Whale Ho!

by Phil Kline

September 13, 2010

Sperm Whale diving in the Gulf of Mexico

After a depressing day last week on Mississippi’s Horn Island, where we saw all the tar balls that still need to be cleaned up, the Arctic Sunrise headed into Gulf Port to load up acoustic scientific gear and team of scientists for the next leg of our research cruise into the impact of the Gulf oil spill.

This science team is led by Dr. Natalia Sidorovskaia, an Associate Professor of Physics from the University of Louisiana. She is part of team from, the Littoral Acoustic Demonstration Center (LADC) with research partners from the University of New Orleans, University of Texas and University of Southern Mississippi. What makes this work so important is that the LADC is the only group that has baseline data of marine mammal phonations in the vicinity surrounding the oil spill site.

Phonations, by the way, are the sounds made by whales and dolphins; they don’t have vocal cords, so calling their sounds vocalizations is scientifically incorrect – something I just learned from Natalia.

The LADC possesses a set of data, dating back over several years, recorded with sophisticated listening devices that had been coincidentally moored at two locations only nine and 23 miles from ground zero at the Deepwater Horizon site, putting the team in the unique position of being able to assess the environmental impacts on endangered whales in the immediate area of the oil spill. While it’s obvious that oil and dispersant in the water would have a detrimental effect on any whale species, the lasting effects of the oil spill could also affect long term population trends, because of long term negative impacts on the food web of the Gulf.

During previous acoustic recording experiments in 2001, 2003 and 2007 at these same locations, high densities of both sperm and beaked whales were recorded. Natalia tells me that their previous acoustic recordings provide a baseline of information, when combined with new measurements, will give important indicators of any changes in sperm and beaked whale populations in these locations. If less phonations are heard, it may indicate that there less whales in the area than before.

The passive acoustic monitoring devices we have been deploying the past three days are very high tech pieces of equipment, consisting of a passive listening device that will record whale and dolphin sounds for the next 12 days and an electronic release mechanism. We’ve anchored them 500 meters above the seafloor in 1,500 meters of water, down where sperm whales do a lot of their feeding. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise has been working hard with Natalia and three colleagues, spending about 4 hours setting out each acoustic device before then double checking the exact position of each. In total we will deploy six of these deep water scientific instruments over three days – let’s hope that after we recover them in a couple of weeks there’s a lot of whales making noise down there.

The Arctic Sunrise paying out acoustic buoys in the Gulf of Mexico

Female and juvenile sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are known to be residential, staying in the same area all of their lives with only mature males making trips out into the Atlantic. Over the last few days, with many eyes scanning the water from the Arctic Sunrise, we had not seen a single whale of any kind near the Deepwater Horizon site. Not seeing any in this area where they have previously been abundant is not a good sign.

On Saturday morning I was lucky enough to join our video and still photographers on a helicopter flight over the cluster of ships and rigs at the Deepwater Horizon spill site. This was my first time taking off and landing by helicopter on a ship – too cool! I spent my time in the air searching the ocean trying to spot whales and dolphins. The weather was perfect, with no wind and flat seas; if there had been any whales to see they would have been easily spotted from our altitude of around 500ft (150m).

Still no whales. It was however an amazing experience. From all the photographs I had seen of the Deepwater Horizon site, I really was overwhelmed by the amount of equipment; two drilling rigs, a drilling ship, and a fleet of support vessels. This is the zenith of ocean industrialization – and now we hear from Washington that the temporary deep water drilling moratorium is due to expire in November, with no current talk of extending it making it permanent. The insanity of our oil dependency and deep water drilling really hits home when you bear witness to the industrial circus as the Deepwater Horizon site.

The rigs at the Deepwater Horizon site, September 2010

On Sunday morning, our whale spotting was rewarded! After moving to our final deployment location (63 miles from where the oil spill occurred), a pod of six sperm whales surfaced very near to where we were putting our first acoustic device in the water. Whale HO! At midday we saw another three sperm whales, a school of feeding tuna, a barracuda, multiple seabirds, including a magnificent frigatebird, somewhat restoring my faith in the resilience of our oceans.

This is great news, and the source of relief – at least some sperm whales are still living in their traditional waters, after the oil spill. Now we have just have to wait on the acoustic buoys and the LADC team to unlock the mystery of how the oil spill has affected these whale populations.

– Phil

Take Action: BP Oil Threatens Endangered Whales


All photos: © Greenpeace/Mannie Garcia

Phil Kline

By Phil Kline

Phil is a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. He is a recognized expert on oceans policy domestically and internationally, and has represented Greenpeace U.S. at International Whaling Commission (IWC) meetings and Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meetings around the globe.

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