On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, resulting in an uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Superimposed on the threat of the oil, is the nearly two million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants that British Petroleum (BP) released into the Gulf in an attempt to break up the oil. These chemicals were used to get the oil “out of sight” and have been used in unprecedented amounts and in untested ways.
It is now four years since what was deemed the biggest environmental disaster in US history and few studies are being conducted on the long-term effects of both the oil and the toxic chemical dispersants on the marine life in the Gulf. Operation Toxic Gulf is a collaborative campaign between Sea Shepherd and Ocean Alliance doing just that; investigating the chronic effects of the oil and the dispersants on sperm whales in the Gulf.
Why Sperm Whales?
The study species for this particular expedition will be sperm whales because they are an endangered apex predator at the top of the food chain. We are not only concerned about the health of the sperm whales themselves but also because sperm whales will act as a bio-indicator, helping to expose the health of the rest of the food chain. When toxicants are present in a marine environment they tend to be concentrated most in those animals that live the longest i.e. sperm whales.
The effects of dispersants on whales are unknown and have not been studied. They have also never been released into the environment in such massive quantities.
Toxicology is the study of how chemicals (like oil and chemical dispersants) poison people, plants and animals. Currently, Sea Shepherd and Ocean Alliance are the only groups conducting long-term toxicological research to assess the impact of the oil crisis in the Gulf on whales. Moreover, no government rapid response funds for university researchers have been allocated for toxicology studies. In fact, remarkably, many of the programs specifically exclude using these funds for toxicology studies. It is essential that we conduct whale toxicology studies in the Gulf of Mexico and it will be up to us, the people, to fund these studies.
Ocean Alliance and Sea Shepherd are uniquely positioned to address this need, working as partners from aboard the RV Odyssey, Ocean Alliance’s 93-foot sailboat uniquely outfitted to track, sample and study whales. The sperm whale samples will be taken using a specialized foam dart sent from the bow of the Odyssey. It bounces off the sperm whale containing a skin and blubber sample the size of a pencil eraser – comparative to a diabetics needle. This sample is then stored and will be then analyzed in an independent laboratory for contaminants as follows:
- Measurement of petroleum products and chemical dispersants in whale blubber.
- Measurement of metals in whale skin.
- Measurement of DNA damage and cell viability from whale skin cultures.
- Dosing of cultured whale cells in the laboratory with chemical dispersants used in the Gulf to assess their toxic effects on DNA.
Further research carried out during Operation Toxic Gulf is as follows:
- Use of acoustic array to count, detect and record whale sounds.
- Measurement of petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals in whale feces.
- Determination of genetic stock (and thus where the whales live) from samples.
- Measurement of petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals in environmental media where whales occur (i.e. air for inhalation and water for skin exposure).
- Visual inspection, photo documentation and individual identification of all whales spotted.
Although Operation Toxic Gulf will mark the first collaboration between Sea Shepherd and Ocean Alliance, this is the fourth year that Ocean Alliance will have carried out these studies in the Gulf. Furthermore, Ocean Alliance has sailed around the world three times collecting toxicological data on whales, and will be able to compare the toxicity of the sperm whales in the Gulf to whales found in other places around the world.
Data collected during Operation Toxic Gulf will provide scientists, policymakers, the general public, and stakeholders with the truth about the effect of the 2010 BP oil disaster on the marine mammals who call the Gulf of Mexico home.