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July 2011

Stops in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Crew changes: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Day 38, July 15, 2011

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My apologies to the delay in this email. I was knocked out by some brutal food poisoning. But back on my feet and back at it today.

I learned the last leg that if I don’t write and explain that we arrived in port safely, people wonder if we indeed made it. We did. We got in about 11 am and all went out to a leisurely lunch before attending to the necessities of port.

Here we will say goodbye to Nate, Jane, Nick and Shouping and we will prepare the boat for the trip up the Mississippi for our events in Baton Rouge with Albemarle. My next note will be July 24, after the conclusions of those events, when we are on our way back out to sea.

All is well.


P.S. We are in Biloxi Mississippi.

(Blog by: John Wise, Sr., Science Director)

41 Sperm Whale Biopsies and 1 Brydes Whale Biopsy so far! ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Day 33, July 10, 2011

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I heard the boat engine rev up so I headed up to the pilot house to see what was up. A whale had been sighted, but not close. It was 7:30 am on a Sunday so I stumbled back to my room to try and catch up on my sleep. I am a bit unclear on the details, but shortly after 8 am, I was calling whales and assembling the team on deck.

It was the typical pattern. Get close. Dive, Get close. Dive. Sample. It was hot. We worked hard. We collected 4 more biopsies. We were tired, hungry and worn out, but pleased at our success. As we approached the last whale of the morning, 4 biopsies in hand, we noticed our first real rain clouds of the summer heading our way. We were excited as there is nothing quite like a cool Gulf rain to relieve the heat of the morning.

We sent the camera’s in and here is where you see the difference between people who live in the Gulf area (Ian and Bob), and people who don’t (Sandy, Johnny, Cathy, John Bradford, Nick and I). Ian made a beeline for the pilot house with Bob, shutting the doors as the rain was “too cold.” Sandy, Johnny, Cathy, John Bradford, Nick and I donned our bathing suits and let the rain wash over us. We delighted in the cool drops, smiles all around.

I was the last one in and sat down thinking what a busy morning it had been and how late lunch was. Only problem–it was 11 am! 4 biopsies and a frolic in the rain in only 3 hours. I couldn’t believe my eyes-11 am. I asked Ian if the clock was right. He said “Yeah, it is. I know I can hardly believe it myself. I am starving and we still have an hour to lunch.”

Eventually, the time passed and lunch came and went. I headed to my bunk to again try to catch up on that sleep. No sooner did I start dreaming, when over the radio came “whale dead ahead.” I again headed to the pilot house, saw the whale and assembled the team. This whale spy hopped and dove and reappeared on the starboard side about 3 o’clock. Then either we were following it or it was following us, but we ended up making a figure 9 before the whale stopped and gave us our 5th biopsy of the day. Bob said following that whale was starting to make him dizzzy.

I headed down to my bunk. I started to drift off again when the call came over the radio “whale at 2 o’clock.” I headed up the pilot house. Saw the whale. Assembled the team. We took a sample, but the arrow shaft broke in two and the tissue fell out as it seems to do with this year’s new tips. No sample.

This pattern would continue, though no more biopsies would be taken until I stopped trying to catch up on my sleep. At that point, no more whales were seen. So I was up and awake, but no whales to follow.

Oh well, I’ll get some shut eye tonight and tomorrow will be another day.

Our biopsy total on this leg is 37 and our overall total is 41 sperm whales and 1 Bryde’s whale.


P.S. We are off Louisiana finding sperm whales. Our current location is 27 degrees 33.2 minutes North and 91 degrees 02.3 minutes West, for those who want to track us as we go. For Google maps (not Google Earth – but maps) use (include letters and comma): 27.332 N, 91.023 W.

(Blog by: John Wise, Sr., Science Director)

Crew feels good, but tired; Some basics on sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico : ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Day 29, July 6, 2011

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The team was tired today. Sandy thought it was because the boat was rolling quite a bit last night. Indeed, it does not take much swell to make this boat roll. However, I think it’s the long days in the Gulf heat and the constant work. Regardless, field work at sea is challenging work under difficult conditions peppered with truly amazing sights and good camaraderie. They are a good team.  When Biology is taught to high school students and undergraduates, they are taught the vocabulary and basic principles. Clear and straightforward examples of how cells, plants and critters work interspersed with parts that are unknown yet. In graduate school, students learn that the knowledge gaps are really much bigger than previously let on an that the basic principles they learned are true under very particular and exact circumstances. I have come to believe it is that way with sperm whales- at least the Gulf whales.

We were taught when we started and indeed the books say: 1) Sperm whales dive for 35-45 minutes when they feed underwater; 2) Sperm whales rest at the surface for 7-10 minutes and execute short (few-minute) shallow dives; 3) my favorite, the Odyssey legend: "when we were with sperm whales we could stay with them for days" (I have come to believe this was done while sailing in waist deep snow uphill both ways). Now that we are well into our second season with these Gulf whales, I have come to realize these 3 basic principles don't fit and are of minimal help.

Consider #1 and imagine yourself on the boat. The whale has fluked for a deep dive. You note the time and figure 45 minutes and the whale will be back up. But nope, not these whales. These guys dive for 70 minutes or more, meaning you spend 25 minutes wondering when the whale will finally surface and being barraged with constant questions of "has it stopped clicking yet?" because everyone else on the team knows the 45 minutes have passed. It’s a bit like the fabled "Are we there yet?" parents get while driving.

Now, consider the case of the whale that is supposed to stay at the surface for 7-10 minutes with only short shallow dives. This situation is quite a bit worse because in this scenario the entire team in on deck ready for sampling. The sun is blazing, humidity high, and the boat is pulling right up near the whale, and "poof," the whale slips under the water--a shallow dive. Everyone begins scanning because it'll be right up in a few minutes, right? Except in the Gulf that is only sometimes true. sometimes they dive for 2-3 minutes. However, sometimes they shallow dive for 20-30 minutes, which feels like a year in the hot sun. Even worse, sometimes they shallow dive for well, forever, as we never see them again and that is truly maddening.

This behavior, I think, is the principal cause of the teams exhaustion, as the whale can shallow dive for 2-3 minutes, three or more times in a row and then shallow dive for 20-30 minutes, with the boat getting closer each time. So now the whole team has bitten the biopsy apple and believes a sample is imminent--just a bit more patience. Except the whale has other ideas and simply shallow dives and vanishes forever, but you don't know that it has done so until 30 minutes or more have passed. The team is disappointed and now aware of just how hot they are, except wait--there is another whale 1 mile away… and the cycle

That leads right into #3: the Odyssey legend of staying with the same group of whales for days. Each time Iain Kerr tells me this one, I feel a sense of frustration as we cannot stay with a group of whales for more than half a day. I finally asked Captain Bob if this was true and he said yes… in the Galapagos… and maybe in the Pacific… but not in the Atlantic. That makes sense as the Gulf of Mexico is part of the Atlantic. I didn't ask about whether or not they sailed in waist deep snow uphill both ways.

But, we are pretty good at this work. When we do get a biopsy, we have a sense of fulfillment and euphoria. Today we got one, so an afternoon with whales once again proved to be successful. Our total on this is 21 and our overall total is 25 sperm whales and 1 Bryde's whale. We feel good, but tired.


P.S. We are still off Louisiana finding sperm whales. Our current location is 28 degrees 14.2 minutes North and 89 degrees 39.8 minutes West, for those who want to track us as we go. For Google maps (not Google Earth - but maps) use (include letters and comma): 28.141 N, 89.398 W.

(Blog by: John Wise, Sr., Science Director)