Facing extinction, Rice's whales aren't getting protections soon enough Rice's whales are one of the world's newly discovered whale species – and already one of the most endangered. Protections for the whales in the Gulf of Mexico are not coming fast.

Only 51 of these U.S. whales remain. Little has been done to prevent their extinction

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One of the most endangered whales on the planet has come to the brink of extinction under U.S. watch. By the government's estimates, only around 51 Rice whales are left in the world. They all live in the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Investigations Desk examined public records and found that companies working in the Gulf and the federal agency in charge have repeatedly delayed adopting measures that could help the species. Here's NPR's Chiara Eisner.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Tucked away in a Maryland community, minutes from the border with Washington, D.C., is the largest collection of marine mammal bones in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on in, please.

EISNER: Around 10,000 specimens are stored in the Smithsonian's two climate-controlled warehouses.

MICHAEL MCGOWEN: All of these are different species of whales. We have a bunch of gray whales down here and humpback whales on the other side. We have things going all the way back to the 1820s, 1830s.

EISNER: That's Michael McGowen. He's a scientist and a curator at the Smithsonian. We walked past racks of ribs, the dried skin of a river dolphin, and a drawer full of narwhal tusks.


EISNER: But the animal I'm there for can't fit in a drawer.

MCGOWEN: So this is it right here.

EISNER: Yeah, it's still oily to the touch.

MCGOWEN: On either side of the skull are two sides of its lower jaw.

EISNER: We're looking at the rusty brown skull of a Rice's whale. It's about twice as tall as I am.

MCGOWEN: Those two bones are called the nasals, and how the nasals fit into each other is very distinctive in different whale species.

EISNER: This is the skull that scientists used to determine that Rice's whales were a brand-new species in 2021 after the whale it belonged to washed up in the Everglades. But by the time that discovery was made, there were fewer than a hundred left - 1 in 5 had died after the Deepwater Horizon spill poured millions of gallons of oil into their habitat.


EISNER: I knew it was a long shot, but I went to the Gulf to see if I could see any of them alive.

BEN RENFROE: All right. Here we go, everybody.


EISNER: Amateur fisherman Ben Renfroe took me out on his boat in October to the same spot off the coast of Pensacola where he had seen a Rice's whale a few months before.

RENFROE: So here's where we are.

EISNER: I dropped a microphone into the ocean to see if I could hear them.

There's nothing around. There's no other boats, so let's see what we pick up.


EISNER: We couldn't hear much. The whales weren't nearby. But researchers have recorded their calls, and they sound like nothing else on the planet.


EISNER: The whales can moan like that for a minute without stopping.


EISNER: But the whales are not alone.


EISNER: That's the sound of an air gun. Energy companies send explosions of compressed air into the ocean to help them find oil and gas.


EISNER: The guns go off every 10 seconds for weeks at a time. Because sound travels faster in the ocean than in air, that booming can be heard halfway across the Gulf. And then there's the propeller noise from ships.


EISNER: All that noise can make it difficult for the whales to hear each other.


ANA SIROVIC: For whales underwater, it's really sound that is critical.

EISNER: That's Ana Sirovic, a scientist who studies whale calls in the Gulf. She says being able to communicate is essential for finding prey and mates. But in some cases, when boats were nearby, Rice's whales went completely silent. The stakes are high. To avoid extinction, the species can only afford to lose one whale every 15 years to human activity.

SIROVIC: Once you're dealing with such a small population, anything that hinders its ability to reproduce and do well should be a concern.

EISNER: Quieter air gun technologies are on the market, but there are no limits to underwater noise like there are above water, and oil companies aren't using the new tech much. I looked through the plans for seismic surveys in the Gulf over the next three years. Right now, none of the companies plan to use the new air guns, though two will use fewer of the old ones. Alex Loureiro is the scientific director for an oil and gas industry trade group called EnerGeo. She says energy companies aren't ready for the alternatives.

ALEX LOUREIRO: It's going to take time for the industry to actually be able to use these technologies effectively.

EISNER: There are laws to protect wildlife from risks besides noise, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA - was years late on meeting mandatory deadlines related to listing the whales as endangered, and they still haven't designated which part of the whale's habitat should be protected.

MICHAEL JASNY: And that is really shameful, given the species that are being managed are on the verge of extinction. I mean, they are ecologically at death's door.

EISNER: Michael Jasny is a senior policy analyst for Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC and other groups have tried for years to get NOAA to enforce a speed limit of 10 knots in a portion of the whale's critical habitat. That's to avoid the boats hitting whales. At least two Rice's whales have been struck by ships since 2009. One was injured. The other was killed. And a speed limit has been in place along the East Coast for more than a decade to protect North Atlantic right whales, and it's been shown to work.

JASNY: There is no reason why that cannot be done in the Gulf of Mexico.

EISNER: Last month, NOAA denied the nonprofit's petition. NOAA said it wants to meet other deadlines first and would try to get vessels to slow down voluntarily. But NPR analyzed shipping data from 2022. We found that more than three-quarters of the journeys made by large vessels through the whale's habitat had an average speed above 10 knots. With no rule in place, the whales were still at a high risk.

LAURA ENGLEBY: There's a lot that NOAA is doing, and there's also a lot more that needs to be done.

EISNER: That was Laura Engleby. She's the chief of NOAA's marine mammal branch in the southeast. She acknowledged that NOAA was limited in its staff and resources but said they're trying to raise awareness in other ways, like putting part of the whale we saw in the warehouse on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

ENGLEBY: It's a symposium to really bring together how important these sort of unknown whales are. I mean, it's a really big deal to think that that whale that stranded in the Everglades is going to be featured at the Ocean Hall exhibit.

EISNER: Back in the bone collection, Michael McGowen explains which parts of the whale will be at the museum.

MCGOWEN: We'll have its baleen on display. There's a piece of plastic, actually, that was found in its gut that will be on display and some sort of life-sized representation.

EISNER: That's open to the public now. But if measures to protect Rice's whales aren't enacted soon, conservationists believe the only place to see the whales will be inside a museum.

Chiara Eisner, NPR News.


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