Oil in The Water: A Report on How the Gulf Oil Spill Is Affecting Cetaceans, Sea Turtles, and Birds


It could be years before anyone knows the full impact of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

On April 20th, 2010, The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed about 11 oil workers and caused the entire rig to sink into the Gulf about two days later. As a result, more than 206 million gallons of oil spilled into the gulf waters which would go on to affect more than 9,436 marine animals (NOAA, 2011). The animal victims were birds, cetaceans, and sea turtles and many of these animals are either endangered, or threatened. However, while most of the animals that were recovered from the oil spill were rescued and rehabilitated, others sadly, were not so lucky. In fact, the large majority of these oil spill victims have either died or have never been found. While studies are currently being done by wildlife officials to learn about the effects the Gulf oil spill is having on wildlife, it may be more than 20 years before we would learn about the full effects on wild marine animals and their habitats. This recent oil spill in the gulf coast has been taking it’s toll on wildlife, including dolphins, turtles, and birds, on a long-term scale.

Of the nine dolphin rescues that have taken placed during the oil spill, only one dolphin, a juvenile male dolphin named Louie was successfully rehabilitated. (Photo by Zimbo.com)

During the oil spill, which lasted for six months, about 100 cetaceans were collected from oil spill inflicted areas (NWF, 2011). Cetaceans like bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, have no fur which can be oiled and since they have blubber to help them prevent internal heat loss, they do no need fur for that purpose (NOAA, 2010); this means that cetaceans can not develop hypothermia like seals and sea otters can when in contact with oil. Still, oil could harm then in many ways. For example, when dolphins surfaced to take a breath of air, the oily waters can get into their blowholes before entering their lungs which can then, make breathing very difficult for them (New England Aquarium, 2010). To make matters worse, oil has been known to cause vision damage, since the oil can get into eyes of cetaceans. Oil can make it harder for whales and dolphins to catch and digest their food. For the large baleen whales, like the Bryde’s whale, oil can harm the baleen they depend on for filter feeding, thereby, deceasing their ability to feed, which could then, lead to starvation (NOAA, 2010). Overall, oil has been known to cause intestinal damage to cetaceans and even effect whale and dolphin health on a long term scale. As of January 2011, It has now been reported that bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico may now be experiencing reproduction failure as a result of this spill. This is because researchers had been discovering the bodies of dead dolphin calves, many of which were stillborn, premature, or have died shortly after birth (National Geographic, 2011). The spill has seen at least nine live dolphin rescues that have occurred throughout the Gulf region (NOAA, 2011). However, of those rescues, only one dolphin, a juvenile male bottlenose dolphin named Louie, was successfully rehabilitated and was later transferred to the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, FL in February 2011 (Segal, 2011). However, while the oil spill did have a lot of impact on most dolphin habitats throughout the Gulf Coast, one population of bottlenose dolphins in Orange Beach, Alabama was determined to have been not affect by the Gulf oil spill (NOAA, 2010). Currently, research is being done by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) to determine the oil spill’s effect on a population of endangered sperm whales in the Gulf Coast for, many cetacean experts had pointed out in the past that the deaths of three whales would push this particular population into extinction, just like the effects of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez oil spill did with a resident killer whale population in the 1990’s and 2000’s (Than, 2010).

After being rescued, oil-covered sea turtles were bathed using dish water soap to remove the oil off their skin (photo by NEAQ).

Sea turtles have inhabited the Gulf of Mexico for more about 100 million years. Five species of sea turtle, the green, Kemp’s Ridley, loggerhead, hawks-bill and leatherback sea turtles can all be found in Gulf coast waters and they were all put at a great risk by the BP oil spill (National Wildlife Federation, 2011). Many sea turtles nest on Gulf Coast beaches that range from Mexico, to Florida. Because oil can damage turtle nests, wildlife volunteers in Alabama developed new ways to monitor turtle nests in beaches where the oil did not hit. The new methods included cleaning up any oil tar that may have washed up these beaches while conducting nighttime surveys along side clean-up crews; this criteria would start at nighttime, for, this was the time between April and October when female sea turtles came to these Alabama beaches to lay their eggs (Alabama Sea Turtles.com). However, the hatching season began to approach, there was a lot of public concern about newly hatched turtles entering the oil covered waters of the Gulf. If the hatch lings were to emerge on oiled-covered beaches, they can suffer from surface exposure, due to short-term exposure to oil tar that would cover the beaches where they hatched as they make it to the water (National Wildlife Federation, 2011). Just to make matters worse, when these turtle hatchlings do make it into water, it would be no safe haven either. Out in the ocean, young turtles rely on seaweed to serve as a shelter that both protect them from predators, and simply, to rest. However, when the seaweed that the young animals rely on as a main habitat got covered in oil, the hatchlings were to doomed to their deaths, because once seaweed is covered in oil, it suffocates and becomes deprived of sunlight. Therefore, the hatchlings, had no protection what so ever. So, in response to public concern about the oil affecting turtle hatchlings and nests, biologists throughout the country began to relocate more than 275 sea turtles nests from the Gulf coast to beaches near the Kennedy Space Center in hopes to prevent a high hatchling mortality rate (Lelis, 2010). By the end of the 2010 summer season, sea turtle biologists estimated about over 15,000 sea turtle hatchlings made it to safe waters of Florida’s Atlantic coast (National Geographic, 2011). Meanwhile, oil can also cause turtles to become both sick and injured. For example, turtles can develop fatal respiratory problems, like pneumonia and cause breathing difficulties when the animals breathe the deadly vapors (New England Aquarium, 2011). When the turtles were first rescued, they were mainly covered in oil, which can also, cause their skin to come off as a result of burning. So, to de-oil the animals, rescuers used dish washing soap to clean the oil off the animal and the process lasted for up to hour. In fact, NOAA statistics show us that about 575 sea turtles were rescued and rehabilitated by biologists and zoo professionals throughout the Gulf coast while 397 of these animals were released by into the wild (NOAA, 2011).

Not only did birds become sick and injured from being covered in oil, their habitats were affected by this disaster as well.

Of all the animals that have been victimized by the 2010 Gulf coast oil spill, birds were the most common victims of this environmental disaster. About 8,183 of the animal victims of the Gulf oil spill were aquatic birds that rely on marshlands and beaches as critical nesting and feeding grounds (NOAA, 2011). The oil causes their feathers to both, mat and separate in which, it could cause them to lose both, buoyancy and the ability to regulate their body temperature. The birds need to keep their feathers peen, then, they would be able to keep themselves warm, keep parasites off their feathers, stay dry, and ensure that the feathers remain in good shape (National Wildlife Federation, 2011). As a result the oil-covered survivors are captured and taken into wildlife rehabilitation facilities where they would be rehabilitated. The rescue efforts were very successful that, In total, about 1,246 sea birds were successfully released back into the wild throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle (International Bird Rescue). Yet, despite the successful rescue efforts, the oil spill did a large amount of damage to hundreds of seabird nesting grounds throughout the Louisiana coastline. Once the oil hit those nesting grounds, not only were the nests now contaminated with oil, the eggs got covered in the oil as well. This meant that when the birds were trying to escape the incoming oil, they were also deserting their nests and leave their now too soft, and too thin eggs behind (New England Aquarium, 2010). Experts who have studied bird colonies in Raccoon Island, Louisiana had admitted to not planning to rescue the nesting birds because they feared that they could have disrupted entire colonies like causing adults to kill their chicks and abandoning their nests (Brown, 2010). In the spring of 2011, bird experts from the National Audubon Society reported that some nesting colonies of endangered brown pelicans returned to their oil-inflicted nests; yet, they have insisted that it could be many years before the extend damage of their food supply is known (National Geographic, 2011). The most tragic sight that beach goers have been seeing lately is the sight of small shorebirds that are now feeding on oil tar along with their prey while at the same time, get their tiny feet and feathers covered with oil and bringing the tar back to their at-risk nests.

Unless efforts are made to stop offshore drilling in the Gulf Coast, The Future of the Gulf of Mexico's marine ecosystem remains uncertain. (photo by National Geographic)

While the total impact of the Gulf oil spill may not be known for many years, the effect that it had on wildlife in the past year is shocking. In the past year since the oil spill first happened, dolphins faced a huge unusual mortality rate, sea turtle eggs put at risk of never hatching because of the oil covered the nests while researchers worked to relocate the surviving nests to the Atlantic coast, and birds, victims of being oil-covered now have to live with nesting in contaminated nesting grounds and suffer a high chick mortality rate. It’s safe to conclude that the oil spill is right now having and having a lot of negative effects on animals native the Gulf coast. For example, most species of dolphins are not endangered, but counting all the dolphin deaths that have occurred since the oil spill is troubling because once a dolphin dies, it’s body sinks to the bottom of the sea; so, it’s hard to get a full count of how many more dolphins died than what the NOAA statistics report (Animal Planet, 2011). So while full surveys on post-oil spill animal moralities will take twenty years or so to complete, it’s safe to say that oil spills can be prevented. First, It has been recommended that oil engineers should always check for any leaks that might be suspicious while being cautious at the same time when both fueling and de-fueling because oil spills often happen because of employee carelessness (ask.com, 2010). As for if a person comes across a stranded animal, alive or dead, NOAA recommends for everyone to call their stranding hotline to report a sick, distressed, orphaned, dead, or injured animal. That way, the networks can respond to this stranding quickly and determine how and why the animals strand. That way, everyone would be doing their part in preventing oil spills and keeping the oceans oil free. Overall, the number one thing to do to ensure that no oil spill would ever happen is educating the public. Through education weather if it’s at a marine life facility, or on a eco-tour boat, educating the public about the effects that oil spills can have on animals is on thing that would ensure both a change in attitude towards wildlife and develop a new awareness about how oil spills can affect wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

Only education and a change in attitude towards the Gulf Coast along with long term research will eventually preserve the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico.

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2 thoughts on “Oil in The Water: A Report on How the Gulf Oil Spill Is Affecting Cetaceans, Sea Turtles, and Birds

  1. The oil is still leaking (we have video footage and still shots to prove it). It’s still here (we are collecting tar balls, tar logs and oil from our beaches daily…still…sigh). Please use present tense when making reference to the Gulf Oil Catastrophè…it is an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. Jus’ sayin’.

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