To the surprise of marine biologists, a significant number of endangered sperm whales appear to be making a permanent home in the Gulf of Mexico near the dangerously busy mouth of the Mississippi River.
Their emergence within a few miles of the Louisiana coast is remarkable because sperm whales rarely hunt close to shore or stay in one place for long.
Scientists are launching at least two research voyages to study the whales' habits and learn why these waters have become an oasis. The studies will cost at least $1 million and may continue through 2003. One venture will use a decommissioned anti-submarine ship that runs silently.
As they have done in earlier studies, biologists will attach digital tags to track the whales by satellite. They also will collect skin samples for DNA tests to determine whether the whales are newcomers or have lived in the northern Gulf for generations.
The presence of 500 or so of the leviathans some of them bigger than a Greyhound bus belies the northern Gulf's reputation as a growing "dead zone" of low-oxygen water where marine life is being smothered.
"The Gulf was thought to be a simple and unproductive ecosystem, but it is full of surprises," said Robert Gisiner of the Office of Naval Research, an arm of the Navy. "These great big, deep-water whales are living there year-round."
That is not necessarily welcome news. The sea south of New Orleans is a floating interstate highway, with whales squarely in the path of supertankers, barges, trawlers and warships.
The rare marine mammals could be on a collision course with the Bush administration, too. The northern Gulf is one of the world's most important oil fields. Drilling in deeper waters is a crucial part of the White House's plan to expand energy production.
Industry officials say companies are exploring and drilling safely around the whales in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sperm whales were made famous by Herman Melville in "Moby-Dick." Nearly everything about them is super-sized. An adult male measures 50 feet long and weighs up to 50 tons. It can remain underwater for more than hour.