Fun Science Friday – BP Oil Spill Impacts Dolphins

Happy Fun Science Friday!

Though this post does not present such a happy story, given the recent discussion about dolphin photobombing, this week’s FSF is topically related.  In the spring of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig experienced catastrophic failure resulting in the worst oil spill in human history. The Gulf of Mexico (GoM) was the unfortunate host of this catastrophe and the GoM community is still feeling the ecological, social, and economic consequences of this disaster.

Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010. Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Pod of bottlenose dolphins swimming underneath oily water of Chandeleur Sound, La., May 6, 2010.
Photo Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

One such impact that received little TV coverage during the spill was the uncharacteristic spike in dolphin deaths. A few months following the BP spill there was an unprecedented spike in dead dolphins washing ashore along the Gulf Coast; 67 dead dolphins by February of 2011, with more than half (35) of the dead dolphins being calves. This is in stark contrast to years preceding the spill when one or two dead dolphins per year were normally documented to wash ashore.  Despite the spike in dolphin deaths, there was no definitive evidence linking the dead cetaceans to the oil spill as a number of other factors could have been responsible for the deaths, including infectious disease or the abnormally cold winter proceeding the spill.

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The Ocean Question: What is your favorite marine organism and why?

We caught up with 11 marine scientists (including one honorary marine scientist, paleoblogger Brian Switek) at this year’s Ocean Sciences meeting in Salt Lake City and asked them the following question – What is your favorite marine organism and why? Their responses ranged from the classic (dolphins and sharks) to the bizarre (deep-sea shrimp and snails) to the exceptionally broad (Eukaryotes, Holly? Could you narrow it down just a little?).

Check out what they had to say:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpZGhUOdmIQ

Watch our previous Ocean Question and let us know what your favorite marine organisms are in the comments below.

Misunderstood Marine Life # 1 – The five biggest myths about Marine Biologists

It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the single most misunderstood marine creature that calls our oceans its home: the rare, elusive, often smelly, occasionally employable, Marine Biologist!

For something so incredibly popular, articulate, good-looking, and revered, there sure are a lot of misconceptions about who marine biologists are and what they do.

Myth # 1 – All Marine Biologists have beards.

Yes, if you look through a history of marine scientists, you’ll find many pictures of old, bearded men. But that’s true if you look through the history of any science and reflects a long cultural history of gender discrimination and outright misogyny. Couple that with a long standing tradition among maritime cultures that women don’t belong on boats, and you might be led to believe that most marine biologists are men. That fact becomes futhur from the truth every day. Among the pioneers in marine science are Mary Rathburn, Julia Platt, and Rachel Carson, while modern barrier breakers range from Ruth Turner, the first woman to use the DSV Alvin for research, to Cindy Lee Van Dover, the first to pilot it (incidentally, no one has a beard on the Alvin, since it would interfere with the emergency respirator should the oxygen system fail).

The website Women Oceanographers (http://www.womenoceanographers.org/) has a spectacular series highlighting the contribution of women to marine sciences.

Myth # 2 – Marine Biologists all study whales and dolphins.

No, we don’t. Some of us don’t even particularly like whales or dolphins. For that matter, we don’t want to work at Sea World.

Myth # 3 – Marine Biologists hate fishermen.

Perhaps one of the most insidious rumors is that we have it out for fishermen. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see where this would come from. Any catch limit, fishery closure, or fishing regulation is going to track back somehow to the work of a marine biologist. And there are some marine biologists who are opposed to fishing, just like there are members of the general public opposed to fishing. But Marine Biologist and fishermen have the same goals – we both want a healthy, productive ocean (that both our livelihoods depend on). Most marine biologist that I know fish, eat fish, and support our local fishermen. In fact, if I didn’t screw up the schedule, I’ll be out fishing when this post is published. Unfortunately, as overfishing is one of the biggest problems facing the ocean, conflicts are unavoidable and we’re going to butt heads on important issues.

Even so, most Marine Biologists would love to see the ocean return to a state of abundance where fishermen can harvest without regulations. Dare to dream.

Myth # 4 – Marine Biologists spend their lives on the water.

This myth is more prevalent among aspiring Marine Biologists. The job looks glamorous, with trips to tropical islands, extended cruises, and life on the beach. While I hate to burst the bubble of the next generation, Marine Biology is mostly lab work and sitting in front of your computer. If I’m lucky, I’ll get maybe 3 months of field work every 2 years. The rest is endlessly freezing and thawing samples, pipetting clear liquids into other clear liquids, and typing, typing, typing. Don’t get me wrong, I love (almost) every minute of it, but it’s a far different lifestyle from what Jacques Cousteau led me to believe.

Myth # 5 – Marine Biologist are all just like Jacques Cousteau.

Milton Love said it best when he wrote “We really like Jacques Cousteau, too. But, drinking thousands of gallons of red wine while scuba diving around the world does not make you a marine biologist. It makes you a wonderful and effective spokesperson for the sea, and gives you a liver with the consistency of a chocolate necco wafer, but it does not make you a marine biologist.” Most research cruises are more akin to the Life Aquatic, anyway, but with more disasters and less research turtles surviving. A personal submarine would be nice, though.

Weekly dose of TED – Peter Tyack: The intriguing sound of marine mammals

That marine mammals have a rich sonic life has been well understood for several decades. What we didn’t understand until recently is how much we’ve changed the ocean soundscape, and how much we will continue to change the soundscape. Many of our new alternative energy plans involve maritime structures – offshore wind farms, wave energy converters, submerged turbines – that will contribute to this change. Are they worth the trade-offs? Assuming we have to move forward without sonic mitigation technology, how should we manage and regulate for a greener future with a bit of sonic?