When I think of the great filter-feeding whales, I don’t tend to think of the Gulf of Mexico. However, I was recently reminded that the Gulf is home to some of these amazing whales. They are called Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whales, and they are found around the world, but only 33 of them live in the northern Gulf. A recent genetic study by NOAA biologists reveals that this small group of whales may be a completely unique subspecies!
The tan color on this map shows the range of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. The colored areas show the chance of sperm whales utilizing this habitat, with red being the highest.
Not quite a new species, but the population of sperm whales in the Gulf is distinctly different from their relatives. So different that last week, in response to a petition from WildEarth Guardians, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will be taking a closer look at sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico in order to determine if they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sperm whales across the world are already listed as an endangered species, but this new designation will recognize the Gulf population as a distinct group and protect and monitor it separately from the global population.
There are characteristics of sperm whales in the Gulf that may be sufficient to classify them as a distinct group. Gulf sperm whales do not leave the Gulf and are generally smaller and use different vocalizations (probably learned culturally) than other sperm whales. Gulf sperm whales also face Gulf-specific threats such as oil and gas development, high levels of shipping traffic and noise, potential effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and water quality degradation near the mouth of the Mississippi River. As shown on the map above, the area southeast of the Mississippi River Delta is important for sperm whales. The outflow of nutrients from the river, upwelling along the continental slope and eddies from Gulf currents create unique ecological conditions that make this a productive area where sperm whales go to find food and potentially mates.
While on vacation, I came across a crab entangled in a fishing net at a local, beachside restaurant. My time working with crustaceans in science laboratories and in the field gave me the necessary familiarity with their movements and behaviors to handle the animal without hurting it or myself. Armed with this knowledge, I quickly and carefully untangled the piece of fishing net that had wound up tightly on the crab and placed him gently back on the local beach.
Without the proper qualifications, attempting to help a hurt animal in the wild could result in further injury. So what should you do if you encounter an entangled animal at the beach? Continue reading »
The next day, Humboldt County residents anxiously followed a similar story as agencies descended upon Humboldt Bay’s southern peninsula in hopes of saving a juvenile gray whale spotted tangled in ropes from drifting crab pots. The Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and California Department of Fish and Game, along with help from Humboldt State University professors worked together to free the whale. Local whale expert HSU professor Dawn Goley reported success, but feared the injuries incurred may be too much for the young whale’s survival. We’re hoping for a happy ending to this sad story.
Those at sea or on the beach who spot a tangled whale are urged to contact NOAA. And to prevent this sort of harm from happening in the future, I urge everyone to help reduce ocean trash, including fishing gear, to protect all species of whales — and every creature inhabiting the ocean!