A close encounter in the Caribbean
Rare sightings of calf sperm whales add to scientific knowledge about life off the coast of Colombia.
As the sun glints on calm Caribbean water, a marine biologist patiently scans the horizon. Suddenly the water breaks and mist shoots into the air, first one tall jet then a gentler, smaller blow of vapour. An adult sperm whale and her calf slowly approach the boat – one of only two sperm whale calves ever recorded in Caribbean waters off Colombia.
Hunters killed an estimated three quarters of the global population of sperm whales for a waxy substance called spermaceti that was burnt as a fuel in lamps, until an international moratorium put an end to commercial whaling in the 1980s.
Today, there is limited evidence that the global population is recovering.
“Sperm whales are listed as a vulnerable species,” says Nohelia Farias, the marine biologist who spotted the whale and her calf. “Calves are an encouraging sign for their future.”
As a marine mammal observer, Farias conducts environmental assessments for international energy companies. She observes the wildlife in the seas then reports back – in this case to Shell, which has bought licences to explore fields off the Colombian coast.
The assessments are a compulsory government requirement for any company exploring for oil and gas in Colombian waters, but they also give marine biologists much-needed time at sea.
“Organisations struggle to get information on deep-water species like whales, because having people far from the shore for long periods is expensive,” explains Ana Marroquim, an environmental specialist at Shell.
“If observers are on seismic survey vessels it gives them a great opportunity to also get data on those animals.”
Click below to discover species sighted from Shell ships in 2008-15, and their locations.
Since 2011, observers have spotted a total of 58 adult and two juvenile sperm whales in the Caribbean off Colombia, along with killer whales and different types of dolphin. As top predators, their presence indicates plentiful food and healthy ecosystems.
“So much of our coastline is unexplored it makes this new data exciting,” says Fernando Trujillo, head of Fundación Omacha, an environmental non-governmental organisation that worked with the Colombian Ministry of Environment to create a marine wildlife observation programme.
“Killer whales are usually found in colder waters, for example around the north part of the Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest. So we are learning more about where else they go.”
The foundation has begun further research in partnership with the University of Los Andes in Bogotá and US-based environmental organisation Conservation International to build a database of marine biodiversity in the Caribbean, using genetic sampling and tracking the whales with satellites.
On an international level, the work will help the marine community understand global population numbers of species. On a local level, it will help mitigate the potential impact of companies working in the area.
“We can use this to design good conservation strategies, for example when operations like drilling might need to stop because it is migration or birthing season,” says Fernando. “Above all, it shows conservation and business can work together.”
Story by Sarah Kempe
Working around whales
Shell is involved in several research programmes to help increase understanding of marine mammals, their behaviour, and how to prevent them being disturbed.
For example, in Sakhalin in eastern Russia, there were fewer than 100 rare western gray whales when Shell arrived in the area. Shell set up an independent panel of experts to learn more about these whales, and find out more about their migration. As a result, pipelines have been re-routed away from their feeding grounds and we conduct seismic operations outside the migration period.