Report from the Gulf of Mexico: Year 2, Day 32

In summer 2011, for the second year in a row, the research vessel Odyssey is offshore in the Gulf of Mexico with a crew of researchers studying effects of the Gulf oil spill. The following is one of the daily blogs posted by the crew.

(July 9, 2011) Ouch! Today started early. I had finally, finally found a deep sleep – my first on this voyage – when Sandy came down the hall screaming like a banshee “Whales, whales, whales!” I stumbled out of bed in a fog. I could hear Johnny complaining “How far? How far? When you call whales you need to say how far!!!”

Aboard the Odyssey. Image Credit: Ocean Alliance.

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His point was true. Distance tells us how fast we have to move. A few hundred yards is a bolt to the deck. A mile means there is time to dress and grab a snack. Two miles means come and get me later as the whale will likely fluke before we get there. No distance was called so I rapidly dressed and raced up bleary-eyed.

In the pilot house they told me the call was half a mile – somewhere between bolt and take your time. I guess I’d call it “hurry.” I went outside to look to decide how much to urge my biopsiers to move. I couldn’t see the whale anywhere. I asked Bob. He estimated maybe two miles. The students were off as they were using binoculars to gauge the distance. Things are, of course, much closer in binoculars.

I went back in for juice. Another whale call. One-fourth a mile this time. Bob said “more like a mile.” But close enough and indeed we had our first sample of the morning.

This image from 2010 shows John Wise Jr. taking aim at two sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico, with the goal of collecting whale cell samples to study the effects of the BP oil spill. Image Credit: Vicki Beaver, Ocean Alliance, University of Southern Maine.

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Second sample was at 10 a.m., a glancing shot; collected all but blubber. We thought maybe it would be a busy day. Then it got quiet. Ian and I discussed strategies. We would see whales two or three miles off, but rarely closer. Every once in a while we’d get close enough for everyone to man positions, but always a fluke before we were quite there. The team was very frustrated.

Then the clock hit 6:40 p.m., a fateful moment in our quest. Most of us were in the salon and Ian was at the helm. I was sitting at the foot of the stairs just below the helm. Ian told me it was time to assemble the team for the whale was close. I called whales and told everyone to move it. They did.

There, up on the bow, was a whale spy hopping to peek at us. We approached. It dove – standard pattern for the day. Bob and I discussed how the whales were unusually skittish in the Gulf, likely due to all of the shipping traffic. The whale surfaced again. It checked us out with lots of loud clicking, clearly curious as to what we were.

I asked Bob to keep the slow speed we were doing, as when we ramp up the speed, the engine emits a high-speed whine. I figured that was making them skittish. Bob agreed. We approached and the whale remained. The approach worked. We had a sample! It was 7 pm.

Suddenly, someone saw three whales, then four, then five! Work became frenetic and complicated. Radio batteries died, forcing communication from the deck and mast with the captain to pass verbally through me. Much like olden days, Ian, the first mate, would shout instructions from the bowsprit and I would repeat them in a shout to the Captain. The Captain would ask me a question. I would repeat it in a shout to Ian. He would shout the answer to me and so on.

It is at these times that my role becomes busy as many pieces require positioning and communication. I had:
– Two of the crew in the lab working samples;
– Two of the crew on the midlevel platform spotting whales;
– Two of the crew in the bow/whale boom sampling;
– One of the crew taking pictures;
– One of the crew on the helm; and
– Two of the crew racing between recording data, collecting arrows, cleaning and preparing arrows, collecting buoys and taking pictures.

‘At one point we had so many buoys and rings in the water – it looked like we had our own ocean golf course.’

All were talking at once about different and similar things! Wow! We were busy, working, yelling and laughing all at once – having great success and the time of our life. At one point we had so many buoys and rings in the water it looked like we had our own ocean golf course (see picture at left).

It was crazy busy with whales, arrows and buoys everywhere and crew racing back and forth. One second on port, the next racing to starboard, no wait back to port! and so on. We were the Keystone Kops of whale biopsying!

The urgency was simple. We had little light and little time and had to launch arrows and buoys and then collect them, process them and clean them while we had so many whales and chances.

One hour and 15 minutes after the first sample, the light was gone. We had collected nine biopsies in an hour and 15 minutes and retrieved all arrows and buoys! We were tired, thirsty, and hungry, but we were jubilant for such a successful and memorable day!

John Wise, Sr. of University of Southern Maine is science director of the Odyssey‘s 2011 research mission in the Gulf of Mexico. Image Credit: Ocean Alliance.

The day ended with music, laughter and a recounting of favorite moments of two hours with a bunch of whales accompanied by a tasty spaghetti dinner.

Our biopsy total on this leg is 32 and our overall total is 36 sperm whales and one Bryde’s whale.


P.S. We are off Louisiana finding sperm whales. Our current location is 27 degrees 38.4 minutes North and 91 degrees 05.8 minutes West, for those who want to track us as we go. For Google maps (not Google Earth but maps) use (include letters and comma): 27.384 N, 91.058 W.

Blog by: John Wise, Sr., Science Director. Dr. John Wise is the principal investigator of the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology. He is a professor of toxicology and molecular epidemiology in the Department of Applied Medical Sciences, and director of the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health at the University of Southern Maine.

Read Odyssey’s daily blog posts from Ocean Alliance

Nancy Rabelais: Why the 2011 Gulf of Mexico dead zone might be the biggest ever

July 14, 2011

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