‘Forever chemicals’ are killing whales – and harming us

ion the aftermath of 9/11, scientists noticed a curious impact on the stress hormones of North Atlantic right whales. Ships are ubiquitous in our oceans but, for a brief window, immediately after the planes flew into the twin towers, there was a dramatic drop in traffic along the North Atlantic eastern seaboard, reducing underwater noise. While the world above ground was reeling, our underwater neighbours were thriving.

So often we think of the golden age of whaling as being over. Japanese and Icelandic whaling ships are now pariahs in the international community. But too often, out of sight is out of mind, and it remains easy to ignore the impact of our actions above ground on marine life. tuttavia, whales are increasingly forcing us to take note, as more of them than ever are beaching on our shores.

Whales have always beached across UK coastlines, but there is nothing natural about this latest surge in whale deaths, which is why we decided to shadow marine stranding investigators (Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme in Scotland and the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme in England and Wales) exploring the rise in whale strandings on our island for Channel 4 – think CSI but for cetaceans.

When whales beach, especially large ones, it’s very likely that they will beach again. Their bodies are designed to work in water, but on land their sheer size crushes their insides and they start to boil alive. That’s part of the reason why there is a mad dash by British Divers Marine Life Rescue to get beached whales back into the water before their injuries become too great and they inevitably beach again.

That’s how I found myself face to face with a dead sei whale at the foot of Scotland’s most famous human-made landmark: the Forth Bridge. The whale had beached just a day earlier and we had tried to get to it then, but just as we arrived the team refloated it. We had hoped that it might survive its first beaching, but this time, the endangered animal – the world’s third largest species of whale – was washed up dead.

One of the reasons I went into television was a visceral understanding of the power of an image. And this image spoke for itself. A majestic mammoth of a creature taking its final resting place in the shadows of industrialisation.

As a palaeoanthropologist, I’m used to seeing dead things, but the dead that I deal with are long dead – bones, not flesh. When you see flesh, it adds a sense of immediacy. I was supposed to be presenting to camera that day; instead I struggled to muster the energy. I felt utterly defeated by the sight.

Per molti di noi, the call to “save the whale” is a cause we are sympathetic to. But too often, the practical steps we need to take to get there – whether it’s reducing climate change, ship strikes, noise or sonar – stump us. Those last few might appear complicated at first glance and would affect our way of life too much (not true), and tackling the first one has us dilly-dallying on the world stage. But what about chemical pollution, an issue very much in our self-interest?

It is imperative that we understand that whales are the canary in the coalmine for our relationship with chemical pollutants. Too many “forever chemicals”, o PFAS, still persist in nature, nicknamed as such because they barely degrade. PCBs are one such chemical, and despite them being banned 40 anni fa, killer whales are still dying in our waters from PCB poisoning. So deadly is the long-term impact that researchers suspect it is responsible for the crash in the birthrate we have seen in our only resident UK killer whale pod – the “West Coast Community” – which hasn’t had a calf born in 25 anni.

Legacy chemicals are the gift that keeps on giving, and by the time we understand what they do to the environment, wildlife and our health they are already in the system – so we can’t afford to dawdle. That’s why our heel-dragging on plastic pollution is so frustrating – it’s everywhere and found in everything from salt to human lungs. Terrifying preliminary research is now linking plastics to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and infertility in men.

It’s in our interest to demand of our leaders better oversight and research. To this end, 30 NGOs have scritto to the government asking for a ban on the non-essential use of PFAS. The problem is that when only some of these chemicals are banned, manufacturers just switch to others that are only slightly chemically different.

The EU appears to be going in the right direction, and it’s vital that as one of the most prominent island nations we not only follow suit, but lead this fight. So if you care about saving the whales (and your health), write to your MP and ask them to support this cause.

It’s time to stop asking, “What killed the whale?” and start looking in the mirror for answers.

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