Gulf of Mexico

In April 2010, approximately 210 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico by a malfunction at the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig. In response, over 2 million gallons of oil dispersant was released, in unprecedented quantities and untested ways, in an effort to break up and sink the oil.

In July 2010, Ocean Alliance, in partnership with the University of Southern Maine’s Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology, took the RV Odyssey into the Gulf to measure contaminant levels in the population of some 1,600 sperm whales living in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. As apex predators, sperm whales act as bio indicators of the health of the marine ecosystem in a toxicological context. The research conducted on board also involved sampling organisms from the food pyramids that support sperm whales and measuring contaminant concentrations in fish species consumed by humans.

The toxicological work being conducted by Ocean Alliance and their partners at the Wise Laboratory, which continues to this day, is primarily aimed at determining the chronic, long-term impact of the incident—in particular the genotoxic impacts of oil (and compounds found in oil) and dispersants as they work their way up the trophic food chain. The long-term effects are believed by many to be far more significant than the short-term effects, a belief corroborated by ongoing research in the Gulf of Mexico and the fact that the impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill (which occurred in 1985 in Prince William Sound, Alaska) are still being studied over 25 years after the initial accident.

Preliminary analysis of the samples collected in the Gulf has shown potentially damaging levels of genotoxic metals, including chromium and nickel, in sperm whales living in the area — significantly higher levels than the global average. Furthermore, it has shown a correlation between proximity to the spill and levels of these genotoxic metals.

Ocean Alliance conducted this study for five years, during each summer from 2010 to 2014. For the final two years, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society joined Ocean Alliance as part of a program labelled Operation Toxic Gulf. Data collected during the expedition has provided scientists, policymakers, the general public, and stakeholders who rely on the Gulf with a better informed basis from which to proceed with efforts to mitigate the consequences of the oil spill.

Ocean Alliance in the Gulf Ocean Alliance - Gulf of MexicoOcean Alliance - Gulf of Mexico


On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded resulting in an uncontrolled release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Superimposed on the threat of the oil, is the nearly two million gallons of toxic chemical dispersants that British Petroleum (BP) released into the Gulf to try and break up the oil. These chemicals have been used in unprecedented amounts and in untested ways.

Threats to Marine Mammals

One major concern is the impact of this crisis on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. Marine mammals are a particular concern because they serve as sentinels for human health and because they are key species for both the ocean ecosystem and coastal economies. Marine mammals are at risk in this crisis.

Sperm Whales at Risk

For example, there is a resident population of about 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. This population is endangered, as all sperm whales are, but this population is considered to be at particular risk because the size of the group is so small. Losing even a few whales will have dramatic population effects because individual whales take a long time to reach sexual maturity and then only produce a few calves over their lifetimes. The Gulf Oil spill is a specific threat to these sperm whales, because they occupy deeper waters and thus are much closer to the greatest amount of oil. Moreover, studies show that prior to the explosion, many sperm whales spent a lot of time near the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. In fact, a dead sperm whale has recently been discovered near the oil spill though the cause of death has not yet been reported.

Oil can have immediate and long term impacts on whales and other marine mammals. Marine mammals breathe air and, thus, if they surface to breathe in an oil slick, they can inhale the oil resulting in respiratory issues. Even if they do not surface within the slick itself, they may inhale sufficient amounts of the strong fumes emanating from the slick that can render them unconscious and cause them to drown. Oil can contaminate their food, and if they eat it, they can experience digestive disorders and immune system effects. Oil can also have long term effects such as damaging their DNA. If this occurs, it can impair the whales’ ability to reproduce, thus, reducing the number of calves born. The impacts of oil on whale populations were seen after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That oil decimated the killer whale population, reducing it by 40%. Experts predict that this population will ultimately go extinct.

The effects of dispersants on whales are unknown and have not been studied. They have also never been released into the environment in such massive quantities.

Toxicology is the study of how chemicals (like oil and chemical dispersants) poison people, plants and animals. Currently, there are no focused toxicology efforts to assess the impact of the oil crisis in the Gulf on whales and no efforts to conduct a similar study in Atlantic whales now before the oil arrives. Moreover, no government rapid response funds for university researchers have been allocated for toxicology studies.
In fact, remarkably, many of the programs specifically exclude using these funds for toxicology studies. It is essential that we conduct whale toxicology studies in both the Atlantic Ocean (before the oil arrives and then again after it does) and in the Gulf of Mexico in both oiled and non-oiled areas. It will be up to us, the people, to fund these studies.

Ocean Alliance and the University of Southern Maine (USM) are uniquely postioned to address this need, working as partners from aboard Odyssey, Ocean Alliance’s 93-foot sailboat uniquely outfitted to track, sample and study whales. In addition, USM and Ocean Alliance are joined by the University of New England (UNE) and its capacity to analyze samples for contaminants, Oregon State University (OSU) and its expertise in whale genetics, University of St Andrews (StA) and its expertise in identifying specific individual Gulf sperm whales and whale acoustics, and Orono Spectral Solutions (OSS) and its novel technology to measure oil in water. This team will conduct a whale toxicology study with an additional health assessment on four whale species known to be in the Gulf of Mexico: Sperm whales, killer whales, Bryde’s whales and humpback whales. The health assessment will be conducted as follows:

* Measurement of petroleum products and chemical dispersants in whale blubber (USM and UNE)

* Measurement of metals in whale skin (USM and UNE) * Measurement of petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals in whale feces (USM and UNE) * Measurement of DNA damage and cell viability from whale skin cultures (USM)

* Determination of genetic stock (and thus where the whales live) from whale skin samples (USM and OSU)

* Measurement of petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals in whale food chain (squid and fish for toothed whale; krill for baleen whales) (USM and UNE)

* Measurement of petroleum products, chemical dispersants and metals in environmental media where whales occur (i.e. air for inhalation and water for skin exposure) (USM, UNE and OSS)

* Dosing of cultured whale cells in the laboratory with chemical dispersants used in the Gulf to assess their toxic effects on DNA (USM)


* Use of acoustic array to count and detect whales (USM, OA and StA)

* Visual inspection, photo documentation and individual identification of all whales spotted (USM, OA and StA)

Cell culture experiments in the lab to test toxicity of chemical dispersants will be done using standard protocols currently in use at USM. Cells will be seeded in tissue culture dishes and allowed to rest and reenter the cell cycle. Cells will then be dosed with a range of concentrations of the chemical dispersants and assays to gauge cell survival and chromosome damage will be done. Tests will be done using human, whale, and fish cells.

These data will connect with our previous 5-year Voyage data in sperm whales that established a global baseline for some pollutants and genetic assessment of stocks to give us a broader understanding on the impact on whales.

Ocean Alliance and the University of Southern Maine, leaders in their respective fields, are strongly positioned and strategically networked to conduct vital short- and long-term research on the Gulf of Mexico, measure the potential effects of the BP disaster, and create a valuable baseline for future studies while providing the public with a scientific, unbiased account of the expedition.