The Court Blocks Shell: Stop Seismic Investigations in South African Waters. Migrant Whales Are Safe for Now.

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The court blocks Shell: stop seismic investigations in South African waters. Migrant whales are safe for now. 

A South African Court has blocked the invasive sememic investigations that oil giant Shell had planned to investigate for the presence of new offshore oil deposits off the coast of South Africa, which are crossed every year by whales during migration. The impact on local populations and the local economy was fundamental to the judges’ decision. An international petition to block the investigations had collected almost 450,000 signatures. 

Dolphins, seals, sharks and penguins are the inhabitants of its coasts. But it is mainly whales that populate its waters. South Africa’s Wild Coast is one of the most incredible places in the world where you can still be enchanted by the magic of whale watching. Right here, in fact, the great cetaceans migrate from the cold Arctic waters, and from June until the end of November is an endless repetition of pirouettes and jumps in the warm waters in front of Cape Town that guarantees one of the most beautiful shows in the world.

The court blocks Shell: stop seismic investigations in South Africa

And it is precisely on the enchantment of this paradise, considered a heritage of biodiversity without equal, that was going to break the seismic investigations that from December 1 the oil company Shell wanted to start to look for oil or gas deposits along the entire eastern coast, from Morgan Bay to Port St. Johns.

An environmental disaster was announced, which was firmly opposed by ecological fringes and local populations and that finally led to the project being terminated. The seismic wave oil exploration off the Wild Coast, in fact, was considered «flawed and illegitimate» by the High Court of Makhanda, which ordered the multinational to immediately stop operations and pay all court costs.

The court blocks Shell: stop seismic investigations in South Africa

Shell’s Offshore Exploration

Shell Exploration and Production South Africa intended “to have commissioned Shearwater GeoServices, to begin a three-dimensional seismic investigation (3D) within its Transkei Exploration Area off the east coast of South Africa no earlier than 1 December 2021.”

“The investigation – the document explained – will be conducted under Exploration Right 12/3/252 and will cover an area of approximately 6 011 km2 located approximately between Port St Johns and Morgans Bay. The survey area is located more than 20 km from the coast at the nearest point at water depths between 700 and 3 000 m. It is expected that the seismic investigation will take in the order of four to five months to complete, depending on the current weather conditions”.

To oppose the potentially disastrous havoc for the ecosystem and the economic impact on local populations, the activists of Oceans Not Oil, from November to today, have collected almost 450 thousand signatures against the project, addressing the international petition to South Africa’s Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy, and the Anglo-Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell.

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Activists’ No to a Huge Disaster

“For five months, the vessel operated by the charterers of Shell Exploration and Shearwater GeoServices (paid for by Production SA), would have drag up to 48 compressed air guns across 6,011 km² of the ocean surface, firing extremely strong shock wave emissions that penetrate 3 km of water and 40 km in the Earth’s crust below the seabed” explained the activists of Oceans not Oil coalition of individuals and organizations that have united to oppose the continued dependence on fossil fuels in South Africa. The ship would be active for 24 hours a day, firing shockwaves every 10 seconds. In the process, the marine life of the fragile Wild Coast, in panic, will be deafened and damaged”.

This would be a huge disaster for marine mammals, which have relied on acoustic communication as their main communication channel.

“Marine mammals live in a medium that transmits little light but through which sound spreads well and quickly, even at great distances. This is why marine mammals rely on sound to communicate, investigate the environment, find prey and avoid obstacles – explains the Interdisciplinary Center of Bioacoustics and Environmental Research of the University of Pavia. 

By increasing the level, the sound can disturb the animals and induce removal or other behavioural changes. If animals for any reason cannot avoid a source of noise, they may be exposed to acoustic conditions capable of producing adverse effects, ranging from discomfort and stress to actual acoustic damage with hearing loss, temporary or permanent. Exposure to very loud noises, such as explosions at a short distance, can produce physical damage to other organs as well as auditory ones”.

The court blocks Shell: stop seismic investigations in South Africa

International research that confirms the damage of noise pollution

But what happens when there is too much noise in the sea? An international research investigation led by the Polytechnic of Turin and the University of Melbourne explained that when there is too much noise, whales “speak less” and have difficulty communicating with each other.

The work, published in the scientific journal Royal Society Interface, was conducted by Kevin Painter and Stuart who together studied the effects of man-made noise pollution among Minke whales, specimens of lesser whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in the North Sea.

In this case, too many noises caused by the exploration of oil and natural gas deposits as well as by maritime traffic create the greatest problems for local whales. This is, therefore, the same kind of problem that would have been faced by cetaceans crossing South African waters if the court had not stopped Shell’s experiments.

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Reasons for the Judgment

However, it was not purely animal-related or ecological reasons that led the judge to issue a judgment against the Shell project, Instead, a series of considerations on the impact that these investigations would have had on the lives of the indigenous peoples of the area.

“Shell had the duty to consult with the communities that would have been affected by the seismic investigation” in fact, ruled Gerald Bloem, “The population has the right on that stretch of coast also for a special spiritual and cultural connection with the ocean.”

The judge, therefore, wanted to underline how destroying the current balance of fauna and flowers would bring a huge impact on the livelihood of those who live in this little touristy and very wild area of South Africa. 

However, whatever the reason for the obligation to stop investigating deep into the waters off the African coast, the result is that at least for now whales, and with them, dolphins, seals and sharks can sleep peacefully and be observed, from afar, as they move freely in their natural habitat.

We need to understand that we rely on the oceans for almost every part of our daily lives. The use of seismic waves to explore for oil and gas is completely selfish and puts the biggest and oldest animals in our oceans at risk of becoming extinct. We forget how integrated our ecosystems are, by removing whales, dolphins and sharks, we put also our economic systems at risk. 

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