Whales drawn to waters off Mississippi River Delta

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When people think of the Mississippi Delta, a few things are likely to come to mind -- jambalaya, New Orleans jazz, riverboats, cotton, swamps and sperm whales.

Sperm whales?

Researchers have found that endangered sperm whales frequent the deeper waters off the Mississippi Delta. Scientists estimate that at least 530 sperm whales can be found in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

In a Texas-Sea-Grant-funded project, Texas A&M University at Galveston marine biologists Randall Davis and Bernd Wrsig will use satellite tracking, direct observation, genetic analyses and photographic identification to learn more about these large marine mammals that live so close to the coast.

Davis said coldwater eddies and the outflow of nutrients from the Mississippi River may enhance the production of food for these marine mammals and draw the animals nearer to coastal waters. The Mississippi Delta region of the Gulf also has water that's several thousand meters deep within 50 or 60 miles of the coast, he said, and sperm whales are typically found in these deeper waters along the continental shelf.

"The unique aspect of the Gulf is we have a continental shelf that is only about 25 miles wide off the Mississippi Delta, so we have this influx of freshwater nutrients into a deepwater environment very close to the coast," he said.

While this area of the Gulf of Mexico is popular with sperm whales, it is also home to a lot of oil and gas exploration. These activities, and the increasing boat traffic they bring, may be a cause for concern as far as their effects on the region's whales, he said.

"Basically, we probably have a breeding population of endangered sperm whales right in the middle of one of the hottest areas for offshore oil development in the continental U.S," Davis said.

As part of the study, researchers will tag whales with tracking devices that will follow the movements of the whales and record information on how ofte

Contact: Ben Sherman
National Sea Grant College Program

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