Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sperm Whales - Oil Strikes Back

Mystery of mysteries -- on June 15, a sperm whale turned up dead in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from BP-Halliburton-TransOcean's most famous team catastrophe:
Based on the estimated size of the whale, scientists believe it is a sub-adult. Its condition suggests it may have been dead for between several days to more than a week. Although it was not found in oiled water, NOAA marine mammal experts are using hindcasting analysis to look into the location from which the whale carcass may have drifted.

While it is impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death, NOAA is reviewing whether factors such as ship strikes and entanglement can be eliminated. Samples collected from this carcass will be stored under proper protocols and handed off when the Pisces comes to port on July 2, or possibly if another boat is sent to meet the Pisces. Full analysis of the samples will take several weeks.
Since approximately 1,600 sperm whales live in the Gulf, many of which cluster near the Mississippi Delta, the prospects are grim for these creatures whether or not this individual whale turns out to be one of the spill's casualties:
The major threat to sperm whales is probably breathing in volatile organic compounds at the surface. The residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, may smell a bad odor from the spill, but imagine, after a 45-minute dive, surfacing into a noxious cloud of contaminated air. Breathing these fumes can lead to pneumonia, damage to the brain, liver and other organs; unconsciousness and death. And the dispersants added to the oil are actually more volatile than crude.

Oil could also contaminate or kill the fish and squid that sperm whales eat. These creatures are highly sensitive to toxic compounds in oil. As the oil spreads, it will create a greater risk.
These whales were once the world's chief source of oil before crude oil rendered spermaceti oil obsolete. Our demand for oil still stands to reduce their numbers again.

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