Ryan Bebej
 on March 08, 2021

A Sea of Gifts: Caring for Marine Creatures

A new whale species is simultaneously discovered and endangered, leading us to a look at the world and the Christian's role in it.

water's surface

A few years ago, the pastor at my church asked an astrophysicist and me to put together brief presentations for his sermon on what was designated “Creation Sunday.” He wanted us to present some aspect of God’s universe in a way that would make the congregation say, “Wow!” As someone who studies the evolutionary history of marine mammals, I knew that I needed to talk about whales. So, that Sunday morning, I went up front during the sermon and talked for several minutes about blue whales, the largest species of animal that has ever existed on this planet. I regaled my fellow parishioners with all kinds of fun facts that speak to the creature’s immensity—how it can consume as many as 40 million krill in a single day and has a heart the size of a golf cart.

But I left folks with something else to consider: despite their size and longevity (with individuals living for up to 90 years), we still know relatively little about the ecology and behavior of blue whales. How is it possible that some of the largest creatures that have ever inhabited our planet remain a bit of a mystery for us? For one, whales occupy a vast aquatic environment that is very difficult for humans to access. Not only does that make it difficult for us to study the creatures that we know are out there, but it forces us to recognize that there are animals living in our world’s oceans that we don’t even know exist.

Already Endangered

You might have heard recently about the discovery of a new species of baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Named Rice’s whale (in honor of the marine mammal biologist who first identified the population), Balaenoptera ricei is relatively modest in size compared to the mighty blue whale, but still grows up to 42 feet in length. Researchers recognized the population in the 1990s, but thought it was simply a group of Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni), a species found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Genetic data from tissue samples collected in the mid-2000s suggested that this population might be a unique species, and subsequent analysis of an individual that was stranded in southwest Florida in 2019 helped to confirm that these whales are indeed distinct from their closest cetacean relatives. Unfortunately, these whales are already considered critically endangered, with current estimates placing their population size at fewer than 100 individuals.

Rice's whale coming out of the water

Regrettably, it is largely human activity that has put so many cetacean species at risk of extinction. Not only did the whaling industry completely decimate many cetacean species around the world in recent centuries, but human activity today still impacts these remarkable creatures. Collisions with boats are a major concern, especially for Rice’s whales, which appear to spend time closer to the ocean’s surface during nighttime hours. Cetaceans around the world are also affected by noise from human activities, including sonar, commercial shipping, seismic surveys, and oil exploration. This noise pollution makes it difficult for whales to communicate, hunt, and navigate. It can even lead to physical trauma and mass stranding events. Commercial fisheries can be problematic for cetaceans as well, with estimates suggesting that hundreds of thousands of cetaceans each year are unintentionally tangled and caught in fishing nets. Obviously, oceanic debris and pollution can also detrimentally impact whales. In fact, the stranded individual in 2019 that led to the description of Rice’s whale may have died due to the ingestion of plastic debris. And, of course, the modification and destruction of marine ecosystems are also major concerns, especially in the context of global climate change. How tragic it is for humanity to recognize a new animal species, right as it is on the cusp of disappearing from this planet forever!

Room for Lament and Awe

As God’s image bearers in this world, we are called to care for and sustain the world that we share with the utterly unique forms of life that fill our forests, fields, skies, and seas. But none of us have to look very far to see that humanity has fallen well short of that call. Our relationship with all of creation is broken and in desperate need of repair. In Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, my colleague David Warners writes that in order to reconcile our relationship with the rest of the creation, we must recognize the myriad ways that we have collectively harmed the world around us. In so doing, we can begin to work through lament and build toward true reconciliation with the world God has entrusted to us. But Warners argues that this might require a shift in perspective. He writes:

“Instead of imagining the nonhuman creation as something outside ourselves that we have been called to care for, we understand ourselves as living among and surrounded by so many good gifts. And this world of gifts not only blesses and nurtures us but also blesses and nurtures everything else too, in an intertwined interdependence of species and soil and climate and atoms and ecosystems and . . . goodness. […] The longing of the Creator is that every aspect of creation would flourish, together (p. 188).”

So, as we consider the fact that we are just now recognizing a new species that we may soon lose forever, let us be attentive to the irreparable harm we have already done—for the degradation of environments around the world and for the many species that humanity has pushed to and past the brink of extinction, some of which we are not even aware of. Let us recognize how we are inextricably tied to the rest of creation and work together to heal the fractured relationship with the world we are embedded within. Let us begin to see the creation as a whole for the countless gifts it represents and become inspired to care for it out of our love for our Creator. Let us act in ways that will ensure future generations are still able to receive God’s many good gifts, including sea otters swimming through kelp forests, shoals of tropical fish exploring coral reefs, sea turtles basking in the sun, massive whales breaching, and countless other examples of life on this planet that are beautiful, awe-inspiring, and give glory to God. “May the lives we live in God’s good creation today protect the praise of hearts and mouths and wings and petals of those generations yet to come” (Warners, p. 194).

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About the author

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej is a professor in the Department of Biology at Calvin University, where he was selected as professor of the year in 2017. He earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with a focus in paleontology from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the evolution of aquatic mammals from terrestrial ancestors, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). He is especially interested in the earliest stages of these large-scale evolutionary transitions and the anatomical modifications that facilitate changes in swimming mode. He has excavated skeletons of fossil whales at Wadi Al-Hitan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Egypt’s western desert, and he routinely spends time working in collections at world-renowned museums. Ryan is also deeply interested in the relationship between science and Christian faith. In addition to being a member of BioLogos Voices since 2016, he has been a Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) visiting scholar in science and religion and a participant in SCIO's Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II program. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and two sons, playing German tabletop games, and rooting for the Michigan Wolverines and St. Louis Cardinals.