Monthly Archives

October 2010

A new search plan for Brydes whales; Spotting NOAA’s Gunter on the horizon: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Day 100, October 25, 2010

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No this time for real!  The 25th is 100 days.

One of the really difficult things about land life to maintain on a boat is a sense of time. Our days, for the science team anyway, start at sunrise and end at sunset, with a helm watch sandwiched in at night. We travel through time zones and our clocks don’t notice so we are never certain what the actual time is.  Worse is dates and days.  We don’t use them at all on the boat and so before you know it- you have no idea what day it is and no conception of date.  I have kept track largely through these emails, but today I realized I was off.

I thought today was the 26th for most of the day.  Then I realized that it was the 25th making today our 100th day.  Sigh.

Today was a better 100th day. The water was calmer and the sun was bright. It was a reasonable day for whale watching though Rick, our whale whisperer, told me that whales said that “there would be no broohaha for today”. I told him to tell them we had no need for any broohahas just one whale calmly alongside the boat would be fine. Alas, they didn’t listen and again no whales today. Krill again which is great as the Bryde’s whales eat krill, and before we could not catch any, but sadly no whales.

I was kept quite busy with work from home. Never really took a break just writing and writing and writing. Phew! Then about 6 pm an unexpected email caught my eye. It was Kait from Scripps who had been with us in September, but was now with NOAA on the Gunter.  She said she could see me from the deck and wished us well.  I sprang up and told the team. They scanned the horizon for her and yes eventually the Gordon Gunter (our competition) came into view.

We hailed them on the radio, but they refused to acknowledge us. Finally, when we began to creep into their safety zone- they called us asking us what our intentions were. We thought about claiming we were going to ram them and reclaim our student, but instead, we just asked to speak with her. Kait is doing well, but bristles under the tight rules and scrutiny of NOAA.  I guess one cannot even take pictures from the boat. They have been out here for almost three weeks and have seen 1-2 Bryde’s (maybe- which I take to mean they could not get a good enough look to identify them) a few sperm whales and a bunch of pilot whales.  Beyond that, rules forbid her from saying anything more.


So much for the open communication and shared information NOAA was insisting on when we started. She asked about our success. We said “No comment”. She chuckled and pointed out that all she needed to do was look on the web as we are indeed open with our communication and sharing our information. But the point was made.

The pilot whales were interesting to hear as we have seen none.

I tried to get a picture of the Gunter while it was light.  Look at the boat on the horizon if you can see it. I also attached a web photo of it.

The Gordon Gunter was named after Dr. Gordon Gunter who founded the Gulf Coast Marine Laboratory at USM that we visited. He pioneered Gulf marine studies. The Gordon Gunter is 225 feet long and 43 feet wide and sleeps 35 people to our 93 foot long (with bowsprit) and 18 foot wide sleeping 12.  But we are more nimble and able to get near the whales. Plus we are more fun!

This Bryde’s whale thing had puzzled me and so I studied it more.  The one whale we saw was headed towards deeper water than we were told they were in, which puzzled us. The published data show them in a narrow band along the 200 meter depth line. NOAA has told us they are at the 200 meter depth line. As I dug deeper into the text of the data, I realized that was true as the whales were reported at 650 feet or 200 meters. But it was also true that their depth ranged to 990 feet. Thus, we have been on one extreme end of their range!  The scale is such on the maps that it looks like they fall right along that 200 m depth line.  But, it’s an artifact of scale!

I then found GPS coordinates and further realized that they are compressed in a narrow longitude bands of about 2 degrees (roughly 85-87 degrees longitude). We just passed through there. Next year I will know to spend about a week sailing from 85-87 degrees going along the 650, 850 and 950 depths (there is no canyon line at most of these).  But what about this year?  Well, we have one Bryde’s whale, which as I said is about 10% of the population. We want more.  We have a forecast for 3 days of flat water, which should make visual search possible.  Only one thing to do…turn around and go back again and this time we will search along a track that brings us through the middle of their range. Then we will turn and go deep and finish with a focus on sperm whales.

I am energized by the new information and the new plan.  Let’s hope it works.

Again a beautiful sunset.


(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)

Long day, no whales; Audio recording of dolphins near Odyssey: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Day 100, October 24, 2010

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It’s been 100 days. It shows.

The day greeted us with a brilliant sunrise. We had high hopes for the day. Or at least I did. Rick told me he wasn’t feeling any whales today.  He turned out to be right.  Guess he is officially our whale whisperer now. He’d better feel them tomorrow…

The weather was difficult, with winds and swells, but workable all day. We ran watches all day, but aside from pods of dolphins- no whales. It was hard, hard work. This day was one to test your mettle. I did a number of watches on the pilot house and from elsewhere. Lots of rocking and rolling. Lots of gray sky. Few bearings. The ocean likes to play tricks on you. Was that a whale blow I just saw???  Nope, just a far off whitecap being blown by the wind.  Hey, maybe that was a whale’s back!!!  Nope, just a tease of dark color on the side of a small wave. So on and so on searching and looking.  It really tries your patience because it’s hours and hours of looking for something that may simply not be there.  It’s hard to stare out on a featureless ocean for hours even harder when what you’re looking for isn’t there.

But days like these have their place and their purpose, It is these failed search days that make us into seasoned whale researchers. It is our commitment and perseverance during these gray wavy times that earns us the right to call ourselves field researchers. If it were easy. It would be done. If anyone could do it. Everyone would. If it was quick. It would already be over.  But it is not easy. It’s not quick and only a few can stand the test of days like today and get the job done. It is days like today that make the good days precious and special and rare. It is because we had days like this one that we celebrate and relish the days like number 98 and the special gift that whale gave to us.

I have learned to value and appreciate even this day.

Today, I marveled at the commitment of my team. The work would be hard, really, really hard and the day would be long. There was Rick quietly scanning, trying to find a whale even though they had already told him they were not around. There was Johnny trying to make the day fun with laughter and jokes and shouts of joy and the challenge of climbing once again onto that midlevel platform to ride the bucking waves and stare out at the sea…again. There was Shouping steeling himself against the biting wind he hates so much yet still fulfilling that platform duty and trying ever so hard to find a whale. Young Matthew, desperately wanting to just quit and sleep, yet forcing himself back onto watch each and every time. Sandy doing everything she can to keep the science moving forward checking the Sargasso weed and counting each and every krill we caught. Then there were our captain and crew battling colds and keeping us steady on our course.  My job…try to keep the team focused and inspired and allowing them to vent at me through a variety of verbal barrages of frustration. Ahab appears to be the most common adjective for me today…

But we made it through the day and gave it our best.  No whales seen, but still a job well done. It may sound odd, but more than 24 man-hours of whale watches completed, the boat safe and on course, and krill samples in the freezer- sounds like a job well done to me.

Yes it’s been 100 days and it shows. Not because the team is frustrated with challenging weather, but because they did their jobs in difficult conditions and did them well. The krill samples were collected. processed and stored with nary a word from me about it.  All of the available science was done and done well almost automatically. There a good group. They work hard.  They deserve some whales. Today, they earned that reward. Let’s hope it comes soon!  Rick- start whispering!

Tonight’s sunset was quite different. Still beautiful, but different.  We also recorded some dolphin clicks and whistles from the array in the morning.  It’s an interesting mix of sounds.

I wish you well from the Gulf and hope tomorrow brings us whales.


(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)

Despite setbacks, expedition whale biopsy and cell culture expectations have already been exceeded! ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, Day 87, October 11, 2010

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The team is frustrated. The entire team from Roger and Iain on down to our most recent crew member Jane. Great weather, broken boat.  It manifests itself in different ways from Iain letting the salty sailor in him come out and explaining to me that the engine and transmission are new and should not be failing at all illustrated with some colorful adjectives.  Sandy stomping around a bit explaining to me that “This. This is not science!.” Johnny disappearing on deck with a net deciding that since we cannot follow whales we can always move forward with our plan to look at jellyfish and spending the day netting them in while we travel along at 4 knots (not an easy feat to net at that speed).  And no he did not need any help.  Matt expressing his concern and anxiety that so much pressure would be on the last leg to get samples that it would be stressful.  First Mate Ian simply looking glum, way out of character for him.  Bailey being the superstitious sailor worrying that his arrival had jinxed us since all of the problems started then.  Others, too, had their concerns and frustrations.

That is when my job is the hardest and yet most important.  It is when the worry and concern I have for those working so hard on this effort amps up, but it also allows me to remind myself and them of the big picture.  To get everyone to lift their eyes up from the trees and see the forest.  Today, I write to them as much as I do to you, because they too read these my letters to home as they too are an important part of what home is.

Yes, the boat is broken again after we just fixed it. But we have to look beyond that. We have to look at and judge this expedition in its entirety not any 1 leg as a microcosm of it. Our nation had its worst environmental crisis. We stepped up to launch our effort to help understand it.  We did not know what we would encounter. We did not know how we would fare at sea as most of us, including myself, had never been.  We spent some time worrying about whether the expedition would even happen.  We spent some time preparing for the threat of the oil to us personally.  We planned and hoped and made our best guesses at what to do.  We knew then we were starting on what would be years of work.

We are now in the final stages of the first year of the expedition.  We have already exceeded our best expectations at the start.  We have collected biopsies from 51 whales, when we hoped for 20-25.  Our cell culture laboratory, never tried before, yielded cell lines from all of those whales, though some would be lost later due to circumstances (like heavy weather) we did not have enough experience with.  But we proved to lab to be true and to work.  We isolated three tubes of DNA from each of those whales, which is now allowing for gender ID work.  Only 1 biopsy did not yield enough blubber for petroleum products and dispersant analysis and so we have 50 biopsies for that. We have 51 for metal analysis.  More than enough for each.  If we knew in June/July that this outcome would be our fate we would have been thrilled. I am told the NOAA boat only managed about 10 biopsies in the same time frame at almost 23-times the cost.

But we have gone beyond that.  We have 43 fish sampled, which means many more subsamples from each fish.  We have water samples, sediment samples, air samples, krill samples, many other invertebrate samples, dolphin blow samples, parasite samples, acoustic data, videos, many letters to home, logs, blogs and writing pieces and scores of images.  Had we been promised that in June/July we’d have been over the moon.

But we have gone beyond that, we have met with and built relationships with OSS, Oregon State University, St. Andrews University, NOAA, University of South Florida, Greenpeace, Dauphin Island Marine Lab, University of Alabama, Mobile Baykeeper, University of Southern Mississippi, Alexandra Cousteau’s group and Blue Legacy, Tulane University, Louisiana State University, LUMCON, Grand Isle Marine Lab, University of Georgia, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Ten of these groups have either been on the boat, are collaborating on projects with us, or both.  Most of these relationships, which will prove invaluable to our future efforts, arose because weather or repairs forced us into port.  These port trips are important and successful too.

We learned to live at sea, to plan a voyage to respond to challenges and to constantly be increasing our skills and capabilities.  We learned in our bones just how amazing, vast and powerful the ocean can be.

Yes, the boat needs repairs.  But, as Roger would tell me: “Why John, this is how whale expeditions go. Now, you are an experienced whale field researcher!”  Roger taught me to see the whole expedition and not just the momentary problems.  This expedition, by whatever metric you want to use, is off the charts successful.  So to my team as we limp into port again:

Yes, Iain Kerr, the engine and transmission should not have broken.  But they did and we overcame them and that’s all that really matters.  We are in port safely. The boat will be fixed and we will resume our work. You have seen to all that you could and even beyond and we are grateful and have been back out to sea faster because of it. Keep up the excellent support

Yes, Sandy, limping in is not science, but it is an unavoidable part of a scientific expedition into the deep ocean.  Again overall, the problems could have been much worse, just be glad our problems have been so solvable.  But also, these port calls have given us invaluable relationships, positioned us to be a leader with the Gulf universities in the crisis and opened doors to funding and opportunities we never imagined.  I would prefer to be at sea, but let’s once again maximize the impact of the port call.

No Matt, The last leg will not have more pressure on it to succeed. There is no need to be anxious about it. We are off the charts successful and the last leg will only add to that.  You have done well and grown so much these many days at sea.  Value that more and worry less.

Cheer up First Mate Ian, we need your smile and your humor and for you to reassert… how would you say it… your awesomeness.

Bailey, don’t be silly you are no jinx.  Just the way the ball bounces sometimes.  When life gives us lemons, we make lemonade!  It has worked so far.

Jane and Monique thanks for the work and the good humor, we will strive on without you.

Shouping- remember in port- you’re going to cook us some jellyfish.  Seems my peanut butter and jellyfish sandwich joke may come true after all.

Johnny- its good you can’t keep still.  Just keep on catching those jellyfish and everything else that you can, but now it’s time for us to help again. Plus we need your smile and laugh as well. You too have grown so much and performed so well – enjoy it!

Captain Bob and I appreciate all of your hard work and passion and desire for constant success and maximizing all opportunities.  Rest in port and be ready. Stop focusing on momentary opportunities missed.  Remember the glass is always half full.  Task some time in port to reflect on the whole expedition and bask in the glow of a job well done. But don’t get too cocky, after all…

We are not done yet!


P.S.  Thanks again to John Atkinson for lining up the transmission repair guy to be here in the morning. John’s back from Argentina and of course with his return the weather improves! Hmmm wonder if this means we have to send Iain back to Peru so the whales will return…  Just kidding Iain!

(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)