Monthly Archives

August 2014

New Video: Drones for Whale Research

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Our Robotics Program is in the running for a $10K grant called the Drone Social Innovation Award. Our video entry was created by Eliza Muirhead with footage from Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 and features Odyssey crew and Olin College robotics students testing newly-developed benign research techniques. The more views and “Likes” on YouTube the better, so enjoy and feel free to share!

A New Addition to Our Research Programs

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Last Saturday night a sailboat called Sabatico quietly sailed into Gloucester harbor and anchored off Eastern Point.  This 44ft ketch is Ocean Alliance’s latest addition to our research programs.

In May of this year, while the RV Odyssey was hauled out of the water in Key West, Florida, we met a gentleman called D.M. Barry.  Mr. Barry had just returned from a trip to Mexico aboard his 44 ft Pearson ketch Sabatico.  He was curious as to what work this large red sailboat with people swarming all over it was engaged in.  He first met Dan Albani on the docks who talked to him about our work and then he got into an extensive conversation with Dan Haefner.  Both Dans suggested to Mr. Barry that Ocean Alliance could put his vessel to good use and both were as surprised as I was when he called me up three weeks later and offered to donate his sailboat to Ocean Alliance.

Iain Kerr on WhaleSongI have enjoyed my conversations with Mr. Barry enormously; he has had a varied and interesting career, he loves the wild world, and seems to grab life and enjoy the ride.  An entrepreneur, pilot and boat captain, Mr. Barry now lives in Montana.  He has been saddened by the fact that he could not do all that he used to do at sea as a younger man and felt that this was a good time to follow a different route than full-time boat ownership.  We welcome him as a new member of the Ocean Alliance family and look forward to him visiting us in New England and seeing the Sabatico put to work as a research vessel.

This type of generous offer is always a bit of a catch 22 for a group like Ocean Alliance. This donation will probably cost us $20,000 in the first year with insurance, maintenance, upgrades, upkeep and crew, but while we do not have that amount of money lying around, the timing of this donation could not have been better and we are very grateful for Mr. Barry’s incredible generosity.

WhaleSong steeringWith our move to the Gloucester waterfront we have been looking to engage in more regional cetacean studies.  With the loss of the Whale Center of New England, we feel that we can not only help to fill this hole but also bring an extensive whale research skillset to the region and support the work of other researchers in this area more effectively (especially with a platform like Sabatico).  In our business, this donation not only demonstrates the value of just asking for help but also reminds us that there are still generous people like Mr. Barry who are willing to step up to the plate and put the environment before personal gain. Thank you again Michael!

We will keep you posted as we develop our research and education agenda, and in the meantime we have requested a name change to WhaleSong.

-Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance CEO

Our Five Years in the Gulf Draws to a Close

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This week marks the end of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, the fifth and final year of Ocean Alliance’s program assessing the health of the Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystem in a toxicological context through the bio-indicators that are sperm whales. It’s also the end of our second year working in partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society–what is hopefully the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship from which the true winner will be the oceans, the life which inhabits them, and ultimately our own species. Sperm whales next to OdysseyCertainly much of the difficult work has been done, but we cannot forget the hard road ahead of us–the analysis of the data accumulated over the five years of study. When all is done, we should have a comprehensive picture of how the toxicants released into the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil blow-out affect the long-term health of marine mammals and hopefully the marine ecosystem, how we can go about protecting it, and how future toxicological catastrophes might better be contained. The next step is to raise the funds for this expensive yet incredibly important data analysis. In the meantime, we have learnt much. The analysis done so far has shown worrying signs. In particular, we have found that concentrations of chromium and nickel in Gulf of Mexico sperm whales are significantly higher than those that we found in whales in other parts of the world, and the dispersant used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been found to cause DNA damage and cell death in sperm whale cells at low doses. Marc Rosenberg on OdysseyPerhaps the most important thing is that each and every person who has crewed on the Odyssey in the Gulf has left with a profound sense of purpose about what we are doing and why this type of ocean conservation program is important–not only for the Gulf of Mexico but for the whole world, for the Gulf truly is a microcosm for wider ocean systems. The majesty, beauty, and fragile nature of the Gulf and the extraordinary animals which inhabit it, combined with the ever present and increasingly heavy footprint of man in the shape of the oil rigs, container ships, run-off from the Mississippi and the innumerable and inescapable plastic and visible trash constantly remind us of our connection to our incredible planet and how its fate is inextricably linked to our own. Over the past five years we have accumulated too many thank-you’s to name. Probably over 100 people have crewed these expeditions, with boundless shore support, donors, marina owners, dock-masters, relatives and well-wishers providing support without which the campaigns would not have been possible. On behalf of the crew, let us just say a quick thank you to a few select individuals: to Captain Bob Wallace, the only ever-present who has led the campaigns from the front line and who has kept both crew and boat working efficiently and safely; to the Wise family, who dedicated three entire summers and many hundreds of hours in the laboratory to this program (and more to go); to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society & volunteers, who made the final two seasons possible; and finally to Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr who has, quite literally, run this show (whilst running Ocean Alliance at the same time…). Thank You! -Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014Odyssey in the Gulf drone photo

Saving the Best for Last: The Final Leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

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With the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 being the return of the RV Odyssey to her home port of Key West, FL., and with numerous crew members on tight schedules with flights to catch, there were always time limits on how much we could achieve along the way. As part of our schedule, we had only one full day on the traditional sites southwest of Pensacola where we normally search for whales. As any crewmember could tell you, one day is never enough.

There has been a consistent theme across these “Leg summaries,” all centered around how to describe the emotions when we find a whale against the odds. As before during this highly successful campaign, experience, patience and a vessel perfectly suited to finding and tracking whales proved a tough combination to beat. Sure enough, around midday on our first and only day in the traditional sperm whale habitat we had quiet clicks, then loud clicks, then blows, then a biopsy.

calf breachAs we tracked the whales–an adult female and a large juvenile, we were subjected to an extraordinary show, its rarity only exceeded by its spectacular nature. The juvenile whale performed two bouts of full breaching, each with 4-5 breaches, with the second bout occurring only 100 metres from the vessel. To see the massive hulking body of a sperm whale erupting from the waves in an explosion of muscle and foam was quite indescribable. How lucky we all are!

With these biopsies achieved, the Odyssey left the whale grounds overnight, heading for the continental shelf that runs parallel north-south with the west coast of Florida, approximately 100 miles off. In the past, as we go further south the likelihood of finding whales decreases, though we’d heard there supposedly exists a mysterious population of sperm whales northwest of the Dry Tortugas. After two nights and one day with no clicks, we regarded the chance of finding whales as increasingly unlikely as we ventured into waters further south than we have ever found whales before. Lo and behold, at 6 a.m. on the third day a lone whale seemed to come completely out of nowhere. Five minutes after being detected acoustically it was spotted, and half an hour later we added another biopsy to our data set.

Harry Milkman on watchLater on that afternoon, even further south, another set of clicks beamed through the boat. They seemed far too frequent and numerous to be bottlenose dolphins and as we got closer it became apparent that it was in fact a large group of whales!

As we headed even further south, well in to the afternoon another sound came over the array–clicking, but seemingly too numerous, too rapid, and too far south to be sperm whales. Large dolphins perhaps–Risso’s or bottlenose? As we got closer, something seemed amiss. The clicks, whilst very frequent, were too robust and steady for dolphins.

As it turned out, we had just run directly into the largest group of sperm whales we have encountered all summer–anywhere from 5-15 animals in a couple of square kilometres. It was almost certainly a group from the evasive population northwest of the Dry Tortugas. Five years of searching, and the final sperm whales to be encountered! The samples obtained on this last day are incredibly important, as the levels of toxicants within can be compared with those from the northern Gulf. Over five years we have now found whales from as far west as the Texas/Louisiana border, all along the continental shelf to the deep water northwest of the Dry Tortugas. Do the continuous, if sporadic, locations of whales along the shelf suggest that connections between these populations are more common than previously believed? Who knows, but this exciting discovery raises important questions that need answering.

As the day drew to a close with the sun’s light fading, our deadline for arrival in to Key West officially ending this campaign’s quest for biopsies, a sentimentality grew over the crew. In the backdrop of a magnificent sunset, the dinghy was put in the water to get some last photos of the Odyssey after a highly successful fifth and final season. As the dinghy sped around the Odyssey with the light fading fast, the shapes of some bottlenose dolphins became apparent bowriding the dinghy. A final farewell from those creatures we are striving to protect.

-Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014Odyssey Dinghy sunset

The RV Odyssey Returns to Key West

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This Sunday the RV Odyssey will return to port in Key West for the final time this summer, and the at-sea portion of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, our joint campaign with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, will conclude. We have had five productive summers in in the Gulf of Mexico and the campaign is not over, just as the effects of this disaster are not over. We will continue our efforts on land (data analysis with the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology) and Iain Kerr will be providing you with a campaign wrap-up and next steps in the coming days.

Thank you to all of our volunteer crew from around the world–what an amazing team we’ve had. Thanks for the hospitality from the locals in Key West and Pensacola; for the generosity of those who shipped in supplies and food from our wish list; and just as importantly–those who helped us spread the word in the press and social media about the ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

Operation Toxic Gulf Crew with Roger PayneIf you would like to welcome back the Operation Toxic Gulf crew they will be arriving at Oceanside Marine, Stock Island Key West late Sunday night – so please stop by any day next week.

 

Cleaning Up Our Shoreline

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Our friends from Sea Shepherd Boston were kind enough to join us this week for a shoreline clean-up of Horton Street in Gloucester, MA–home of Ocean Alliance. The rocks along our shoreline create a trap for fishing gear, water bottles, stryrofoam cups and other debris that needs to be collected every few months to prevent it from washing out to sea. It’s another example how organizations can accomplish more when they work together:

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A Visit to a Cutting-Edge Robotics Lab

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Upon the completion of the robotics leg of Operation Toxic Gulf this week, our local crewmember Dan Haefner contacted the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). It turns out that a couple of Olin College alumni work there and the Olin students working on board the RV Odyssey were invited for a tour of the facility. Later on that day staff members from IHMC came for a tour of the Odyssey. I had the good fortune to meet with a number of staff and I had great conversations with John Carff and Johnny Godowski. Amongst other things, John is into micro air vehicles and Johnny works on high-speed legged robotic systems. Read More

Can Drones Help Save Whales?

By | Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, Operation Toxic Gulf, Technology | No Comments

I am writing this blog from the RV Odyssey 120 nautical miles out in the Gulf of Mexico on the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Most of the day we are tracking whales acoustically (oh for a drone to help us find whales), but for part of every day on this leg we are conducting ship trials (at sea launch and recovery exercises) on a variety of drones. Read More