Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! It sunny and crisp and cool here in Maine.
We have been busy storing data and samples and getting ramped up for the upcoming weeks and months of laboratory work. We compiled some of the statistics from the Odyssey Gulf Research Expedition so far. They are quite pleasing as they illustrate a very successful trip of sample gathering.
52 whale biopsies (8 from the Atlantic and 44 from Gulf of Mexico) collected
Humpback, fin, Bryde’s and sperm whales
52 DNA samples
52 skin samples for metal analysis
51 blubber samples
40 whale cell lines
82 fish sampled
57 invertebrate samples
6 dolphin blows collected
100+ hours of acoustic recordings
90 liters of seawater collected from 2 depths at 15 sites
6.3 kilograms of sediment collected from 10 sites
4 air samples collected (two weeks of continuous air per sample)
1,800+ hours looking of whales
60+ hours “on whales”
700+ hours of video taken
10,000+ digital photos taken
14 Maine students worked at sea
16 USM students, staff and faculty worked at sea plus another 6 in lab at USM
16 additional personnel (Ocean Alliance crew, guests) involved at sea
7 Facilities/Universities visited
20+ scientists engaged
Thanks to an excellent effort by USM’s Public Affairs office, we held a press conference to tell the state we were back and report the success of the effort and the samples collected. This conference led to a pot of press as all three local tv channels had us on the noon, 6 pm and 11 pm news, Maine Public Radio had us on at least twice and our major newspaper wrote a nice article on our efforts. The Associated Press sent our story our nationally.
You may recall that fish we caught in Grand Isle- we had some tissue tested and it was confirmed as oil in the fish. We are now raising money to test the whales.
Enjoy your turkey day! We will have 21 for dinner and be giving thanks for so many blessings including all of you.
(Blog by: Science Director, John Wise)
So what happened with the dead whale? Well, by Thursday morning, Jane and Carolyne had joined our list of volunteers and Captain Bob and Rick were ready to go. We tried and tried to get specific GPS coordinates out of NOAA about the dead sperm whale, but to no avail. I am sure they wondered just how we knew. We will keep that a secret. The ultimate story was that a dead sperm whale was spotted by air floating about 10 miles north of the location of the Deep Horizon accident. BP contacted NOAA and informed them of it. As the Gordon Gunter was within a few miles, it ceased its planned activities and search from dawn to dusk, but could not locate it so they resumed normal activities.
We tried to contact the pilot group that had offered to help us to see if they could fly over, but could not reach them. Thus, given the time that has passed making it likely the whale has sunk or been eaten or carried some distance by current, we will not go as it is likely we cannot find it. But, we are ready should another event like this one occur.
The bulk of the week was spent reintegrating into our daily lab work and meeting with my graduate students about their progress and work. They are doing well and I will tell you about them more as we go. The week ended tonight at an awards banquet with Cathy winning a William B. Wise award (no relation that we know of) for being an athlete with a 3.0 or greater grade point average over the last school year. The upcoming week has us in Kentucky presenting our human studies at a metal conference and then in Illinois for a few days.
I’ll keep you posted.
(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)
I spent the first two days back doing exactly those things you would expect- catching up on sleep, sorting through a giant pile of mail and touching base with students, staff, faculty and administrators I work with. I am pleased to report everyone is well. James did a nice job keeping my house in good shape. Chris, Amie, Hong and Jill managed the laboratory well. It’s been great to catch up.
The goal of this phase of the voyage work is to analyze samples, share our experiences and results with others and raise money for next year’s return. The next two years are also critical as we are not likely to see oil and dispersant levels this year and they sank to deep levels in the ocean and not enough time has passed for them to have moved very far up the food chain. Thus, this year is key to give us a starting baseline of levels, but the upcoming years are likely to show a progressive increase in levels relative to this year.
James is in Portland, Oregon presenting and already US Fish and Wildlife has asked him to ask me to have the poster presented at their meeting, which fortunately will be in Portland, Maine. They will also tour our lab. Johnny presents at a USM next week called “Civic Matters” so the presentations have started. Johnny also has started setting up presentations at local high schools using his network that he created while presenting our NASA work over the past couple of years. I have a number of scientific meetings lined up to present at so our word will get out.
The major excitement came this evening when we learned that a dead sperm whale was sighted today floating in the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of just a few adult whales is considered to spell doom for this populations because. Populations models predict that the loss of just 3-5 adult sperm whales would cause the population in the Gulf to eventually become lost entirely so this development is bad news. The cause of course is unknown at this time. We also heard that NOAA was unsure whether or not it would respond and determine the cause of death. Obviously, this information is important to know. We have had two different sources confirm the whale is dead so we know it’s a real event.
If NOAA fails to respond and if we can get the GPS coordinates of the whale from them, we are now poised to respond immediately. I am putting the finishing touches assembling a volunteer whale rapid response team. Already, Iain Kerr, Johnny, Cathy and an experienced whale veterinarian and pathologist have agreed to participate. Iain is pursuing some funding to cover gas & food etc. The Gulf weather is currently good so we can get there and back quickly. The location will determine what boat we use as this work does not require the special tools on the Odyssey, and we just need a boat that can get us there quickly. Our visits to the Gulf have afforded us some options for a rapid response for a number of locations. So if the whales if in the grouping off of Key West, then we will use the Odyssey, but if it is elsewhere we can use a collaborator’s vessel.
Our goal will be to perform a necropsy and collect samples for pollutant analysis. We have a call in to NOAA to gain the location coordinates, but I expect that our attention to it will likely cause them to go. They have the authority to respond and I doubt would want to see us responding instead. But, we are ready should the chance arrive. If not, it will likely be a while before we hear what happened to this particular whale as it will become part of the legal record and thus, not open for discussion until the legal case is over.
We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)
Lessons From Deepwater:
America’s biggest oil leak exposed a glaring need to proactively protect and monitor coastlines, researchers say
explorations.ucsd.edu, November, 2010
Still no whales. This lack of whales also means we are moving faster as we do not have whale sampling slowing us down or backing us up. If this lack of whales keeps up, we will be in soon. Crew are already starting to think about what to do next because this leg clearly will not last two weeks.
I did a lot of computer-based work today. Spent some time working on details for next year’s voyage because that will be on top of me in a blink. One exciting development is that our water collaborator Eric has told me that deep ocean water sampling is his bread and butter and so next year we will sample deeper into the water column where those dispersant plumes are thought to be. He has sampled up to 4000 meters which is 4-times deeper than where the whales go. I am already excited for those samples!
I went over a link to a new claim by NOAA that Gulf seafood is safe that Roger sent me. You may remember they first determined it was safe by smelling the fish or as they put it a “sensory test.” Well, due to pressure they decided “…to ensure consumers have total confidence in the safety of seafood…” and added a second test. This test is the one we all expected to be the first test- they measured levels of a dispersant component in 1,735 piece of seafood. Finally. BUT. There is always a but. They carefully chose a dispersant component that they knew beforehand did not accumulate in fish tissue. Hence, surprise, surprise – the seafood only had trace amounts. Thus, they conclude it is safe. This component is also not specific to dispersants but it exists in many other products too, meaning that if it was found it could simply be from something else.
They actually point these aspects out stating (bold added by me for emphasis): “The new test detects dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, known as DOSS, a major component of the dispersants used in the Gulf. DOSS is also approved by FDA for use in various household products and over-the-counter medication at very low levels. The best scientific data to date indicates that DOSS does not build up in fish tissues.“
One wonders why they chose this approach. Was it simply poor oversight in a rush to do something? Or was it something more deliberate. One could rephrase their quote to say: “The new test detects dioctyl sodium sulfosuccinate, known as DOSS. We chose to test DOSS because it is a major component of the dispersants and we already know DOSS does not accumulate in fish tissues so that it would be unlikely would find anything in the fish and we could then declare our smell tests valid and the fish safe. However, we are a bit worried as the best scientific data to date about DOSS reporting this lack of accumulation come from a few poorly done studies, so we are not sure if they are correct. Thus to ensure that we cover our backsides, we also chose to measure DOSS because it is a component that has absolutely no specificity to dispersants and is actually in many household products and over the counter drugs. Consequently, if these few studies are in fact wrong, and we were to find DOSS levels in the fish, we can then blame those levels on household products and pharmaceuticals and deflect the blame from the oil spill. Moreover, we can claim that those levels in fish are “normal” and “have been there for years” as household products and pharmaceuticals have been polluting the Gulf for a long time. Thus we have no worries of meaningful findings of dispersant levels in seafood coming from conducting this worthless test on 1,735 samples.”
Here is the link to their announcement so you can read it for yourself:
(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)