Deep Sea Canyon Rangers, Guardians of Ocean Realms

Far out on the Atlantic Ocean, about 160 miles southeast of Nantucket, the morning light revealed that the sea had changed from cold gun metal gray to a deep Mediterranean blue.   Looking out through the pilot house window, I saw a sperm whale. The rectangular black portion above the water reminded me of a railroad box car.  The blowhole was forward on the left side of head, on top just behind the perpendicular descent of the whale’s front. The back was flat and smooth no sign of a backbone, no dorsal fin. The expanse of back turned to knuckles that stepped down the tail disappearing into the water.

This was a very different beast than the whales of whale watching, the humpback, fin and minke whales. Their wheeling behaviors had become familiar. Head breaks the surface, followed by paired blow holes, ridged steeply-sided back followed by dorsal fin and sometimes lifted tail.

The sperm whale was still in the water; waves lapped at its square black brow. There was no exhalation of atomized water droplets rising in a diagonal column to fall clear of the whale. This whale was dead.

I turned around in the pilot house to see the captain stripped down to his shorts standing on one foot while maneuvering the other foot into a wet suit held spread by his two hands. The Captain was also a jeweler with an interest in scrimshaw. He was preparing to put on scuba gear to get some whale teeth.

There I stood, the curator of natural history of a Massachusetts museum who had brought a bit more than a dozen patrons on a three-day cruise off the continental shelf on a sperm whale watch. The dead whale was unexpected. And then, the only one who knew how to operate the boat was about to jump ship to take a quixotic swim to pluck teeth from the largest toothed jawbone in the animal kingdom with what looked to me like a Bowie knife. How could things have gone so wrong?  How could this distant ocean realm be better managed so one would no longer find one out of three whales sighted floating dead?

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A Sperm Whale National Park Area or A Stove Seamount

Three times I’ve traveled across the codfish gray seas of Georges Banks, about 150 miles southeast of Nantucket, out onto the Mediterranean blue of Oceanographer’s Canyon. Every time we saw sperm whales surface, blow a spout that arched diagonally to the whale’s left, and dive.  One time we found a dead whale floating on the water likely killed by a ship strike.  This wondrous ocean realm is in great need of better management.

In 2016 President Obama did just that. He created the NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.  He left for posterity a legacy that portends to be as great as President Theodore Roosevelt creating the Grand Canyons National Monument in 1908.  While eagles soar over the infamous Arizona canyons, sperm whales dive the cold water coral canyons of the Atlantic Ocean.

The trouble is the current president has requested reports be made on the “lost opportunity costs” of having a national park area instead of letting industry cash in on more lucrative enterprises such as oil and gas drilling. Most precious of all is a high-tech metal found in rare earth minerals, tellurium.  Due partly to its high atomic number, this element is rarer than gold or platinum, and it’s in more demand.

Tellurium when combined with bismuth becomes an alloy that is used by Intel for the fastest phase change memory chips.  When tellurium is combined with cadmium the result is the alloy with the greatest efficiencies for solar cell electric power generation.

In the Atlantic Ocean off the continent, four seamounts rise up from the ocean abyssal floor, Bear Seamount (3,615 ft), Physalia Seamount (6,062 ft), Retriever Seamount (5,967 ft.), and Mytilus Seamount (7,444 ft).  Each has its own unique assemblages of animals.  The craggy peaks are gnarly with black basalt.  This volcanic rock is very porous and soaks up rare earth minerals from seawater.  Over the millennia a crust is formed rich in tellurium.

Tellurium is mined from ancient seamounts in the mountains of China.  China will not permit the export of tellurium forcing companies to manufacture solar cells and computer chips in China.  The solar cell industry was looking to New England’s seamounts when Obama wisely went around Congress to create the monument.  He forced the industries to look instead to recovering tellurium from discarded solar panels and computer boards, as a company in Belgium does, or to mine tellurium from Mountain Pass in California.

While industries bellied-up to China’s tellurium mines, America’s only rare-earths mineral mine at Mountain Pass California filed for bankruptcy.  No surprise, the winning bidder for America’s rare earth minerals mine has ties to the Chinese government.

Unfortunately for the spectacular ocean places off of New England’s shores, instead of standing up to China like he promised in his campaign, President Trump would rather open up our four unique seamount ocean ecosystems to mining.

The window of opportunity to comment on why the NE Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is of greater value to our nation than is mineral mining or oil drilling will close on Wednesday July 26. Speak out for the protection of these sperm whale canyons and seamounts.  We can find better ways to keep the glow on our screens and panels.