Report from the Gulf of Mexico: Year 2, Day 35

Ocean Alliance research vessel Odyssey – offshore in the Gulf of Mexico in summer 2011 – reports on its work studying effects of the Gulf oil spill.

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. They will be at sea for two to three months studying the health of Gulf of Mexico wildlife, particularly the two resident Gulf whale populations – Bryde’s and sperm whales. The following is one of the daily blogs posted by the crew.

(July 12, 2011) Today seemed as if it was going to be another day full of nothing and no whales. The water was the flattest it has been yet, resembling a very large lake – very good conditions for spotting whales, if there were any around. It seemed as the day went on that there weren’t. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything that we could even document in our sightings log – other than the occasional piece of trash.

The water was flat – just right for spotting whales. Image Credit: Odyssey

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During my first afternoon shift, I spotted some dorsal fins and blows in the distance. They were clearly not sperm whales but also didn’t appear to be dolphins – so we decided to investigate. The unidentified cetaceans seemed to remain at the surface, even when we came closer. Capt. Bob identified them as pilot whales – which we are permitted to biopsy. So, with the boss’s permission, we decided to make an attempt.

Unidentified cetaceans turned out to be pilot whales. Image Credit: Odyssey

These whales were smaller than sperm whales – the largest being maybe half the size of a sperm whale. Yet their dorsal fins were much larger than those of the sperm whales. They didn’t seem to mind our approach, and actually seemed curious about us as they swam around the front of the boat. Biopsying a whale takes a lot of patience – one must wait for a good angle, a good approach and then for the whale to arch its back to expose the area we aim to biopsy (just below or behind the dorsal fin).

‘Biopsying a whale takes a lot of patience – one must wait for a good angle, a good approach, and then for the whale to arch its back to expose the area we aim to biopsy (just below or behind the dorsal fin).’ Image Credit: Odyssey

Typically when whales are swimming at the surface, the only parts exposed are the area between their blowhole and their dorsal – that is, until they start to dive. The same was true with the pilot whales, only they didn’t arch very much, and they moved around a lot. There were seven whales, and each surfaced at different times. They hardly exposed any part of their body below their dorsal, and barely enough behind – we would have to wait for one of the whales to line itself up in front of us at the right angle and then shallow dive (which they did rather frequently). The other difficulty was their number – because there were so many of them, it became difficult to choose which one was in the best spot to biopsy.

My heart was pounding in my ears as we made our first approach and watched the whales swim around in front of us – [I was] worried about getting so close and missing a rare opportunity but not wanting to rush it and accidently biopsy one in the wrong area. Patience has become a virtue of mine, and one of the whales swam perpendicular right in front of me, started to dive under and exposed its back – arrow released, successful biopsy! We stopped to pick up our arrows, and the pilot whales kept moving.

‘Because there were so many of them, it became difficult to choose which one was in the best spot to biopsy.’ Image Credit: Odyssey

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Then a huge school of mahi-mahi swam up to us – at least 30 fish, all fairly large. I’ve never seen Ian move so fast – he went from the bowsprit to the aft deck in seconds to grab a hand line, tie on a lure and return to the foredeck to start fishing. Nick, Shouping, and Capt. Bob focused on getting the arrows; I focused on keeping track of the whales; Jane, Nate, Sandy and Bradford watched the fishing.

Just after doing whale biopsies, the crew saw a school of mahi-mahi swim toward the boat. Image Credit: Odyssey

After the arrows were in, most of the attention went to fishing. Mahi-mahi are beautiful fish, very tasty, and very exciting to catch. Ian landed one, Nick grabbed the dip net and started to pull it in but wasn’t fast enough, and the fish jumped out and got away. Immediately Ian started fishing again. Within a couple minutes he had hooked another. This time I was ready with the bridge net (a net that looks like a large bucket at the end of a rope).

The crew captures a mahi-mahi. Image Credit: Odyssey

Ian pulled the fish in close to the boat, I lowered the net into the water, Ian led the fish over the net, and as soon as it was above the net, I hauled it in like a flash and almost threw the fish into a couple people. Then I tackled the fish to prevent it from jumping out of the boat, and a mad scramble started while people looked for the fish billy or something I could use to kill it – still fishing, Ian hollered to use my hand. So I did. I made a fist and used it as a club. I got covered in fish blood, but the fish was not going to be jumping out of the boat any time soon.

John prepares to dissect the fish. Image Credit: Odyssey

With the fish on deck and the others seeming less interested in the lure, I relocated the whales and decided it was time to make our second approach. The whales were about 100 yards away, still fairly close, and were remaining at the surface the majority of the time. Ian and I got three biopsies out of the seven whales and decided we were content – we also had difficulty distinguishing which whales we had already biopsied and didn’t want to accidentally biopsy the same one twice.

We returned to regular watches as Cathy processed the biopsies and I dissected the fish. When we finished and cleaned up, the boss gave us a chance to swim. The water was flat, clear and azure blue – and very refreshing. I challenged Nick, Cathy, and Bradford to climb the bobchain (a chain that goes from the tip of the bowsprit to the bow of the boat) – they each accepted and quickly realized that it was not as easy as I made it look – Nick was the only one to defeat the challenge.

Climbing the bobchain for fun. Image Credit: Odyssey

After the swim, we had two more hours of watches. At the end of those, I decided to toss in our large plankton tow net for awhile. One thing I’ve learned from this year’s and last year’s trips is that sometimes if I try something just out of curiosity, I find out something pretty cool. One example from last year was finding all the fish under a large piece of plastic – this year it was discovering that I can catch some pretty cool stuff in the plankton net. Last time I caught a couple of fish (including a pufferfish). This time I caught enough moon jellyfish to fill a five-gallon bucket! I certainly wouldn’t need that many, but it was rather exciting. Nick and I sat down to sort through the jellyfish and little fish that came along with them, occasionally throwing one of the jellyfish at each other and laughing (moon jellyfish don’t sting). After collecting our samples, we tossed all the other jellyfish back and turned inside for dinner.

Our current position is 28.457 N, 89.151 W, headed for Biloxi, MS.

Blog by John Wise, Jr. Mr. Wise is a student at the Wise Lab of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine, and a member of the 2011 crew of the research vessel Odyssey.

Read Odyssey‘s daily blog posts from Ocean Alliance

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

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

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