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This article is from the In-Depth Report BP's Gulf Oil Spill: 1 Year Later
60-Second Earth

Will the Oil Spill Kill Sperm Whales?

A group of endangered sperm whales live in the vicinity of the oil spill--and now one of them has turned up dead. David Biello reports

The NOAA ship Pisces discovered a dead sperm whale on June 15—a possible victim of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  

There are at least 1,600 such sperm whales in the Gulf, according to marine biologist Thomas Shirley of Texas A&M University. Minus one.  

The irony is that sperm whales can thank oil for their species's survival. Kerosene refined from such petroleum helped displace the whale oil that lit lamps in the 19th century and led to the near extinction of many whale species.  

Saving the whales has proven a benefit to the marine environment, including helping storage of the greenhouse gases produced by burning oil that are changing the global climate. Sperm whale poop helps fertilize algae, which in turn suck up carbon dioxide via photosynthesis.  

Samples from the dead whale (pdf) will ultimately tell what killed this denizen of the deep. Those won't be handed off for testing until July 2 when the Pisces returns to port. And the tests take weeks.  

Regardless, it is known that such sperm whales feed on deepwater squid that may be impacted by plumes of dispersed oil . The endangered whales have also been spotted surfacing into the slick. How the millions of liters of oil will impact sperm whales and other cetaceans is an ongoing, unintentional science experiment. 

—David Biello

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