The First Sperm Whale Encounter of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

Guest Post by Odyssey Scientific Manager Andy Rogan:

Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 Leg 2, Part 1

The second leg of our Operation Toxic Gulf campaign was quite extraordinary. When I decided to write a blog about the leg it quickly became apparent that I could not justify cramming it all into one entry, and so it was split into two. This blog documents the first half of the leg.

Dan Haefner dropping the array on the OdysseyThe trip certainly started off in high hopes. For those that do not know, the crew of the RV Odyssey locate their primary study species, sperm whales, acoustically–using a set of hydrophones dragged behind the boat. During our first leg from Key West up to Pensacola we did not have this equipment. Picking the hydrophone up at our home base of Pensacola we set out into the Gulf with high hopes–even if it was only ever going to be a short trip.

We arrived back in Pensacola 5 days later after a trip of high emotions and some quite wonderful encounters. More than anything, it offered a renewed sense of purpose on the importance of protecting the magnificent biodiversity of the Gulf of Mexico. Somethings, evidently, are very much worth fighting for.

The morning of the 15th brought with it a familiar sound not heard on the bridge of the RV Odyssey since August of 2013. A continuous succession of ‘clicks’ beamed quietly yet steadily from the speakers, materializing in a series of dots spreading out over a centralized computer screen. Separate from the meaning of these clicks, the sounds are, quite frankly, fairly boring. Innocuous, very little variation, and not a hugely exciting sound, just a repetitive sequence of, well, clicks. What these clicks mean, however, is very, very exciting. These sounds mean that somewhere in the vicinity of the boat, deep deep down in the cold dark recesses of the ocean, in a landscape entirely alien to us, the largest toothed predator to have ever lived is navigating through the darkness searching for its food.

Sperm whale diving in the Gulf of MexicoNot only is it exciting that there is a massive and charismatic sperm whale somewhere near the boat, but from a scientific perspective it is even more exciting–it means that there is a strong possibility that we will be able to get closer to achieving our research goal and add another biopsy to our sample set.

The first couple of days were something of a whirlwind as the old and new crew acclimatized to a life at sea finding and tracking whales, encountering the trials and tribulations of switching to a new whale-tracking software program whilst suffering a chronic lack of sleep. Two days, six biopsies and an exhausted but exhilarated crew later and Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 was well and truly underway.

Day 3 proved an unwelcome break. Exploring the deeper areas southeast of the Mississippi delta in which sperm whales have congregated in larger numbers in the past brought very limited success with not a single click to be heard. Not only this, but the waters through which we travelled seemed entirely lifeless. No dolphins. No flying fish erratically scattering before the boat, nor birds circling above inspecting this temporary visitor to the ocean world. The total lack of clicks and absence of any life what so ever was discouraging, optimism low. Dawn on June 18th broke, a last ditch effort for the leg to get more biopsies. And as we turned north to explore a new area a quite extraordinary day began with a familiar sound.

Continued in Part 2