Ocean Pollution

Chemical Chaos in the Ocean – the Death of Dolphins and Sea Turtles

Dolphins and sea turtles are in dire jeopardy. Necropsies, or autopsies performed on animals, show that as poisons are brimming in the oceans, animal deaths are piling up.

Over the previous several months, hundreds of scrawny, frightened and bloated gray dolphins have been stranded along Rio de Janeiro’s coast. Their autoimmune systems were completely compromised by a measles virus. These highly intelligent mammals were discombobulated, covered in grotesque rashes and gasping for oxygen – a terrifying way to die.

Dead dolphins and sea turtles
Photo credit: Instituto Boto Cinza.
The tragic death of dolphins and sea turtles is a wake-up call to stop polluting our planet, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio’s fetid shores, including Guanabara Bay and its mangroves, are strewn with pollution from subsidized petroleum-based plastics, estimated at 90 tons daily. It’s mixed with a deadly cocktail of oil and gas chemical-waste. A nearby container port in Sepetiba Bay spills arsenic, manganese and iron ore dust into the Atlantic, contributing to cancers, lung disease and neurological meltdown.

Plastic and polystyrene pollution
Photo credit: Will Carless.
Plastic and polystyrene pollution along Rio de Janeiro’s coastline is suffocating and poisoning all life.

In the global annual competition to increase GDP, Brazil, like every other country, is exploiting more natural resources, and in its wake, is poisoning the biosphere while the animals and forests quickly disappear.

It’s very evident elsewhere, too. For instance, a critically endangered southern population of 400 or so beluga whales is under siege from man-made pollution along Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway. Beluga necropsies exposed more than 30 carcinogenic poisons, including DDT, PCBs, insecticides, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons discharged from Alcoa’s aluminum factories, and mercury from burning subsidized coal and mining gold. Cancer rates in adult belugas are 27%, a percentage similar to humans living in that region.

Poisoned Beluga Whale
Photo credit: Marco Langlois, University of Montreal.
A poisoned female beluga with the head of her calf visible at the external genital opening, St. Lawrence Seaway, Canada.

Incidentally, before we began destroying the biosphere with deadly man-made poisons, whales lived very long lives, e.g. the melodious bowheads reached 211 years.

One secret to whale longevity: they are better at repairing their DNA and keeping abnormally dividing cells in check. Whales do not accumulate damaged DNA; they age without cancer. Today, ever-increasing persistent organic pollutants cause cancer in the cetaceans.

In Europe the largest of all dolphins, the orcas, are facing endgame. The North Atlantic surrounding Great Britain and western European waters is coursing with PCB pollution, amongst the highest in the world. This pernicious persistent organic pollutant has prevented the U.K.’s last resident pod of eight orcas along northwest Scotland from reproducing. These mammals are some of the most polluted on the planet; doomed quickly to extinction.

Dead orca due to pollution
Photo credit: John Bowler/RSPB Scotland.
A postmortem of Lulu the orca, a Scottish pod member, found that PCB levels were 100 times above the limit known to cause irreparable damage in marine mammals, Isle of Tiree, Scotland.

Over to the Gulf of Mexico’s shorelines; A recent report found that the cleanup chemicals at British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon catastrophe made coast guard workers sicker than the spilled oil.

The solution to pollution is not dilution. It turned out that it was not just hard and soft corals, and sea life in harm’s way from 4.9 million barrels of petroleum crude, but also from 1.8 million gallons of Corexit oil dispersants, which spread the poison far and wide across the Gulf to all its inhabitants.

Researchers discovered that more than 29,000 humans involved in the Gulf cleanup with the oil dispersants suffered from acute health effects including ongoing coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and burning in the nose, throat, or lungs.

Six years after 11 people died from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined that the unusual mortality event, which included a high number of stillborn and juvenile dolphins found dead along the Gulf of Mexico, was linked to the sickness in mothers who were exposed to both crude and Corexit.

Dead dolphin
Photo credit: NOAA.
1,281 dolphins were stranded and dead (between 30 April 2010 and 17 May 2015) as a direct result of illnesses caused by poisons from crude and oil dispersants used by BP during the Deepwater Horizon debacle. It’s the highest number of dolphin deaths ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

As if that poison wasn’t deadly enough, in 2014, 75 billion gallons of contaminated fracking wastewater, including heavy metals, were dumped directly into the Gulf of Mexico. The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends on greenlighting the unlimited dumping of fracking wastewater along all U.S. coastlines. “It’s absolutely appalling that EPA is letting oil companies dump fracking wastewater into the Gulf without any idea of the types of chemicals being discharged, or their effects on sea turtles, sturgeon or the other marine life that call Gulf waters home,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

In the southern hemisphere, the story is frighteningly similar. My colleagues in Australia examined 40 deceased bottlenose dolphins from Adelaide’s Port River and Perth’s Swan River. The dolphins were laced with man-made perfluorinated chemicals used in fire-fighting foams, non-stick cookware, and in carpets and sofas to make them stain-proof. These majestic creatures died a ghastly and agonizing death from skyrocketing levels of man-made poisons pouring from the land into the ocean.

Humans treat the ocean like a giant sewer. In 2017, my colleagues, led by the University of Aberdeen, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, detected poisonous industrial chemicals at the bottom of the Pacific Mariana and Kermadec Trenches, or more than six miles deep. The pollution was 50 times higher in PCBs and flame retardants than the most polluted delta – the Liaohe River system – in China.

Also in 2017, researchers from the World Wide Fund for Nature tested green sea turtles along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. They were horrified upon discovering indicators of more than 100,000 man-made chemicals in sea turtle blood serums. Other green sea turtles are covered in herpes lesions the size of softballs, yet another symptom of declining health of the largest reef on the globe.

Turtle with fibropapillomatosis caused by the herpes virus
Photo credit: James Cook University.
Caption: A starving green sea turtle near Magnetic Island, Queensland, afflicted with a disease called fibropapillomatosis caused by the herpes virus, which results in lesions on the turtle’s body. Herpes around the eyes prevents these creatures from seeing predators or catching food. These animals are sentenced to die slowly from starvation.

The dolphins and sea turtles are modern-day canaries in coal mines. 250 billion metric tons annually of man-made poisons contaminating our only home and prolonged looting of Nature are shoving life quickly to extinction.

It is up to each of us to consume less. Ladies and gentlemen we must not go quietly into this hideous impoverished future!



Dr Reese Halter is a treehugger, storyteller, award-winning broadcaster, distinguished conservation biologist and author.

Dr Reese Halter’s latest book is
Save Nature Now  

Tweet @RelentlessReese


*In loving memory of my mentor, fellow Nature-lover, friend, and producer Brian Schremp — dance in peace, brother.

Brian Schremp

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