By Sophie Gainsley
…we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.
– Moby Dick, Herman Melville
It was our thirst for Whale oil or ‘Train oil’ that almost pushed whale species to extinction by the end of the 20th century. The term ‘Train oil’ is derived from the Dutch word traan, meaning “tear” or “drop” and we weren’t to know just how appropriate that term would become as hundreds of years of commercial whaling left whale populations virtually eliminated in the Northern Hemisphere. We didn’t stop hunting whales because they were almost extinct, we only stopped (in most countries) around the 1970s when we found alternatives such as vegetable oil. Now, it is our thirst for energy but in the form of crude oil, that creates the next biggest threat to whales along with all life forms on Earth.
One of the last unsullied oceanic environments on the planet, the rich Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea between Russia and Alaska provides a sanctuary for tens of thousands of whales, not to mention for millions of birds, hundreds of thousands of walruses and seals, thousands of polar bears and incalculable numbers of one hundred fish species and all the life forms that they feed on such as phytoplankton, which also live there.
But Royal Dutch Shell, instead of seeing the Arctic Ocean as one of the last remaining pristine marine ecologies in the world, instead sees only an opportunity for monetary gain.
And it isn’t just Shell. This is being described as the ‘Arctic Oil Rush’ with huge oil conglomerates racing to get their oil-blackened hands on stocks which will last no longer than three years. No proven infrastructure exists for cleaning up an oil spill in ice choked waters. And added to this potential nightmare scenario, Shell’s first exploration drilling in US Arctic waters in September 2012 ended with one oil rig becoming grounded in the Gulf of Alaska and one of its ships, the ‘Noble Discoverer’ catching fire. They were fined $12.2 million by the Environmental Protection Agency for violating the Clean Air Act.
Just before the 2012 disaster Shell had the ‘Kulluk’ oil rig refurbished and a new blue-and-white paint scheme that was chosen, which according to a Vigor news release, was “to accommodate the known preferences of whales.” How a whale could have any preference for a hunk of metal in the ocean is beyond me.
Our effect on the planet is not just confined to oceanic pollution. Our capitalist, greed-fuelled, unconscientious actions of the past centuries have set in motion what scientists are calling ‘The Sixth Extinction’. Put concisely by New York writer Elizabeth Kolbert: ‘Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.’
Each Blue Whale swallows around 4 million krill. Such an appetite relies on the continuing fertility of our oceans, but global changes are affecting the plankton blooms on which all whales depend. As David Attenborough so beautifully concludes in his BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series; “Once, and not so very long ago, 300,000 blue whales roamed the oceans. Now less than 3% of that number remains. Our planet is still full of wonders and as we explore we gain not only understanding but power. It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands, it’s the survival of the natural world on all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”
The choice is indeed ours and power lies in our hands to prevent an oil spill in the Arctic which would spell disaster for the fragile polar ecosystem, and with it, our global ecosystem.
One of the least time consuming things we can all do to help is simply to sign the Greenpeace ‘Save The Arctic’ campaign – https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/content/sta-time-is-running-out/
And the ‘Save Our Oceans’ campaign on Avaaz – http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_our_oceans/
You can also adopt a whale or give $5 a month to help Whale & Dolphin Conservation – http://adopt-us.whales.org/shop/donation/
Also, join the Divestment Campaign – the fastest growing global campaign in history! Find out if your bank is using your money to finance dirty fossil fuel investments (commonly done through pension funds). You can find out more here – http://moveyourmoney.org.uk/campaigns/divest/
If you are based in London, check out/get involved with your local Divestment campaigners. Divest London – http://divestlondon.org/