Monthly Archives

July 2012

It's been an amazing adventure, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 55, July 18, 2012

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Day 55, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Yesterday marked the anniversary of our launch in 2010. It’s been an amazing adventure since then.

As befitting its name, when you work on a boat like Odyssey you learn that there are certain legends of the ship of whom stories are told in heroic style like the epic Greek poem with which it shares it’s name. There are the wonders of the marine life. There are the unique voyages, the Alaska trip, the Galapagos expedition, the global voyage and so on. Then there are the people, you have heard about many in my emails of the past three years, Roger Payne, Iain Kerr, Captain Bob Wallace, Josh Jones and others. They are the history and adventure of the boat.

After three trips and 254 biopsies, these three Gulf voyages have earned their place among Odyssey lore. With the amazing whales, dolphins, turtles, fish, jellies and so on the wildlife has fulfilled its glory and earned its place in the tales. Certainly, with the unprecedented sampling success in both amount and different types and the weather and equipment challenges, the trips have earned their place too. But beyond them, I think three people have now earned their way in the Pantheon of Odyssey legends.

The first and foremost is Johnny. He came to sea with absolutely no experience at sea or with whales. He’d never held a crossbow or sat a watch or done any of the myriad of jobs at sea. he’d rarely ever seen a whale. Yet, with the oil gushing into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, he was one of the four students to immediately join. He volunteered with no pay for the entire 4 months of the voyage, forgoing the usual summer fun that goes with the undergraduate years of college. He volunteered again in year 2 and took on greater duties as science team leader. This time he was on for the entire 3 months of the voyage. Of course, he was here again this year.

With each leg and each voyage and each year, I would add capacity and complexity to the project. He became my right hand and my go to guy whenever I had to have something done. We now sample so many different things and Johnny was my hands for each one, adapting and revising with me the collection methods for all that we do. Much of what we do here at sea, we had never done before and the boat had not been used to do such work. But with Johnny, and Captain Bob, we were always able to add the capacity, modify the boat and collect the samples. Johnny has been my right hand at my side throughout this most incredible journey. He has done it in brilliant style.

It is impossible to give you a full accounting of all that he had done and how much his has meant to the success of this adventure. But here are a few, he took 200 biopsies including 100 in this summer alone. He was so remarkably comfortable and accurate this year, I even saw him reach under the deer stand seat and biopsy backwards as a whale swam behind him. Over the three voyages, he logged near a couple of hundred hours of the 4-6 am helm watch, between 600 and 700 hours on the mast looking for whales and some similar huge amount of hours sitting on the whale boom. He spent 242 days away from home on these trips most of that unpaid. He also wrote a regular email most days. Captain Bob said last night, he figures Johnny may have taken more sperm whale biopsies than anyone else in the world. A remarkable set of accomplishments for a remarkable kid. Great work Johnny!

Our second new legend is our remarkable cook Sandy. I remember well her introduction to being the cook on the boat. Our prior cook had left with about 24 hours notice. I called Sandy. I said “I need a cook, tomorrow. It has to be you. There is no one else.” She had never been to sea and had never cooked on a boat. But ,there was nowhere else to turn in that time frame while speeding toward the oil crisis. She reluctantly agreed and came. She also came to help me with the science.

In that time, more than 60 people have dined on her meals. All have raved. Favorites include enchilada’s, pot roast, mini meatloaves, macaroni and cheese and on and on. Dinner is always a highlight of the day. The food competes with the whales for raves.

But, Sandy does not stop there. If there is a food allergy or dietary preference, she makes sure those needs are met too. I think she may have invented the snack treasure chest which is beloved by all. If not, she certainly keeps is stocked better than ever before. On top of that, she makes deserts and occasional snacks in the middle of the day. Yesterday, as Bob and I brainstormed on the oil cooler it was fresh baked cookies just the delight needed to help with the ideas. She also ensures a full stock of freeze pops and as you know, freeze pops are the key to science at sea success! What can I say Sandy? After 22 years of marriage, three kids, a soccer life and then a science career and then you manage this too? Awesome.

Finally, there is Cathy. Fresh out of her freshman year of college, she followed me out to sea as one of my four volunteers to tackle this oil spill. She had also never been to sea. She logged many hours on the mast and a bunch on the helm. But, her main task was to do what no one ever had. A task everyone said could not be done. She would try to grow whale cells on a sailboat while at sea. As if that was not enough, the air conditioning had failed as she would do it in temperatures above 90 while the rest of us where on whales on deck. The boat would also be rocking like crazy. Amazingly, she did it. She started the lab and that led us to the discovery of the chromosome anomalies we are seeing in the whales. She got the lab working in the 2010 voyage and transferred it to me when she left. She then ran it all of the 2011 voyage. She was exceptional and groundbreaking. Nice job Cathy!

Thanks to all three of you for being a big reason for our stunning success over these past 3 years.

We made it in. Our trip is done for this year. I have to head out to some work in California and then Sandy and I will return to the boat. Pack up the lab and make the long drive home.

It was a remarkable expedition this year. We took 108 biopsies (yes Johnny took all but 8). We did it in the least number of sea days, 31, including days in and out of port when little sampling could be done and days on the water lost to an oil cooler. In 2010, our first voyage, we averaged 0.88 biopsies a sea day. In this 2012 voyage, despite some challenging impediments, we averaged a whopping 3.5 biopsies per sea day!  That is essentially a 400% improvement over three voyages. We have become quite good at what we do!. We of course continued to collect samples of air, water, prey and other life in the Gulf and this year there were more than 1200 samples of all of those combined.

On behalf of myself and my expedition partner, Iain Kerr, thanks to Captain Bob, Hugh Ike, Sandy, Johnny and all of our science crew this year, Tania, Carolyne, Matt, Madison, Amanda, Leah, Lou, Louis, Jaimyal, Conor and Mukhaye. Thanks also to our Wise Laboratory land support Amie Holmes, James Wise, Chris Gianios, Hong Xie  and all the rest of our lab members who all help and are too numerous to list here.. You all helped make this one a memorable year! We appreciate your hard work. We also tip our cap to leadership of both the University of Southern Maine and Ocean Alliance and all of our funders for all of their support. Thank you.

I am not sure what next year will bring. We will be in the Gulf of Maine sampling humpback, fin and right whales in the fall. We are starting a research program in Vieques, Puerto Rico. There we will set up and land-based research lab in partnership with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and a couple of key Foundations and be studying bioluminescence, corals, sea turtles and whales (Hola Lirio, Mark, Angel and Mark!). We hope to back here for our 4th Gulf trip. One thing is for sure, it will be a busy time. We will try to continue to share the adventures with you!

I want to close with two special thank yous. My son James was also one of my first four volunteers. He worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the voyage and beyond raising funds, preparing supplies and training for hazardous waste duty and doing whatever needed to be done. He setup and maintains the Facebook page and the lab webpage posting the logs as fast as he can. He maintains our house, and our pets. He saved the 2010 samples when Fedex nearly lost them. He is in constant touch with me every day while I am away. He is a key and often unnoticed member of this team. But, he is invaluable. Thanks James for all you have done! We could not have done this without you.

Finally, last but not least by any means, my partner and friend Iain Kerr. Iain, words cannot quite do justice for all you and I have done and gone through together these past few years both thick and thin. So let’s just leave it simply at this – Thank You, my friend. You put your heart and soul into all of it and it shows. Take a bow, you have earned one.

With that, I wish you all well and a great rest of the summer. Thank you all for listening, for your thoughts and prayers, for your words of encouragement and for your support.

Until the start of the next chapter,

Good Night,

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

It’s been an amazing adventure, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 55, July 18, 2012

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Day 55, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Yesterday marked the anniversary of our launch in 2010. It’s been an amazing adventure since then.

As befitting its name, when you work on a boat like Odyssey you learn that there are certain legends of the ship of whom stories are told in heroic style like the epic Greek poem with which it shares it’s name. There are the wonders of the marine life. There are the unique voyages, the Alaska trip, the Galapagos expedition, the global voyage and so on. Then there are the people, you have heard about many in my emails of the past three years, Roger Payne, Iain Kerr, Captain Bob Wallace, Josh Jones and others. They are the history and adventure of the boat.

After three trips and 254 biopsies, these three Gulf voyages have earned their place among Odyssey lore. With the amazing whales, dolphins, turtles, fish, jellies and so on the wildlife has fulfilled its glory and earned its place in the tales. Certainly, with the unprecedented sampling success in both amount and different types and the weather and equipment challenges, the trips have earned their place too. But beyond them, I think three people have now earned their way in the Pantheon of Odyssey legends.

The first and foremost is Johnny. He came to sea with absolutely no experience at sea or with whales. He’d never held a crossbow or sat a watch or done any of the myriad of jobs at sea. he’d rarely ever seen a whale. Yet, with the oil gushing into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, he was one of the four students to immediately join. He volunteered with no pay for the entire 4 months of the voyage, forgoing the usual summer fun that goes with the undergraduate years of college. He volunteered again in year 2 and took on greater duties as science team leader. This time he was on for the entire 3 months of the voyage. Of course, he was here again this year.

With each leg and each voyage and each year, I would add capacity and complexity to the project. He became my right hand and my go to guy whenever I had to have something done. We now sample so many different things and Johnny was my hands for each one, adapting and revising with me the collection methods for all that we do. Much of what we do here at sea, we had never done before and the boat had not been used to do such work. But with Johnny, and Captain Bob, we were always able to add the capacity, modify the boat and collect the samples. Johnny has been my right hand at my side throughout this most incredible journey. He has done it in brilliant style.

It is impossible to give you a full accounting of all that he had done and how much his has meant to the success of this adventure. But here are a few, he took 200 biopsies including 100 in this summer alone. He was so remarkably comfortable and accurate this year, I even saw him reach under the deer stand seat and biopsy backwards as a whale swam behind him. Over the three voyages, he logged near a couple of hundred hours of the 4-6 am helm watch, between 600 and 700 hours on the mast looking for whales and some similar huge amount of hours sitting on the whale boom. He spent 242 days away from home on these trips most of that unpaid. He also wrote a regular email most days. Captain Bob said last night, he figures Johnny may have taken more sperm whale biopsies than anyone else in the world. A remarkable set of accomplishments for a remarkable kid. Great work Johnny!

Our second new legend is our remarkable cook Sandy. I remember well her introduction to being the cook on the boat. Our prior cook had left with about 24 hours notice. I called Sandy. I said “I need a cook, tomorrow. It has to be you. There is no one else.” She had never been to sea and had never cooked on a boat. But ,there was nowhere else to turn in that time frame while speeding toward the oil crisis. She reluctantly agreed and came. She also came to help me with the science.

In that time, more than 60 people have dined on her meals. All have raved. Favorites include enchilada’s, pot roast, mini meatloaves, macaroni and cheese and on and on. Dinner is always a highlight of the day. The food competes with the whales for raves.

But, Sandy does not stop there. If there is a food allergy or dietary preference, she makes sure those needs are met too. I think she may have invented the snack treasure chest which is beloved by all. If not, she certainly keeps is stocked better than ever before. On top of that, she makes deserts and occasional snacks in the middle of the day. Yesterday, as Bob and I brainstormed on the oil cooler it was fresh baked cookies just the delight needed to help with the ideas. She also ensures a full stock of freeze pops and as you know, freeze pops are the key to science at sea success! What can I say Sandy? After 22 years of marriage, three kids, a soccer life and then a science career and then you manage this too? Awesome.

Finally, there is Cathy. Fresh out of her freshman year of college, she followed me out to sea as one of my four volunteers to tackle this oil spill. She had also never been to sea. She logged many hours on the mast and a bunch on the helm. But, her main task was to do what no one ever had. A task everyone said could not be done. She would try to grow whale cells on a sailboat while at sea. As if that was not enough, the air conditioning had failed as she would do it in temperatures above 90 while the rest of us where on whales on deck. The boat would also be rocking like crazy. Amazingly, she did it. She started the lab and that led us to the discovery of the chromosome anomalies we are seeing in the whales. She got the lab working in the 2010 voyage and transferred it to me when she left. She then ran it all of the 2011 voyage. She was exceptional and groundbreaking. Nice job Cathy!

Thanks to all three of you for being a big reason for our stunning success over these past 3 years.

We made it in. Our trip is done for this year. I have to head out to some work in California and then Sandy and I will return to the boat. Pack up the lab and make the long drive home.

It was a remarkable expedition this year. We took 108 biopsies (yes Johnny took all but 8). We did it in the least number of sea days, 31, including days in and out of port when little sampling could be done and days on the water lost to an oil cooler. In 2010, our first voyage, we averaged 0.88 biopsies a sea day. In this 2012 voyage, despite some challenging impediments, we averaged a whopping 3.5 biopsies per sea day!  That is essentially a 400% improvement over three voyages. We have become quite good at what we do!. We of course continued to collect samples of air, water, prey and other life in the Gulf and this year there were more than 1200 samples of all of those combined.

On behalf of myself and my expedition partner, Iain Kerr, thanks to Captain Bob, Hugh Ike, Sandy, Johnny and all of our science crew this year, Tania, Carolyne, Matt, Madison, Amanda, Leah, Lou, Louis, Jaimyal, Conor and Mukhaye. Thanks also to our Wise Laboratory land support Amie Holmes, James Wise, Chris Gianios, Hong Xie  and all the rest of our lab members who all help and are too numerous to list here.. You all helped make this one a memorable year! We appreciate your hard work. We also tip our cap to leadership of both the University of Southern Maine and Ocean Alliance and all of our funders for all of their support. Thank you.

I am not sure what next year will bring. We will be in the Gulf of Maine sampling humpback, fin and right whales in the fall. We are starting a research program in Vieques, Puerto Rico. There we will set up and land-based research lab in partnership with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and a couple of key Foundations and be studying bioluminescence, corals, sea turtles and whales (Hola Lirio, Mark, Angel and Mark!). We hope to back here for our 4th Gulf trip. One thing is for sure, it will be a busy time. We will try to continue to share the adventures with you!

I want to close with two special thank yous. My son James was also one of my first four volunteers. He worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the voyage and beyond raising funds, preparing supplies and training for hazardous waste duty and doing whatever needed to be done. He setup and maintains the Facebook page and the lab webpage posting the logs as fast as he can. He maintains our house, and our pets. He saved the 2010 samples when Fedex nearly lost them. He is in constant touch with me every day while I am away. He is a key and often unnoticed member of this team. But, he is invaluable. Thanks James for all you have done! We could not have done this without you.

Finally, last but not least by any means, my partner and friend Iain Kerr. Iain, words cannot quite do justice for all you and I have done and gone through together these past few years both thick and thin. So let’s just leave it simply at this – Thank You, my friend. You put your heart and soul into all of it and it shows. Take a bow, you have earned one.

With that, I wish you all well and a great rest of the summer. Thank you all for listening, for your thoughts and prayers, for your words of encouragement and for your support.

Until the start of the next chapter,

Good Night,

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Day 52 Edit, July 14, 2012

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Day 52 edited, Sunday, July14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Its 1:15 am on the east coast, but Cathy posts a careful watch over my work and found a confusing typo.  The passage should read (correction in bold & underline):

Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 42. This number is tightly regulated and maintained.

Cathy has been a night owl since she was born.  Helped me by sleeping in as a baby and now editing as an adult.

Good night again.

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A game of cellular whodunit, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 52, July 14, 2012

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Day 52, Sunday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Within a cell the DNA is maintained in structures called chromosomes. These are a combination of DNA and protein that ultimately package the DNA so that when a cell divides into two, each daughter cell gets exactly 1 set of the set of DNA instructions.

My career has been dedicated to studying the impact of pollutants like chromium, depleted uranium, nanoparticles, nickel and other chemicals on chromosomes and the DNA within them. It is a passion I discovered and an approach I learned under my mentor, Steve Patierno, who shares the same passion (Thanks Steve!). While working with Steve, and following my years with him, my major focus was understanding how these chemicals turn normal cells into tumor cells by altering chromosome structure and number, damaging DNA and altering the cellular mechanisms that regulate and protect these structures. We are still extensively involved in this work and have extended it into pioneering the study of how pollutants damage chromosomes and DNA in marine species.

Each species has a specific set number of chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes. 22 matched pairs, 11 that come from mom and 11 that come from dad. Plus 1 pair of sex chromosomes known as the X and Y chromosomes. Females are XX gaining one X from each parent. Males are XY getting an X from mom and a Y from dad.  Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 46. This number is tightly regulated and maintained. Alterations in this number can have dramatic consequences. Down’s syndrome is a consequence of a one extra chromosome (number 21). Lung cancers often have more than 60 chromosomes.

You can harvest and prepare cells so that you can see their chromosomes. Roughly speaking, in these preparations – the chromosomes look kind of like an “X” or if the arms are closed an “I”. You can chemically treat the chromosomes in the laboratory to reveal a pattern of dark and light bands that is specific to each pair of chromosomes. The patterns are not defined as simply as 1 dark followed by, 2 light followed by 1 dark or anything like that. There are too many. Instead, they are described in more abstract terms. For example, chromosome 18, when banded, looks like a gummi bear.  In our lab, it is known more as the Wallace chromosome given Captain Bob’s legendary passion for eating gummi bears. The X chromosome is known as the “girl in a bikini” because the most prominent dark bands are placed where one might imagine a bikini. The nicknames continue for each pair and really help teach chromosome recognition. Sandy excels at this analysis.

The pairs of banded chromosomes can be organized on a piece of paper or computer screen into a template called a karyotype that roughly organizes them from largest to smallest. The karyotype is unique to each species. I have attached a picture of a human karyotype that Sandy made. This one is male with an X and Y chromosome. Can you see the Wallace gummi bear chromosome (#18) and the girl in the bikini chromosome (X)? Johnny and I are working to define a variety of whale karyotypes including one for sperm whales. We have not yet devised clever names for their chromosomes as we are still learning them.

Damage to the structure of the chromosomes, which shows up as an alterations in the banding pattern, can have as dramatic consequences as alterations in chromosome numbers.

Our society has decided that the impact of damaging chromosomes is so significant that testing for a chemical’s ability to damage them is a standard test for evaluating the safety of new drugs and determining health risk. Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include chromosome damage testing as a required test in their protocols. If a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug and it damages chromosomes, it will not be approved by the FDA for use. When a company is developing a drug and it breaks chromosomes, they stop its development and move on to another. The only exception is the rare instance when the disease is so lethal the risk of chromosome damage is the lesser of two evils.

We are applying these same tests to the Gulf whales. We are finding the chromosomes in some whales are affected.  This outcome is another answer to that repeated question – What are you finding?

We have grown cell lines from each whale and assessed the status of their chromosomes. The analysis reveals different groups of whales. Some whales appear to be normal. Others appear to have their chromosomes affected. It is a major concern as aberrant chromosomes can lead to many long term negative outcomes.  We believe we have ruled out possible experimental artifacts. Thus, it suggests something out here is affecting the whales on a fundamental level.

For us in the Wise Lab, it now becomes a game of cellular whodunit as we attempt to piece together the factors that may explain what is causing this effect. It might be the metals. It might be the oil. It might be the dispersants. It might be some combination of them. We shall find out. I don’t think its global warming. But, regardless of why, the outcome is not good.

It was a slow day at sea today. The kind of day that lulls you into a quiet state. No whales on the array. No dolphins on the bow. Just the general routine of a team ascending and descending the mast looking for whales in a vast ocean space.

We did see one, maybe two. That made for some excitement as it was a beaked whale, maybe two. But, alas it was too far off and while we found it twice (or two different whales once each), we could not get close enough to sample it nor could we stay with it any further. We also saw a small sea turtle in the Sargasso weed. We did collect some samples as this team did its first Sargasso weed collection of the leg (Picture attached).

So a couple of perks to a day filled with the rhythm of a steady routine.

I’ll end tonight with the sunset (picture attached)

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.752N, 88.877W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A day at sea can be remarkable, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 51, July 14, 2012

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Day 51, Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

A day at sea can be remarkable from beginning to end even when events are somewhat unremarkable. The ocean will provide for interesting things to see and opportunities for close camaraderie.  Take today for example.

The day seemed ordinary enough for a whale group at sea. The sun was glistening in the sky. The team was busy bustling with the work of the day. A gentle breeze blew across the bow. It was a typical pleasant morning in the Gulf, albeit on where a whale had not yet been sighted. One you relish for its calm beauty and try to soak in the moments.

Yet, there was more. This morning offered the subtle and gentle sight of mirror water. Water so calm and gentle you can see yourself reflected in it as if looking in a mirror. I imagine a more sea-going wicked witch in Snow White might have used it saying, “Mirror, Mirror on the sea, who is fairest, please tell me”.  Unlikely, the answer would be Snow White out here though. Maybe Sun Tan instead? But, I digress.

Mirror water is just remarkable and you stare at it just amazed at how calm and reflective it is. It is a quiet but precious gift that jazzes up a slow day at sea. I have attached a couple of pictures of the water surface. One shows reflections of the boat, sun, clouds and whale boom. The other shows a reflection of me taking a picture of the water with the word “Research” that is painted on the side of the boat reflected as well.

Mirror water also raises the bar on the challenge of finding whales. The water is so still and the whales can be so calm in some of their movements that they are hard to see. But, find one we did. Conor spotted the dorsal fin in the distance ahead and we captured our 94th whale biopsy of the summer. The team was quick, thorough and efficient as befits a team taking its 27th biopsy of the leg.  I have attached the picture of the pending biopsy with Johnny on the whale boom and you can see how calm the water is around the whale and how little of the whale shows.  Now, picture that whale a mile off and you can understand why it’s so hard to find.  Nice job Conor!

The afternoon would be yet different.  A series of scattered thunderstorms interfered with many whale watches, but, provided the opportunity for camaraderie and fun. Lunchtime brought a warm Gulf rain and you know what that means… Yep, the Mainiacs from Maine (me and Johnny) rush out and enjoy a summer shower. Mukhaye, Jai and Ike came out and enjoyed the fun and horseplay that comes with a summer rain on deck. The two Lou’s watched us from above on the aft platform. We were soaked, but we laughed and played like little kids in a lawn sprinkler from days of yore.

Later in the day brought a team games of cards as Johnny, Lou Falank, Jai, Conor and Mukhaye gathered around the galley table for a variety of games (picture attached with them sitting in that order). Evening brought dinner and movies in the salon. It is a team that certainly enjoys each other’s company.

But, there were other outdoor amazements as well. Although, they rock the boat a bit, scattered thunderstorms bring amazing cloud formations and dancing lightning in the distance that is a marvel to watch. I have attached a picture of the view from the salon of the clouds on starboard showing the contrast between clouds and sea.  Clearing skies bring rainbows and today we were treated to a full arc of a double rainbow (picture attached of one end). Makes you wonder if whales are the treasure under those rainbows.  Kermit and Dorothy would certainly love them and seeing them can make you break out in their songs…

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?  Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.  I know they’re wrong, wait and see. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers and me.”.

and Dorothy’s song from the Wizard of Oz…

“Somewhere over the rainbow, Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, Skies are blue, And the dreams that you dare to dream Really do come true.”

They really do.

You know the songs, sing along!

Finally, there is the sunset.  Sunsets are always amazing after some weather has come through. The cloud formations are painted by the sun in the most amazing displays of colors, light and textures. Words just cannot do it justice so a picture is attached. It’s simple stunning.

I think the team is recovered now from its whale mayhem of the first two days. We will soon turn deep to find some. Let’s hope we do.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.458N, 90.699W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

So what are we finding?, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 50, July 13, 2012

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Day 50, Friday, July 13, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and released an estimated 11 million gallons of oil into the water. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. Despite the disaster, little research was done on the impact on whales beyond the immediate acute toll of whale deaths due to being covered in oil. Twenty three years later, the longer term consequences are now emerging as a pod of killer whales in the area, once healthy and strong, will soon be completely wiped out and gone. No one studied the effects of that crisis on whale DNA.

On April 20th, 2010, this Deepwater Horizon accident occurred and dramatically eclipsed the Exxon Valdez accident is size and concern. In fact, it is estimated that the an amount of oil equivalent to the Exxon Valdez accident gushed from the well head in the Gulf of Mexico every 3-4 days. The spill lasted at least 85 days or 21-28 Exxon Valdez equivalents. It was so large – you could see it from space (NASA satellite photo attached). A large follow-up spill was seen in 2011 covering several square miles and was a confirmed chemical match for the oil from Deepwater Horizon (that was the one Iain). This past March revealed a persistent leak (aka “seep”) near the epicenter. Again the major focus was on how many whales died. But, this time we are on the case and seeking to learn the lessons about oils spills and their effects on whale DNA.

I am often asked what we are finding in the Gulf.  It’s a straightforward question, but the answer is more complex and subtle. I think the real question behind it is something more like- how bad is it down there? or Are the whales going to be ok?  Still the answers to even those questions are hard to provide and figure out. I worry too that since the answers are not simple and dramatic the meaning of them may be downplayed in an economically troubled time. It seems some think we should only worry about losing whales if they have significant economic value. That seems entirely shortsighted and simply wrong to me, but yes I can ascribe an economic value to why we need to worry about whales.

We were all troubled by the images of birds, dolphins and turtles bathed in crude oil, while the oil continued to gush in the Gulf. The images were dramatic as were the health consequences to many of those individuals. But, with the removal of the oil from the surface, those dramatic images, where the affliction is obvious to everyone, cease to be shown. I mean everyone knows a bird cloaked from head to tail in oil is not a good thing. But, the only thing that ceases for the health concerns are that they are no longer obvious to all. They are still very real and problematic, but they become very hard to see.

Furthermore, the default expectation is that with the oil gone from view some other environmental stressor must be the cause of any observed ill effects. It seems that the explanation that oil caused the effect has become the least likely possible cause, only suggested after all others have been exhausted.  For example, the past 2 years have seen  a huge spike in the number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf. I have heard government officials present the data and attribute it to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming and a virus, but never as a consequence of 210 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants being suddenly released into the Gulf. Perhaps, it is because they are not allowed to speak of measurements they surely must have made to rule in or out the effects of the spill. I am not sure. But, I’d like to know. Maybe someday, we finally will.

So goes the challenge for our data. Our focus is on DNA and could the oil, or dispersants applied to the oil or the metals within the oil damage DNA in the whales. DNA is on the material upon which all life depends, whether bacteria, plant or animal, whether human or whale. DNA codes the information that gives up the bodies we have and the features we are known by. Each species DNA contains all the instructions needed to create a person, a whale, a turtle a fish and so on. It is our genetic blueprint. Each cell in our body contains these instructions and uses the information in them to carry out its particular specific function. Damaging DNA in those cells alter those instructions and alters the fate of those affected cells.

Sometimes the cells can repair the damage and recover. Sometimes they cannot. Sometimes the fate of the damaged cell is to simply die. Sometimes the fate is to more dire and the cell becomes the foundation of a tumor or other health aberration. If the damage occurs in a sperm or egg cell or in a cell in a growing embryo, the consequences can include infertility, spontaneous abortions, birth defects and developmental abnormalities. None are good for people. None are good for whales. It’s just not a good thing to damage DNA.

To do this work definitively and say specifically it was the oil from the spill that caused the effects, the experiment would involve different tanks of sperm whales in the laboratory that would be exposed to varying levels of crude oil from the spill, dispersed oil from the spill, dispersants used in the spill and metals from the oil in the spill. The whales would be watched for a period of years to see what toxic outcome occurred. That approach is clearly not possible as there are no tanks of whales in the laboratory and insufficient quantities of oil and dispersed oil available from the spill if there were. Thus, we have to consider a less definitive study and instead recreate conditions in the laboratory that mimic the chemicals from the spill.  Instead of exposing whole whales, we treat whale cells.

Our measures in the whales themselves are limited to what we can reliably tell from a skin biopsy. We have no access to lung, or liver or kidney or testes or ovary tissues in these living whales. In other words, we will have to learn what we can from a small piece of skin and blubber and infer from there.

Accordingly, we have collected these biopsies and used the skin to tell us the levels of oil-related metals like chromium and nickel. We will use the blubber to tell us the levels of oil and dispersants. We will grow cells from the small razor thin area where the skin and blubber meet to tell us if there is DNA damage in the whales, themselves. These data will then be combined with our laboratory studies dosing whale cells with the oil-related chemicals to present a picture of what an oil spill could do to whales and their DNA.

What we cannot do is definitively tie these exposures and these outcomes to this specific spill. The reason – there is no way to definitively show the chemicals we find came from this spill. If the oil enters the whale, the body will metabolize the oil into another form and irradicate it’s unique chemical signature. Hence any evidence of oil in the whale will be dismissed by critics as merely a part of life in the Gulf and due to natural seeps on the bottom of the Gulf or perhaps another spill. Similarly it goes for the dispersants, though with them so little is known that the possible metabolism and the things to measure are poorly understood. The metals have a yet different confounder as it’s not so much their metabolism that is an issue, but rather they are elemental in nature and have no unique signature. Chromium and nickel are basic elements. We can measure them, but we cannot identify their original source.

Thus, when all of our data is in. We will have a clear picture of what an oil spill can do to whales and their DNA. We will know that an oil spill occurred here in the Gulf that was the worst marine accidental spill in the world’s history. But, it will have to be up to each person to decide if the outcomes we find were due to this unprecedented,  mammoth release of oil into the Gulf and its subsequent release from surface burns into the marine air (which the whales breathe) or merely a product of the small natural seeps of oil on the bottom of the Gulf and is just how life is in the Gulf. The evidence will tell us about oil spills and whales, but only you can decide if it is due to this oil spill affecting these whales. I imagine some will still conclude our outcomes are due to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming causing a virus.  I know, absurd, but it will be said.

So what are we finding?

Well, we started by focusing on oil-related metals. Specifically, chromium and nickel.  Why these and not the oil and dispersants?  Its two parts really – one part science and one part budget. The simplest reason is budget. Analyzing for organic chemicals like crude oil and dispersants are much more expensive than analyzing for metals. With a very limited budget, we would get more samples done by focusing on the metals. But, more important than budget was the science. Currently, the best measures for oil and dispersants in whale tissues have not been determined. By contrast, the best measures for metals are known. Thus, while we wait for the chemistry of what to measure to be better defined, we have focused on metals in the whale tissue.

Thus, we have started with chromium and nickel. Both are known to be present in oil. Both are known to damage DNA and chromosomes in humans and experimental animals. We first measured them in oil from the spill. We measured chromium and nickel in tarballs collected on Gulf beaches at the start of the spill, and in oil collected from the Deepwater Horizon riser and found them to be present, well above trace levels,  in the several part-per-million (ppm) range. We confirmed that chromium and nickel were in the oil from this particular oil spill. Next up were the whales.

Biological systems like whales are known to concentrate chemicals found in their environment. It is a consequence of the physiology of complex organisms and the biochemistry of the interaction of the specific chemicals and that physiology and underlying cell biology. We measured chromium and nickel levels in the whales we sampled in 2010. We found them to be high, very high. In fact some of the whales had some of the highest levels of chromium and nickel in the world.

How do we know they are among the highest in the world?  Well, from 2000-2005, Ocean Alliance collected sperm whale biopsies from around the world. We used those samples to determine a global baseline for chromium and nickel levels in sperm whales.  Gulf animals were not included in that study, which was conducted 5 years before the accident. When we compared the Gulf whales to the whales from the rest of the world, the average chromium levels were in the Gulf whales were 1.4-times higher that the rest of the world  and nickel levels were 6.5 times higher in the Gulf whales that the rest of the world. Both increases were statistically significant.

As I mentioned both chromium and nickel can damage DNA leading to health effects in humans and experimental animals. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. We are testing nickel now. We have found elevated DNA problems in both Bryde’s and sperm whales.

Thus, phase 1 of our testing finds elevated chromium and nickel in the oil from the spill and elevated chromium and nickel in the whales. We find elevated DNA problems in the whales. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. Nickel data are pending. The dots are not hard to connect. We are working to connect them further.

There is still more work to do.  We are working hard to do it. I worry about these whales and what this spill means for them and other whales and marine life affected by future spills. I hope you do too.

It was a quiet day on the boat. One biopsy taken before scattered thunderstorms forced us all into a much needed day of rest.  The sunset was spectacular orange against a blue sea (the Wise Lab colors!) and we had a lovely dinner under the stars.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.676N, 91.010W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

we deserved the chance to slump, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 49, July 12, 2012

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Day 49, Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

It was exactly as I feared. The kid woke me up even earlier today!  This time it was 6:30 am and by 6:45 am, we had our first biopsy. It was the start to a very long day that 18 hours later finds me still up and writing to you.

One of the fun things about these voyages is that one creates over time a collection of voyage lore. Unusual events that become ingrained in the fabric of our memories of time at sea through the mention of certain events in hushed tones or the regaling new crew with the events of that time. Stories like the trip around Hatteras in a gale, or the refrigerator contents falling into the lab cabin, or James’s 2 am trip to Fedex to save the samples or the South Carolina transmission trip.

Perhaps, at the top of the list for our Gulf of Mexico lore, sits the story of the day of 18 whales sampled by lunch. Some of you might remember that day, it was during the 2010 voyage. September 10th to be exact.  We had many days and weeks without seeing any whales that year. The spill had clearly driven them away.  I wrote then:

“It’s hard to describe the events of the day as it was a tale of two cities. The best of times the worst of times etc. By 8:30 am, we had taken 4 biopsies. By 9:30 am it was 8 biopsies. By noon, we had collected 18 biopsies. Everyone was doing everything working as a well oiled machine. If you did the math carefully you would find we were averaging a biopsy about every 15 minutes!

Except of course biopsies don’t come in every 15 minutes. No, instead they come in bunches of twos and threes and fours. It takes us longer than 15 minutes to process one in the lab. In no time, it was all Matt and I could do to keep up with the flow of samples. Our jobs had shrunk to a small space rarely seeing much of the outside. I swear all I did for 2 hours continuously was wash and clean glassware, forceps and knives while Matt continued to process the tissue. 18 whales in less than 5 hours! What at day. ”

I remember thinking then about how much easier it would have been to have those 18 whales spread over the day instead of compressed in such a short amount of time. Well, there is an old saying that I myself often say – “Be careful what you wish for”. Today was just that day that I wondered about. We started at 6:30 am. We stopped sampling whales at 8:00 pm. We collected 17 biopsies over the course of the day.

The first one came at 6:45 am. By 8:10, we had four.  By lunchtime we had 8. After that, I lost track. We had exactly the day I thought would be better and easier to manage. We had whales all day. What did I learn?  It does not matter whether you sample them all by lunch or whether it takes all day- 17 biopsies is simply exhausting.

The problem with 17 over the course of a day is that while the pace of sampling, collecting and processing is more manageable. There is no let up. You are on deck and on whales all the time. Jai even did 7 hours on the mast including a 5-hour straight stint!  Louis Hall and Conor were up there quite a long time too. At dinner, Jai thanked the team for visiting him on the mast over the course of the day (for the record, he did choose to be up there that long. I didn’t forget him). We all chuckled.

I had Conor running all over the boat collecting arrows, buoys, logging data, delivering items to Johnny on the boom, spotting whales on the aft platform and of course visiting Jai while he was up there. Johnny was his usual biopsy machine self sampling whale after whale after whale racing between the whale boom for a starboard side sample and the bowsprit for a portside sample. He took all 17 of the biopsies and Sandy processed every one, in addition to her taking photo-id pictures, laying out lunch and cooking our dinner.

The others too worked their tails off.  Mukhaye was logging data, taking pictures, filling in on photo-id for Sandy and of course visiting Jai and spotting whales from the aft platform. Louis Hall would spot whales and visit with Jai and, while he was on deck, haul in arrows and buoys and deliver arrows out to Johnny on the whale boom. Lou Falank found our 6:30 am whale among many others, was always ready in the bowsprit as our secondary biopsier should Johnny falter and of course spotted whales from the mast and visited Jai.

Our helm crew, Captain Bob, Hugh and Ike were steady and steering all day long.  I think their arms may fall off from having turned that wheel so much. Captain Bob even showed off his deft arrow and buoy collecting skills especially when using his toes for arrows that escaped the net.  They didn’t get the chance to visit Jai, but Hugh did finally manage to replace him on the mast. Oh and in case you are wondering, when Jai was his perch in the morning, he helped with pictures and data logging and even an arrow and buoy retrieval.

Great work by a fantastic team!  17 biopsies today, giving us a total of 25 in two days!

By the end, everyone was exhausted. Bodies were slumped everywhere. Slumped on the end of the whale boom, slumped in the bowsprit, slumped on the aft platform, slumped on top of the salon and in the salon, slumped on the foredeck, the aft deck and even in the pilothouse. I am betting had I looked, there was even one slumped in the lab.  But, hey after 13 and a half hours with whales- we deserved the chance to slump!

Our day was so excellent that even Captain Bob, normally a quiet and reserved man, was moved to a demonstrative display of approval – picture attached.

I have attached a picture of the team at work. Louis Hall is in the orange shirt. Johnny is on the whale boom, Sandy has the camera in the foredeck. Conor is logging data. Lou Falank is in the bowsprit. Also attached are photos of a squid mantle we collected that Bob spotted floating at the surface, a cool rainbow that energized our spirits and the sunset that ended our day.

To Bob, Johnny, Sandy, Conor, Mukhaye, Lou, Jai, Louis, Hugh and Ike- on behalf of Iain Kerr and myself- thank you for all your hard work and an amazing day!

The team is sleeping and at rest. I better go join them.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.253N, 89.423W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

First-day-of-a-leg record!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 48, July 11, 2012

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Day 48, Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Over the past three years of Gulf voyages we have switched out members on each leg and launched with different teams. Each team has its own distinct identity and leaves an indelible mark in our memory and some live on in Odyssey lore and we reminisce about the many trips past. The last leg’s team was characterized by a pleasant nature and a spirit of volunteerism and set a Odyssey Gulf record for most biopsies on a leg and daily average. This team is different and I am still learning its personality, but today we certainly made our mark.

It’s only been one day at sea, but I would describe this team as flexible and highly energetic. The team has been up early and folks were ready for their watches as much as an hour before then had to go up! They were ahead of the curve in effort and raring to go. We were with whales so often I was swapping roles left and right. 5 different people collected data and 6 different people worked the net and everyone but me, Johnny and Bob were on the mast or the pilothouse spotting whales, arrows and buoys. We also caught fish, collected water and tried for squid. No go yet on the squid. It was a remarkably flexible and productive group on their first day and what a day it was.

It started early with Johnny waking me at 7 am that whales were spotted close. Having not made it to sleep until 2 am – this day started early for me.  Alas, that whale was not seen again, but Johnny worked the helm keeping us near whales and then Captain Bob took over and brought us right to them.  Bob after all is our secret weapon!

About 10:30 am, I made our first whale call of the day. Conor and Jai were up on the mast and Jai had spotted a whale, his first.  We would then be on whales for the next two and a half hours and by 1 pm we had 5 biopsies in the boat!  The whales were clicking all over the array like popcorn. The next few hours passed by in a wink.

About 4:30 pm I made my last whale call of the day. Conor and Louis Hall were on the mast and Conor had spotted whales dead ahead. Captain Bob again led us to them as our team scrambled into place and over the next 4 hours we collected another 3 biopsies.

All told, approximately 6 and half hours on deck on whales and 8 biopsies collected. That my friends is a first-day-of-a-leg record! 8 biopsies on the first day at depth!  Great teamwork by an energetic group!

There were treats to the day too. At times there were whales everywhere and whales are simply eye candy. We say several juveniles including one that swam right under me aside the pilot house., We say one whale lob tailing in an impressive display of power and strength. Lob tailing is when the whale turns vertical in the water with its tail up in the air, kind of like when we do hand stands on the bottom of the pool.  The whale then slaps it tail over and over on the top of the water with a loud splash.  It is a really impressive sight to see and hear. I think the first year there was one lob tailing a few miles from the boat and we could hear the impact of each splash.

The day ended quite late with dinner after nine. But, we all gathered at the aft table and ate another of Sandy’s tasty meals over some quiet conversation. I pity the cook that follows after Sandy on this boat.  That will be some big shoes er plates to fill.

I have attached pictures of a juvenile with its mother, the whale with its tail vertical about to slam it on the surface of the sea and the team looking for whales.  No sunset photo today as we were all occupied with finding the last arrow with the 8th biopsy well past sunset. Lou Falank spotted it and we collected in and the day ended well. In the team picture Johnny is on the whale boom, Jai is in the white t-shirt and green sneakers, Conor is in the gray t-shirt and sitting on the doghouse, Lou Falank is crouched down in the bowsprit. Ike is in the cap. Not seen are Mukhaye who was in the crow’s nest, Louis Hall who was on the aft platform, Hugh who was on the pilothouse, Sandy who was in the lab and Captain Bob and me who were in the pilothouse.  It’s a fine team!

Now, I need to rest my weary bones because if I know Johnny, he’ll be
trying to wake me even earlier tomorrow!

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.511N, 89.100W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Don't Look Back , ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Port can be long or it can be short. This call was short though we did have some fun.  James flew down (it was good to see him after these many weeks) and we went to a see the rock band Boston in concert. It has become something of a family tradition as it was Johnny’s 4th and James’s 3rd time seeing them in concert. It is not a group that tours often, but it is always a blast.

I first saw them in concert in the spring of 1977 when they did their first tour. I was 11 and in 7th grade. My brother Michael who was 15 introduced me to them. It was simply awesome. Whether it was because I was 11, or because Mike introduced me to them, I am not sure, but they immediately became my favorite band and I went again to their concert in 1978. They would not tour again until 1987 and that year found me hitchhiking to it with my old friend Tim.  After that the next U.S. tour was 1997 and Sandy’s first one. I was stunned to learn this one this year was my 9th Boston concert.  It seems the only one I missed was a tour that lasted a week or so in 1988 and was in Canada. Of course Sandy has been to six, so its not just me… I did try once to get Michael to go with me again, but sadly he’s moved on to other tastes. Meanwhile the boys have joined me in the appreciation for the energy, the music and the message in the songs. Cathy came once and is a secret fan. We are not groupies as we have no tshirts or paraphernalia, but we do enjoy the songs and the show.

If you have never heard Boston. I would highly recommend you give them a listen. If you know then and have not listened for a long time try I suggest you go with “Foreplay/Long Time” – Johnny’s favorite. For my friends wrestling with frustration I suggest you try “Peace of Mind” – probably my favorite, but it’s hard to choose. For my friends dealing with change, I suggest “Don’t Look Back” – one of Sandy’s favorites and up there for all of us. For you Michael- it simply has to be “More than a Feeling” – the original classic.  Listen to words. Hear the message. Feel the music and the energy. Crank up the volume.  Go ahead try it.

But, here is the key.  Boston is best played- full volume. You really have to turn it up and dance. Blast the doors off (pun intended Michael) and feel the moment.

We are back on the swells and out to get more samples.  Captain Bob, first mate Hugh, second mate Ike, Johnny as primary biopsier and science team leader, and Sandy as photo-Ider and cook are all here and of course me.  Our new crew are

-Lou Falank, a technician in my laboratory who will be our backup biopsier;

-Mukhaye Muchimuti, an high school teacher from Hyde Academy in Bath Maine. who will be our data logger.

-Jaimyal Lindsey, an undergraduate from Mississippi Valley State College who will be our close-in photographer;

-Dr. Louis Hall, a Professor at  Mississippi Valley State College who will be a spotter while on whales;

and

– Conor Kennedy, a junior at Deerfield Academy, who will be on net/arrow recovery.

Attached is a picture of the team. Front right is Jaimyal in the gray t-shirt. To his right are Captain Bob with the sunglasses around his neck, Sandy and then Mukhaye in the black pants. Behind Jaimyal in the red is Louis Hall. To his right are Ike in the orange shirt and cap, Lou Falank in the black tank top, and Hugh in the light t-shirt and cap. Behind Ike is me, then the mast to my right, then Johnny in orange and Conor in the light blue tshirt.

I have also attached a picture of Boston playing at the concert and our cool sunset.

I will close with a quote from a Boston lyric – “Don’t look back. A new day is breaking.”  and for us let’s hope it has whales!

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.018N, 88.874W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

We are in Biloxi!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 43

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Day 43, Friday, July 6, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

As if mother nature read my last note, we had some wavy weather coming in. Nothing too serious for too long, but enough to rock us about a bit and give the new folks a taste of rougher seas. Not sure where exactly the storm came from (mom…) as it was not forecast, but we made it through just fine.

We are now headed into port and I imagine by the time I hit send, we will be there.  Here we will say goodbye to Amanda, Leah. Madison and Matt.  They were a great crew! When you exclude the sea time it takes to get out to the whales and then back into port, they averaged 7 whale biopsies a day a truly exceptional accomplishment! Port will be a time to relax, refresh, refuel and restock. James will be down for a weekend visit so it will be good to see him.  I will be in touch again when we return to sea.

I want to take one moment to recognize Matt. When we launched this effort in 2010, Matt was one of my first volunteers and one of only 4 to volunteer for sailing into the oil spill itself while the oil was still flowing. He showed exceptional courage and commitment to give up volunteer 4 months of his time that year to join us in this quest. He did every job we asked and worked through seasickness, heat, storms and exhaustion. He was unable to come last year, but here he was again volunteering to help this year in style.

For those who have followed since day 1, Matt was one of our original members of the monkey brotherhood and shared many a frozen banana with me in the bow. Our 2010 banana shopping spree remains a staple of voyage lore. Thanks Matt for 2 voyages of excellent help at sea. I look forward to seeing you back in the lab when I return.  Enjoy Minnesota and the family reunion!

We are in Biloxi!

Talk to you soon.

Good night.

John

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Thriving in chaos, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Happy 4th of July!

I found a new version of frenetic. Amongst my good friends, I have something of a reputation for, well, thriving in chaos they call it. I can picture each one of them shaking their heads and chuckling each time I tell the latest news. Well, today, chaos reigned and we all thrived out here in the Gulf!   See what I mean – more head shaking and chucking and I haven’t even told the story yet!

It started out simply. Last night, I received a tip from a colleague about where to find whales in deeper water. You might remember, we tried deeper water  in the first leg and found absolutely nothing. But, still, it stuck in my mind that there were whales in the deeper water that I couldn’t find (for those of you that remember James and the lost FedEx samples during the 2010 voyage – well, now you know where he gets that tenacity from). Anyway, my colleague, who will remain nameless, gave me a confidential map and from it where to extrapolate and maybe find those deeper water whales. At least it would put us in the general ballpark.

Whale samples have become our version of hidden treasure and I just could not resist the chance to find another cluster. Despite our earlier failings, we turned the boat towards still deeper water. Murmurs of my insanity went around as those veterans of our last foray into the deep explained that we would see nothing. Not even a bird.

Since it was new territory and we had no real idea where the whales might be, Captain Bob suggested we motor and search through the night. I agreed and with that we started our quest. The array was silent.

I awoke to Johnny cooking 4th of July pancakes for the team (red and blue pancakes) and the general bustle of a day of watches. Everyone went about the key routines. The array was silent.

I sat down to write. Johnny pulled in a Sargasso weed sample and went on watch. The rest of the science crew began to collect samples. The water was flat calm. The array remained silent.

I wrote and wrote as it seems I do every day now. When I heard it. Click after click after click – it sounded like a popcorn machine. It was 11:00 am and we had found whales!

I stepped out on deck and shouted up to Johnny – “I’ve got a popcorn machine in here. Many loud clicks. Now find me whale!”  He nodded.

Thirty seconds later, Johnny yelled down “Whale dead ahead”. But, it fluked. He then radioed down “Well, I kept up my end of the bargain. I found a whale!”.

I told him it that one didn’t count. It was just a fluke… I know bad joke.  But, within a few minutes he spotted another.

“No. Wait.”, he called.  “It’s just dolphins”.

It was here that the chaos started.

I looked at the distance he indicated and searched for the “dolphins”. I couldn’t see them and when I realized the distance I knew it could only be one other thing – pilot whales!  As if reading my mind, he too realized that these were pilot whales and the work began.

Pilot whales are mostly all black with a sharp curved fin. They are small whales but bigger than dolphins. They move around rather quickly and only surface for a few moments. We do sample them, but they require a totally different approach than sperm whales and aside from Johnny, Bob, Sandy and me, this team had never experienced it before. It would take patience and focus and quick arrow changes. But, we had three pilot whales ahead and sperm whales on the array. The day looked promising. The tip I was given was good.

We sampled the first whale we encountered from the boom. We looked for another pilot whale to sample. There was one at 9 O’clock so we started to turn. No., wait Johnny and Madison had two at 3 O’clock. No wait. Hugh spotted 2 at 10 O’ clock. No wait Bob had three more dead ahead.  7 pilot whales!  No wait!

We were sitting in the middle of a pod of probably 40 or more pilot whales. They were everywhere with everyone calling at once.  Poor Ike, was wide-eyed at the helm listening to this total chaos with directions flying in everywhere. Where to go? The excitement was high. The whales were everywhere and everyone was calling out new sightings. It was total chaos and it was awesome!

Or, as my friends would say, a typical day for me.

I started with Ike. I explained that we would simply become a pinball and get no samples if we attempted to listen to everyone. He readily agreed. I told him we would pick one whale until we sampled it and then move to the next. He readily agreed. I said don’t listen to anyone else but me and that will be the whale we choose. He agreed. With Ike on board and raring to go, I shouted out the plan to the team.  All understood and we had a strategy.

I then turned to my biopsier.  Johnny was like a kid in a new toy store dazzled by all the toys and ready to play. He is my son so that means- headstrong and sure of himself. But, at the same time, we have a long history of working together so eventually he will listen. First, I had to get him off the whale boom. It is tempting to stay there because it gets you closer, but these whales are too quick and there were too many to invest the time there. He relented and came off the boom.

He moved on deck. Here he was free to sample from any part of the boat. Port side, starboard side, stern, bow, all were available. The rest of the team just had to move out of the way.  I realized quickly that this effort would need much faster reloading than he could do. The crossbows are very hard to cock. I went with a simple strategy. I would cock and load, while he sampled. He would fire. I would hand him a loaded bow and load the other while he took another sample.  The only challenge was finding the best sampling spot. We raced and raced around the boat, crossbows in hand whales everywhere and finally settled into the bowsprit.

We could see whales everywhere in the water. Absolutely amazing. Chaos returned. Whale on starboard, whale on port. People pointing out whales everywhere. It was awesome! Or in other words. just another day at the office.

I went through the same process I did with Ike.  Pick one whale. Sample it. Then move to another.  Johnny nodded and I asked the team to let me pick the whales. I crowed in the bowsprit with Johnny so I could hand him crossbows, call out the boat directions and keep him focused. Matt was right by my side so he could take pictures and help load the crossbows.  We could see each whale surface and release the arrow at just the right time. From time to time there would be no whales near the bowsprit and Johnny. Matt and I, each with crossbow in hand would race around the boat looking for a better angle. I imagine if you filmed it, we looked like the Keystone cops in shorts!

We sampled 5 pilot whales in about an hour, by which point the pod had dispersed and left. A remarkable accomplishment given how quick they move and how small the target. Only 1 miss I believe. Given the activity, the focus and the concentration, it felt like half the day went by. But, in reality, it was hardly more than an hour.  The sun was grueling hot. I stopped the boat and we all came in for Sandy’s annual 4th of July lunch (hot dogs and beans).  It had been an exhilarating fun time for all.

The day would end with us collecting 2 sperm whale biopsies and another pilot whale in the evening. 8 biopsies on the day. Great work team!

Sandy made us a scrumptious 4th of July lunch and dinner with traditional fare. Johnny, Madison, Ike and Matt lit the fireworks I had bought at Sam’s club and we had our own small private fireworks display.

It’s a 4th of July we will always remember. I hope yours was memorable too.

Attached are pictures of the team collecting samples from the Sargasso weed (Sandy in blue t-shirt in foreground, Madison in gray t-shirt and hat on her left, Matt shirtless next, then Leah in the red and Amanda in the white t-shirt); the team searching for that first whale of the day (all in same attire with Johnny on the boom. Hats appear to be off in this one); one of pilot whales; one of pilot whales near the boom; one amazing picture of dolphins that Sandy took, again showing that clear blue water; and then, in keeping with my comments about the incredibleness of nature- three pictures of some remarkable clouds (note the reflections and colors on the water) including our sunset.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.483N, 89.700W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

No Whales, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

I guess you’d say today was exactly the type of day we needed, especially after the marathon that was yesterday. I am not sure anyone would admit it though. You see today was the exact opposite of yesterday- no whales. Not even a single click on the array. No blows in the air and no fins in the water. No large whales at all.

The team was ready. But, there was nothing to sample. Even the plankton tow came up empty of stuff to collect (picture of Johnny and the girls looking for those samples attached). Things to see. Nothing to collect.

Dolphins (technically whales)? Yes. But, we do not sample them.

The dolphins came to the bow 3 or 4 times over the day. The best was in the morning. Spotted dolphins I think they were. They came and frolicked and we giggled with glee like school children. They were having so much fun and we were delighted to watch.

Then as if someone’s mom yelled “breakfast!”, they all sped away to some unknown location off our portside all at once. As if bow riding was their version of dodgeball or kick-the-can or some other neighborhood game. I have a couple of dolphin pictures attached. This group had a white tip to their beak as you can see from Sandy’s close up picture.

Thus, with no whales clicking or seen, the team could ease up a bit. All were still really worn out from yesterday. Even the youngest of us.

But, there was a notable side to the day. Once again we were awash in the beauty of nature’s colors at sea. It is difficult to choose a favorite they are all such incredible eye candy to enjoy.  I love them all. With such a slow day, you can really take it all in.

It starts with water being the purest of blues offset by bright clean white splash. It’s the kind of blue that just reaches into your soul and says, “Relax. Be at peace.”,  and within moments of mesmerized staring at it you realize you are. You have found a peaceful blue moment in a world mad with the pace of the modern day. You can’t help but melt into calmness and feel at one with the sea.

It then moves to warm pinks, fiery reds and awesome oranges than come with a brilliant sunset to end the day. You stand there riveted by their warmth and glory basking you in happy energy with color splashed across the sky and the water. A sunset that makes you warm all over and then goes “ta da” and disappears into the sea, followed by a eerie haze that makes you go “Wow, did that really just happen?!”

It ends with a pale full moon on a midnight blue sky which fades to black. The moon catching you in its hypnotic glow, flooding your senses with one simple word. Quiet. Within moments, without you even noticing, you are still and the world is quiet. You bathe in that quiet, cleansed by the brilliant white light and is amazing reflection on the water. You realize that all is well and you can now rest and relax and enjoy some warm moments of peace. So you do. You smile and you find grace and gratitude for this gift of a day and for all that you have been given especially for those you have to share it with and quietly you say thanks.

It is remarkable to spend at day at sea with nature’s colors. I highly recommend it. I hope I have been able to share it well with you in my words and pictures.

If you look at the daytime pictures you will see the clear blue water.
Can you feel it’s peace?

If you look at the sunset photos you will see the pinks and reds and oranges and if you look really close sunspots too (in sunset c). Can you feel the warmth?

Perhaps, it’s the moonlight that will touch you gleaming in the sky and shimmering on the sea. Maybe, for a moment, it will be quiet where you are.

I hope at least one brings you some joy. Enjoy the 4th.

The team is resting.

Until tomorrow..

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.889N, 89.715W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Ten, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 38, Sunday, July 1, 2012

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Day 38, Sunday July 1, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Today marks my tenth anniversary at the University of Southern Maine. The lab started July 1, 2002 with 5 people. Two of them, Hong Xie and Amie Holmes were basically new then.  10 years later they are now research faculty in my lab and keeping the land lab going while I am out here studying these whales and this crisis.  Thanks Hong and Amie for the last decade at USM, for working so hard and being such fine people!

It’s been quite a run. In these 10 years, we have earned more than $12,000,000 in research funds; trained more than 150 students ranging from high school through postdoctoral fellows; published 68 scientific papers, chapters and reports; published 314 abstracts at local, national and international scientific meetings plus another 135 abstracts at USM’s Thinking Matters student research day event; presented scores of seminars and posters at local, national and international venues; and been the subject of numerous articles, videos and commercials in the popular local, national and international press. We have been busy that’s for sure!

We could not have done it without the hard work of my core lab team, all of the staff and students we trained over the years, the dedicated USM staff in so many departments, especially those in sponsored programs and business services that I keep rather busy, my USM colleagues and faculty collaborators and the administrators of USM. Thanks to all of you for years of help and support. I appreciate all of the data, help and guidance. I did take some time to reflect on the many trials and tribulations that contributed to who we are and what we do. It’s been quite a journey.

The lab reached a peak of 50 people in the summer of 2010 when we launched the first Gulf Voyage. Funny thing, I started writing these emails in part to explain to those 50 why I had left and in part to reassure my wife, son and family who were not coming with me.  Who knew I still be writing in 2012.  I figured I would only write once…

Back to the boat.

Today was just weird, frustratingly weird. The early morning was slow, not much going on. The team had slipped into its new daily routine of 2 hours shifts on the mast and searching for whales. Its July so the temperature is getting hotter and hotter earlier. But about 9:30, Ike started screaming “whale” first softly and then louder and louder. Everyone thought he was joking, but then as the passion grew in his voice, we realized there really was a whale.  Indeed, a whale surprised everyone and just popped up next to the boat. The team moved into their sampling  positions. It was an odd beginning to what would be a very odd sequence of events.

I was scheduled to give Matt some more biopsy training so I had moved with him into the bowsprit. My normal position is in the pilothouse doorway so I can ensure things run smoothly. The day before had gone so well, I didn’t think much of the change.

The bowsprit is the very end of the front of the boat on a small platform-like structure that juts out in front of the deck giving the boat a pointy shape. It’s not so comfortable to stand there as the anchor is also there, but the view is fantastic. So I guess oddity #3 was my presence on whales in the bowsprit.  It seems Johnny was not expecting me there and since my presence that far out on whales usually means something is up, oddity #4 happened. He shot and missed. I think it was only maybe his third miss this year.

While the team worked to collect the arrow, Johnny, Matt and I discussed how weird it felt to them for me to be in the bowsprit at that time. Plus it seems I move with some stealth this trip so my movements are going undetected.  I guess it’s three seasons at sea have graduated me from bouncing around deck to gliding?  I am not sure.

While there, we witnessed oddity #5 (and it had only been about 15 minutes since this whole episode started) – the team missed the arrow. But the really weird part?  The 8 foot long net used to collect the arrow was also lost over the side.  That was a first. We watched in seemingly slow motion as they appeared to just toss the net in the water and then watched it sail by. Very weird. (FYI- it turns out the current pulled too hard yanking the net in the water).

But, the whale was back and so with a buoy launched to mark the location of the arrow and the net, we headed after it.

We never caught up.

After a while, we lost all track of the whale and it was time to find our buoy, net and arrow. But, it was nowhere to be seen. Odd. We designed these new buoys to be more visible and to have a radar button to track on radar. But, there we were searching high and low and looking and looking and looking for what seemed like an eternity. Finally after more than an hour, someone spotted it and we recovered all of the pieces. They were travelling at an estimated 1 mph.

That ended a very strange morning.

About noon, another whale was spotted.  I called whales and the team raced into place. As odd as the first one was, this one was textbook perfect. Ike, Hugh and Mat called out spotting directions. Bob steered the boat. Johnny collected the biopsy. Madison scooped the arrow with the net almost as soon as it hit the water. Amanda recorded the data. Leah processed the sample. Sandy took the photo-id picture. I stayed in the pilothouse doorway and coordinated.  Smooth as silk.  Great teamwork!

There were whales clicking all over the array. We anticipated many samples to come.  Just had a weird morning right?

Nope. Weirdness would be the order of the day. we would hear whales all day and get nowhere near them. In fact, the whales are clicking very loudly on the array now while I type. Loud clicks means they are very close to the boat and many load clicks means many whales. Figures, 11 pm at night and whales everywhere (yes I have considered ways to do night biopsying but none will work tonight).  I have attached a recording so you can hear them too. They are clicking so loud I can record them in the salon which is down the stairs and well away from the speakers. I sure hope the whales are there in the morning!

I have attached pictures of Amanda and Sandy again (This time from the bow. Hugh is in the background on the pilothouse and Madison in the person in green behind Amanda);  one of Ike and Madison on watch at the end of the day (Ike is up highest) and one of the whale waving good bye after giving us a sample.

We had a pretty sunset before it went behind the clouds. I have attached a picture of it and of Leah watching it (I took it from on the pilot house looking down).

I also attached a picture of Hong and Amie.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.493N, 88.837W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

LIving in a laboratory…, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 37, Saturday, June 30, 2012

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Day 37 true, Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Living in a laboratory is not as romantic as it sounds.  No really, it’s not. Last night was a perfect example.

I had gone to bed late. Very late. It was about 1:30 am. We launched later in the evening, had dinner and then I needed to write my email to all of you. I figured it was a necessary email given the concern about out launch. So I stayed up and wrote.

As I finished up, we had spotty email service so it took some time to get the email sent.  I was up so late that my son James sent me an instant message via gmail expressing concern that I was still up. “Just writing”, I told him. Finally, with all notes sent and wrapped up I headed to bed.

No sooner than did my head hit the pillow when the incubator started alarming. It is an annoying little twinkling high pitched tone especially given the late hour and the fact that it was empty of cells at the moment. We learned some time ago that the racks inside the incubator can slide forward a bit in the waves and knock the seal slightly open. This crack causes the alarm. I got up adjusted it and went back to bed.

I was just drifting off to an overdue sleep, when Sandy started kicking me. The incubator was alarming again. Call it the consequence of sleeping on the outside of the bed or, perhaps, a perk of being the cook, but it fell to me to get up and adjust it again. I did. It stopped.

But then, again, as I started to drift off it went off again. I fixed it again. It went off again. I fixed it again. After several rounds of this routine I began to have thoughts of how to throw the incubator overboard and then go to sleep. But, we have work to do and I came to realize I would not be able to sleep until I fixed it somehow.

I know what you are thinking. Why not just turn it off?  Yeah, I thought about that too. The problem is that one never knows when we might be on whales and that incubator needed to be ready if sunrise lead us to a whale sample.

Now, the other problem I was facing is that the cook has to sleep and gets up at 6 am.  By now, it was 2:45 am so I had to avoid waking her. That meant minimize the clanging of metal shelves, keeping the alarm quiet and no overhead lights!  Quite the challenge for a sleepy scien.tist on a rocking boat. Oh yeah, and one final hurdle, the floor in front of the incubator curves up quite a few degrees with the hull of the boat so I would be standing uphill  the whole time!

So there I was standing uphill on a rocky boat, waves pushing me off this little incubator hill, wearing a headlamp to keep the light down, looking like a coal miner deep in a coal mine. I was quite the sight. I opened the door and assessed the problem. There were 4 heavy stainless steel gimbaled platforms we use to maintain the cells. Two large stainless steel shelves. and the racks to hold them. Outside, I had just enough space to hold 1 shelf. Not too promising.

I set to work. The waves pushed me back and I pushed back at them balancing precariously on this little hill while emptying the incubator in a dark room. The doors clanged together over and over. The alarm went off again and again.  Aware that while I had the light under reasonable control, but this cacophony of noise was not doing the cook any good. So I tossed her a pillow to try and drown the sound out. Yeah, I know, but it was the middle of the night, what else could I do. She covered her face

I tried reversing the racks.  No go, they stuck out too far in the opposite direction.  Two little feet sticking out and in the way.  I tried to velcro the racks to the back wall.  No good, the velcro would not hold tight. I dug through the supplies under our bunk to find the better velcro. It stuck but it could not get enough purchase to keep the rack from sliding.

My frustration was rising.  Three years I have slept with this incubator and only now in the middle of the night is it giving me these problems.  It was dark. I was hot and sweaty and tired. I swear I had walked up the tiny incubator hill 100 times pushed back by waves each time.  I reconsidered the throw it overboard option for a moment.

Finally, I gave the situation one more consideration. There really was only one option. I was going to have to try and velcro the small feet holding the racks into place.  There were four of them and they were about a half inch long and a quarter inch wide. A tiny amount of surface to velcro to the bottom. But they were the major points of contact with the incubator.

So I sized and cut and resized and recut and finally had all four of them done and in place.  Amazingly the darn things held pretty good! Only problem left was that it was now 3:45 am. I had had no sleep and would have to watch this incubator for another 30 minutes while it regained temperature so I could silence the alarm and see if this solution worked.

I played cards on my phone and watched. I heard Johnny start his helm watch and deploy the array. The degrees went up by decimals oh so slowly, and the alarm went off every 5 minutes, but sure enough, they held I was exhausted and knew I would get limited sleep for the day, but I was triumphant. I also had a chuckle later in the morning as Johnny wrote about the his helm watch and in it described the rest of us as peacefully slumbering in our beds. Oh if he only knew.  Next time, I am dragging him in to help!  I have attached a picture of the feet fastened with black velcro.

The day dragged on slowly for a long time. Then just before 4 pm, Bob told me we had some whales.  I made the call and by 4:30 we had 2 biopsies and by 6 we had 5.  It was a remarkable couple of hours and exhilarating for all, especially the new members who saw whales in the wild for the first time!

I have attached pictures of Leah delivering arrows to Johnny and processing samples in the lab; Amanda collecting data; and two perspectives of Madison working the net. One was taken by me and if you look in the background you can see Sandy taking a picture of me taking that picture (Johnny is the one on the whale boom). Thus the other picture is that picture Sandy took of Madison with me in the background.  She had the better light and the better camera.  Of course, I have attached the sunset picture of the day and one with Madison on the whale boom in the setting sun.

But now, I am really worn out from my late night incubator wrestling so I am going to sign off.  Tired but triumphant from an incubator solved and 5 biopsies taken.

Oh I did find the date on yesterdays was wrong (June 30). Since today is June 30, it was day 37. I am also pleased to report that as of right now, 10:45 pm,  that alarm has yet to go off since I fixed it and those shelves have not moved. Let’s hope it lasts.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.06N, 88.246W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.