Chronicle of a Sperm Whale Death Unsolved

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On June 15 2010, about 77 miles from the Deepwater Horizon accident site, the crew of the NOAA research vessel Pisces came across a dead sperm whale, floating in the water. The whale was rotting, had probably been dead for a few days to a week, was likely a sub-adult, and parts of its carcass had been eaten by sharks.

On that same day, NOAA observers on another vessel at the well site saw five sperm whales, including a juvenile, covered in oil.

Two days later, NOAA issued a press release about the dead whale, announcing that tests would be conducted to determine the cause of death.

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And then … silence.

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Greenpeace decided to dig into the story, and filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. What they received, and released yesterday, was a trove of photographs of the unfortunate whale, and some revealing e-mail exchanges, including the revelation that the crew of the Pisces was instructed not to post or disseminate any pictures they took. There were not any results of the tests that were conducted into the cause of the whale's demise.

To Greenpeace, the episode is indicative of the veil of secrecy that descended upon the Gulf of Mexico in the weeks and months after the Deepwater Horizon accident, as manifested in a response earlier this year to the same FOIA request – for any communication relating to threatened or endangered Gulf species from April 20, 2010 to July 30, 2010. That response revealed previously-unreleased photographs of garbage bag upon garbage bag filled with dead wildlife, including endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles. 

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"The White House was sitting on this stuff for over two years, at the same time they were saying everything was fine, that the oil was gone, and while they were rushing ahead with plans for new drilling in the Gulf, the Arctic, elsewhere," John Hocevar of Greenpeace said at the time. "It's just not okay. This is not an acceptable type of collateral damage."

In response to the release of the sperm whale photos, a NOAA spokesman said that it had not been possible to ascertain the cause of the whale's death due to the severe decomposition of its body. The admonition to the crew of the Pisces not to post any photographs was standard protocol during that period, so that the government could collect information for its investigation and any possible subsequent legal action.

So did Deepwater Horizon oil kill that sperm whale? It seems unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure; but, given that, absent some external factor, sperm whales can frequently live up to 80 years, the presence of a dead sub-adult close to the world's largest ever oil spill strikes some as awfully coincidental.

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As Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies asked rhetorically: "How many times does a whale just die?"

IMAGES: Photos taken June 15, 2010 on board the NOAA vessel Pisces. (Credit: NOAA, obtained by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act)

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