Heather Heenehan M.E.M. ’11 still remembers a certain trip to the beach quite vividly. She was only three at the time, and caught a glimpse of dolphin fins in the water. “My little legs kicked off, and I ran into the water,” she says, “and I stood there screaming, ‘I’m in the water with them!’”
This emotional connection has grown into an almost spiritual affinity, and it’s driven her to the revelation that our society is dangerously unaware of the full impact of modern life on the oceans. She wrote her undergraduate honors thesis at the University of Connecticut on the effects of routine ordnance testing on dolphin echolocation and communication. And, in May, while the world was watching sea turtles and seabirds drenched in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, Heenehan began a month-long fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researching the effects of the spill on sperm whales.
After conducting a survey of whaling logbooks from centuries past, Heenehan found that, historically, the Gulf of Mexico had been teeming with tens of thousands of sperm whales. Today the sperm whale is an endangered species there, reduced to a single isolated population of 1,700. Unfortunately, one of the densest concentrations of sperm whales—a historic “hotspot” for whalers—happens to be near the epicenter of the oil spill.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” Heenehan says. “I didn’t want it to be true, but I had to think about it.”
Whales become covered in oil as they swim through the spill, and they inhale lungfuls of fumes when they breathe, she says. One study on the killer whales of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil in 1989, showed that up to 40 percent of the population was lost. Those most vulnerable were also those most vital to a population: breeding females and juveniles. In Prince William Sound, the majority of the casualties were in those two groups, and, more than twenty years later, the population has yet to recover. Heenehan fears that the same may happen to the sperm whales in the gulf.
Heenehan is in Hawaii working on her master’s thesis on the famously athletic spinner dolphin, which prefers the same clear, shallow bays as tourists. Sightseeing boats and people swimming with the dolphins do not allow them enough time to rest and socialize.
The pairing of oil spills and sperm whales, tourism and dolphins may seem odd, but Heenehan believes they deserve years of study. She seems to have fuel enough; the pure energy of that toddler on the beach hasn’t left her to this day. “Yesterday,” she says, “we saw the spinners for the first time. I was so excited, I was just screaming. I was in my glory, sitting on a rock watching them.”