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aug14

Aloha, Hawaii

By | aug14 | No Comments

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Hawaii, where I got to connect with some old friends, make new friends, and even say hi to a few humpbacks (even though it was blowing 30 knots the day we went out).

It’s a long trip, and jet lag had me staggering my first day in Honolulu, but wouldn’t you say yes to getting out of New England in February to give two talks in Hawaii?  My first talk was at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island.  I have to say that while Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the old Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory buildings on Gloucester Harbor are pretty amazing, these folks have us beat.  What a spectacular facility, and the staff offered tremendous hospitality. Coconut Island is cut off from the mainland so you have to take a small boat over to the institute.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

I was surprised when my new friend and guide Dr. Aude Pacini invited me to get into another boat to go over to their marine mammal stranding facility at the edge of the Marine Core Base on Mokapu peninsula.  I could not have been happier, there were V22 Osprey assault planes landing on my right and an extensive marine mammal stranding facility on my left. Dr. Kristi West was my type of whale biologist; she was clearly very passionate about her work, even though dealing with dead or stranded animal is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea (or as nice a smell).

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

Kirsti gave me a tour of their facility, showing me where they did their necropsies, letting me look over the shoulder of a scientist who was reviewing the stomach contents of a recent stranding, and even letting me to walk into their large freezer that held a biological treasure trove of frozen marine mammal parts.  After a tour of this facility it was back to Coconut Island, where I gave a talk on the Voyages of the Odyssey and the toxicological consequences of our consumer lifestyles.

The next day I was invited to the main campus in Honolulu, where I gave an talk on how we developed SnotBot and showed some videos of snot collection.

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

I must say that I found the generosity and collaborative spirit of everyone I met to be right down our street (as I often say, we are Ocean Alliance, not Ocean Alone). I talked with people about collaborating on some archival toxicological work, drone projects, and entanglement and stranding projects. I promise you the fact that I was in Hawaii in February as against New England had nothing to do with my enthusiasm.

I see enormous potential for groups like Ocean Alliance and the University of Hawaii to work together; the distance between us only increase the value of our perspective.  At the end of the day, as much as I was enchanted with the islands and the climate, it was the people who made the trip worthwhile, so my undying thanks go to Pam, Dr. Ruth Gates, and Dr. Aude Pacini. Aloha and Mahalo nui.

New Video: Drones for Whale Research

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

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

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

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

By | aug14, Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, Operation Toxic Gulf | No Comments

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

Our Right Whale Team to Present at IWC Meeting on Increased Calf Mortality

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Researchers from our Southern Right Whale Program, our partners at Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program will be presenting five abstracts (listed below) at an International Whaling Commission meeting that will be held on Aug 5-6, 2014 in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Read More

Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 Campaign Update

By | aug14, Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, Operation Toxic Gulf | No Comments

It’s been an extremely productive summer in the Gulf of Mexico with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society joining us on the RV Odyssey to study the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr describes what we’ve seen and learned in the Gulf this summer through multiple research techniques and tools, with new footage of the Operation Toxic Gulf crew at work:

Paint Factory Update: Work on Building A Begins

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters | No Comments

There were originally six buildings on the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory site, the new home of Ocean Alliance in Gloucester, MA. Buildings D and F were condemned by the city and were taken down (when we have raised the money they will be put back up with the original facade). Building E is finished and now houses our offices. The restoration of the chimney is complete so we are now focusing our efforts on what we call Buildings A and B (the two remaining brick buildings). Read More

New Video: The Science of Operation Toxic Gulf

By | aug14, Gulf of Mexico, Operation Toxic Gulf | No Comments

In this new video from Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, Scientific Manager Andy Rogan explains the research goals of the campaign on the RV Odyssey in our fifth year following up on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, our second partnered with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Roger Payne joins the crew to help with the biopsy process:

A listing of scientific papers by the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology from our Gulf expeditions so far can be seen here.