In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico riveted the world with images of gushing oil in amounts hardly imaginable. Once the oil well was capped the press all but disappeared from the Gulf but the disaster remained. Iain Kerr, Roger Payne and our research partner Dr. John Wise from the University of Southern Maine, decided that this was where Ocean Alliance’s research vessel Odyssey needed to be to find out if and what damage the oil and dispersants were causing to the whales of the Gulf. That summer the Odyssey, staffed by a scientific team from USM including Dr. Wise, traveled from Gloucester to the site of the spill to collect what opportunistic data we could, including biopsy skin and blubber samples from sperm whales and we’ve returned every summer since.
This week the Wise Laboratory announced the publication of a new paper in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. The paper focuses not on the oil or dispersants, but on the genotoxic metals found in the Gulf oil – specifically chromium and nickel. The Wise Laboratory has been our principle partner analyzing samples taken from sperm whales for over 10 years now. They have conducted much of the toxicological analysis from our global Voyage of the Odyssey that ran between 2000-2005. Previous analysis by the Wise Laboratory has found that metals cause DNA damage and bioaccumulate in the tissues of whales. Using our sperm whale global data set the Wise team have been able to determine that samples taken in the Gulf were “significantly higher” in these metals than samples taken in other parts of the world.
Over the last 15 years Ocean Alliance has been collecting data on ocean pollution; this gives us the capacity to take what we learn from locations such a as the Gulf of Mexico and put that data into a global context. Many people dedicated time and money not only to the Gulf expeditions but also to the Voyage of the Odyssey and we are very grateful to everyone who has made this work and this publication possible.