A type of rare whale that lives only in the Gulf of Mexico has now been added to the federal endangered species list, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday.
Among the major threats to its future: offshore oil drilling.
These Bryde's (pronounced Broo-dus) whales are the only baleen whales in the gulf. Biologists don't know a lot about them except there appear to be no more than 50 adults, and they are genetically distinct from other types of Bryde's whales found elsewhere the world.
One scientist, Laura Engleby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters Friday they are "one of the rarest and most endangered whales in the world." She said that a study published in 2014 determined that they are not only different from other Bryde's whales but "might even be a new species."
Whaling ship records show they used to occupy a much broader section of the gulf than they do now, she said. Currently they appear to live in a very narrow corridor of the gulf that stretches from Pensacola to just south of the Tampa Bay area. One step the agency plans to take now is determining whether to classify the area they occupy as "critical habitat," meaning it would be harder to get permits for oil exploration or drilling in that part of the gulf.
Bryde's whales are named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian man who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. The whales have long, slender bodies up to 55 feet long. When they leap from the water they look, in the words of the British newspaper the Daily Mail, "like an enormous eel flying through the air." The paper dubbed them "the world's weirdest whale."
To add to their odd appearance, they have three parallel ridges on the top of their heads and between 40 and 70 throat pleats allowing their mouths to expand like a bellows. Because they are baleen whales, they have no teeth. Instead they filter their food — krill, sardines and other small schooling fish — through the hairy strands of baleen in their mouths.
The first scientific survey to identify the gulf population was in 1991, but despite the years that have passed since then, scientists still know very little about them. They spend a lot of their time swimming at depths of 300 to 400 feet, scooping up their meals, which means it's rare for anyone to see one, much less for scientists to have a chance to study them.
That's why biologists counted it as a lucky break in February when a 38-foot Bryde's whale washed up dead near Everglades National Park.
Biologists spent two days slicing into the 23,000-pound carcass and taking measurements and samples for further study. Then they loaded it onto a flatbed truck and hauled it across the state to Fort De Soto, where the remains were buried near one of the sandy beaches. There it will stay until a crew from the Smithsonian Institution digs up the skeleton and takes it to Washington D.C., where it will be stored as the official "type specimen" representing all of the Bryde's whales from the Gulf of Mexico,
Scientists do know something about the threats that the tiny whale population faces. One is being hit by ships while they're surfacing to breathe. In 2009, a dead 41-foot female Bryde's whale was found floating near Port Tampa Bay. The carcass was towed out to Fort De Soto for a postmortem exam. The wounds made it clear that it had been killed by a ship and carried into port draped across the freighter's bow.
Oil drilling in the gulf is considered a threat in part because of the noise, and in part because of pollution from spills. Based on the damage done to another species of marine mammals living the gulf, bottlenose dolphins, scientists estimated that the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster caused a 17 percent increase in deaths among the gulf's Bryde's whales, a 22 percent increase in failed pregnancies and an 18 percent increase in health problems among the survivors, such as lung disease.
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