A sperm whale breaches in the Gulf of Mexico. To get a better understanding of the full impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, renowned marine scientist Roger Payne is looking at sperm whales, one of the largest inhabitants of the Gulf and the largest of the toothed whales. Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

By Dennis Pillion
12 July 2013

PENSACOLA, Florida (al.com) – To get a better understanding of the full impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, renowned marine scientist Roger Payne is thinking big. That is to say, he's looking at sperm whales, one of the largest inhabitants of the Gulf and the largest of the toothed whales.

By going to the top of the food chain, Payne and the research team aboard the 93-foot research vessel, the Odyssey, hope to discover the long-term impacts of the spill that loosed 4.9 million barrels of oil and more than 1 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit into the Gulf.

"We're looking at the concentrations of the chemical contaminants that are present in oil and in dispersants," Payne said during a supply stop in Pensacola. "Our principal interest is in sperm whales and the food chain leading up to them."

Payne is focusing on whales, partly because he's been studying them for more than 45 years. Payne first made waves in the field in 1967, when he (along with Scott McVay) discovered and documented the complex arrangements and "songs" of humpback whales. Another reason is that sperm whales sit atop the Gulf food chain, preying on giant squid, sharks, skates and other perceived monsters of the deep.

"Every step of the food chain you get about a 10 times increase in the concentration of a contaminant, so if you're dealing with an animal at the sixth level of the food chain, you get 10 to the sixth power," Payne said. "That's a million times the concentration, so when you get some of these contaminants, even though they're in fantastically low concentrations in the water, when you concentrate them up a million times, you're creating a real hazard in the animal."

Sperm whales have been seen in the Gulf year-round but rarely enter shallow waters, preferring to stay around the continental shelf, where they hunt at depths of 1,500 to 1,800 feet on average. The whale can dive for more than an hour at depths exceeding 3,200 feet.

Like all mammals, the whales must come up for air eventually, and that's when Payne and the crew of the Odyssey spring into action. […]

The study, called Operation Toxic Gulf, is being conducted as a cooperative effort by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Ocean Alliance, the conservation group Payne founded in 1971. The Animal Planet reality TV series "Whale Wars" chronicled a Sea Shepherd crew which used controversial tactics to obstruct what the group called illegal Japanese whaling operations disguised as research excursions near Antarctica.

This is the fourth year of a five-year field study that primarily takes place in July, when the whales are most abundant in the Gulf. Payne said the group has samples from 88 different whales so far and has not begun analyzing the results of the whales they've sampled.

The group hopes to sample 50 more whales this year, and the same next year. Payne said the results will determine whether the group conducts additional tests beyond 2014. Payne said he doesn't know what he expects to find in the samples.

"Most scientific expeditions go out with a hypothesis that they're testing," Payne said. "My hypothesis doesn't exist yet. All I want to know is what happened, what's the data showing.

"I'm perfectly willing to have it show everything's fine. In fact, I'd be thrilled if it showed that, but I'm also willing to deal with the consequences if it's not fine. We just don't know."

One thing Payne does believe is that any notion that the Gulf has recovered from Deepwater Horizon is premature.

"The one thing I feel confident about is it takes a hell of a lot longer than people have thought to have the claim be possibly true that the problem has gone away and that it's no longer affecting Gulf life." [more]

Renowned whale expert studying Deepwater Horizon's effect on Gulf sperm whales


Dr. Roger Payne and the Operation Toxic Gulf crew in Pensacola, Florida. The RV Odyssey is studying effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill by looking at sperm whales, one of the largest inhabitants of the Gulf and the largest of the toothed whales. Photo: IWPO

By Dr. Roger Payne
12 July 2013

We are in 6,000 feet of water, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in lovely weather, watching a muted pastel sunset as we eat dinner on deck around the aft table. Gentle breezes; perfect temperature; soft suffusing sounds of the ocean caressing Odyssey’s hull; engine off, long pauses in the conversation; an occasional fish jumping, perfect solitude. As the day quietly withdraws and the stars slowly appear I see my favorite constellation, Scorpio, riding higher than it ever does at my Vermont home.

An idyllic picture? Hardly. We have company; lots of company—a line of deep ocean oil-drilling platforms the size of stadiums stretches into the distance. They are lit up like multi-story shopping centers. Some are flaring off gas, others are undergoing structural modifications. Scattered among them is a fleet of specialized ships, some huge, designed for specialized jobs such as transporting drill tubes, drilling mud and other supplies. One flare-off is so bright it illuminates our entire neighborhood as if it were a city. It has the same brilliance as the ball of intensely burning coal dust that lies at the heart of every coal-fired power plant. Yet the power from this one is just being thrown away … there’s a more lucrative prize up for grabs, the oil. It's the equivalent of finding a treasure chest full of coins at the bottom of the sea, raising it up, prying it open and throwing the silver ones away in as you stuff the gold ones in your pockets. But as long as you get rich who cares if you add the CO2 from this massive but purposeless flame to global warming.

Yesterday we visited the spot where Deepwater Horizon stood when it exploded on Earth Day, 2010 killing eleven workers. It burned out of control for 36hours and finally sank in a mile of water. Besides the obvious reference to geological strata, the name Deepwater Horizon seems clearly intended to express the corporate view that the future of oil drilling lies in deep ocean and that this rig will carry us across the horizon to that glorious destiny. And indeed Deepwater Horizon did drill the deepest hole in history. It was located about 250 miles from New Orleans and went 35,050 feet below the sea floor (as far down as Mount Everest is up). Shortly thereafter, in 2009, and in spite of having five citations for non-compliance (one for pollution and a safety citation that included the blowout preventer that caused the whole disaster by failing to deploy on Earth Day) the US Minerals Management Service "herald[ed] Deepwater Horizon as an industry model for safety." And as reported in an Associated Press investigation; "its record was so exemplary, according to MMS officials, that the rig was never on inspectors' informal 'watch list' for problem rigs."

So there you have it: the worst environmental disaster in US history took place on a rig whose very name heralds the dawn of a golden tomorrow; and it happened while we were heralding Earth Day; and the vessel that caused it was heralded as an industry “model for safety.” How could any of us feel anything but reassured and hopeful about the glorious future of deep water drilling after such a perfect confluence of positive omens.

I thought that when Deepwater Horizon burned and sank that drilling at its location had stopped. Wrong. Today we circled its replacement, a massive floating structure in almost the same spot as Deepwater Horizon. It has the intentionally unmemorable name of Ensco 8502. (You might think the oil industry would have asked themselves earlier why Boeing gave its planes unmemorable, generic names like the 707, 727, 737, or 747 rather than names you can’t forget like the Lockheed Electra, which suffered a series of highly publicized crashes with total loss of life, and total loss of faith in any plane with such a memorable name as “Electra”).

It turns out that this Deepwater Horizon replacement had a fire onboard in 2010--the year of the BP blowout. The repairs were declared complete just as the oil gusher was finally plugged).

Ensco 8502 is a mammoth, unrelentingly noisy floating home for over 100 workers—the poster child for nightmarish living, a massive factory with all the hominess of a power plant.

While we were circling it they had a lifeboat drill. Over their public address loudspeakers we could hear a disembodied voice giving instructions for workers to assemble by the lifeboats. The humans, dwarfed by both the voice and the vastness of the rig, looked like tiny ants moving among the machinery.

Someone on our boat thought they heard the loudspeaker say: "Hello Odyssey." I suspect that to the eyes behind that disembodied voice of Ensco 8502 we looked like trouble makers--Odyssey was flying the Sea Shepherd Global flag—a send-up of the Jolly Roger.

I suspect that true to form, no one has learned anything and that there are no more genuine safety provisions in place on Ensco 8502 now than there were back in 2010 on Deepwater Horizon, meaning that a sister disaster is standing expectantly in the wings waiting to make her grand entrance.

There are thousands of oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Who knew? Of course the vast majority are in shallow water and are no longer manned. However, it is clear that exactly the same thing that has happened to every other natural resource is happening here to offshore oil. The reserves that are easiest-to-get to and closest to home are tapped first and soon exhausted, whereupon reserves that are harder to get and further away are tapped and exhausted, whereupon the most difficult and inconvenient reserves, the ones that are really far from home and really hard-to-get-at, are tapped and exhausted. But as things get more and more dicey, at some point in this sequence, usually nearer its end, some event of general mayhem is triggered by what is always some banal, unanticipated problem.

And it’s always a surprise!

Who knew?

Surrounded by Rigs

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