Monthly Archives

September 2010

Leaving Biloxi and heading back to sea: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Days 64-70, September 18-24, 2010

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Back to sea! Our port call in Biloxi lasted far too long.  We were pinned in because of wind and waves- they were simply too rough to go out and work in, but now they are dying down so we are back at it again.  Sorry, I did not write in port, but I had a lot of writing to do that occupied a lot of my time and attention.  I did not mean to worry you and thanks to those who checked in to make sure we were okay.

Biloxi was a curious town.  Lots of casinos, which most of us were not interested in.  Not much else.  It is a city that was hard hit by hurricane Katrina. In fact, the land side of the dock we were at was 35 feet underwater then.  There were lots of places where there had been a house, but the owners could not afford to rebuild and have not returned.  Many of them were simply depressions in the grass where a house had stood, marked by a lonely mailbox still standing.  Weird to see the mailbox there but the house gone.  Weird to see so many of these missing houses dotting the landscape.  Makes you realize that for us in Maine, we really do not have a feel for how bad Katrina was.

We spent two days with the other USM (University of Southern Mississippi) at their Gulf Coast Marine Laboratory.  Extremely friendly and nice group of people working there.  All of them tied in some way with nearshore Gulf research.  They have a remarkably impressive marine aquaculture facility (aquaculture is the practice of 'farming' fish) as well as some nice aquatic toxicology facilities.  They also have some boats for doing research at sea.  We had lots of tours and I gave my first seminar on the Voyage itself.  I felt like it went pretty well.

They, too, were hard hit by Katrina. A 35,000 square foot research facility was lost along with 50% of their toxicology building and several buildings along their docks.  We found a lot of common ground and interest and I am hopeful to build some exchange programs with them.  I also continue to push the concept of “marine health” as a key future field and an intersection of public health and marine science where one studies the health of the ocean and life in it and how that impacts people.  With some of

their current programs, we might be able to build a pilot program at our USM or perhaps jointly between the two.

We also added more research techniques.  Southern Miss has a parasitologist who is very interested in marine bugs. So we will collect whatever parasites we find in worms and we will attempt to collect dolphin blows so he can see what bugs are in those too.  They also have a good toxicologist working on oil and dispersants in fish and crabs and on nanotoxicology so lots for he and I to talk about.

But now we are back at sea and we have a full boat!  This leg will focus on the Bryde's whales again and we will make a slow deliberate voyage between here and St. Petersburg, Florida. We expect to spend 10-12 days sailing what would take 3-4 days if we just went straight there, combing the waters for this small group of shy whales.  The watches will be mostly visual, but some scientists at Scripps believe these whales do vocalize in the high and low ranges so we will try acoustics too.  We had a graduate student on from Scripps to help us work through the acoustic part.

So let me set the stage for this leg.  On board we have:  Myself, Captain Bob, First Mate Ian, Sandy, Johnny and Matt.  You will remember all of us of course.  Our new crew are:  Bailey who replaces Rick as Ocean Alliance crew; Tania who is a graduate student in my laboratory focusing on sperm whales (she may stay on longer to see them); Dr. Bob Kuech who is a Professor with me at USM and his work focuses on teaching science teachers how to best teach science; Monique who is a USM undergraduate majoring in Environmental Science; Kait who is a graduate student at Scripps, and Steve who is a freelance environmental writer for the Chicago Tribune and whose stepmother is an English Professor at our USM.

There again is a nice chemistry in this group.  All are eager to get to sea and get to work.  All have an excellent sense of humor.  Thus, I am expecting a great trip and hopeful for whales.

Hope all is well with you.


(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)


Leaning heavily to port through the waves; Sleeping and standing are challenging! ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Day 63, September 17, 2010

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Well, we are almost through the waves.  The challenge has become that we are heeling to the port side. This situation means that everything leans heavily to port.  For those sleeping on port side (Ian, Carolyne, Rick and Matt) this means that the boat is pushing you up against the port wall.  Not great, but livable.  For those sleeping on the starboard side (Sandy, Johnny, Bob and me)… it means the boat is push you out into… well nothing but air. Yikes!!! It is quite the challenge to stay in your bunk.  For all of us, it means whenever we are sitting or standing or walking the boat pulls you towards the port wall. Very, very tiring. We will have had a total of about 24 hours of this leaning. I imagine we will walk funny when we reach the dock!

In dock, we will say goodbye to both Carolyne and Rick.  Carolyne was just on for this leg, but she proved herself a valuable member o

f the team, excelling at the midlevel platform, and was always ready with a smile and a good sense of humor. Rick has been on since the beginning and has always been a valued member of the team. He excelled at biopsying, running the helm and beating the students at cards.  Really a fine, fine man and I hope we see him again soon. Carolyne I know will be at our USM lab working and ready to harass me upon my own return so we will see her then.  They really made this particular leg successful and fun. We thank them for their help and hard work.

Overall, the day was passed quietly and we all look forward to a break from the waves. There is much work to do in port and new crew to welcome and orient.  But mostly, we are all looking forward to some pizza and cold soda!

 Have a nice evening and I'll let you know how the pizza was!


 (Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)


Rough seas; Studying the effects of chromium on chromosomes: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Day 62, September 16, 2010

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Hurricane Karl has been toying with us for over a day now. Or I should say the edge of it is as the hurricane itself is nowhere near us. But the edge of it is sufficiently close to give us 4-6 foot seas and 15-20 mph winds making it a rough time.  No one slept last night- too rough.  Sandy was quite funny in my bunk as she sleeps by the side of the boat leaving me to face the side open to the room. This arrangement means if a big enough wave comes, I am the one who goes sailing across the room!  However, each time a big one came, Sandy would grab my arm.  I finally asked her if her intent was to further stabilize herself or if she really thought she could keep me from flying across the room- you know one of those seatbelt moments when you are slamming on the breaks and you put out your arm in front of your child… I didn't get an answer.

By 2:30 am I was still awake as it’s almost impossible to sleep in weather like this.  You somehow convince yourself it's going to die down soon- but it never does. You're also forced to brace yourself via the wall at your head and foot in order to stop rolling constantly and to keep from flying across the room. Thus, the only way to be still is to have you arm and leg muscles fully flexed and good luck trying to sleep like that. 

So at 2:30 I sent a note back to Iain and John Atkinson- “the weather is kicking our  butts- please look at whether there is a closer port- maybe Grand Isle”.  I went to the pilothouse and looked at options with First Mate Ian who was on helm watch- not too good.  I studied the weather and amazingly my email went off with a quick message from John saying he would look into. Now at 3:00 am – that's being Johnny on the spot!  Thanks John!  The weather made it clear- we would be in this situation for the rest of the way in. Ugh!

I managed to doze a little and got up to an email from John saying he had found an alternative dock in Grand Isle. Thanks again John! Problem was it was 40 miles out of the way. He ended with an offer to let him know if there was anything else we needed. I asked if he could deliver a 12 pack of coke and a couple of pepperoni pizzas…

I discussed the options with Bob, Ian and Iain. The consensus of the professional crew was to go for Biloxi as it was further but lay in a more forgiving path with the storm. Iain simply told me to balance the perspective of the career sailors with the needs of the science team and to make the best decision for the team as a whole.  I watched the group for a few hours. Everyone is exhausted and needs not only some sleep but some fun.  I've been to Grand Isle- there was little there

at the height of its tourist season because of the oil and now the tourist time is gone. I also have new crew arriving in Biloxi so I have to get there anyway.  Better to trust the advice of the professional sailors and go now.  So we are heading for Biloxi riding through the wind and waves created by the edge of this storm and looking forward to a break.

The day was passed with work on USM lab stuff and classes and remarkable fatigue.  I think it was Matt who observed to me that he'd napped for 2 hours woke up and 10 minutes later was sleepy again. At one point he came halfway up the galley stairs, leaned his head against the wall and fell asleep! Generally, that was the tone of the day for all – computer work- nap-computer work-nap etc.  The remarkable thing is that tonight will again be rough and tomorrow and tomorrow night.  So boy are we looking forward to Saturday!   

I thought you might find what Sandy was working on all day interesting. She is looking at the ability of chromium to alter the human karyotype.  I know the karyo-what?  It's one of those words made up long ago that made sense to someone.  I have always disliked that word and so of course it is at the heart of the work I do!

But, you're all more familiar with the human karyotype than you think. For example, you have probably heard that human males are XY females XX. Well, from a genetic perspective that is detected by a karyotype- though most people tell the difference between males and females other ways and just learn in school somewhere along the way about the X and Y thing. 

Well, the X and the Y are chromosomes. The chromosomes are structures in the cell that our lab focuses on. They are an organized package of DNA and protein used by the cell to manage its DNA and to divide into two new cells. When a chromosome is damaged bad things can happen like cancer or birth defects.  The chromosomes come in pairs except for the sex chromosomes which are either a similar female pair (XX) or dissimilar male pair (XY) – no jokes now! 

Anyway, one can stain the chromosomes so the pairs can be identified by their black and white banding pattern and then damage can be assessed by looking for changes in that banding pattern.  It is something we will do with these sperm whale cells to see what their karyotype is and if chemicals can affect it. It is too soon for that work, but on these wavy days Sandy focuses on the human work. 

Have a good night- we will be riding the waves!


(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director) 



Boat Meets Bus: Blog by Anne Casselman, Expedition Writer, Expedition Blue Planet, about her experience aboard Odyssey

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While Alexandra Cousteau's Expedition Blue Planet bus was parked in Mobile, Alabama we had the good fortune of meeting up with the crew of the Odyssey, the Ocean Alliance's research sailboat not once, not twice, but on three occasions. Each time was a charm.

One of the films that we are producing from our time in the gulf is about indicator species of which sperm whales, the subject of John Wise's lab's environmental and toxicology research at sea, are a perfect example. So when we drove out to Steiner's shipyard in Bayou Le Batre, Alabama where the Odyssey was docked to film Alexandra's interview with John and his crew we were excited.

All of us fell for the crew of the Odyssey and their mission right away. Whether it was Captain Bob recounting how to sidle up to a whale in a 94-foot long sailboat (“The trick is to approach slowly and quietly”) or the answer I got when I asked what sperm whales sound like. “It sounds like…” Captain Bob paused and snapped his fingers once. It took me a couple seconds to figure out that his snap was what the sperm whales sound like coming through the hydrophone. “If you've got many they sound like a bunch of horses on cobblestones,” Captain Bob elaborated. At that point the pilot house erupted into a chorus of everyone snapping. The self-professed tech guy Chris Gianios even threw in some flamenco moves with his snaps for emphasis. Shh, shhh I urged them. The cameras were rolling as Alexandra interviewed Cathy Wise about her at-sea experiments on whale cell lines in the boat's main salon just below us.
That day was great for all of our production crew. While everyone busily shot the interviews and gathered the footage they needed John was patient enough to walk me through his research so that we could write a blog post for our own expedition blog about his research. Alexandra got a demo of how Johnny collects the tissue samples from the whales and a thorough tour of the boat, a unique lab/sailboat hybrid from the mini-fridge in the pilot house that houses tissue samples to the bottles of cell culture medium (that Johnny likens to gatorade) that stand sentinel in the fridge inside the aft cabin lab that doubles as John's bedroom.

John explained their research really succinctly: “So the study you’d like to do is you’d like to, if you could,  have a tank of whales that you don’t expose to a chemical and then a tank that you expose to a little, and then a little more.We can’t do that,” he said, stating the obvious. “The next thing you can do is cell culture.” So they grow lines of whale cells, expose them to toxicants and look for resulting DNA damage, a harbinger of carcinogenic properties

. Parallel to this research, they analyze tissues samples collected from whales in the Gulf of Mexico to see what toxins accumulate in their tissues.

Last summer they discovered that hexavalent chromium is a major baddie for whales, corroding the genetic material in their cells and increasing their risk for cancer and reproductive problems. I didn't realize that we all cross hexavalent chromium's path pretty much every day. It's in rust inhibitors, paints, dyes and inks. The yellow lines on our roads have hexavalent chromium in them. It's even cast in the movie Erin Brockovitch as the antagonist.  Still, listening to Wise tell me about his research on it, it's remarkable to learn that in the entire big blue sea there's enough hexavalent chromium to make its way into sperm whales and endanger their health.

Of course this year the research focus is on oil, dispersants and the mixture of the two. The results are still rolling in and while we all do mightily hope that the whales will fare just fine, if anyone is going to quantify the bad news about the Deepwater Horizon's effect on sperm whales, there is absolutely no doubt in all of our minds that it will be John and his team on board the Odyssey.

Several of our crew went out to Bayou Le Batre again that week in the evening with a catered dinner for our guests from RBC Bank and the fabulous crew of the Odyssey. We were the  guests that simply couldn't shed! Captain Bob and First Mate Ian very kindly obliged us and hoisted our field producer Ali Sanderson up to the crow's nest where she took all these great photos. Our film editor Jonnie followed suit but this time I was the one at the winch, to the benefit of toning some parts of my shoulders that I didn't even realize had muscle. Alexandra went up the faster way and climbed the rope ladder up to the crow's nest. In short, we were clambering all over the ship. And then the next morning we came out yet again to interview John in more depth.

There's a saying that fish and visitors stink after three days and I do hope we managed to bid adieu before we reached that point because we're all awfully keen to follow up with everyone when we come through Portland, Maine later this fall during our own 138-day long landlubber road-bound expedition across North America investigating this continent's chief water use and management stories.

And hell, if we didn't here's hoping their nostrils are acclimatized to the scent of stinky fish from their time at sea enough that they didn't notice (now I can't say that of the three days our cameraman Ian Kellett spent on their ship gathering footage of sperm whales).  

(Blog by: Anne Casselman, Expedition Writer, Expedition Blue Planet)


Humans live in a world of "sight," whales live in a world of sound: ODYSSEY Education Blog, September 1, 2010

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Today, we'll begin adding educational blogs to the mix, as Ocean Alliance and the University of Southern Maine continue to track and biopsy whales in the Gulf of Mexico to learn more about the effects of oil and dispersants on the whales themselves, the marine life on which they feed and the Gulf ecosystem that supports them. In this video interview, Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, explains the technology used by researchers and crew aboard Odyssey to locate whales by “liste

ning” for them.

(posted by: Ilana Schoenfeld, Ocean Alliance)