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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Biggest Brains in Biggest Danger

Air Date: Week of July 2, 2010

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Sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the BP oil blowout. (NOAA)

Just three deaths from the oil spill—that’s all it would take to push the sperm whales of the Gulf of Mexico to the brink. Hundreds are known to feed in the area of BP’s blowout. Host Jeff Young talks with marine mammal toxicologist Celine Godard-Codding and sperm whale expert Hal Whitehead about how the oil spill might affect these amazing whales, which have the largest brains and loudest voices in the animal kingdom.


YOUNG: NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just sent a research vessel to learn how the BP oil disaster is affecting the only endangered marine mammal in the Gulf – the sperm whale. A NOAA report estimates about 1600 sperm whales live in the Gulf. On June 15th government scientists found the carcass of a young whale about 80 miles south of the BP wellhead. Texas Tech toxicologist Celine Godard-Codding warns that just a few deaths could tip the balance.

CODDING: The 2009 report done by NOAA mentioned that if there are about three animals that die beyond normal mortality happening, for example if it’s due to the oil spill, there would be a cause of great concern for that population.

YOUNG: So just three, three deaths above the normal mortality would mean what, that they’re in trouble?

CODDING: That’s correct. Three deaths due to human causes.

YOUNG: You know, when I was looking at that report from NOAA, there’s a map that shows you where the sperm whales have been spotted over time in the Gulf, and what stands out to me when I look at that image is the overlap between many of those sightings, and where we now know the oil is in the Gulf.

CODDING: There’s about 260-280 whales that appear to be sighted in that area that’s very close to the origin of the oil spill on a regular basis.

YOUNG: What does that mean for sperm whales if they come into contact with the oil. How might the oil affect them?

CODDING: This oil spill disaster is of a scale that we haven’t seen before, and there is a potential for direct exposure to the whales, maybe if they breathe the fumes. But, there is also the potential for toxic effects or negative impacts occurring not right away, but also in terms of long-term chronic exposure to oil and the potential effects that may cause.

Sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico are threatened by the BP oil blowout. (NOAA)

YOUNG: That’s Marine Toxicology Professor Celine Goddard Codding, at Texas Tech.
Biology Professor Hal Whitehead, at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, shares her concern. After 30 years studying sperm whales, Professor Whitehead is still in awe each time he sees them.

WHITEHEAD: You see this massive, massive head, which is the sonar system, and then this strange wrinkled body- they look completely weird! And, of course, they live in this strange world which we know very little about -- the deep ocean. And yet, on the other hand these animals, they’re mammals, and you can see them stroking each other, touching each other, nuzzling each other, you know almost kissing each other, they have a very tender, deep and important social life.


YOUNG: Professor Whitehead records the whales’ vocalizations, which vary depending on where they live and what they’re doing.

WHITEHEAD: What we’re hearing is a large number of sperm whales clicking. Most of the clicks you hear are from sperm whales using the clicks as a sonar system. The front quarter of their body is this sonar system, and it produces the most powerful sound in the animal world. But they also use the clicks for other purposes, and this is one of the ways, perhaps one of the main ways, they communicate with each other. And we think these are maybe a large and important part of the glue that puts their societies together. It’s an extraordinary system.

YOUNG: There are a lot of superlatives attached to the sperm whale. They’re first in a lot of things, aren’t they?

WHITEHEAD: They, they are. I call them the animal of extremes, and for a biologist, it’s a puzzle why this animal which has this powerful sonar system, also has the largest brain on earth? Why is it also the animal in which the males and females are most separated on earth? So most of the adult males are in Arctic or Antarctic waters, whereas most of the adult females are in the tropics and sub-tropics. Why is it they still take out of the ocean an amount which is roughly comparable to all the human fisheries?

YOUNG: You’re kidding me! The actual amount that sperm whales eat is on par with what we take out of the ocean?

WHITEHEAD: Well, not quite. They mainly eat squid. And we mainly eat fish. Now they eat some fish, and we eat some squid, but basically if you add up the amount that we eat and the amount that they eat, it’s about the same.

YOUNG: We hunted these whales primarily for the oil, and then we discovered this new thing called ground oil, and that kind of killed the market for hunting whales for oil. The history of oil and whales has been intertwined for a long time, hasn’t it?

WHITEHEAD: It has, yes. I mean the Quakers of Nantucket of the late 18th century, in some ways they were the BP of that era -- and they caused a lot of environmental damage too. But as you say, when people found the ground oil coming out of that field in Pennsylvania, then that changed the balance, and in some ways it let the sperm whales off the hook.

YOUNG: What is at risk in the Gulf of Mexico, what’s your concern with what’s going on there?

WHITEHEAD: My concern is that we have a moderately well studied population of sperm whales. What we know about them is that they’re an important part of the life of the Gulf of Mexico, because they’re big and important predators. They’re largely separated from other sperm whales. They have their own way of doing things.


WHITEHEAD: The different areas of the Atlantic have somewhat different dialects. So, the Gulf of Mexico has a fairly distinctive dialect, which is different from the sperm whales in say the eastern Caribbean, or in the Sargasso Sea, out off the east coast of the states.

YOUNG: A southern accent, maybe?

WHITEHEAD: A southern accent. And the important thing, I think, to me, is that that’s the bit of their behavior that we can most easily record and study. I think it’s very likely that those sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico have a bunch of other culturally determined behavior, which is really important to them, which determines their identity, how they relate to their environment. So just as we try and preserve the diversity of human languages, so it’s important for the sperm whales, and the other whale species, to preserve the diversity of cultures.

YOUNG: And, you think whales are developing culture?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I think, it’s not so much they’ve been developing it; I suspect they’ve had it for a lot longer than we have. Until the modern human came along, the extraordinary modern human, if you were looking for culture on earth, you’d find it in the oceans. As with humans, with these animals we should value their cultural diversity. The diversity of knowledge as represented by what’s held in different parts of the Atlantic including the Gulf of Mexico, is a really important resource for the whole sperm whale population. And if they’re gone we’ve lost that, forever.

YOUNG: Professor Hal Whitehead, thank you very much for your time.

WHITEHEAD: You're very welcome.

YOUNG: Biology Professor Hal Whitehead at Dalhousie University. There’s more about his work and NOAA’s report on the Gulf sperm whales at our website, loe dot org.



Dr. Godard-Codding’s research

Dr. Whitehead’s research

NOAA report of dead sperm whale in Gulf

Click here for more information on Sperm Whale distribution


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