- PORT LOUIS, Mauritius
(Reuters) - Sailing the world's remotest seas in search of the awesome
sperm whale, the steel-hulled Odyssey has been dredging up some dark secrets
about mankind's damaging impact on the oceans.
- A scientific research vessel circumnavigating the globe,
the 93-foot sailing boat has been tracking the giant whales in the hope
that they may hide in their bulk important clues to the state of the world's
- The mission is not over, but the early indications are
ominous. Pollutants, the debris of man's life on land, have poisoned the
waters that dominate the planet.
- Working for the U.S.-based Ocean Alliance, a whale conservation
and research body, the Odyssey set out in March 2000 to quantify that toxicity,
using tissue samples from sperm whales to indicate how polluted the waters
- "We chose to study the toxicity levels in sperm
whales because they are one of the most abundant great whale species left
on the planet and are found in all seas and oceans in the world,"
said Genevieve Johnson, Ocean Alliance's education director.
- "We were surprised by the levels of pesticides like
DDT found in our preliminary analysis of sperm whale tissue samples.
- "We have completed almost four years of our five-year
study and have so far taken tissue samples from about 900 sperm whales
in various parts of the world."
- BANNED BUT WIDELY USED
- An adult male sperm whale can reach lengths of 60 feet
and weigh more than 60 tons. It is believed to be the biggest toothed predator
in the world.
- There are about 350,000 sperm whales around the world,
but Johnson said the pesticides found in their blubber could spell danger
for the species.
- DDT is banned in many countries because of its harmful
effect on humans and animals. It is still used widely in developing countries,
sold on the black market because of its low cost and effectiveness as an
- Other toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have
also been found in sperm whales. Made and used on land, these are released
into the environment and eventually make their way into the oceans through
rivers and rainfall.
- Johnson said the toxins could prevent whale fetuses from
developing properly, result in high levels of sexual abnormality, cancers,
birth defects or sterility.
- There could also be repercussions for humans.
- "The toxicants that we are finding in these whales
could have serious implications for humans as we are also feeding high
on the oceanic food chain," Johnson said.
- Toxic fish and oceanic plants have been found to contaminate
land in some parts of the world and Canada's Inuit people have been warned
to stop eating fish, the staple of their diet for generations.
- Studies suggest poisons are showing up in the breast
milk of nursing mothers who pass them on to their babies.
- EPIC VOYAGE
- The Odyssey's multi-million dollar voyage began in San
Diego, California. The ship has sailed more than 30,000 miles, taking in
some of the world's most remote regions on the way to its current dock
- >From the Galapagos to the Chagos islands, Papua
New Guinea to Kiribati, the eight scientists and researchers aboard are
also using the epic journey to try to promote awareness of the damage wrought
- "Besides researching sperm whales we link up with
educational groups to give a lot of talks to students in many different
countries to raise awareness about whales and ocean pollution," Johnson
- Over the last four years, thousands of children have
visited the ship to learn about marine life. For those that can't, the
crew has a Web site (www.pbs.org/odyssey) and is linked via global satellite
to media and educational sites.
- "Children worldwide are fascinated by whales,"
Johnson said. "We think that by linking live to the Odyssey from the
classroom, students all over the world will have the chance to participate
in a voyage of discovery that is circling the globe."
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