When a big economic whale falls, it creates opportunities for new smaller entities to evolve by feeding on its carcass.

The govt doesn’t allow economic whales to fall/fail.

It did during the Great Depression. Then it realized that was dumb and it took a world war to fully recover.

Coal, oil, and gas.

This would be really neat if it actually happened!

I think we usually see two distinct failure modes; either a company rots from the inside and loses a significant portion of its peak value before finally succumbing to an acquisition, at which point the single acquirer picks their bones dry. Or a massive company fails in a spectacular fashion, like we might see with some airlines in the next few months, but isn’t it also true that either they will restructure in bankruptcy or a large single competitor will come and sweep them up?

I guess the difference is that there’s nothing in the ocean that can devour a whale in one bite, the only option is for many very smaller creatures to feast on it over a long time period. TFA also mentions a crucial factor is the whale needs to fall in the deep sea, coastal water falls don’t result in the same effect. What would be the analogy for the deep sea effect — to preserve the company over time to allow the smaller entities to “feed” on it?

If there was a way to better emulate the natural effect I think it would be hugely beneficial to market diversity and competition. I think markets continue to evolve in ways that support and encourage monoliths. This long-term trend has just been massively accelerated over the last couple months.

Very cool. Given the coming monopoly suits, failing businesses and the political economic discussions, I can see "whale fall" becoming a common analogy.


What happened in October 2019?

A whale fall was discovered (top commend in this thread): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZzQhiNQXxU

Thank you, I had recorded the definition of “whale fall” on October 16th last year in my log book as I had just learned about it, but I couldn’t remember from where or how.

I was thinking about this as well, Yahoo was basically a Whale fall

I used to want my body or ashes buried under a newly planted tree.

If it weren't for the expense and trouble this would cause my loved ones, I would now ask for a burial at sea into the abyss^. So poetic in word and effect.

^abyssal zone

What's a whale fall equivalent in internet lore? Yahoo?

old ISPs and social networks, which are recycled for their users.

I'm just glad that plastic floats.

Not all plastic does. E.g POM, used in car parts and other durable products. Mass density ~1.4x water.


So if they sink into a trench I wonder if they just completely explode from the pressure.

If any air was in the lungs it would be replaced with water, otherwise our bodies wouldn't respond much. We're mostly water and other matter that's very hard to compress.

External pressure causes the opposite of an explosion: implosion.

I'd imagine any gasses would be squeezed out but it wouldn't look like an explosion.

I thought first the article would be about the falling whale in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I read it as "Fail Whale" ... between aging eye-sight and on-and-off-again dyslexia, I didn't really stand a chance.

OTOH ... awesome article - thanks for sharing!

And I thought it was going to be about Zynga's monetization strategy.

All your data are belong to us? That strategy?

Talking about sci-fi references, my first thought was of a budong.

I thought it was about a gamer whale failing.

I read "whale fail". I expected an insightful article on the failure of large software projects. smh.

Came here having misread the title as "Whale Fail" and thought it would be about some early days of Twitter where they displayed whales when the server went down.

But actually learned something very cool!

Here's what a "Whale Fail" is [1]. In 1970, a whale died near Portland, Oregon and washed up on the beach. The local authorities decided to blow it up using explosives, with awful and unexpected results.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBgThvB_IDQ

Haha in a sense this is also a "whale fall". In fact, this is more of "whale fall" than the original article. The whale literally fell from the sky!

I thought the same, but went back further in time to the live-ish news report of the demolition team trying to vaporize a dead beached whale back into the ocean using construction dynamite.

It didn't go well. Classic news blurb though.

Twitter sunk all those countless fail whales only to provide a perfect habitat and breeding ground for scavengers and bottom feeders. What a perfect metaphor.

To me, 'Whale Fall' makes think of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, when the Heart of Gold invokes it's infinite improbability drive to avoid incoming missiles and said missiles turn into a pot of Petunias and a Whale, with both then falling towards the nearby planet at high speed[1].


[1] 'I wonder if it [the planet] will be friends with me?', thought the Whale.

"Oh no, not again!" To this day, I still wonder why the bowl of petunias thought that

Because Arthur Dent keeps killing Agrajag over and over again and he reincarnates into various people and creatures that then are killed by Arthur. The pot of petunias is one such reincarnation.

The entire character arc is basically Douglas Adams taking out his frustration with Jaguar drivers in traffic.

> I still wonder why the bowl of petunias thought that

It’s covered in the third book! (Life, the Universe, and Everything)

It is an incredible set of books. You can return to it years later and find jokes and references that you missed in first... few hundred readings (don't judge me :) ).

Wasn't there was a film where a sentient missile refuses to explode as it wants to live?

In Dark Star a sentient bomb gets stuck in the drop mechanism. One of the crew teaches it existentialism in an attempt to stop it detonating, but then it comes to believe its the only being in the universe and decided “Let there be light”.

While the sibling comment correctly points out Dark Star as the movie, I'd also like to point out Starship Titanic - Douglas Adams was involved in the game, based on a throwaway line from one of the Hitchhiker novels. Terry Jones novelized the game. Both include a talking bomb where the plot involves distracting the bomb until it looses track and has to start counting down all over again.

Whale fall = bitcoin jargon for large market swings

The word whale is pretty common in econ slang

Don't understand why people are down voting me for this... No sense of humor in HNews...

Here you see an animation of a falling whale... https://giphy.com/gifs/fat-anS1ZNfpzXSjm

I don’t get it, why is a wiki article #1 on HN?

I don't think this post deserves downvotes because it is a good question.

I think few people really think of what happens when a whale dies over deep ocean. It apparently has huge nonlinear effects. That is pretty cool in its own right, but there are some practical reasons why many HN readers may like this.

Most of us working in areas where there is a complex interplay of technology, competition, big economic actors, small economic actors, evolutionary incentives, multiscale processes, etc. Whale falls map just enough on what we do such that it is a fresh starting point in thinking about the enterprises and industries in which we work, and just imprecisely enough such that it can spark some new thinking about things that we are working on that we might have missed before.

I used to work for a multibillion dollar enterprise that is averse to public embarrassment. Already I am re-thinking of what really happens when a dying megaproject is sent off to quietly die without canning all of the people, some of which are actually talented and creative.

> On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

From https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

Note that, in general, comments like yours are not appreciated here.

I agree. From a recent comment of dang: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22990237

> A Wikipedia link to something obscure, which most readers won't have heard of before, about which there isn't necessarily a good general-purpose article or blog post out there, can be a great HN submission.

Thanks, I appreciate your effort to encourage productive conversation.

Totally agree, ideas like this is why i read hacker news

I almost knee jerk downvoted you, then decided to give you the benefit of the doubt. You should know, that if a wiki article makes it to the front page on HN, then it is almost guaranteed to be interesting. My experience is that more often than not it was worth at least reading the first paragraph.

HN is a place I turn to to feed my curiosity, and really appreciate that it’s not just tech/startup content that makes it’s way here.

Proximately, because it's really interesting. A step beyond that whale falls were mentioned in a good recent SSC post on slack using them as an example of a situation where suddenly there's a lot of slack in some creatures' existences.


Just what I wanted to link, highly recommended reading to anyone with the time.

SSC also uses the a whalefall event as a very effective analogy in this older post:


Which was the first thing to come to mind when I saw this post

Other commenters gave great answers, but I'll add that a comment like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23212386 on a submission is a good sign, since it shows just the sort of intellectual curiosity-gratification HN exists for.

There was a similar-but-different discussion at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23087284 if anyone wants more.

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