Updated 15 July 2014

'Bombing' whales to save them from oil

Using underwater explosives and other deterrents may be the only way to scare the already highly stressed marine mammals away from oil spills.

Proponents of controversial oil pipelines to the Canadian west coast off British Columbia have suggested using underwater explosives, among other methods, to scare whales away from the area in the event of an oil spill, reports The Globe and Mail.

Such methods sound radical, however they may prove to be a lesser evil than contaminating whales with oil.

What oil does to whales

According to the Office of Response and Restoration of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it is not yet clear just how serious a threat oil spills pose to whales, but there is concern that exposure would cause eye and skin irritation and ulceration, and internal problems, such as pneumonia, if ingested or the vapours inhaled.

Research on killer whales conducted over 20 years in Prince William Sound, Alaska, indicates they suffered negative impacts from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in the area, because their numbers have decreased significantly since this disaster.

Numbers of whales and dolphins beaching in North American waters have also increased since 2008; scientists suspect the massive 2010 Horizon Deep oil spill may be an important factor.

Whales also do not seem to instinctively detect and avoid oil in the water; orcas were seen swimming through oil slicks after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Killer whales swimming in Prince William Sound alongside boats skimming oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill (State of Alaska, Dan Lawn).

Killer whales swimming alongside skimmers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Read: Oil junkies

Whale hazing

The whale "bombing" suggested recently to deter whales off the Canadian coast is known as "hazing".

Other hazing methods proposed to drive whales out of contaminated areas include helicopters, ship engines, clanging metal pipes, jets of water directed at the animals from hoses and pre-recorded whale noises.

Such methods are currently the only viable means to protect whales from exposure in the event of a spill.

It is likely, however, that many of these would cause further stress to marine mammals already under onslaught from multiple threats - ship strikes, toxins, plastic debris, whaling, climate change and other noise pollution.

It is scientifically well established that ocean noise has a negative impact on many marine mammals, whales especially.

Whales and other cetaceans use sound for essential communication and prey location, but this ability has been compromised by interference noise from shipping and seismic testing.

Read more:

Safer seismic tests kinder to whales
Whale meat off the menu
Whalers and protesters collide

Office of Response and Restoration, NOAA. How oil spills affect fish and whales.
Tromp, S. 30 June 2014. Pipeline proponents consider explosives in ocean to scare whales. The Globe and Mail.

Image of orca calf: Shutterstock

Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.


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