New Gulf of Mexico whale species has same old problem: Us

Patricia Rosel of NOAA examines the remains of a Rice's whale whose carcass was recovered off Everglades State Park. The newly identified species died after ingesting a piece of plastic. Credit: NOAA

Nearly two years ago, I stood on the edge of an enormous hole in the sand at Fort DeSoto in St. Pete Beach, trying to remember to breathe through my mouth, not my nose.

This was not a contest to build the world’s biggest sandcastle. It was more interesting than that. It was a scientific endeavor of a type I’d never seen before.

In the hole, about 100 yards from the beach, a team of biologists braved a horrible stench while excavating a rather large dead body — a whale that had been found off Everglades National Park about three months earlier.

At 38 feet, the carcass was roughly as long as a Greyhound bus, but somewhat smellier. (If you’ve ever ridden a Greyhound in Florida during the summer, as I have, you’ll know what I mean.) It was also a key to understanding what’s been called one of the rarest whales in the world.

When the dead whale first turned up floating in the water in January 2019, a dozen biologists converged on the 23,000-pound carcass. They hauled it ashore and spent a couple of days examining it, measuring it and taking samples. Then they put it on a flatbed to be trucked across the state to Fort DeSoto for a temporary burial.

Now, under a broiling May sun, they were digging it back up. The time it spent underground made it easier to peel off the flesh and collect the skeleton. I saw people with master’s degrees and doctorates wielding shovels. They were particularly careful in retrieving the 8-foot by 4-foot skull.

Memories of that hot and sweaty day came flooding back recently when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — NOAA for short — announced that an examination of the skull, along with other evidence, had convinced experts that this is an entirely new species of whale that’s been swimming around in the Gulf of Mexico for years.

“There’s so much about the world’s oceans and marine habitats that we don’t know,” Patricia Rosel of NOAA, the lead author on the scientific paper identifying the new species, told me this week. “There are new species of fish and corals being described every year.”

Knowing this is a new species is a major step forward. The bad news: This new species is already considered endangered.

In fact, the one that turned up dead in 2019 — the one that led to verification that it’s a new species — was killed by human idiocy.

Chasing whales with crossbows

Did you even know that we have whales in the Gulf? I’ve lived on or near the Gulf most of my life but, until about five years ago, I didn’t know about the whales. Even though I have been out in the Gulf dozens of times, I’ve never seen any.

But Rosel said that as far back as 2008, she and her colleagues not only knew about the existence of these whales but suspected they were something special.

Researchers prepare to bury a Rice’s whale in preparation for later retrieving tissue samples for study. Credit: NOAA

The biologists would take boats out near where the whales had been spotted and shoot a dart into their skin using a crossbow or a rifle, she said. (Yes, that’s right, scientists shoot darts at whales with crossbows — how cool is that?)

When they retrieved the dart, it would pull loose a small piece of skin that would provide them with the animal’s DNA.

But, to verify it, they needed an actual specimen that they could compare to other whales, she said. That’s why the one that turned up dead was such a boon to science.

While they were happy to have a whole whale to study, the reason it died remains the most disturbing part of the story. As the biologists cut it open and examined its insides, they discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be there.

Inside one stomach was a square piece of plastic. Its shape resembled a cafeteria tray, but smaller and with a jagged edge.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what happened. Chalk up another case of death-by-plastic. The square had sliced its way through two stomachs and wound up in the third one, damaging the whale’s digestive system. Otherwise, the animal was healthy.

How did this hunk of hard plastic get into the Gulf and, thus, inside a whale? We can’t say for sure, but to me it seems likely that some numbskull human tossed it in the water. I could even picture some yahoo skipping it across the waves to see how far it would go, completely oblivious to what would happen once it sank out of sight.

We humans tend to be clueless like that — self-involved and self-regarding but blind to the ramifications of our actions, particularly when it comes to plastic. We look at a vast body of water such as the Gulf and, instead of regarding it as a marvel full of mysteries, we treat it as a combination garbage pit/sewer. I have actually heard people claim that dilution is the solution to pollution, when clearly it is not.

Last fall, the environmental group Oceana surveyed dozens of government agencies, organizations, and institutions that collect data on the impact of plastic on marine animals The survey found that, since 2009, nearly 1,800 animals from 40 different species had been injured by swallowing or becoming entangled in plastic.

Nearly 90 percent were species listed as endangered or threatened.

“Incidences of plastic killing or injuring these animals were higher off the coasts of Florida and neighboring states than any other region in the U.S.,” Oceana’s Melissa Valliant told me.

Walruses, sea otters, and sea lions — oh my!

NOAA scientists still don’t know a lot about these whales, which they have dubbed “Rice’s whale” after Dale Rice, the first biologist to study this particular type of whale (in Latin, it’s “Balaenoptera ricei.”)

“We’re trying to understand what they eat, what their favorite food is, where they feed,” Rosel said. “We think they feed near the ocean bottom.”

Whaling ship records show these whales used to occupy a much broader section of the Gulf than they do now. These days, they appear to swim in a very narrow corridor that stretches from Pensacola in the northern Gulf down to just south of the Tampa Bay area.

One reason for that narrowing of their habitat: The offshore oil industry has installed thousands of oil and gas platforms in the western Gulf, which creates lots of ship traffic to and from the coast.

The Rice’s whales have abandoned that busy area for the quieter eastern Gulf where, thank heavens, oil drilling has so far been banned. The ban is set to expire next year, but Florida’s two senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have introduced a bill to extend the ban another 10 years.

One question that biologists are still working to resolve is how many Rice’s whales there are. They think a good estimate is fewer than 50. They also think there are far fewer than there used to be in 2010 — again, because of human idiocy.

You may recall that 2010 was the year of the BP disaster. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 crew members, and then sank beneath the waves. A busted pipe continued spewing oil from the bottom of the Gulf for another four months, putting gooey gunk on Florida beaches.

BP’s 500-page response plan for a disaster was ridiculously bad. And by “ridiculous,” I mean that, instead of actually investigating what was living in the Gulf, the company did a cut-and-paste job from their plans for other drilling sites.

Thus, for an oil spill in the Gulf, BP’s list of affected animals included walruses, sea otters, sea lions, and seals, which are all far more common in Alaska. The only thing dopier than that is that federal regulators didn’t catch this sloppiness until after the disaster occurred.

While it did mention whales, what the plan said was that they weren’t permanent residents in the Gulf. Instead, they were listed for “seasonal use areas; migration routes.”

Scientists are still learning what damage that oil spill did to the Gulf’s marine life — killing dolphins, disrupting the reproduction of crabs, and causing ugly lesions on redfish — but they believe the Rice’s whales suffered more than most.

Although the oil rig was outside their usual range, the oil that spewed out overlapped with where they live. The Rice’s whales have no teeth for feeding. They have a substance called “baleen” that filters their food. Oil can get stuck in the baleen, making it tough for them to eat anything without swallowing oil.

Whales exposed to oil can suffer from lung and respiratory ailments, increased vulnerability to infections, and irritation of the skin or sensitive tissue in the whale’s eyes and mouths.

As a result, biologists estimate that the BP oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 17 percent of the Rice’s whale population. They also estimate that 22 percent of the females that survived suffered “reproductive failure” — in other words, they were unable to produce healthy, live calves.

When NOAA proposed adding these new whales to the endangered species list, you can probably guess the one group that objected: the offshore oil industry. They fear that protecting the Rice’s whale will make drilling in the Gulf more difficult to carry out, and to them that’s what’s important — particularly if the drilling ban does end in 2022.

When I heard that, it occurred to me that maybe we buried the wrong thing on that sandy beach.