Tony and the Whale

by John Hocevar

June 21, 2010

A few days ago, a young sperm whale was found dead in the Gulf of Mexico.  The official cause of death has yet to be determined, but it is likely that the enormous quantity of oil pouring into the Gulf from the BP Horizon rig is the culprit. 
As the news of this finding was first being reported, BP CEO Tony Hayward was testifying before Congress, desperately ducking questions and ducking responsibility for his company’s negligence. 
The whale’s death puts the population of sperm whales that live in the Gulf at risk of extinction.  US government scientists have estimated that the loss of as few as three adult whales due to the spill might be enough to cause them to die out in the Gulf of Mexico.  Sperm whales produce only one calf every five years.  Their slow rate of maturity and their low birth rate make them particularly vulnerable to things like oil spills – or commercial whaling, which nearly wiped out the entire species before the moratorium took effect in 1986.
Sperm whales are one of the most remarkable creatures with whom we share our planet, longer than a school bus and as heavy as three African elephants.  Unlike humpbacks, bowheads, and other baleen whales that use leathery strips to filter krill and plankton, sperm whales have dozens of large conical teeth.  Famously, sperm whales have been known to dive down to depths of greater than a mile in pursuit of giant squid, a favorite food.  (Allow me to take off my scientist hat for a moment to say this: anything that can dive to the bottom of the ocean to fight giant squid in the DARK is pretty badass!)
But even sperm whales may turn out to be no match for the nightmare Tony has wrought in the Gulf of Mexico.  Despite what President Obama and Tony assure us, they will not be able to recover very much of the oil.  They will not be able to make the Gulf better than new.  Islands will disappear, toxic oil and dispersants will enter the food chain, coastal businesses will go bankrupt, and species may be lost. 
All of this points to two urgent truths:
1. We must keep the pressure on BP and the government to do all that is humanly possible to mitigate the impacts of this disaster, and give sperm whales and other species a fighting chance.
2. We have to learn from this.  Rhetoric and theater are no substitute for action.  I don’t want to hear another politician tell me anything about energy independence, green jobs, or clean, renewable technology.  SHOW ME SOMETHING.  Ban offshore drilling.  Improve the safety of existing rigs, at the same time we begin to phase them out completely.  Increase fuel efficiency of cars.  Cap greenhouse pollution. 
Or retire from business and politics, and let new leaders take over.  Leaders that work for all of us, including the sperm whales, and not for Tony and the other Big Oil CEOs.
For the oceans,
John H
John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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