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'World's weirdest whale' swims in Gulf of Mexico, may need endangered species protection

About 50 adult Bryde's whales (pronounced "BRI-duss") live in the Gulf of Mexico, where they are sometimes hit by ships. That population, which is distinct from the populations of other Bryde hales around the world, could be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act according to a new federal proposal. One British newspaper dubbed Bryde's whales "the world's weirdest whale." [Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
About 50 adult Bryde's whales (pronounced "BRI-duss") live in the Gulf of Mexico, where they are sometimes hit by ships. That population, which is distinct from the populations of other Bryde hales around the world, could be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act according to a new federal proposal. One British newspaper dubbed Bryde's whales "the world's weirdest whale." [Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
Published Dec. 9, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — A lot of unusual things live in the Gulf of Mexico: hatchetfish that glow in the dark; pancake batfish that look as flat as the food they're named for; vampire squid that, when challenged, can turn themselves inside out.

Now one of the gulf's unusual inhabitants has been singled out for possible federal protection. How unusual is this denizen? A British newspaper dubbed it "the world's weirdest whale."

St. Petersburg's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office announced Thursday that it is considering listing the tiny group of very large Bryde's whales that live in the gulf as an endangered species. They are asking the public to comment on the proposal.

Bryde's — pronounced "BROO-duss" — 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."

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.

Bryde's whales have no teeth. They are baleen whales, meaning they filter their food through the hairy strands of baleen in their mouths. The ones in the Gulf of Mexico are the only baleen whales that live there. They feed on krill, sardines and other small schooling fish.

Because they spend a lot of their time swimming at depths of 300 to 400 feet in the Gulf of Mexico scooping up their meals, "it's kind of a special thing to see one," said Laura Engleby, the NOAA southeastern region office's marine mammal branch chief. "It's not something that's common at all."

Biologists say Bryde's whales behave erratically compared to other baleen whales. They surface to breathe at irregular intervals and can abruptly change directions when chasing food.

Although whalers pursued them through the gulf centuries ago, the first scientific survey to identify them was in 1991. They appear to live in a very narrow corridor of the gulf that stretches from Pensacola to just south of the Tampa Bay area, but most everything else about them is a mystery.

In 2014, an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, petitioned the federal agency to add the gulf's Bryde's whales to the endangered species list. After an extensive scientific review, the agency's scientists agreed that they deserve protection.

The genetics of the Bryde's whales in the Gulf of Mexico show they are different from the rest of the world's Bryde's whales, the scientists concluded. They "represent a unique evolutionary lineage," the official report said.

No more than 50 adults live in the gulf, which scientists called "a dangerously small population." They all agreed that "this group is at or below the near-extinction population level," and thus deserving of federal protection.

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"We don't know why they're such a small number," Engleby said.

However, the scientists do know that one of the threats they face is from being hit by ships while they're surfacing to breathe. In 2009, a dead 41-foot female Bryde's whale was found floating in Tampa Bay 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.

Other threats include oil drilling in the gulf. Based on the damage done to another species of marine mammals living the gulf, bottlenose dolphins, Engleby said 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.

Right now, the section of the gulf where they live is off-limits to oil drilling through 2028.

While NOAA is asking for the public to comment, the final decision on the endangered species listing — likely to be made sometime next year — is up to the agency, which is under the federal Commerce Department. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated one of his Palm Beach neighbors, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, to become his commerce secretary.

Information from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.