Study Finds "Endangered" Whales in Offshore Lease Blocks off Crete

Bay of Balos, Crete (Moonik / CC BY SA 3.0)
Bay of Balos, Crete (Moonik / CC BY SA 3.0)

Published Oct 29, 2023 9:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

Plans by Greece to advance hydrocarbon exploration off its coast face new opposition after a new survey showed that endangered whales and dolphins live in the area year-round.

The survey indicates that at least four species, including the regionally endangered sperm whale, live in the deep waters of the Hellenic Trench in both summer and winter. Previously, various cetacean species were known to inhabit the Hellenic Trench in the summer but little was known about their winter whereabouts.

The research, carried out in 2021-22 by the University of Exeter, Greenpeace Greece and the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, could affect plans by Greece to advance offshore gas and oil exploration activities. ExxonMobil and Greece's biggest oil refiner, HelleniQ Energy, are currently reviewing the results of seismic surveys carried out in two offshore concessions west and southwest of Crete that were completed in February this year. Seismic company PGS undertook the 2D surveys in two blocks where ExxonMobil and HelleniQ Energy hold exploration rights for gas.

The companies intend to advance the project by moving to the next stage, which entails collection of 3D seismic data. This will determine whether the operators will begin drilling with a test well, which is expected in early 2025.

Scientists who used two Greenpeace vessels to carry out visual and acoustic surveys of the Hellenic Trench, including the two blocks, now believe that gas and oil exploration in the area would threaten the local cetacean populations. Using sightings and computer analysis of audio recordings, the research team confirmed the presence of endangered sperm whales, cuvier's beaked whales (classified as “vulnerable” in the Mediterranean), Risso's dolphins, striped dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins. They also confirmed another 224 recordings of unidentified dolphins.

“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,” said Kostis Grimanis of Greenpeace Greece.

Whales and dolphins are already threatened by ship strikes, noise, bycatch, pollution and warming waters.  Noise, in particular, is a major threat: certain whale species like the cuvier's beaked whale are known to be vulnerable to human-made noise, including the air guns used for seismic surveys.

“These combined threats could affect populations of whales and dolphins that rely on the Hellenic Trench as key habitat,” said Kirsten Thompson, a marine scientist at the University of Exeter. She added that based on the findings, seismic surveys and drilling would be at odds with conservation.

Earlier this year, Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas said that his office has "high expectations" for the potential gas production from the lease area, and that it could help improve the EU's energy supply.  

Top image: Bay of Balos, Crete (Moonik / CC BY SA 3.0)