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Oil spills and sperm whales

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The images from the summer of were undoubtedly gruesome: It was the first confirmed sighting of a dead whale since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April that Oil spills and sperm whales — a time of huge public interest in the fate of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other threatened animals — and yet US government officials supressed the first reports of the discovery and blocked all images until now.

The photographs, along with a cache of emails obtained by the campaign group Greenpeace under freedom of information provisions and made available to the Guardian, offer a rare glimpse into how many whales came into close contact with the gushing BP well during the oil spill.

There are approximately 1, sperm...

They also show Obama administration officials tightly controlling information about whales and other wildlife caught up in the disaster. The plight of wildlife caught up in the oil spill — especially endangered species such as sea turtles and sperm whales — has enormous financial implications for BP. But BP still faces claims from the federal government for environmental damagesand accounting for wildlife killed as a direct result of the spill — from dolphins to turtles to whales — will be critical to the final bill.

That looming legal struggle was apparently already on the minds of officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA when crew aboard the research vessel, Oil spills and sperm whalesspotted a dead sperm whale on the morning of 15 June The discovery was the first confirmed sighting of a dead whale since the blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon that April.

The carcass, which was decomposed and had been fed on by sharks, was spotted about 77 miles south of the Deepwater Horizon oil site.

the impact of the Deepwater...

Meanwhile, NOAA observers on another vessel at the well site that same day spotted five whales, including a juvenile, covered in oil. The detection report goes on to describe a large plume of smoke rising from the water, from the controlled burns used to stop the oil from reaching the shoreline.

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There is no further indication in the email about what happened to the group of whales — or indeed any of the whales that may have been exposed to BP oil. In any event, the government would not Oil spills and sperm whales how many — if any — whales might have died or been directly affected by the BP oil spill because of legal reasons, he said.

A dead sperm whale in...

In contrast, the discovery of the decomposed carcass set off a flurry of emails — with repeated instructions from NOAA officials to crew aboard the Pisces not to release information or photographs. The crew were also directed to obtain samples from the whale to try to determine if it was killed as a result of the spill, and to mark the corpse.

The gag order rankled with some aboard the Pisces, as an 16 June email from the ship's commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Adams suggests.

Twenty-four hours after the sighting he had heard, through the wife of another officer, of a crew member "posting something on their Facebook page to the effect that they saw a 'dead critter' yesterday but are being censored by NOAA from saying anything Oil spills and sperm whales … followed by a lot of indignant comments from others.

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NOAA did put out a press release about the dead whale. However, the release was edited and shortened in a way which appeared to minimise the effects of oil on whales.

Although sperm whales occupy most...

That information may never surface. There were believed to be about 1, sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico at the time of the spill, making it one of the biggest populations in the world. However, scientists concede little is known about how whales respond to oil spills — even in an area as heavily mined as the Gulf of Mexico.

Few whales strand on land, and it is practically impossible to carry out necropsies at sea. NOAA scientists, working with Oregon State University, have been tracking a number of sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico through satellite transmitters since the spill.


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