Whale study reveals spread of ocean contaminants
By Martin B. Cassidy
26th January 2004
Toxins measured in sperm whale blubber indicate man-made chemicals have dispersed throughout the ocean, reaching animals far in its deeps, according to a Greenwich-born environmentalist working on a five-year marine research project.
Patrick Woods, development director of the Ocean Alliance, a Lincoln, Mass.-based research group, said the results indicate the spread of industrial pollution poses a problem in even the remotest parts of the ocean, with unknown consequences.
"Between wind and ocean currents, pollution is taken all around the globe," said Woods, a 29-year-old Greenwich High School graduate. "Whatever ends up in the ocean doesn't necessarily stay there and can travel thousands of miles away."
Ocean Alliance is in the fourth year of a five-year, around-the-world research voyage measuring the levels of synthetic contaminants contained in sperm whales. Ocean Alliance's primary goals are whale conservation and the study of whale health to gauge the overall well being of the ocean. Woods works in the organization's Massachusetts office.
So far, biopsies of about 30 of 1,000 blubber samples gathered throughout the world showed that all contain levels of man-made toxins such as the pesticide DDT, polychlorinate(d) biphenyls (PCBs), which are used in manufacturing, and other contaminants, Woods said.
The results were presented in a paper to the International Whaling Commission in June, he said. The commission is an international coalition of nations that abide by conservation and management guidelines.
After all the samples have been analyzed, a second round of tests will determine the amount of toxins in the blubber, Woods said. That information could be used in future research to determine to what extent toxins are passed through female whales nursing their young.
"We are hoping to shed light on the generational effect," Woods said. "An adult female has a certain toxic load which is going to be passed to her young, which could build up over generations."
The most common chemical identified in sperm whale blubber collected on the trip is DDT, a pesticide banned in the North America in 1972 because of its harmful effect on humans and animals but still manufactured for use in other countries, Woods said.
"It was a surprise to see the prevalence of DDT as opposed to other chemicals," he said.
Nathan Weinrich, executive director and chief scientist of the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester, Mass., said Ocean Alliance's findings are compelling, but the research must be validated by other researchers. The Whale Center studies whales off the coast of Massachusetts. "Nonetheless, the reports they've presented at conferences indicate there is some interesting stuff going on," Weinrich said. "Sperm whales typically live fairly far from shore and it's a little more surprising to find these loads (of chemicals) in the deep-water animals than the coastal animals."
Sperm whales sit atop the food chain. Their long life spans and large fat stores are ideal "bio-indicators" of the health of ocean life, Woods said.
Adult males reach lengths of 60 feet and can weigh 35 to 40 tons. Adult females can reach about 36 feet and weigh 13 to 14 tons.
The whale is named for the spermaceti oil produced inside its head, which was once used to produce candles, perfumes and other products.
"They feed on giant squid, which feed on pelagic fish and so on," Woods said. "Whatever pollutants are consumed go right up the food chain and they are the final sink for pollutants."
Ocean Alliance takes samples by shooting a hypodermic projectile into the side of a whale and extracting a piece of blubber the size of a pencil eraser, Woods said. In addition to sampling whale blubber, Ocean Alliance is using sonar and acoustic equipment to estimate the total whale population in the world's oceans and plot whales' migration patterns globally.
As development director, Woods approaches corporate donors and high-tech firms for sponsorship or to donate sophisticated equipment the organization could not afford.
"Fund-raising is going well," Woods said. "This is the first global study of sperm whale behaviour and a lot of people are realizing that this voyage is collecting very valuable scientific information."
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