In January of 2016, a killer whale affectionately named Lulu washed up dead on the Scottish island of Tiree. Tangled in fishing rope, it looked as though her death wasn’t an easy one–authorities assumed that the rope prevented her from swimming properly and she slowly drowned. Now, a new report about her death has brought something even scarier to light: the PCBs in Lulu’s body were 100 times higher than the minimum toxic level.
The public reaction was huge when she died. Thousands were affected by heartbreaking images of the whale, who was part of a pod called the West Coast Community. Because its members are bigger than the average killer whale, the isolated group is interesting to researchers. With Lulu’s death, however, the population fell to just eight: Nicola, Moneypenny, Floppy Fin, John Coe, Comet, Aquarius, Puffin, and Occasus. Researchers worry that the pod might be too small to survive much longer, effectively making this very small population of orcas extinct.
Dr.Conor Ryan, who works for the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, has been keeping tabs on the West Coast Community for over two decades. “The prospects for the population were never good but now they’re worse,” he said after Lulu’s death. “With a population as low as eight the chances of them recovering is slim to nil at this point.”
The findings from the recently released study are pretty shocking. “The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, managed by SRUC, has found that a killer whale found dead on Tiree had one of the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) pollution ever recorded,” the authors wrote. “Analysis of Lulu’s blubber revealed PCB concentrations 100 times higher than the accepted PCB toxicity threshold for marine mammals.”
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for those that don’t know, are really bad little things. They make their way into everything–a recent study found them in creatures living at the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean–and are basically banned in most parts of the world. The ban, though, only came after years of creating them. For decades, we used them in just about everything. From televisions to microscopes and refrigerators to dust deterrents, chances are good that PCBs were in it. In the ’70s, though, researchers began to look a little closer and discovered that they build up in living organisms, getting stored in fatty tissues. PCBs have been linked to cancer, infertility, and neurological disorders. They don’t degrade naturally, so nearly every little bit we made since we started pumping them out in the 1920s is still out there somewhere, floating around inside you, in that bird flying overhead, or in that piece of fish you ate last night.
Tests on Lulu revealed that when she died, she had 957 milligrams of PCB per kilogram of blubber, a number that’s way, way higher than anyone has ever seen in a marine mammal. The killer whale was 20 when she died. By all estimates, she should have had a calf by that age, but PCBs are known to cause infertility. In 23 years, not one calf has been spotted in the pod, leading researchers to speculate that the entire pod may be infertile.
“Lulu’s apparent infertility is an ominous finding for the long-term survivability of this group; with no new animals being born, it is now looking increasingly likely that this small group will eventually go extinct,” Dr. Andrew Brownlow, veterinary pathologist at Scotland’s Rural College, who helped analyze Lulu, said in a statement. “One of the factors in this groups’ apparent failure to reproduce could be their high burden of organic pollutants.”