Whales Could Be Harmed by Oil-Search Noises, Report Says

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
June 20, 2006

Whales could be harmed by seismic pulses used for underwater oil exploration, according to a report unanimously endorsed yesterday by the International Whaling Commission.

The report says that the noise from undersea airgun bursts could affect whale migration and mating, and might even be one of the reasons why humpback whales sometimes become stranded in shallow water.

Offshore oil exploration involves the repeated firing of large underwater airguns to create seismic pulses. These pulses are used for sonar-like mapping of rock layers beneath the seabed.

Environmentalists, many of whom are at odds with the commission's recent majority vote to lift a ban on commercial whaling, were pleased with the organization's reaction to the report.

"This has significant implications for reforming the way the oil and gas industries explore in our world's oceans," Joel Reynolds, a lawyer with the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Associated Press.

"Impacts on marine mammals can no longer be ignored," Reynolds said. The report recommends that the effects of airguns on marine life be studied further.

Bruce Tackett, a spokesperson for ExxonMobil Biomedical Sciences, told AP that his company wasn't aware of any harm done to marine life due to their exploration efforts and has started researching the issue.

Whale Tags

The report complements results announced last month from a whale study funded by government and industry.

That research involved outfitting eight sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico (map of Mexico) with devices called dive tags that were attached to the whales' backs with suction cups.

Put in place with a long pole, the tags remain in position for several hours until they fall off and float to the surface, where they can be retrieved.

The tags record the depth and angle of the whales' dives along with all the sounds the animals hear or produce.

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