On Feb. 2, Crescent Beach environmental activist Marcella Matthaei got a call that a North Atlantic right whale — among the rarest of large whales, right whales are recognizable by their gigantic heads and blubbery black bodies — had been spotted swimming north. She grabbed binoculars and stationed herself on a friend's oceanfront deck just in time to see a mother and her calf surface and expel a blast of breath through their blowholes as they swam together offshore.
"My heart swelled," says Matthaei. "There used to be hundreds and thousands of them, so many that whalers would say they could walk across the ocean on their backs. And now we are down to less than 400. To see these incredible creatures after how many millions of years, still giving birth, still trying to survive, still alive, it was just amazing."
There are so few right whales alive right now, in fact, that each of them has been assigned a number and a name. The whale Matthaei spotted is No. 2503 and known as "Boomerang." Though it's a rare occurrence to see one, the endangered right whale migrates from the Atlantic Coast off Canada and New England down the Eastern Seaboard to winter in Florida, where they give birth and calve their young. (The North Pacific right whale is even more rare, with an estimated population of about 50.)
Protecting these whales, which were hunted almost to extinction for their blubber and whale oil, is one reason that Northeast Floridians should become aware of a plan moving through the federal government to permit seismic air-gun testing for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean, from the mouth of the Delaware River along New Jersey south to Cape Canaveral.
The testing involves shooting air-gun blasts — a sound similar to dynamite explosions — every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks or perhaps months at a time in order to locate pockets of oil and gas in the Outer Continental Shelf. The volume of noise produced by the air guns has been described as 100,000 times louder than a jet engine, and environmentalists fear it may kill or injure marine mammals and other creatures in the testing area — including the right whale — frightening them, damaging their hearing, disrupting their breeding, feeding and calving grounds, disorienting them and interfering with their communications. A final environmental impact statement by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) predicts that the seismic testing might indeed cause exactly the damage environmentalists fear — an estimated 138,500 whales, dolphins and other marine mammals will be affected — but considers this impact "moderate."
"The whole concept is just preposterous," says Matthaei. "It's going to disrupt everything in the ocean."
The public has until April 7 to comment on the report. If the seismic testing is approved this summer, the next stage would be the issuing of permits. At least eight companies have applied for permits to conduct seismic testing, but no offshore oil drilling could occur until at least 2017, when a federal ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic is scheduled to expire.
To protect the right whale and sea turtles nesting on Florida beaches, BOEM recommends shutting down the testing off Florida from November through April (the right whale's calving season). In addition, the Bureau wants to prohibit testing along the right whale's migration route, and prohibit seismic tests off the coast of Brevard County during turtle nesting season, from May through October.
Nancy Sopko, ocean advocate of the conservation group Oceana, doesn't believe those protections will be adequate — in no small part because of where seismic testing leads: offshore drilling.
"Why are we even thinking of expanding oil drilling in the Atlantic when we've seen its detrimental effects in the Gulf of Mexico?" she asks. "Congress has done nothing in order to ensure another Deepwater Horizon doesn't happen in the Gulf or elsewhere. They've passed no law to make drilling safer. They seem to have spill amnesia, and they continue to do the same things that will get us into another mess."
In support of the testing, the oil industry and Florida business associations have voiced the usual arguments: energy independence and national security, but especially the promise of jobs and lucre. "We can create more jobs and generate more revenue if allowed to responsibly develop and produce — here in the United States — more of the oil and natural gas we need," Chris Verlander, president of corporate development for the Associated Industries of Florida, told the BOEM
Neil Armingeon, the Matanzas Riverkeeper, questions the push to drill for oil at a time when the U.S. should be looking at alternative energy. Fossil fuels, after all, are the primary drivers of climate change.
Florida fought to ban offshore oil drilling in the 1980s to protect its beaches. With that ban set to expire in 2017, Armingeon is flabbergasted that protecting the state's natural resources no longer seems a priority, and says that to give in to the powerful oil and gas industry is folly.
"Their greed and desire for money overrides any concern for the natural world," says Armingeon. "They would kill marine mammals, kill the whole Atlantic fishery for the promise of oil and gas. It's incomprehensible, really."