Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A shocking report on a Sperm Whale study released today may turn a lot of heads—both pro-whaling and anti-whaling activists alike.

The report, issued by conservation and research group Ocean Alliance, shows that high levels of aluminum, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, silver and titanium are found in tissue samples taken by dart gun from 955 whales, over a period of more than 5 years (starting in 2000). The whales ranged across 87,000 miles, from polar regions to the equator and it’s believed the ingested toxic and heavy metals may have come from humans thousands of miles away. Oh, and don’t worry, the dart gun only collected samples the size of a pencil eraser and did no more harm to the whale than a mosquito would do to us.

Now, as for what was done with the samples after collection, well, they were sent to marine toxicologist, John Wise, at the University of Southern Maine for analysis. To make sure samples were not collected from the same whale more than once, DNA was also compared. Surprisingly, the purpose of the original voyage had nothing to do with metals—it was intended for measuring persistent organic pollutants (POPs); so, you can bet the researchers were shocked at the results.

Founder, biologist, and president of the group, Roger Payne, stated:

“These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean.”

To give an idea on how bad the situation is: health experts usually warn children and pregnant women against consuming fish that have high mercury content, which typically have levels of 1 part per million. These whales have mercury contents as high as 16 parts per million. On average, they had 2.4 parts per million, but the report authors suggest the internal organs probably contain even more mercury than the skin samples alone.

And it isn’t simply a matter of the whales eating polluted items; they also unknowingly pass it on from generation to generation. Payne explained that the Sperm Whales absorb the contaminants, which are then passed on to the younger generation when females nurse their calves. This makes the contamination count higher for every future generation. He also adds that:

“You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on.”

Oh, and don’t be surprised if you’ve ever heard of Roger Payne before: he made the 1968 discovery and recordings of Humpback Whale songs and also discovered that some whale species can communicate with each other across thousands of miles.

Now, although the samples highlight a major problem, it’s still hard to tell where all the whales were at or how they originally came in contact with the pollutants. At the very least, Payne said the contamination was found in the blubber of males formed in the polar regions, which suggested the animals consumed the metals far from where they were at. Payne explains further:

“When you’re working with a synthetic chemical which never existed in Nature before and you find it in a whale which came from the Arctic or Antarctic, it tells you that was made by people and it got into the whale.”

Unlike Humpback or Blue Whales, which have baleen, the Sperm Whale actually has teeth and is known to eat many types of fish, including sharks. It’s also believed that some of the contaminants may have come from their prey. One thing to note, however, is the finding of chromium in the whales. Chromium is known to cause cancer in humans—and it was found in 359 out of 361 Sperm Whale samples tested for it. Chromium is an industrial pollutant, corrosion-resistant, and used in paints, stainless steel, dyes, and leather tanning.

Although the $5 million project may be the most comprehensive study ever on ocean pollutants, and further research was urged by US Whaling Commissioner, Monica Medina, towards the IWC, the future of some whale species is looking bleaker than ever—at least, to Payne it is:

“I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction. This is not on anybody’s radar, no government’s radar anywhere, and I think it should be.”

It definitely is a harsh and shocking blow to all sides. Whaling activists have yet another issue to contend with and pro-whaling nations may see a sharp decline in their industry due to increased potential human health risk (oh, darn).

You can read the full research report here (pdf file).

By Heidi Marshall