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Marine Mammals and the Gulf Spill

Michael Jasny

Posted April 30, 2010

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Sperm whale flukeSperm whales have long had a particular attachment to the underwater canyons that extend into the Gulf of Mexico south of the Mississippi Delta.  The waters there are both deep and nutrient-rich, and for the Gulf’s small sperm whale population they constitute a sort of nursery, inhabited by groups of breeding females and calves and immature males.  Yankee whalers liked to hunt this area more than a hundred years ago, and in 2002, when biologists sought out the Gulf’s sperm whales as part of a government-industry study, this is where they came.

Now much of that whale nursery is occupied by the massive oil slick that is spreading across the Gulf.

As with all other sea life, marine mammals and oil do not mix well.  The most immediate harm as the slick approaches shore may be from oiling and inhaling toxic fumes, which can cause brain lesions, disorientation, and death.  Some 300 harbor seals are thought to have died from inhalation alone during the Exxon Valdez disaster.  In the Gulf, the most vulnerable animals may be bottlenose dolphins, whose dozens of tiny populations fill the bays, passes, and channels along the northern shore.  Some of these dolphin stocks have only a few dozen members, and under the right conditions, the incoming slick could devastate them.  

 Bottlenose dolphin But that of course is only the beginning.  Once oil gets into the sediment along the beaches, it will work up the food chain through zooplankton, invertebrates, and fish.  In Prince William Sound – ground zero for the Exxon Valdez spill – chronic oil exposure has been worst among species like sea otters that feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates and along the shore.  In the Gulf, it is again perhaps those small populations of coastal bottlenose dolphins that stand at greatest risk.

And what of the sperm whale mothers and calves off the Mississippi Delta?  They’re already suffering the loss of a substantial part of their habitat due to the enormous size of the spill, and, like virtually everything else that lives in the area, they’ll go on consuming contaminated prey long after the oil is dispersed.  And this is on top of the booming of the industry’s exploratory airguns, which may seriously be impacting their ability to feed.

Marine mammals, sea birds, fish and fisheries – not to mention the loss of human life.  It seems to take a catastrophe every twenty years or so to remind people of the incalculable risks of offshore oil.

Photos courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce.

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Ivy B.Apr 30 2010 04:44 PM

How can we as individuals help? Is there a direct fund to which we can donate?

Serena ReidApr 30 2010 05:00 PM

The pursuit of oil in our Oceans has to stop.

Andrew DarnelApr 30 2010 05:55 PM

this is a sad reality of the industrialized world and our dependency on plastics and oil. I would love to see both local and international environmental laws changed so as to reflect greater responsibility upon those who continue to abuse the environment. We need greater standards of protection at the source of the problem. Exon Valdez in Alaska was a tragedy of epic proportions. Why does it take another environmental disaster like this before politicians actually take action? This is absolutely and totally inexcusable. Whales, dolphins, fish, birds and other local wildlife are already tenderly hanging in the balance. Disasters like this are avoidable.

Darcie S.Apr 30 2010 06:20 PM

AVOIDABLE!!!! and makes me sick... SICK that this has happened... the devastation that will ensue.. and already has.. is just sickening to me.. My heart breaks for the wildlife.. and the damage that this disaster is causing... is just sickening.. We did this. WE DID THIS.

Karen M.Apr 30 2010 06:40 PM

for those who want to donate money, materials, or time, go to The Audobon society is also looking for volunteers.

Karla SachiMay 1 2010 03:49 AM

Hedge funds, Oil and plastic Barons--lovely. They actually are motivated to deliberately spill oil and create a catastrophe. Legalized Wall St. gambling--it should be outlawed. And the Oil Industry should be made accountable--I'd like to see a lawsuit, Citizens of Earth vs. Big Oil, Chemical and Plastics for crimes against Humanity, Nature and Earth, Our only habitat. I am sickened, truly nauseous knowing the suffering these indifferent CEO'S, who are profitting, filling their ego's, wallets and bellies while extinctions and agnozing suffering continues, while they continue to perpetuate consumer buying of their poisons. They should give back ALL their profits toward the generation of hydrogen energy, which they've been supressing for over 50 years.
There, I've said it.

Michael JasnyMay 1 2010 11:22 AM

Ivy B. asked: "How can we as individuals help? Is there a direct fund to which we can donate?"

In addition to Karen M.'s great suggestions, we'd recommend the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. They're actively seeking volunteers:

Kassey G.May 1 2010 11:23 AM

I agree, we need clean energy. Whether you believe in global warming or not, it is our responsibility to take care of the world and that includes the people, animals, and plants in it. It's a moral obligation. If you believe in God but not global warming then look at it this way...if polution caused an earthquake or a natural disaster that killed people,animals,etc, are we not held accountable if we did nothing to stop it? The world can be saved, we just have to make the right decisions and do the right things to make it a better place to live in.

Howard GarrettMay 1 2010 03:53 PM

Killer whales roam Gulf of Mexico
Expert confirms sighting of up to 200 on one day; diet includes dolphins

Howard GarrettMay 1 2010 03:55 PM

The Wall Street Journal reports that the well lacked a remote-control shut-off switch that is required by Brazil and Norway, two other major oil-producing nations. The switch, a back-up measure to shut off oil flow, would allow a crew to remotely shut off the well even if a rig was damaged or sunken. BP said it couldn't explain why its primary shut-off measures did not work.

U.S. regulators considered requiring the mechanism several years ago. They decided against the measure when drilling companies protested, saying the cost was too high, the device was only questionably effective, and that primary shut-off measures were enough to control an oil spill. A 2001 industry report argued against the shut-off device:

Don HaskinsMay 1 2010 05:29 PM

Most of us, including myself, would like to lay blame at someone else's feet, such as the BP executives or our government. But the situation is truly the consequence of how each and every one of us has chosen to live and vote and whether or not to become actively involved in creating solutions. The vast majority of us are big consumers of energy and other natural resources and we've CHOSEN to ignore what we've been doing to this one and only little island in space we have to live on. Beyond all this is something much more basic. It's the root cause of this and most of our world's largest problems. And we're all consummate experts when it comes to living in denial of it. It's simply that, as a species, we refuse to take any meaningful responsibilty or even begin to think about controlling our own over-population. We have the highest intelligence of all species and yet, when it comes right down to it, as a group, we don't act much more thoughtfully than bacteria who multiply until they kill their host. That's the path we've chosen by default.

Sometimes I wonder - if it weren't for religion, would we still find it so easy to live in utter denial? Maybe, I don't know.

Kate GoodsonMay 3 2010 09:18 AM

1) Live on the Gulf Coast? Here's how you can help right now! Go out to your favorite shoreline and remove everything that is not a live plant, sand or water. Help reduce the cleanup efforts

2) Live on the East Coast?
Let the White House know your feelings on future Off Shore Drilling:
Let your Senators know too:

John TaylorMay 3 2010 02:51 PM

And now some fools are infusing dispersal agents in the water, causing the oil to NOT surface, out of sight, out of mind. This is NOT good for the creatures of the deep. has commented on this in recent posts. Continuing to do the wrong thing may very well be worse than doing nothing.

Florida has long had a moratorium on offshore drilling, because their tourism was worth more than the oil royalties. Apparently the other Gulf states didn't necessarily mind the trade-off. The cost of the cleanup is secondary, though, to the irreparable damage, illness and death being caused by the toxins. It is extremely important/urgent that BP get a stop on further leaking, but that they NOT USE ANY MORE AGENTS, biological or not. The problem should not be swept under the surface.

RonaldMay 4 2010 11:30 AM

Why do people not see wat is happening, the oceans die you don’t need to be a professor to see that.
Its waiting for the first dead whale, turtles and dolphins have we seen i mean the first dead dolphins of the maybe 5000 and there new borne. Now we waiting for things to happens. BP is making a system so that the can milk the oil after the close the hole. Instead off just closing the dam thing.
And nobody is questioning them for that how bizarre is that???? The killing the planet and nobody seems to care.

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