Biopsies! Why?

A Special Guest Post by Ocean Alliance President and Founder Dr. Roger Payne:
Between 2000 and 2005 Ocean Alliance ran The Voyage of the Odyssey, a research expedition that circumnavigaged the globe measuring background levels in sperm whales of a series of contaminants. We came back with over 900 samples from sperm whales which we had analyzed for a suite of contaminants. The worst offending molecules turned out to be toxic metals—not just mercury and lead but Chromium, Aluminum, Silver and several other highly toxic metals.
sperm whales off bowWhen I first gave Ocean Alliance the task of circumnavigating the globe for this study I realized there was nothing I would less rather do than drive around the world taking biopsies from sperm whales. However, I also knew that the main problem all whale species now face is having to deal with the contaminants humans are dumping into the environment. Considering Sea Shepherd’s unmatched success in bringing the plight of whales to the world’s attention I felt there could be no more-effective organization in getting the message out about the deadly but elusively obscure problem of ocean contamination.
A principle goal in Operation Toxic Gulf is finding out how badly Gulf of Mexico sperm whales are being contaminated with the chemicals from the Macondo Oil blowout and the ‘dispersant’ Corexit, that BP used to sink the oil out of sight.
The name Corexit (an obvious contraction of the words ‘corrects it’) leaves the misleading impression that if you treat crude oil with it you can correct the problem posed by the oil. However, it is now known that Corexit actually inhibits the microbial degredation in the crude oil hydrocarbons and allows the formation of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). They, in turn exhibit consistently higher toxicity levels than those defined by NIH and OSHA as constituting carcinogenic exposure.
Sperm whale in Gulf of Mexico 2014In order to determine how the chemicals in the Corexit and the Macondo oil are spreading through the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem we need to measure their concentrations in one of that ecosystem’s apex predators. We chose sperm whales because these whales, like humans, live on fish and squid that it is safe to conclude probably contain higher concentrations than are found in the environment of the chemicals that animals cannot get rid of. The reason they cannot do so is because such chemical cocktails never existed before humans created them, and not enough time has gone by yet for animals and plants to evolve a means of breaking them down into their harmless components. The animals’ only option is to store such chemicals, and as a result the poisons simply get passed from prey to predator and on to the next predator who eats that predator, and so on up the food chain, gaining in concentration by about ten times within each new predator in the chain.
As a result we can expect to observe a gradual accumulation of toxic chemicals in the tissues of top predators like sperm whales and, of course, ourselves. We can also anticipate that although they may cause devastating effects, such accumulations probably take several years to reach levels that will cause unequivocally recognizable symptoms.
Biopsy sample on RV Odyssey - Photo by Chris JohnsonTo study this problem there is no way to avoid the need for small samples of sperm whale tissues that can be analyzed for the crude oil and Corexit chemicals they contain. Ocean Alliance uses a biopsying technique that employs a hollow-point dart propelled from a small crossbow to collect a tiny plug of tissue about the size of a kitchen match—a dot of skin attached to a tiny strip of blubber. Everyone’s studies show that the spectrum of the whales’ reactions goes from no visible response to obvious flinches. However, even the flinchers seem to be minimally disturbed; for it turns out to be as easy to approach them a second time as it was a few minutes earlier when you biopsied them. The way you can be sure of seeing a strong flinch is when a dart misses a whale in calm weather—the sound of the dart striking the water invariably causes an obvious startle reaction.
Sperm whales in Gulf of Mexico 2013When we decided to try biopsying sperm whales I was all but certain we would see such strong reactions from them that we would soon have to abandon the technique. It took me a long time to accept the evidence of how hard it is to generate a response in a whale that lasts for more than seconds. It is not surprising given their size. I long ago wrote: “Although small creatures lead frantic lives, with increasing size comes increasing tranquility. When a passing ant sets its foot in a drop of water the amoebas in the drop experience raging tidal waves, while to the ant the footsteps of a mouse on the roof of its galleries must rattle all the cupboards and shake the pupae off the walls. But if you were a whale, all but the grandest things would pass beneath your notice. As the largest animal that has ever lived you could afford to be gentle, and to view life without fear. It is this sense of tranquility, of life without urgency, power without aggression, that first won my heart to whales.”
My wife is a diabetic; she has to self-inject insulin four times a day and has to prick her finger each time for a drop of blood (to measure her bloodsugar concentration). Although she uses the smallest hypodermic needle its diameter in relation to her body size is twice the diameter of our biopsy darts in relation to a sperm whale’s body size.
Even so, I wish we had a different technique to pursue our research.
Sperm whale in Gulf of MexicoSperm whales constantly leave small bits of sloughed skin behind as they swim. Several groups including Ocean Alliance have found this skin easy to collect. However, doing so is not entirely benign since skin sinks fast; to collect it you must approach a whale fast and get close enough to put snorklers or scuba divers into the water. Because they are wearing flippers and carrying dip nets (to collect a sample) I suspect that to the whale they may represent a greater intrusion than a biopsy dart.
Although everyone in both of our organizations would greatly prefer to base our research on sloughed skin, it is not in skin but in blubber that the worst chemicals accumulate. We could collect feces but they will tell us what the whale is discarding, and what we want to know is what it is retaining. This means that both of our organizations have had to accept the fact that we have no way to avoid the need to collect small blubber samples from these whales.
But why collect anything at all? Why not just leave the poor whales alone?
Iain Kerr, Paul Watson and Roger PayneIn order to ply their destructive trades, all despoilers depend on the inattention of you and me. It is because the wider world was unaware of how devastating the whaling industry is that whalers were able to do their damage. Whaling was only knocked back by bringing its matchless brutality to the full attention of the world. Leaving the whales alone was what made it possible for whalers to ply their trade and commit their devastation without interference. The reason Sea Shepherd had to come to the aid of whales is because whale hunting was taking place out of sight and out of mind.
Because it is global, pollution is now an even greater threat to whales than whaling; it affects all whales, not just the biggest, most profitable species. We need to find out what pollution is really doing to whales, and once we know, to bring it to the attention of the world. Ocean Alliance can determine the extent of the problem; Sea Shepherd can get the word out with unequalled efficiency and effect.
So the bottom line here is that all of us on this expedition hope that you will understand and forgive the fact that unless we incorporate biopsying in this phase of our activities we cannot expose the true effect of what BP has done to ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore can not help to ensure that the same destruction doesn’t simply happen the next time.

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