Scientists detected a strange effect on the stress hormones of North Atlantic right whales in the aftermath of 9/11. Ships are abundant in our oceans, yet there was a huge slowdown in traffic throughout the North Atlantic eastern seaboard immediately after the planes flew into the twin buildings, lowering undersea noise. While the rest of the world was in turmoil, our underwater neighbors were thriving.
So frequently, we think of whaling’s golden period as having passed us by. Whaling ships from Japan and Iceland are now considered pariahs by the world community. But, all too often, out of sight, out of mind, and it’s all too easy to overlook the influence of our above-ground behaviors on marine life. Whales, on the other hand, are compelling us to pay attention because they are beaching on our coasts in greater numbers than ever before.
Whales have always beached along UK coastlines, but this recent spike in whale deaths is unnatural, which is why we decided to shadow marine stranding investigators (the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme in Scotland and the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme in England and Wales) for Channel 4 as they investigated the rise in whale strandings on our island – think CSI but for cetaceans.
When whales, especially huge ones, beach, they are quite likely to do so again. Their bodies are intended to function in water, but their sheer size crushes their insides on land, causing them to boil alive. That’s why British Divers Marine Life Rescue is in a desperate hurry to get beached whales back into the water before their ailments get too severe and they ultimately beach again.
That’s how I ended up standing next to a dead sei whale at the foot of Scotland’s most renowned man-made landmark, the Forth Bridge. The whale had beached just a day before, and we had attempted to reach it at the time, but the team had refloated it just as we arrived. We had thought it would survive its first beaching, but the rare animal – the world’s third largest whale species — washed up dead this time.
One of the reasons I went into television was a visceral understanding of the power of an image. And this was a self-evident vision. A gorgeous giant of a beast finds its ultimate resting place amid the shadows of civilisation.
As a palaeoanthropologist, I’m used to seeing dead things, but the ones I deal with are long dead – bones, not flesh. When you see flesh, it gives you a sense of immediacy. That day, I was supposed to give a presentation to the camera, but I couldn’t find the energy. I was absolutely defeated by the sight.
The “save the whale” campaign is a cause that many of us believe in. However, the actual steps we must take to get there — whether it’s reducing climate change, reducing ship collisions, reducing noise, or reducing sonar – sometimes puzzle us. Those last several may appear complicated at first glance, as if they will have a huge impact on our way of life (which they will not), and dealing with the first one has us debating on a global scale. But what about chemical pollution, which is a very serious problem for us?
When it comes to our interactions with chemical toxins, we must remember that whales are the canary in the coalmine. Too many “permanently attached substances,” or PFAS, remain in nature, receiving their name from their inability to disintegrate. PCBs are an example of a toxin that, although being banned 40 years ago, is still killing killer whales in our oceans. The long-term damage is so severe that researchers believe it is to blame for the decline in birthrate found in our sole resident UK killer whale pod, the “West Coast Community,” which hasn’t had a calf in 25 years.
Legacy chemicals are a gift that keeps on giving, and by the time we figure out what they do to the environment, wildlife, and our health, they’re already in the system, so we can’t afford to wait. That’s why our failure to address plastic pollution frustrates me so much: it’s everywhere, from salt to human lungs. In preliminary research, plastics have been connected to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and male infertility.
Expecting more monitoring and investigation from our leaders is in our best interests. Thirty non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have written to the government urging that PFAS be banned from non-essential applications. When only some of these substances are banned, manufacturers simply switch to others with only minor chemical differences.
The EU appears to be on the right track, and as one of the world’s most important island nations, it is imperative that we not only follow in their footsteps, but also take the lead in this fight. So, if you care about whales (and your health), email your Member of Parliament and request that they support this cause.
Stop asking, “What killed the whale?” and start looking in the mirror for solutions.
This article by Ella Al-Shamahi was first published by The Guardian on 11 June 2022. Lead Image: A sperm whale stranded on Pegwell Bay, Kent, in September 2019. Photograph: ZSL/UK CSIP/PA.
What you can do
Support ‘Fighting for Wildlife’ by donating as little as $1 – It only takes a minute. Thank you.
Fighting for Wildlife supports approved wildlife conservation organizations, which spend at least 80 percent of the money they raise on actual fieldwork, rather than administration and fundraising. When making a donation you can designate for which type of initiative it should be used – wildlife, oceans, forests or climate.