Disturbing findings from a study conducted by Greenpeace Research Laboratories, the University of Exeter, Greenpeace Greece, and the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute have revealed the year-round presence of endangered whales and dolphins in a section of the Mediterranean earmarked for oil and gas exploration.
This discovery raises concerns about the environmental impact of such activities on these vulnerable marine species.
The Hellenic Trench, located off Greece, has long been known as a summer habitat for various cetacean species. However, until now, little information was available regarding their winter whereabouts.
This dearth of knowledge has been used to justify seismic surveys during the winter months, which have the potential to harm these marine mammals.
The research, published in the journal Endangered Species Research, highlights the urgent need for environmental considerations in the face of oil and gas exploration plans that could endanger the very creatures inhabiting the Mediterranean's depths.
Conducted between 2021-2022, the study revealed that at least four species, including the regionally endangered sperm whale, inhabit the deep waters of the Hellenic Trench throughout both summer and winter.
Dr Kirsten Thompson, one of the researchers involved, said there were multiple threats facing these marine creatures.
"The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seas on the planet, and whales and dolphins are already threatened by ship strikes, overfishing, bycatch, pollution with chemicals and plastics, and climate change. Noise pollution, including ship engines, military sonar, and 'air guns' used in oil and gas surveys, poses a significant threat," Thompson said.
The shallow waters of the Hellenic Trench have been designated as an Important Marine Mammal Area due to their ecological significance.
In light of the research findings, concerns are mounting that seismic surveys and oil and gas extraction in the region could seriously undermine conservation efforts.
Dr Alexandros Frantzis, Scientific Director of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, warned, "The local population of Cuvier's beaked whales, after decades of repeated mass strandings due to military sonar use, is declining, as are the striped dolphins that inhabit the Hellenic Trench. Seismic surveys and gas and oil exploration in the area will be the 'coup de grace' for the local cetacean populations".
Kostis Grimanis of Greenpeace Greece added, "This important research demonstrates clearly that endangered whales and dolphins live year-round in an area of the Mediterranean of huge ecological importance. The choice to follow through with oil and gas drilling in those waters will not only be detrimental to our collective fight against the climate crisis but also to our collective efforts to conserve and protect those iconic species of marine biodiversity."
The researchers conducted visual and acoustic surveys of large areas of the Hellenic Trench, including blocks designated for seismic surveys and potential oil and gas exploration.
Additionally, the proposed EastMed gas pipeline, set to connect eastern Mediterranean gas reserves to Greece, could further impact the region.
The study also confirmed the presence of endangered sperm whales, vulnerable Cuvier's beaked whales, Risso's dolphins, striped dolphins, and rough-toothed dolphins.
Moreover, they recorded an additional 224 unidentified dolphins, making it challenging to distinguish between species.