(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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When you go to the mountains, you go to the mountains. When it’s the desert, it’s the desert. When it’s the ocean, though, we generally say that we’re going “to the beach.” Land is our element, not the waters of our world, and that is an unmistakable advantage for any oil company that wants to drill in pristine waters.
Take Shell Oil. Recently, the company’s drill ship, the fabulously named Noble Discoverer, went adrift and almost grounded in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. That should be considered an omen for a distinctly star-crossed venture to come. Unfortunately, few of us are paying the slightest attention.
Shell is getting ready to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean, an ecosystem staggeringly rich in life of every sort, and while it’s not yet quite a done deal, the prospect should certainly focus our minds. But first, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the mind-boggling richness of the life still in our oceans.
Last month began with a once-in-a-lifetime sighting in Monterey Bay, California, startlingly close to shore, of blue whales. Those gigantic mammals can measure up to 100 feet, head-to-tail, and weigh nearly 200 tons—the largest animal by weight ever to have lived on this planet. Yes, even heavier than dinosaurs. The biggest of them, Amphicoelias fragillimus, is estimated to have weighed 122 tons, while the largest blue whale came in at a whopping 195 tons.
The recent Monterey Bay sighting is being called “the most phenomenal showing of th[os]e endangered mammals in recent history.” On July 5th alone, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported sightings of “12 blue whales, 40 humpback whales, 400 Risso’s dolphins, 300 northern right whale dolphins, 250 Pacific white-sided dolphins, and two minke whales.”
“Everywhere you go you just see blows”—that is, the blues spouting—Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. It seems that the abundance of krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures that the whales feed on, attracted about 100 of the blues. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, they were abundant with an estimated population of more than 200,000 living in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean alone. Then they were hunted nearly to extinction. Today, only about 10,000 of them are believed to exist.
Dog Day Afternoon in the Arctic
If you follow the pacific coastline from Monterey all the way north, sooner or later you’ll arrive at Kivalina along the Chukchi Sea coast in the Alaskan Arctic. Keep going along that coastline even further north and you’ll pass by Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainright and finally Barrow—the northernmost town in the United States.
At Barrow, you’ll be at the confluence of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of the Arctic Ocean. Now, head east along the Beaufort Sea coast to Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik, both Iñupiat communities. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are remarkably rich in krill, and home to the endangered bowhead whale. It may not be quite as large as the blue, but head-to-tail it can still measure an impressive enough sixty-six feet and weigh up to seventy-five tons, and it has one special attribute. It is believed to be the longest-lived mammal on the planet.