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Story Publication logo June 28, 2023

The Whales of Fishing Creek: Climate Lessons From the Pliocene

Kendrick Ransome and Marquetta Dickens in 2019 in the Tar River at Shiloh Landing

Origins is a three-part photography and reporting project that explores how climate change is...


Illustration by Bex Glendining.

In the dim, vast expanse of geologic time stretching back billions of years to the origins of all Earth life, human history in Edgecombe County, North Carolina is a blip. Its first Indigenous inhabitants — the Tuscarora, Lumbee and Moratok people — only arrived about 10,000 years ago. They lived in harmony with the rivers and creeks until white colonists vanquished them in wars and stole their land.

But the sea was here for longer. Long before modern humans evolved, before we could conceive of war, or God, empires, or racial caste systems. Before we realized that we could burn the remains of extinct creatures to power our economies.

Deep beneath North Carolina’s coastal plain, 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, are marine sediment layers teeming with fossils that date back 66 million years, to the Cretaceous period, the age of giant aquatic reptiles and even the land-roaming Tyrannosaurus rex.

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“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth,” wrote Rachel Carson in her book The Sea Around Us. “When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history. For all is written here. In the nature of the materials that compose them and in the arrangement of their successive layers the sediments reflect all that has happened in the waters above them and on the surrounding lands.” 

Here the water remembers. These prehistoric ocean deposits, cut through by rivers like the Tar and its tributaries, hold an archive of evolution. The fossils tell a story of resilience and reciprocity and offer lessons for thriving in a climate-changed world. They reveal how climate change in the last 4.5 million years caused whales to evolve into enormous ecosystem engineers essential to the Earth’s carbon cycle, which forms and fuels all life on earth and stores carbon in the rocks and soil, the sky and sea. They also foretell potential climate prophecies for our planet. 

Whales are entangled in the climate emergency story. Their fate dovetailed with chattel slavery, with sugar, cotton, and coal — key industries that drove colonialism since the 16th century — and made possible the modern extractive capitalism that birthed our climate crisis. 

For centuries, whales were hunted for the oil in their blubber which was burned in street lamps in big cities that pumped carbon back into the atmosphere. Industrial whaling decimated global whale populations to less than a quarter of their preindustrial numbers, nearly driving them extinct in the 1700s.

Whales are social animals. They work in teams and befriend other whale species. They mourn the death of their calves, and defend other marine mammals from predators. They have their own cetacean cultures: In the case of humpbacks, they gather where they were born in the tropics to make and remix songs that spread to other groups across oceans.

A vertebrae from a cetothere, an extinct family of Pliocene whale related to modern baleen whales, found in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

The blue clay of the Pliocene Yorktown Formation with 3-to-4 million-year-old scallops and oysters exposed by the Tar River near Tarboro, NC. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Edgecombe County is the grave of ancient whales. Their bones litter the Yorktown Formation, a layer of ancient seafloor deposited 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago, as the sea rose and fell during the early to middle Pliocene Epoch when global temperatures were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer than today. 

The Yorktown tracks closely with the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line in nearby Nash County, which separates the rocky Piedmont from the sandy coastal plain sediment that was deposited by ancient seas.

To the east of the fall line, the coastal plain is crisscrossed by prehistoric shorelines, like the Surry, Orangeburg, Suffolk and Pamlico Scarps, which represent the westward extent of sea levels as the ocean advanced and retreated over millions of years. Some geologists believe the 3-to-4-million-year-old Mid-Pliocene shoreline — the Orangeburg Scarp — traces through the coastal plain west of Edgecombe County, just across the Nash County line. But this shoreline has been warped by plate tectonics and weathered by the ages which makes charting its exact location difficult. 

These Pliocene whale fossils are mixed up in layers of prehistoric ocean sediment — a sticky, sandy clay rich in calcium carbonate and phosphates from pulverized, compacted shells, and the remains of plankton and other tiny sea creatures.

This olive green or bluish gray time capsule clay is often called “marl.” Farmers once used this natural marine carbon as fertilizer across the farmland of eastern North Carolina including Edgecombe County where it was essential to growing cotton and other plantation crops planted and picked by enslaved Black people. The mysterious sea life that died millions of years ago nourished the soil, the fibers we wore and the food we ate. The dust of the Pliocene lives on in us.

Autumn at Fishing Creek, a main tributary to the Tar River. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

A 5-inch-long tooth from an Otodus megalodon just after it was found. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

A whale humerus, part of the upper flipper, equivalent to a human’s upper arm. Edgecombe County Yorktown Formation. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Pliocene Whale Watching

Marquetta Dickens and I head to my favorite fossil hunting spot on Fishing Creek just north of Princeville. We meet my fossil-hunting friend Megan and put on some chest waders, even though the water is quite low from lack of rain.

Just beneath the sandy creek bottom is an exposure of the Yorktown Formation, where the shards of whale ribs and big vertebrae are plentiful.

Here I’ve dug up five-inch teeth from an Otodus megalodon, a megatooth shark that grew up to 60 feet long — longer than a Greyhound bus — and, with a maw full of teeth the size of an adult hand, fed on whales. It’s possible that a giant shark killed and took apart a whale here millions of years ago. A Pliocene crime scene. 

We use a metal rod to probe for gravel and bone in the layer. When we find it, we dig big scoops of green clay and sift it in homemade fossil screens. We shake the screens in the water, until the old marine mud dissolves, and only rocks and shards of bone rattle in our sifters. And some sharks’ teeth. 

Marquetta has the eye. She finds several tiger shark teeth in her first few screens. But the hunting is slow. We dig a few holes and crouch in them, feeling for bones protruding from their edges. This goes on for an hour or two. Until Megan feels something protruding from the mud near the bank.  

“I think I found a whale vertebra,” she blurts out.

A fossil whale vertebra from the Edgecombe County Yorktown Formation. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

The tympanic bulla, part of a baleen whale inner ear bone. Yorktown Formation, Edgecombe County. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

A fossilized periotic bone, part of the whale's inner ear, from an extinct relative of the minke whale. Yorktown Formation, Edgecombe County. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

A large 5.8 inch Otodus megalodon tooth with a penny for scale. Yorktown Formation, Edgecombe County, NC. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

If you went whale watching on the Pliocene seas over eastern North Carolina you would see “a lot of familiar whales and then a lot of things that are not quite right,” according to Dr. Nicholas Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Pods of early marine dolphins with longer snouts, or strange seals, alien walruses, sperm whales, and extinct relatives of today's rorquals — species including humpback, minke, fin, and blue whales—were plentiful in the Pliocene. You would have also seen a lot of cetotheres, an extinct lineage of smaller baleen whales that only grew to about 30 feet long, Pyenson says. Scientists believe they are the ancestors of rorquals. Others speculate pygmy right whales are the last living cetotheres.

Their bones are common in the Yorktown Formation: large vertebrae, ribs, and peculiar inner ear bones that are shaped like a cross between a potato and a conch shell, and eerily resemble a human ear lobe. 

Cetotheres were megalodon food. If you inspect one of their bones closely, you might discover it is shark-bitten, with deep gouge marks left during feeding. Megalodon teeth are often found near whale remains.

Some scientists think climate change and competition from the great white shark caused the megalodon to go extinct at the end of the Pliocene. Without the threat of the enormous shark, they hypothesize the larger whales it once preyed upon grew even larger, which altered global food webs, and ecosystem stability across oceans.

Marquetta and I slosh over to Megan. I run my hand along the edge of the clay just beneath the water and scrape away some mud with my fingers until I feel the smooth round top of a whale vertebra. It’s the size of my hand. Water clouded with silt shrouds the bone from sight. I feel around and put my hand over it, then encourage Marquetta to put her hand in the water and feel for mine. She finds it. I pull my hand away and she feels the jagged side and flat top of the vertebra. Her eyes get big. 

We feel around the muck to find the bone’s edges, carefully dig around it with our hands and a Martha Stewart soil knife. Gradually we work it loose from the earth. It’s a dull, chocolate gray, splattered with green mud, and well preserved. It’s likely from a cetothere or rorqual relative so we check it for bite marks but find none. Megan says she can’t bring home any more whale bones. Marquetta has dibs. 

Then she feels something hard in the mud. There’s another vertebra. Smaller. Under the first one. She excavates it too.

Marquetta is elated. She poses with her whale vertebrae and Megan takes a photo. We stare at the old whale bone for a while, fizzing with adrenaline. Wonder-drunk. It’s like this every time. 

“I felt like I was literally at the bottom of the sea and I could see and feel the water all around,” Marquetta said later. 

We keep digging, sweating, hunched over holes in the gravel and green Pliocene mud until our own vertebrae hurt and we are too tired to continue.

A fossil whale rib with deep gouges from the teeth of feeding sharks. Edgecombe County. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Return of the Sea

Paleoclimatologists — scientists who study Earth’s prehistoric climates—are fascinated and perplexed by the Pliocene. They can reconstruct this ancient climate and predict the future by studying fossil zooplankton.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are closely linked with ocean acidity, which impacts the boron atoms in the tiny zooplankton’s skeleton. By analyzing the boron composition of Pliocene and ice-aged Pleistocene zooplankton in ancient seafloor sediment and comparing it to carbon dioxide trapped in Antarctic ice core samples from the same time period, scientists determined atmospheric carbon levels peaked at around 380 to 420 parts per million in the Mid-Pliocene; in May 2022, levels reached 421 ppm

Global temperature increases have been shown to lag behind rising atmospheric carbon levels, so scientists see the hot Mid-Pliocene Warm Period as an imperfect analogue for where our climate and sea levels are headed beyond the end of the century as climate warming catches up with our altered atmosphere. 

Sea levels will rise more than 3 feet beyond the end of the 21st century if greenhouse emissions are not reduced and removed from the atmosphere. Report after report shows that if the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely it could trigger a 20-foot sea level rise in the next 100 to 200 years. The collapse of the Antarctic ice sheets could raise sea levels by over 100 feet. One day the ocean could return to eastern North Carolina. 

Dr. Rick Luettich, a leading expert on hurricanes and storm surge, and director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Center for Natural Hazards Resilience says that planning has fixated on 2100 for too long, and it’s time to start thinking about 2150 or 2200, when a 20-foot rise is very real.

“It's just a matter of when, more than it's a matter of if,” he said.

According to Dr. Stanley Riggs, the marine geologist retired from East Carolina University, if seas rise only 20 to 25 feet, the Atlantic Ocean would re-occupy the Suffolk Shoreline — the shoreline produced during the last interglacial episode, 125,000 years ago — about 40 miles east of Edgecombe County. The Suffolk Shoreline stretched north from near Morehead City, to Washington, Edenton and the Virginia border.

“The Pamlico River Estuary would drown up the Tar River valley, possibly into the vicinity of Tarboro,” said Riggs. 

Luettich says that because the ocean traps heat and carbon dioxide more efficiently than the atmosphere, even if we stop burning fossil fuels and remove carbon from the atmosphere, we can expect to have an abnormally warm ocean, rising seas and more destructive storms for centuries to come.

“The ocean has a much longer memory,” he said.

A microscopic species of zooplankton, likely a Calanus finmarchicus, above an even tinier phytoplankton viewed with a phase contrast microscope at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Evolve or Go Extinct

White shark teeth are the most common shark teeth in the Yorktown Formation, and they tell a story of successful adaptation to climate change. Left is a tooth from the great white shark’s ancestor, Carcharodon hastalis, which slowly evolved serrations to feed on seals with thick blubber and bone that became more plentiful in the cooling Pliocene seas. It slowly turned into the great white, Carcharodon carcarias -- right, between 10 to 4 million years ago, during the middle Miocene to early Pliocene. By the time our first bipedal human ancestors began walking around Africa 4 million years ago, the great white was outcompeting other sharks, including the Megalodon, to become an apex marine predator crucial to maintaining the balance and biodiversity of the seas. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

By the Mid-Pliocene, the continents had settled largely in the same position as they are today, but the climate was much warmer. A permanent El-Nino effect in the Pacific Ocean increased the greenhouse effect, resulting in an ice-free Arctic fringed by evergreen forests. Even in this hot age, the Antarctic Ice Sheet melted and froze in response to fluctuating atmospheric carbon levels, and the Earth wobbled on its axis, so the sea swiftly rose over the land and retreated in rhythm.

The Pliocene was a wetter world. Its ferocious hurricanes forebode our future storms. But overall, the planet was cooling, so the late Pliocene was marked by dynamic changes that altered oceans and ecosystems, threatening species that couldn’t adapt, especially large animals like the Megalodon. 

As the Earth cooled into the late Pliocene, glaciers spread across North America, locking up ocean water. Sea levels fell. Plate tectonics sealed the Isthmus of Panama. A land bridge formed between North and South America, and the Pacific Ocean was separated from the Caribbean sea. Ocean currents shifted, so the seas cooled and the warm Gulf Stream formed, which heated the waters of coastal North Carolina and Virginia, and helps regulate ocean temperatures to this day.  

 As sea levels fell, nearshore habitats disappeared and entire marine species died. Others thrived and became something new.

 The early baleen whales, like the ones that swam over eastern North Carolina where Princeville is, gradually grew into the modern giants we know, like the blue whale, the largest animal in Earth’s history.

Phytoplankton — the tiniest sea creatures — formed a reciprocal relationship with these whales which helps regulate carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus its climatic thermostat. 

Atmospheric carbon levels peaked at around 380 to 420 parts per million in the Mid-Pliocene; in May 2022, levels reached 421 ppm. 

Global ocean upwelling — the process by which cold, nutrient-rich waters rise from the deep to the surface — increased during the cooling late Pliocene and into the Pleistocene. Upwelling “fertilizes” the surface waters with concentrated swarms of plankton and other nutrients, which attracts fish and whales. 

Baleen whales expend a lot of energy feeding, so they look for dense patches of zooplankton like krill. Larger whales with larger mouths proved more efficient at traveling and feeding in bulk on these plankton patches scattered across vast distances, and their smaller whale cousins went extinct, according to Pyenson. These enormous whales became ecosystem engineers that drive the Earth’s carbon cycle, which stores and moves carbon through the atmosphere, the soil and the sea. 

Left to right: Phytoplankton species Chaetocerous sp., Asterionellopsis sp., and Chaetocerous sp. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Plankton-powered Reciprocity

The seas are the largest carbon stores on Earth, crucial to tempering climate change. Oceans absorb and cycle 93% of the planet’s greenhouse gasses, up to 35% of which comes from the atmosphere. Much of it ends up trapped in the sea floor sediment, which, if undisturbed, can indefinitely sequester vast amounts of carbon across millions of years.

Drifting en masse at the ocean surface, phytoplankton transform sunlight, seawater nutrients, and atmospheric carbon dioxide into living tissue. Worldwide, they produce about half of the atmospheric oxygen on earth, while holding 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to 40% of annual greenhouse emissions, or “the amount of carbon dioxide captured by 1.70 trillion trees — four Amazon forests’ worth,” according to the International Monetary Fund. 

When phytoplankton die, their remains and the carbon they’ve consumed, along with other bits of organic debris, rain down on the seafloor and become sediment. Their carbon also travels up the food chain. Larger zooplankton, such as krill, also eat phytoplankton. And then mammoth baleen whales consume mass quantities of krill. 

As they swim and feed, whales filter the zooplankton and sequester carbon in their bodies. Other species, like sperm whales, dive deep for squid. When whales defecate at the surface they fertilize the water column with nutritious iron, phosphorus and nitrogen. The whales poop. The phytoplankton bloom. Carbon is captured again, and the cycles are sustained. This is the biological carbon pump, or “whale pump.”

These whales, made of sunlight and carbon dioxide passed on by phytoplankton through a great chain of life, can live for centuries. And they trap carbon in their bodies their entire lives. 

Off the coast of Alaska live 200-year-old bowhead whales. They were born before the 1850s — the decade Eunice Foote discovered that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could warm the planet. A female bowhead whale, estimated to be 133 years old, was found with a pre-industrial stone harpoon point stuck in her blubber

When whales die, they fall thousands of feet to the sea floor. With each “whale fall” their remains sustain food webs alien to us. In deep space darkness, their bodies are transformed into an ecosystem for scavengers like worms and octopi that cannot see light and survive only on whale carcasses. If a whale carcass is quickly buried in sediment, its bones can fossilize. These processes lock their carbon away for millennia.

Each great whale can store an estimated equivalent of 33 tons of carbon dioxide. But according to a frequently cited 2010 study by Dr. Andrew Pershing from the University of Maine, a single century of whaling removed 23 million tons of carbon from the sea.

“Long before we built offshore rigs for fossil oil and gas, we mined our seas for whales,” writes Alice Bell in her book, Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis. “[Whales] remind us that humans' problematic relationship with energy is bigger than simply fossil fuels.”

A humpback whale defecates as it dives off the coast of California. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

A plume of nutritious humpback whale poop. Image by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Cotton, Slavery and Whaling

Industrial whaling was genocide. So was chattel slavery. Like whales, Princeville’s African ancestors were hunted by white men, their bodies and labor were transmuted into wealth, which supercharged economies and empires. Sugar slavery in the Caribbean bankrolled Britain's American colonies, where slave labor on plantations, like the ones in Edgecombe County, made cotton king.

The cotton boom gave rise to industrial factories necessitating the use of the steam engine, which sparked a new craving for coal. Whale oil lit the factories and lubricated their coal-powered machines which spun cotton into thread and belched carbon dioxide into the sky. Industrial Revolutions were born. And from the seeds of cotton, slavery and the genocide of people and nature for the sake of wealth, the climate crisis bloomed. 

The resulting wounds to people and the planet have not healed. 

Aided by fossil fuel-powered factory ships that could dismember a whale while the crew kept hunting, we killed an estimated three million whales in the 20th century alone, which reduced baleen whale populations globally by two-thirds. 

Only around 330 North Atlantic right whales remain; their habitat includes coastal North Carolina, where they were hunted near Morehead City, Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras from the mid 1700s to the early 1900s.

For 400 years, around 12.5 million African men, women and children were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Americas. At least 2 million perished at sea during the middle passage. 

Gray whales, which frequented the North Carolina coast for millions of years, “have been missing from the Atlantic Ocean since the end of the transatlantic slave trade,” writes queer Black poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her book, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. “Gray whales are world shapers. The only large whale to feed on sediment on the bottom of the ocean, they leave massive trails on the underwater surface of the Earth. They dig up nutrients that feed whole ecosystems.”

"I wonder if the toxicity of the slave trade and its impact on the ocean have been under-reported. Lucille Clifton says the “Atlantic is a sea of bones.” What is the half-life of the transubstantiation of life into servitude? Does it ever dissolve? And the bones of those captives who freed themselves, or left their bodies and were subsequently thrown overboard became…what? Sediment. Filtered ultimately into the baleen of the Atlantic gray whale, right? So there is actually a digestive truth to the idea that the ancestors we lost in the transatlantic slave trade became whales,” wrote Gumbs.

Mike Noon, one of the last whalers of Monterey Bay California, sitting on a pile of whale bones, 1880-1895. Image courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum. United States.

Save the Whales, Slow Climate Change

Scientists have found that populations of krill, the baleen whales’ favorite zooplankton snack, have decreased, possibly as a result of industrial whaling. 

This “krill paradox” baffles scientists like Stanford University’s Dr. Matthew Savoca. When a major predator declines in an ecosystem, the population of its prey should increase. But krill have not. 

“The [krill] declines occurred most steeply in regions where the most whales were removed,” Savoca said. Regions like the Southern Ocean — the open sea encircling Antarctica — far away from where most upwelling and productivity occurs along the coasts. (Scientists call this transfer of nutrients to nutrient-poor polar waters where whales give birth the “whale conveyor belt”).

Savoca suspects climate change is at play. But he says the krill decline was documented 50 years ago, before modern impacts of climate change could affect global krill populations. He is confident that the slaughter of baleen whales decreased the numbers of krill. Other studies make similar conclusions about the loss of toothed sperm whales. 

“There's nothing else out there that can supply iron to the open ocean,” he says.

Understanding the great whale’s role in carbon capture is still in its infancy. There is so much that we just don’t know. But it’s clear that the more whales swimming the seas, the more phytoplankton they nurture and carbon they absorb. 

According to the IMF, banning all commercial whaling and restoring their populations to pre-whaling numbers — an increase from 1.3 million today to around 4 or 5 million — would dramatically increase plankton populations. Even a 1% boost in phytoplankton productivity would capture an extra hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually, “equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees,” the IMF says.

These restored whale populations could remove around 1.7 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually. Blue whale falls would sequester 160,000 tons of carbon dioxide alone. Protecting and restoring eight key species of baleen whales would store 8.7 million tons of carbon “equivalent to 110,000 hectares of forest or an area the size of the Rocky Mountain National Park,” according to the Pershing study. 

Habitat alteration or destruction is the greatest threat to biodiversity. The Climate Risk Index of Biodiversity shows that 90% of marine species are at high risk of extinction across 85% of habitats — but particularly in nearshore habitats — if global temperatures break 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. But the effects of climate change on whales is unclear. 

Scientists caution that modern climate changes, including an ice-free Arctic, could allow more sunlight to penetrate surface waters and increase the mixing of nutrients. This would benefit great whales. 

In other regions, warmer water temperatures and an uptick in dissolved carbon dioxide acidify the oceans. That cycle could reduce the nutrient productivity that begins with phytoplankton, and thus threaten giant whales. Large species extinctions, including the decline in whale diversity at the end of the Pliocene worries scientists about what climate change could mean for giant modern marine creatures.

Scientists are concerned that modern zooplankton, like their ancestors that were unable to adapt to climate change, could go extinct, especially in the southern ocean. Such a mass die-off could possibly reduce the transfer of carbon to the deep sea, and threaten biodiversity, ocean food webs, and ecosystems “for millions of years to come.” The loss of whales could contribute to increased carbon in our atmosphere and increased climate warming.

Pyenson believes we are heading toward Mid-Pliocene-level global temperatures. But he isn’t very concerned about climate change driving whales extinct, since these mammals first appeared and thrived in even hotter times 50 million years ago.

“[Humans] may or may not make it as long as whales do. I think that the large whales will probably outlive us,” said Pyenson.

But human activities that unintentionally kill whales pose a serious danger. 

Warming seas are already driving zooplankton to migrate to cooler waters. North Atlantic Right whales follow them, where they can become entangled in the millions of lobster and crab trap lines in New England and Canadian waters. This rope wraps around their bodies and mouths preventing feeding. The whales can suffer in pain for months as they slowly die of starvation. 

Ropeless lobster traps operated by acoustics — often called “on-demand” traps — already exist and could drastically reduce whale deaths from entanglements, but they are expensive. Congressional legislation has been introduced to offer tax credits to help lobster fishers adapt to traps with weaker ropes that allow whales to break free. 

Congress has yet to vote on other bills that would fund development of ropeless gear.

Miles-long fishing drift nets sweep whales and dolphins from the open ocean, as do bottom trawling nets that scrape marine life from the seafloor. Deep sea noise pollution from sonar used by oil companies and the U.S. Navy stresses marine mammals to the point in which they strand themselves. 

The Atlantic Coast, including North Carolina, is a major avenue for shipping. Boat strikes from large cargo ships often carrying crude oil and other fossil fuels, kill and maim whales. Eliminating these whale-killing oil tankers and sonar is yet another reason to transition our economies from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, so that whales and other marine mammals can live their carbon-sequestering lives in peace.

A blue whale being hauled onto the beach at Akutan Whaling Station, circa 1917. The Akutan Whaling Station was built in the Aleutians East Borough of Alaska by the Pacific Whaling Company in 1912, operating until 1939. Image courtesy the New Bedford Whaling Museum. United States.
A fin whale, approximately 50 feet long, surfaces to breathe off the coast of southern California. Video by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Protecting Biodiversity

With the help of endangered species acts and Marine Protected Areas along our coastlines, endangered humpbacks, blue and fin whales are making a comeback.

Humpbacks, the singing giants that launched the Save the Whales movement, are no longer considered endangered on the Atlantic Coast, including North Carolina.

New international agreements, like the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBJN) treaty drafted by the United Nations, can help safeguard marine biodiversity in international waters far from shore. Encouraging biodiversity and preserving larger marine species — like giant baleen whales and even apex predators like the great white shark — and the largest individuals within species is also crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems that sequester carbon. The ecological crisis and climate crisis are one crisis.  

Scientists are calling for a Global Deal for Nature — or “30x30” plan — aimed to protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030, which will reduce extinction threats and maintain carbon sequestering species and ecosystems. Currently only 2% of oceans are fully protected marine reserves, which are much more effective than other marine conservation methods like fisheries management. Around 40% on average should be designated as full reserves to protect biodiversity, avoid extinctions, and “adverse evolution,” according to scientists. 

The IMF estimates that it could cost only $13 USD per person to restore global whale populations to pre-industrial numbers. Restoration of marine species and marine reserves would likely benefit whale tourism and subsistence fishing in coastal communities. 

The IPCC is clear that the best climate solutions are the ones that work with nature and not against it. These solutions will only work if they are created, enacted and managed in collaboration with local communities that provide local benefits, particularly with Indigenous people who have been subsistence whaling for thousands of years, and for whom co-existing with whales and managing their habitats is a way of life. 

Not taking climate action and allowing a global temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius could cost the global economy $178 trillion according to reporting by Grist. But the estimated costs for a GDN across half the planet could only be $100 billion a year. The 2023 budget for the US military (one of the greatest sources of greenhouse emissions) will surpass $800 billion alone. Funding a GDN is practical when the bill is divided across countries, and “the cheapest and fastest alternative for addressing climate change” not dependent on carbon removal technologies that are difficult to scale. 

But, scientists say, ecosystem-based climate solutions are not a substitute for decarbonizing our economies and rapidly shifting to renewable energy.

Common dolphins off the coast of southern California. Pods of early marine dolphins with longer snouts would have been common in the Pliocene oceans. Video by Justin Cook. United States, 2023.

Back to the Pliocene

When I was a child, I wanted to be a marine biologist or a paleontologist when I grew up. I became a journalist instead. As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the planet in 2020, I found time to explore those passions. My human interactions decreased and my sense of time eroded. I had to find my footing. So, armed with a shovel and a homemade sifter, my twin brother and I reconnected with the land by hunting for fossil shark teeth in the rivers and creeks of eastern North Carolina. 

Fossil hunting helps me cope with my climate emotions and transform them into action. It’s a form of meditation and deep listening, a way to intimately know your bioregion — a region defined not by human place-names and boundaries, but by characteristics of the natural environment. My bioregion also includes past iterations of the land and its extinct inhabitants.

“Time is not a river running inexorably to the sea, but the sea itself — its tides that appear and disappear, the fog that rises to become rain in a different river. All things that were will come again,” writes Indigenous author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, recounting an Indigenous Anishinaabe creation story where the past, the present, and the future exist at once. 

“Creation, then, is an ongoing process,” she concludes, “and the story is not history alone — it is also prophecy.”

Sometimes the present and the past, my imagination and reality bleed together when I fossil hunt. I get the feeling I’m being watched, but not by a human. 

When I find a whale bone I’ll hold it in my hands and close my eyes in enchantment. I imagine its life in the ancient sea. No humans, only starlight. Weightless in an expanse so vast, so black. So unknown. The horizon blurs with the night sky, the edges of the Earth fade, and the whales are suspended somewhere between the sea and star-filled space. 

There in the creek, standing on the Pliocene seafloor, a wave of vertigo hits me. I am time traveling. Slowly, softly, tumbling through the epochs of eastern North Carolina.

I splash down in the sea. Is it the Pliocene or the future? I sink through beams of moonlight, past a pod of extinct whales. I land on the ocean floor in a bed of bones. I open my eyes and I’m lying in a cotton field. Suddenly I’m transported back to my body in the creek.

Whales reveal that our ecological-climate crisis, racial injustice and inequity are one crisis. Colonialism created and drove climate change, in part through genocide on Black, brown and Indigenous people, and on species essential to carbon capture — from the largest whales to the tiniest plankton responsible for our very breath. 

Communities of color and Indigenous people, long exploited by colonialism, are least responsible for climate change yet they are the first and most disproportionately harmed by our warming planet. 

Like the people of Princeville who make their stand at the edge of the Tar River and the unknown. Where the bones of their ancestors and the bones of old whales are cradled in the coastal plain — the bottom of an old sea.

The Tar River at Princeville under the full moon in 2021, where the old sea used to be. The river is low, approaching drought stage, so the edges of exposed sandbars glisten in the moonlight.

Special thanks to Dr. Nathan Hall at the UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C. for helping me photograph plankton; to Captain Ryan and Captain Delaney at Pacific Offshore Expeditions in Newport Beach, California for helping me find whales to safely and ethically photograph; to Lisa Sorg for her early editing and enthusiasm for this story; to J.R. Hicks for sharing his love of looking for old things in Edgecombe County creeks; and to my brother and other fossil hunting friends.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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Racial Justice

Racial Justice


A woman walks along a dock with a boat nearby


Connected Coastlines

Connected Coastlines

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