Operation Toxic Gulf Crew Biopsy Most Endangered Whale Species in Gulf of Mexico

Andy Rogan, Scientific Manager:

I had been up the mast for around an hour and a half before something in the periphery of my vision caught my eye. I turned quickly, but whatever I saw had quickly disappeared beneath the waves. I continued looking in the general direction, quite far off of our port bow, and sure enough, a couple minutes later a large dark shape cut through the water heading straight at us! I couldn’t identify the species immediately. But what I did know was that I had never seen it before, and that it was special.

Bryde's whale in Gulf of MexicoWhen you see a cetacean for the first time you can normally narrow the species down to just a handful from the size of the animal, its dorsal fin, and its behavior. This proved a little tricky with this particular individual. It was too large to be a beaked whale and a completely different shape to a sperm whale. As the crew moved into biopsy position there was just one question going through everyone’s minds, but no one mentioned it for fear of getting ahead of ourselves, of somehow jinxing the situation. As it got closer, the shape of the animal became clearer–there was only one real candidate. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. In front of us we had a Bryde’s whale and we were being presented an opportunity to obtain a biopsy sample from it.

Iain Kerr – Expedition Leader:

The Bryde’s whale (pronounced broodas) is a baleen whale of approximately 40-45 feet in length. They are found worldwide in the mid latitudes and closely resemble the sei whale. In the Gulf of Mexico there are thought to be only 15-30 Bryde’s whales. Due to the lack of genetic diversity this population may already be doomed. Every year we have gone looking in what we think to be the Bryde’s whale habitat–on the continental shelf, as against in the deeper waters off the continental shelf where we find sperm whales.

Bryde's whale in Gulf of MexicoSperm whales tend to swim in a fairly straight line before they dive, which makes collecting a biopsy sample easier than with a Bryde’s whale which surfaces at irregular intervals and seems to change directions randomly. Collecting a biopsy from a Bryde’s whale is certainly the icing on the cake for the expedition so far and it will definitely enhance our knowledge of this little known and critically endangered population.