Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Whale of a Beach Find

One of the very best things about my career as a marine biologist is that I never know what to expect.  Sure, I spend about 40 or 50 hours a week staring at a computer screen, but there are times when I walk into the office one morning and get invited to do things like help teach a field course on marine biology, help disentangle whales, or even visit a beach where a Japanese boat has washed up.  But what happened in November 2015 is a memory that will stay with me forever.

Sometimes in science you get so busy and engrained in your work that you are loathe to take any time off- including weekends and evenings.  This can happen for months at a time.  But when somebody tells you that the first blue whale ever has washed up on an Oregon beach 3 hours south, there isn't much you can do besides get up at 4 in the morning and drive there at your first chance- which is exactly what I did!

Sometime in the hours between November 2nd and 3rd, 2015, an adult blue whale- the largest animal to ever have lived on planet earth- washed up on Ophir Beach, Oregon.  Ophir Beach is a secluded beach between Gold Beach and Port Orford.  The whale was a 75-foot long male; meaning it was a small mature adult and weighed somewhere between 60 and 75 tons - meaning 120,000 pounds, or more than the size of 10 of the biggest elephants.  News reports, of course, put the whale at 100 tons, which is an overestimate for this animal.

Two things told me I had arrived at Ophir Beach- an unusual number of cars parked in a pullout in the  middle of nowhere on Highway 101- and the smell.  Before I could even see the whale, I could smell it; it was a mixture of what I always thought of as a 'concentrated ocean' smell and the unmistakable odor of decaying marine mammal.  Upon getting out of the car and heading down to the beach, the wonder of the moment caught up to me.  Down by the tide line, laying on its side was the most beautiful, incredible and tragic animal I had ever seen.  My feeling of elation as a biologist was mixed with sadness for the animal and its fate. I have never been both so solemn and in wonder of nature at the same time.

My first look at the whale.  Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator, Jim Rice is there to greet me!
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)
Upon getting set up and donning protective gear (gloves, waterproof bibs, boots, hat) I set up for my first task, which was to remove the baleen so that it could be used for a research project studying the dynamics of feeding in baleen whales.  It was a race against the tide, so I spent the day in the mouth, sitting on the tongue of the world's biggest animal.

Removing the baleen involved a strong stomach, lots of muscle, and hand tools in a rush against the tide.
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)

When whales wash up on beaches, one of two problems often arise: 1) these large animals attract large numbers of people, presenting health and safety hazards for attracted beach goers.  The two days I was there, and surely for the rest of the week, people were running across the highway to access the beach.  Additionally, many marine mammals (especially decomposing ones) can carry diseases that are easily transmitted to humans or pets such as dogs.  The second problem is that, while the animal is certainly neat for a day or two, sooner or later the stench of decay and the prospect of removing such a large rotting animal becomes worse by the day, often causing complaints.  Therefore, stranding networks are often presented with the options of removing the animal from the beach or burying it.  In the case of Big Blue (my name for him), the opportunity to salvage the skeleton as a display for generations to come was too good to pass up.  There are few places that have  articulated blue whale skeletons, but they are an amazing sight.  Therefore, a team of hardy, resilient and optimistic volunteers worked all day long for over a week- mostly with hand tools- to strip down the carcass before the ocean (or beachcombers) could break it down.

After removing as much of the baleen as we could the first day (we worked right up until the tide moved back over the whale), I and others began 'flensing' the blubber off the whale- removing it in strips- so that we could get at the muscle tissue, perform a necropsy to discover how the animal died, and finally get to the bone.  Flensing is hard, endless work that would have been much harder had we not had a designated knife sharpener!  As brutal as the commercial whaling industry was (and still is), I gained some respect for the men that would do this job for often hundreds of days at sea; instead of working on a whale on the beach over several days, they would have but a few hours to climb on the whale hoisted to the side of a moving boat, and somehow remove the blubber without falling into the water.  Comparatively, we had it easy.

"Whalers' Bay" by Carl Dørnberger shows whalers flensing a whale off the side of a boat (1920). They did not have the benefit of vinyl rain gear or peanut butter sandwiches during breaks.

Not much has changed in terms of method in the last 95 years...however, we now use stranded whales for public education and conservation rather than harvesting them.
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)

I grudgingly had to return after two days of helping because I had my upcoming qualifying exams for my doctorate in two short weeks.  However, there are lots of folks from many different institutions, including students from Oregon State University, Oregon's Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and Humboldt State that worked tirelessly to make this happen.  Along the way we answered the questions of curious beach goers and somehow completed the whole effort without a major injury (I very nearly took a mallet to the face).  (And the smell did not improve over time.  The deeper we got and the more we removed, the more rotten it became.  Within a couple of days after it was removed, it would have been a rotten blob of tissue on the beach, lost to the tide and scavengers (there was a bear sighted nearby while we were working).

This photo was taken at the end of the first day.  Notice the oil coating my overalls.  This permeating oil -originally what whales were harvested for- is something that never, ever washes out and the smell remains.
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)

All in all, what would be unthinkably smelly or gross work for some was an amazing biological opportunity and a lifetime experience for me and many others.  I wonder what that whale saw during his lifetime, how his last days came to play, and how old he was.  I'll never forget that first moment when I walked on that beach, or what if felt like to stand, dwarfed, under his towering tail fluke. Some of these questions will be answered- for example, he was an extremely thin animal- and others are left up to the imagination.  The best outcome of the whole event is that by preserving his skeleton, people for generations to come will be asking the same questions.

Standing by the tail of this beautiful behemoth. This 75-foot whale was approximately 3/4 the size of the biggest adults, which can reach 100-feet in length.
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)

All of the workers on this project were working purely out of a volunteer basis- we all showed up out of the sheer excitement of the opportunity and experience.  In fact, the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network nearly lost its funding a year ago due to government cuts. Without our stranding coordinator and volunteers, nobody in Oregon would be able to respond to calls like this of stranded animals. If you'd like to learn more about the OMMSN or the Marine Mammal Institute, you can visit the webpage at:

Exhausted, oily, but enthusiastic.
(Work done under NMFS/MMPA and Oregon State University Permits)

Monday, November 23, 2015

The problem with entropy, or: why California's ban on plastic microbeads isn't enough

We all like to see headlines now and then that show our progress in conservation and stewardship for our planet.

It also appears, that lately, Californians really like to ban things.  In the newest movement of such, environmentalists have lobbied to ban plastic microbeads found in cosmetic and other products.  Microbeads are defined as beads that are less than 1mm in diameter, and are often used as agents for polishing or exfoliating (think about your toothpaste or micro-derm skin cream).  They are problematic because of their small size.  Too small to be filtered out of the water system, they are often passed out untouched into rivers, streams and the ocean with waste water.

The numbers presented estimate that 471 million of these beads are washed into San Francisco watersheds and the bay each year, and Californians as a whole dispose of approximate 38 ton of these little beads every year.  Certainly a daunting number.  However, this author would like to argue that the banning of these microbeads may do nothing for preventing our volume of microplastic pollution in the ocean.  In order to understand why I say this, we're going to have to step back into our high school science class, and talk about the laws of thermodynamics.

You remember the three laws of thermodynamics right? I bet you do, even if you don't think so!

The first law of thermodynamics: Energy can neither be created or destroyed.

The second law of thermodynamics: The law of equilibrium.  Heat will transfer from a warm body to a cooler body.

The third law of thermodynamics: Entropy. Chaos.  Everything tends towards disorder.

The third law is my favorite law of thermodynamics.  That is why you can never keep your house clean, why things break down irreversibly over time, why we always have to mow our yards. Let's talk about it a little bit.

What does the Third Law have to do with ocean pollution?  Well, everything, really! Everything we manufacture - from chemicals to plastics, to wooden houses, will eventually break down.  The plastics are particularly troublesome in that respect, because of the length of time (think in the 500-1,000 year range) and also pattern in which they break down.  Take a plastic bag, for instance; that bag will first tear in half, then break up into pieces, and then will disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces until they reach a size that very few processes can break them down further.  The same goes for water bottles, plastic wrappers and other plastic containers.

The harder plastics, like bottles, buckets, baskets etc. will eventually break down into what are called plastic nurdles.  Nurdles are the objects that are often mistaken for food and consumed by birds, fish, invertebrates and other animals .  The nurdles aren't digestible and end up stuck in the digestive tracks of many birds, turtles or fish, and can end up obstructing and killing the animal.

Additionally, larger pieces can be consumed by even the giantest of animals- in 2013, an array of plastic objects were found to have killed a sperm whale, and sounded like an incredibly depressing list from the Very Hungry Caterpillar: a clothes hanger, ice-cream tub, pieces of mattress, plastic bags, nine meters (30 feet) of rope, two flower pots, and a plastic spray bottle all likely contributed to the animal's death.  This is far more common than we realize, because we often don't get the chance to study these animals.

Microbeads are a different story- while they can potentially be consumed by very small animals and work their way into the food chain, they are the very bottom of the problem.  This is because, ANY plastic item, whether big or small, can break down into nurdles or microbeads. So taking the smallest contributor out of the system doesn't do a whole lot when larger plastics can turn into the same thing.

Microbeads are a very small contributor to plastic waste in California alone.

So, all in all,  microbeads contribute 0.02% of annual plastic waste in California, if only plastic bags and bottles are taken into account.  I couldn't even find figures on medical devices, consumable electronics, or the myriad of other things in our society that contain plastics.  This profile is likely similar from state to state.

This all being said, it is admirable that California banned microplastics in products that we don't really need them to be in.  However, there is that weird phenomenon of 'slacktivism'- contributing to a cause with a minor overall personal contribution, but feeling better for having done it, whether or not it made a difference.  A great HuffPost article about Amazon Smile addresses how 'slacktivist' causes could actually decrease overall charitable giving because users already feel that they are contributing to charity.  It is a lot easier to forgo microbeads if the manufacturer doesn't use them than it is to purposely forgo plastic bags and water bottles when they are convenient.

Overall, my evaluation could be harsh, however sometimes it is easy to forget just how much we produce as a society.  To get an idea of how California fits into the nation-wide scale considering just plastic bottles, microbeads quickly fade away. Note that ALL of the combined products in the second chart only contribute to 0.39%- about 1/3 of a percent- of plastic waste in the US.  That means microbeads equal about 0.000094% of plastic waste in the US- 1/100,000 of a percent.  The other 99.00001%? Well, about 10% of that will end up in the world's oceans as eventually...more microplastics.

Tons of plastic waste in California compared to just water bottle consumption in the US.

Tons of plastic water in both California and US for plastic bags, water bottles and microbeads.  Overall, California microbeads contribute to 0.003%, US microbeads contribute to 0.02%, and water bottles in California represent 1.13%.

On a positive note, California is in the process of re-adding a plastic bag ban onto its upcoming ballot.  So the over-arching message of this blog post is to remain positive, but also be proactive.  Americans use approximately 100 BILLION disposable plastic bags a year- that equals 12 million barrel of petroleum product made and disposed of in a matter of minutes.

So be active in persuading your legislators to promote plastic bag bans, or at the least, be conscious of your use of plastic materials! Remember that one plastic bottle can take 1,000 years to degrade, and the end product is ironically what we are trying to prevent in the first place.