SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #1

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This is the first in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition. 

Day one (Thursday) was 6 people and way too much equipment making the 100-mile passage from Juneau to our study site off Kake in a 22 ft boat. A five-hour boat ride turned into 10 due to bad weather, so the less said about that the better.

Day two (Friday) was quite the opposite and spectacular for unconventional reasons. Weather forecasts said the same as the previous day, 15 knots, rough seas and rain, none of which are good for Snot collection or 22 ft boats. Regardless our time here is limited so we headed out on to the water just after 8:00 am.

It took us roughly an hour to get out into Frederick Sound and we were with whales immediately. No rain, no wind but heavy wet fog and lots of whales (that we could not see, but could hear blowing).

During a small break in the fog we made a humpback whale SnotBot discovery, I flew over a couple of whales that were lunge feeding on their side.

It turns out that this is the perfect whale behavior for snot collection, the whales lunge to the surface on their side, close their mouths to push out the water (still on their side) then roll up into a horizontal position and exhale, this whole process probably takes around 15 to 30 seconds.

The predictable nature of this method gave me the time to get SnotBot into the perfect position over the whale when it blows to collect Snot.

Alas after this revelation the fog closed in, so we stopped the boats engine and drifted in the fog, miles from anywhere. We ate our lunch, peanut butter and apples (that another story) in the fog as the whales ate theirs, blowing all around us. The unscientific description of this would be magical.

Over 19 years ago Amy and I were in Kake and this is where we adopted our dog Keiku – I will admit that a local street sign brought a smile to my face.

A spectacular Alaska wildlife day – I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discoveries.


Extended Interview with Sir Patrick Stewart

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Our Kickstarter campaign was an enormous success, we already have one SnotBot field season behind us (Patagonia) and we are now prepping for our SnotBot expedition to the Sea of Cortez. One of the people who was there from the start of this project was Sir Patrick Stewart. You may have seen the Kickstarter video with Sir Patrick (if not go to the left hand side of our homepage but what you have not seen is an extended interview with Sir Patrick where he shares his deeper interest in SnotBot and wildlife in general.

Ocean Alliance Research Prominent at Marine Mammalogy Conference 

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Just before the holidays I attended the 22nd Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in San Francisco. The mission of the society is to promote the global advancement of marine mammal science and contribute to its relevance and impact in education, conservation and management. The Society was founded in 1981 and members hail from 25 countries. There were over 2,500 people at the conference which with the different workshops spanned 6 days. Days typically ran from eight in the morning to eight at night. From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm there were five consecutive speaker sessions. In the evenings there were poster sessions and/or social gatherings. Reconnecting with old friends and working on new collaborations were as important as the scientific presentations.

SnotBot talk

Ocean Alliance is a small group but we are proud of the collaborations and partnerships that we have developed over the last 3 decades. This can clearly be seen with the papers and scientific presentations that had Ocean Alliance staff members as lead authors or presentations that used data collected collaboratively with Ocean Alliance staff and/or on Ocean Alliance platforms. Four key Ocean Alliance programs were well represented at this years conference:

The Global Voyage of the Odyssey: Papers 1, 3, 9.
The Gulf of Mexico Expeditions: Papers 7 & 8.
The Southern Right Whale program: Papers 4, 5, 6.
SnotBot: 2 & 10.

1. What drives the genetic structure in oceanic populations of the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
Alexander, Alana. Et al

2. SnotBot: Making the case for small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) in marine mammal research.
Kerr, Iain. Et al.

3. Crowdsourcing Moby Dick! Modern and historical data identify sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) habitat offshore of SW Australia.
Johnson, Chris. Et al.

4. Short and long-term population consequences of increased calf mortality in the southern right whales off Argentina.
Seger, Jon. Et al.

5. Increased Kelp Gull inflicted lesions on southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) calves at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
Maron, Carina. Et al.

6. Ongoing significant Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) mortality at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina.
Uhart, Marcela. Et al.

7. The Impact of the Deepwater Horizon on Whales: A 3-year study of metal levels in Gulf Sperm whales in aftermath of the spill.
Wise, John. Et al.

8. Chemical dispersants, oil and chemically dispersed oil are toxic to Sperm whale skin cells.
Wise, Sandra. Et al.

9. Copper and Zinc concentrations in the skin of free-ranging Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) from around the globe.
Savery, Laura. Et al.

10. SnotBot: Developing an aerial platform for cetacean research.
Kerr, Iain. Et al.

I have been in this industry now for almost 30 years and it was encouraging to see so many young people at the conference who are just starting their careers in this industry. I believe that there is a Blue Revolution underway and people are understanding better now, more than ever before, the value of small collaborative organizations like Ocean Alliance. To all of our supporters, I thank you again for giving us the ability to have such a strong scientific presence at the 2016 Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference. We are looking forward to our new partnerships and the collaborative work that will no doubt unfold in the year ahead.

Iain Kerr

WordPress Update

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whacyYou might notice some of our website formatting is askew today.  Yesterday, WordPress did a big update and  several of the plugins we use whacked things out.  Thanks for your patience as we update things.

Sea Sheperd Recording

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This audio recording is taken from the 100 meter hydrophone that is towed behind the Odyssey on Operation Toxic Gulf. This sophisticated underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, is used to help the crew find their study species, the Sperm whale.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins – an underwater audio recording from Operation Toxic Gulf from Sea Shepherd Australia on Vimeo.

In this particular recording you can hear more than ten Atlantic Spotted Dolphins vocalizing while they ride the bow of the Odyssey.

-Eliza Muirhead
Media Productions
Sea Shepherd Australia


Day 52 Edit, July 14, 2012

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Day 52 edited, Sunday, July14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Its 1:15 am on the east coast, but Cathy posts a careful watch over my work and found a confusing typo.  The passage should read (correction in bold & underline):

Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 42. This number is tightly regulated and maintained.

Cathy has been a night owl since she was born.  Helped me by sleeping in as a baby and now editing as an adult.

Good night again.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A game of cellular whodunit, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 52, July 14, 2012

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Day 52, Sunday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Within a cell the DNA is maintained in structures called chromosomes. These are a combination of DNA and protein that ultimately package the DNA so that when a cell divides into two, each daughter cell gets exactly 1 set of the set of DNA instructions.

My career has been dedicated to studying the impact of pollutants like chromium, depleted uranium, nanoparticles, nickel and other chemicals on chromosomes and the DNA within them. It is a passion I discovered and an approach I learned under my mentor, Steve Patierno, who shares the same passion (Thanks Steve!). While working with Steve, and following my years with him, my major focus was understanding how these chemicals turn normal cells into tumor cells by altering chromosome structure and number, damaging DNA and altering the cellular mechanisms that regulate and protect these structures. We are still extensively involved in this work and have extended it into pioneering the study of how pollutants damage chromosomes and DNA in marine species.

Each species has a specific set number of chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes. 22 matched pairs, 11 that come from mom and 11 that come from dad. Plus 1 pair of sex chromosomes known as the X and Y chromosomes. Females are XX gaining one X from each parent. Males are XY getting an X from mom and a Y from dad.  Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 46. This number is tightly regulated and maintained. Alterations in this number can have dramatic consequences. Down’s syndrome is a consequence of a one extra chromosome (number 21). Lung cancers often have more than 60 chromosomes.

You can harvest and prepare cells so that you can see their chromosomes. Roughly speaking, in these preparations – the chromosomes look kind of like an “X” or if the arms are closed an “I”. You can chemically treat the chromosomes in the laboratory to reveal a pattern of dark and light bands that is specific to each pair of chromosomes. The patterns are not defined as simply as 1 dark followed by, 2 light followed by 1 dark or anything like that. There are too many. Instead, they are described in more abstract terms. For example, chromosome 18, when banded, looks like a gummi bear.  In our lab, it is known more as the Wallace chromosome given Captain Bob’s legendary passion for eating gummi bears. The X chromosome is known as the “girl in a bikini” because the most prominent dark bands are placed where one might imagine a bikini. The nicknames continue for each pair and really help teach chromosome recognition. Sandy excels at this analysis.

The pairs of banded chromosomes can be organized on a piece of paper or computer screen into a template called a karyotype that roughly organizes them from largest to smallest. The karyotype is unique to each species. I have attached a picture of a human karyotype that Sandy made. This one is male with an X and Y chromosome. Can you see the Wallace gummi bear chromosome (#18) and the girl in the bikini chromosome (X)? Johnny and I are working to define a variety of whale karyotypes including one for sperm whales. We have not yet devised clever names for their chromosomes as we are still learning them.

Damage to the structure of the chromosomes, which shows up as an alterations in the banding pattern, can have as dramatic consequences as alterations in chromosome numbers.

Our society has decided that the impact of damaging chromosomes is so significant that testing for a chemical’s ability to damage them is a standard test for evaluating the safety of new drugs and determining health risk. Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include chromosome damage testing as a required test in their protocols. If a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug and it damages chromosomes, it will not be approved by the FDA for use. When a company is developing a drug and it breaks chromosomes, they stop its development and move on to another. The only exception is the rare instance when the disease is so lethal the risk of chromosome damage is the lesser of two evils.

We are applying these same tests to the Gulf whales. We are finding the chromosomes in some whales are affected.  This outcome is another answer to that repeated question – What are you finding?

We have grown cell lines from each whale and assessed the status of their chromosomes. The analysis reveals different groups of whales. Some whales appear to be normal. Others appear to have their chromosomes affected. It is a major concern as aberrant chromosomes can lead to many long term negative outcomes.  We believe we have ruled out possible experimental artifacts. Thus, it suggests something out here is affecting the whales on a fundamental level.

For us in the Wise Lab, it now becomes a game of cellular whodunit as we attempt to piece together the factors that may explain what is causing this effect. It might be the metals. It might be the oil. It might be the dispersants. It might be some combination of them. We shall find out. I don’t think its global warming. But, regardless of why, the outcome is not good.

It was a slow day at sea today. The kind of day that lulls you into a quiet state. No whales on the array. No dolphins on the bow. Just the general routine of a team ascending and descending the mast looking for whales in a vast ocean space.

We did see one, maybe two. That made for some excitement as it was a beaked whale, maybe two. But, alas it was too far off and while we found it twice (or two different whales once each), we could not get close enough to sample it nor could we stay with it any further. We also saw a small sea turtle in the Sargasso weed. We did collect some samples as this team did its first Sargasso weed collection of the leg (Picture attached).

So a couple of perks to a day filled with the rhythm of a steady routine.

I’ll end tonight with the sunset (picture attached)

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.752N, 88.877W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A day at sea can be remarkable, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 51, July 14, 2012

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Day 51, Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

A day at sea can be remarkable from beginning to end even when events are somewhat unremarkable. The ocean will provide for interesting things to see and opportunities for close camaraderie.  Take today for example.

The day seemed ordinary enough for a whale group at sea. The sun was glistening in the sky. The team was busy bustling with the work of the day. A gentle breeze blew across the bow. It was a typical pleasant morning in the Gulf, albeit on where a whale had not yet been sighted. One you relish for its calm beauty and try to soak in the moments.

Yet, there was more. This morning offered the subtle and gentle sight of mirror water. Water so calm and gentle you can see yourself reflected in it as if looking in a mirror. I imagine a more sea-going wicked witch in Snow White might have used it saying, “Mirror, Mirror on the sea, who is fairest, please tell me”.  Unlikely, the answer would be Snow White out here though. Maybe Sun Tan instead? But, I digress.

Mirror water is just remarkable and you stare at it just amazed at how calm and reflective it is. It is a quiet but precious gift that jazzes up a slow day at sea. I have attached a couple of pictures of the water surface. One shows reflections of the boat, sun, clouds and whale boom. The other shows a reflection of me taking a picture of the water with the word “Research” that is painted on the side of the boat reflected as well.

Mirror water also raises the bar on the challenge of finding whales. The water is so still and the whales can be so calm in some of their movements that they are hard to see. But, find one we did. Conor spotted the dorsal fin in the distance ahead and we captured our 94th whale biopsy of the summer. The team was quick, thorough and efficient as befits a team taking its 27th biopsy of the leg.  I have attached the picture of the pending biopsy with Johnny on the whale boom and you can see how calm the water is around the whale and how little of the whale shows.  Now, picture that whale a mile off and you can understand why it’s so hard to find.  Nice job Conor!

The afternoon would be yet different.  A series of scattered thunderstorms interfered with many whale watches, but, provided the opportunity for camaraderie and fun. Lunchtime brought a warm Gulf rain and you know what that means… Yep, the Mainiacs from Maine (me and Johnny) rush out and enjoy a summer shower. Mukhaye, Jai and Ike came out and enjoyed the fun and horseplay that comes with a summer rain on deck. The two Lou’s watched us from above on the aft platform. We were soaked, but we laughed and played like little kids in a lawn sprinkler from days of yore.

Later in the day brought a team games of cards as Johnny, Lou Falank, Jai, Conor and Mukhaye gathered around the galley table for a variety of games (picture attached with them sitting in that order). Evening brought dinner and movies in the salon. It is a team that certainly enjoys each other’s company.

But, there were other outdoor amazements as well. Although, they rock the boat a bit, scattered thunderstorms bring amazing cloud formations and dancing lightning in the distance that is a marvel to watch. I have attached a picture of the view from the salon of the clouds on starboard showing the contrast between clouds and sea.  Clearing skies bring rainbows and today we were treated to a full arc of a double rainbow (picture attached of one end). Makes you wonder if whales are the treasure under those rainbows.  Kermit and Dorothy would certainly love them and seeing them can make you break out in their songs…

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?  Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.  I know they’re wrong, wait and see. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers and me.”.

and Dorothy’s song from the Wizard of Oz…

“Somewhere over the rainbow, Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, Skies are blue, And the dreams that you dare to dream Really do come true.”

They really do.

You know the songs, sing along!

Finally, there is the sunset.  Sunsets are always amazing after some weather has come through. The cloud formations are painted by the sun in the most amazing displays of colors, light and textures. Words just cannot do it justice so a picture is attached. It’s simple stunning.

I think the team is recovered now from its whale mayhem of the first two days. We will soon turn deep to find some. Let’s hope we do.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.458N, 90.699W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

So what are we finding?, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 50, July 13, 2012

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Day 50, Friday, July 13, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and released an estimated 11 million gallons of oil into the water. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. Despite the disaster, little research was done on the impact on whales beyond the immediate acute toll of whale deaths due to being covered in oil. Twenty three years later, the longer term consequences are now emerging as a pod of killer whales in the area, once healthy and strong, will soon be completely wiped out and gone. No one studied the effects of that crisis on whale DNA.

On April 20th, 2010, this Deepwater Horizon accident occurred and dramatically eclipsed the Exxon Valdez accident is size and concern. In fact, it is estimated that the an amount of oil equivalent to the Exxon Valdez accident gushed from the well head in the Gulf of Mexico every 3-4 days. The spill lasted at least 85 days or 21-28 Exxon Valdez equivalents. It was so large – you could see it from space (NASA satellite photo attached). A large follow-up spill was seen in 2011 covering several square miles and was a confirmed chemical match for the oil from Deepwater Horizon (that was the one Iain). This past March revealed a persistent leak (aka “seep”) near the epicenter. Again the major focus was on how many whales died. But, this time we are on the case and seeking to learn the lessons about oils spills and their effects on whale DNA.

I am often asked what we are finding in the Gulf.  It’s a straightforward question, but the answer is more complex and subtle. I think the real question behind it is something more like- how bad is it down there? or Are the whales going to be ok?  Still the answers to even those questions are hard to provide and figure out. I worry too that since the answers are not simple and dramatic the meaning of them may be downplayed in an economically troubled time. It seems some think we should only worry about losing whales if they have significant economic value. That seems entirely shortsighted and simply wrong to me, but yes I can ascribe an economic value to why we need to worry about whales.

We were all troubled by the images of birds, dolphins and turtles bathed in crude oil, while the oil continued to gush in the Gulf. The images were dramatic as were the health consequences to many of those individuals. But, with the removal of the oil from the surface, those dramatic images, where the affliction is obvious to everyone, cease to be shown. I mean everyone knows a bird cloaked from head to tail in oil is not a good thing. But, the only thing that ceases for the health concerns are that they are no longer obvious to all. They are still very real and problematic, but they become very hard to see.

Furthermore, the default expectation is that with the oil gone from view some other environmental stressor must be the cause of any observed ill effects. It seems that the explanation that oil caused the effect has become the least likely possible cause, only suggested after all others have been exhausted.  For example, the past 2 years have seen  a huge spike in the number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf. I have heard government officials present the data and attribute it to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming and a virus, but never as a consequence of 210 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants being suddenly released into the Gulf. Perhaps, it is because they are not allowed to speak of measurements they surely must have made to rule in or out the effects of the spill. I am not sure. But, I’d like to know. Maybe someday, we finally will.

So goes the challenge for our data. Our focus is on DNA and could the oil, or dispersants applied to the oil or the metals within the oil damage DNA in the whales. DNA is on the material upon which all life depends, whether bacteria, plant or animal, whether human or whale. DNA codes the information that gives up the bodies we have and the features we are known by. Each species DNA contains all the instructions needed to create a person, a whale, a turtle a fish and so on. It is our genetic blueprint. Each cell in our body contains these instructions and uses the information in them to carry out its particular specific function. Damaging DNA in those cells alter those instructions and alters the fate of those affected cells.

Sometimes the cells can repair the damage and recover. Sometimes they cannot. Sometimes the fate of the damaged cell is to simply die. Sometimes the fate is to more dire and the cell becomes the foundation of a tumor or other health aberration. If the damage occurs in a sperm or egg cell or in a cell in a growing embryo, the consequences can include infertility, spontaneous abortions, birth defects and developmental abnormalities. None are good for people. None are good for whales. It’s just not a good thing to damage DNA.

To do this work definitively and say specifically it was the oil from the spill that caused the effects, the experiment would involve different tanks of sperm whales in the laboratory that would be exposed to varying levels of crude oil from the spill, dispersed oil from the spill, dispersants used in the spill and metals from the oil in the spill. The whales would be watched for a period of years to see what toxic outcome occurred. That approach is clearly not possible as there are no tanks of whales in the laboratory and insufficient quantities of oil and dispersed oil available from the spill if there were. Thus, we have to consider a less definitive study and instead recreate conditions in the laboratory that mimic the chemicals from the spill.  Instead of exposing whole whales, we treat whale cells.

Our measures in the whales themselves are limited to what we can reliably tell from a skin biopsy. We have no access to lung, or liver or kidney or testes or ovary tissues in these living whales. In other words, we will have to learn what we can from a small piece of skin and blubber and infer from there.

Accordingly, we have collected these biopsies and used the skin to tell us the levels of oil-related metals like chromium and nickel. We will use the blubber to tell us the levels of oil and dispersants. We will grow cells from the small razor thin area where the skin and blubber meet to tell us if there is DNA damage in the whales, themselves. These data will then be combined with our laboratory studies dosing whale cells with the oil-related chemicals to present a picture of what an oil spill could do to whales and their DNA.

What we cannot do is definitively tie these exposures and these outcomes to this specific spill. The reason – there is no way to definitively show the chemicals we find came from this spill. If the oil enters the whale, the body will metabolize the oil into another form and irradicate it’s unique chemical signature. Hence any evidence of oil in the whale will be dismissed by critics as merely a part of life in the Gulf and due to natural seeps on the bottom of the Gulf or perhaps another spill. Similarly it goes for the dispersants, though with them so little is known that the possible metabolism and the things to measure are poorly understood. The metals have a yet different confounder as it’s not so much their metabolism that is an issue, but rather they are elemental in nature and have no unique signature. Chromium and nickel are basic elements. We can measure them, but we cannot identify their original source.

Thus, when all of our data is in. We will have a clear picture of what an oil spill can do to whales and their DNA. We will know that an oil spill occurred here in the Gulf that was the worst marine accidental spill in the world’s history. But, it will have to be up to each person to decide if the outcomes we find were due to this unprecedented,  mammoth release of oil into the Gulf and its subsequent release from surface burns into the marine air (which the whales breathe) or merely a product of the small natural seeps of oil on the bottom of the Gulf and is just how life is in the Gulf. The evidence will tell us about oil spills and whales, but only you can decide if it is due to this oil spill affecting these whales. I imagine some will still conclude our outcomes are due to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming causing a virus.  I know, absurd, but it will be said.

So what are we finding?

Well, we started by focusing on oil-related metals. Specifically, chromium and nickel.  Why these and not the oil and dispersants?  Its two parts really – one part science and one part budget. The simplest reason is budget. Analyzing for organic chemicals like crude oil and dispersants are much more expensive than analyzing for metals. With a very limited budget, we would get more samples done by focusing on the metals. But, more important than budget was the science. Currently, the best measures for oil and dispersants in whale tissues have not been determined. By contrast, the best measures for metals are known. Thus, while we wait for the chemistry of what to measure to be better defined, we have focused on metals in the whale tissue.

Thus, we have started with chromium and nickel. Both are known to be present in oil. Both are known to damage DNA and chromosomes in humans and experimental animals. We first measured them in oil from the spill. We measured chromium and nickel in tarballs collected on Gulf beaches at the start of the spill, and in oil collected from the Deepwater Horizon riser and found them to be present, well above trace levels,  in the several part-per-million (ppm) range. We confirmed that chromium and nickel were in the oil from this particular oil spill. Next up were the whales.

Biological systems like whales are known to concentrate chemicals found in their environment. It is a consequence of the physiology of complex organisms and the biochemistry of the interaction of the specific chemicals and that physiology and underlying cell biology. We measured chromium and nickel levels in the whales we sampled in 2010. We found them to be high, very high. In fact some of the whales had some of the highest levels of chromium and nickel in the world.

How do we know they are among the highest in the world?  Well, from 2000-2005, Ocean Alliance collected sperm whale biopsies from around the world. We used those samples to determine a global baseline for chromium and nickel levels in sperm whales.  Gulf animals were not included in that study, which was conducted 5 years before the accident. When we compared the Gulf whales to the whales from the rest of the world, the average chromium levels were in the Gulf whales were 1.4-times higher that the rest of the world  and nickel levels were 6.5 times higher in the Gulf whales that the rest of the world. Both increases were statistically significant.

As I mentioned both chromium and nickel can damage DNA leading to health effects in humans and experimental animals. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. We are testing nickel now. We have found elevated DNA problems in both Bryde’s and sperm whales.

Thus, phase 1 of our testing finds elevated chromium and nickel in the oil from the spill and elevated chromium and nickel in the whales. We find elevated DNA problems in the whales. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. Nickel data are pending. The dots are not hard to connect. We are working to connect them further.

There is still more work to do.  We are working hard to do it. I worry about these whales and what this spill means for them and other whales and marine life affected by future spills. I hope you do too.

It was a quiet day on the boat. One biopsy taken before scattered thunderstorms forced us all into a much needed day of rest.  The sunset was spectacular orange against a blue sea (the Wise Lab colors!) and we had a lovely dinner under the stars.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.676N, 91.010W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

we deserved the chance to slump, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 49, July 12, 2012

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Day 49, Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

It was exactly as I feared. The kid woke me up even earlier today!  This time it was 6:30 am and by 6:45 am, we had our first biopsy. It was the start to a very long day that 18 hours later finds me still up and writing to you.

One of the fun things about these voyages is that one creates over time a collection of voyage lore. Unusual events that become ingrained in the fabric of our memories of time at sea through the mention of certain events in hushed tones or the regaling new crew with the events of that time. Stories like the trip around Hatteras in a gale, or the refrigerator contents falling into the lab cabin, or James’s 2 am trip to Fedex to save the samples or the South Carolina transmission trip.

Perhaps, at the top of the list for our Gulf of Mexico lore, sits the story of the day of 18 whales sampled by lunch. Some of you might remember that day, it was during the 2010 voyage. September 10th to be exact.  We had many days and weeks without seeing any whales that year. The spill had clearly driven them away.  I wrote then:

“It’s hard to describe the events of the day as it was a tale of two cities. The best of times the worst of times etc. By 8:30 am, we had taken 4 biopsies. By 9:30 am it was 8 biopsies. By noon, we had collected 18 biopsies. Everyone was doing everything working as a well oiled machine. If you did the math carefully you would find we were averaging a biopsy about every 15 minutes!

Except of course biopsies don’t come in every 15 minutes. No, instead they come in bunches of twos and threes and fours. It takes us longer than 15 minutes to process one in the lab. In no time, it was all Matt and I could do to keep up with the flow of samples. Our jobs had shrunk to a small space rarely seeing much of the outside. I swear all I did for 2 hours continuously was wash and clean glassware, forceps and knives while Matt continued to process the tissue. 18 whales in less than 5 hours! What at day. ”

I remember thinking then about how much easier it would have been to have those 18 whales spread over the day instead of compressed in such a short amount of time. Well, there is an old saying that I myself often say – “Be careful what you wish for”. Today was just that day that I wondered about. We started at 6:30 am. We stopped sampling whales at 8:00 pm. We collected 17 biopsies over the course of the day.

The first one came at 6:45 am. By 8:10, we had four.  By lunchtime we had 8. After that, I lost track. We had exactly the day I thought would be better and easier to manage. We had whales all day. What did I learn?  It does not matter whether you sample them all by lunch or whether it takes all day- 17 biopsies is simply exhausting.

The problem with 17 over the course of a day is that while the pace of sampling, collecting and processing is more manageable. There is no let up. You are on deck and on whales all the time. Jai even did 7 hours on the mast including a 5-hour straight stint!  Louis Hall and Conor were up there quite a long time too. At dinner, Jai thanked the team for visiting him on the mast over the course of the day (for the record, he did choose to be up there that long. I didn’t forget him). We all chuckled.

I had Conor running all over the boat collecting arrows, buoys, logging data, delivering items to Johnny on the boom, spotting whales on the aft platform and of course visiting Jai while he was up there. Johnny was his usual biopsy machine self sampling whale after whale after whale racing between the whale boom for a starboard side sample and the bowsprit for a portside sample. He took all 17 of the biopsies and Sandy processed every one, in addition to her taking photo-id pictures, laying out lunch and cooking our dinner.

The others too worked their tails off.  Mukhaye was logging data, taking pictures, filling in on photo-id for Sandy and of course visiting Jai and spotting whales from the aft platform. Louis Hall would spot whales and visit with Jai and, while he was on deck, haul in arrows and buoys and deliver arrows out to Johnny on the whale boom. Lou Falank found our 6:30 am whale among many others, was always ready in the bowsprit as our secondary biopsier should Johnny falter and of course spotted whales from the mast and visited Jai.

Our helm crew, Captain Bob, Hugh and Ike were steady and steering all day long.  I think their arms may fall off from having turned that wheel so much. Captain Bob even showed off his deft arrow and buoy collecting skills especially when using his toes for arrows that escaped the net.  They didn’t get the chance to visit Jai, but Hugh did finally manage to replace him on the mast. Oh and in case you are wondering, when Jai was his perch in the morning, he helped with pictures and data logging and even an arrow and buoy retrieval.

Great work by a fantastic team!  17 biopsies today, giving us a total of 25 in two days!

By the end, everyone was exhausted. Bodies were slumped everywhere. Slumped on the end of the whale boom, slumped in the bowsprit, slumped on the aft platform, slumped on top of the salon and in the salon, slumped on the foredeck, the aft deck and even in the pilothouse. I am betting had I looked, there was even one slumped in the lab.  But, hey after 13 and a half hours with whales- we deserved the chance to slump!

Our day was so excellent that even Captain Bob, normally a quiet and reserved man, was moved to a demonstrative display of approval – picture attached.

I have attached a picture of the team at work. Louis Hall is in the orange shirt. Johnny is on the whale boom, Sandy has the camera in the foredeck. Conor is logging data. Lou Falank is in the bowsprit. Also attached are photos of a squid mantle we collected that Bob spotted floating at the surface, a cool rainbow that energized our spirits and the sunset that ended our day.

To Bob, Johnny, Sandy, Conor, Mukhaye, Lou, Jai, Louis, Hugh and Ike- on behalf of Iain Kerr and myself- thank you for all your hard work and an amazing day!

The team is sleeping and at rest. I better go join them.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.253N, 89.423W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at and click on “read logs here”.

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

First-day-of-a-leg record!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 48, July 11, 2012

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Day 48, Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Over the past three years of Gulf voyages we have switched out members on each leg and launched with different teams. Each team has its own distinct identity and leaves an indelible mark in our memory and some live on in Odyssey lore and we reminisce about the many trips past. The last leg’s team was characterized by a pleasant nature and a spirit of volunteerism and set a Odyssey Gulf record for most biopsies on a leg and daily average. This team is different and I am still learning its personality, but today we certainly made our mark.

It’s only been one day at sea, but I would describe this team as flexible and highly energetic. The team has been up early and folks were ready for their watches as much as an hour before then had to go up! They were ahead of the curve in effort and raring to go. We were with whales so often I was swapping roles left and right. 5 different people collected data and 6 different people worked the net and everyone but me, Johnny and Bob were on the mast or the pilothouse spotting whales, arrows and buoys. We also caught fish, collected water and tried for squid. No go yet on the squid. It was a remarkably flexible and productive group on their first day and what a day it was.

It started early with Johnny waking me at 7 am that whales were spotted close. Having not made it to sleep until 2 am – this day started early for me.  Alas, that whale was not seen again, but Johnny worked the helm keeping us near whales and then Captain Bob took over and brought us right to them.  Bob after all is our secret weapon!

About 10:30 am, I made our first whale call of the day. Conor and Jai were up on the mast and Jai had spotted a whale, his first.  We would then be on whales for the next two and a half hours and by 1 pm we had 5 biopsies in the boat!  The whales were clicking all over the array like popcorn. The next few hours passed by in a wink.

About 4:30 pm I made my last whale call of the day. Conor and Louis Hall were on the mast and Conor had spotted whales dead ahead. Captain Bob again led us to them as our team scrambled into place and over the next 4 hours we collected another 3 biopsies.

All told, approximately 6 and half hours on deck on whales and 8 biopsies collected. That my friends is a first-day-of-a-leg record! 8 biopsies on the first day at depth!  Great teamwork by an energetic group!

There were treats to the day too. At times there were whales everywhere and whales are simply eye candy. We say several juveniles including one that swam right under me aside the pilot house., We say one whale lob tailing in an impressive display of power and strength. Lob tailing is when the whale turns vertical in the water with its tail up in the air, kind of like when we do hand stands on the bottom of the pool.  The whale then slaps it tail over and over on the top of the water with a loud splash.  It is a really impressive sight to see and hear. I think the first year there was one lob tailing a few miles from the boat and we could hear the impact of each splash.

The day ended quite late with dinner after nine. But, we all gathered at the aft table and ate another of Sandy’s tasty meals over some quiet conversation. I pity the cook that follows after Sandy on this boat.  That will be some big shoes er plates to fill.

I have attached pictures of a juvenile with its mother, the whale with its tail vertical about to slam it on the surface of the sea and the team looking for whales.  No sunset photo today as we were all occupied with finding the last arrow with the 8th biopsy well past sunset. Lou Falank spotted it and we collected in and the day ended well. In the team picture Johnny is on the whale boom, Jai is in the white t-shirt and green sneakers, Conor is in the gray t-shirt and sitting on the doghouse, Lou Falank is crouched down in the bowsprit. Ike is in the cap. Not seen are Mukhaye who was in the crow’s nest, Louis Hall who was on the aft platform, Hugh who was on the pilothouse, Sandy who was in the lab and Captain Bob and me who were in the pilothouse.  It’s a fine team!

Now, I need to rest my weary bones because if I know Johnny, he’ll be
trying to wake me even earlier tomorrow!

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.511N, 89.100W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Don't Look Back , ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Port can be long or it can be short. This call was short though we did have some fun.  James flew down (it was good to see him after these many weeks) and we went to a see the rock band Boston in concert. It has become something of a family tradition as it was Johnny’s 4th and James’s 3rd time seeing them in concert. It is not a group that tours often, but it is always a blast.

I first saw them in concert in the spring of 1977 when they did their first tour. I was 11 and in 7th grade. My brother Michael who was 15 introduced me to them. It was simply awesome. Whether it was because I was 11, or because Mike introduced me to them, I am not sure, but they immediately became my favorite band and I went again to their concert in 1978. They would not tour again until 1987 and that year found me hitchhiking to it with my old friend Tim.  After that the next U.S. tour was 1997 and Sandy’s first one. I was stunned to learn this one this year was my 9th Boston concert.  It seems the only one I missed was a tour that lasted a week or so in 1988 and was in Canada. Of course Sandy has been to six, so its not just me… I did try once to get Michael to go with me again, but sadly he’s moved on to other tastes. Meanwhile the boys have joined me in the appreciation for the energy, the music and the message in the songs. Cathy came once and is a secret fan. We are not groupies as we have no tshirts or paraphernalia, but we do enjoy the songs and the show.

If you have never heard Boston. I would highly recommend you give them a listen. If you know then and have not listened for a long time try I suggest you go with “Foreplay/Long Time” – Johnny’s favorite. For my friends wrestling with frustration I suggest you try “Peace of Mind” – probably my favorite, but it’s hard to choose. For my friends dealing with change, I suggest “Don’t Look Back” – one of Sandy’s favorites and up there for all of us. For you Michael- it simply has to be “More than a Feeling” – the original classic.  Listen to words. Hear the message. Feel the music and the energy. Crank up the volume.  Go ahead try it.

But, here is the key.  Boston is best played- full volume. You really have to turn it up and dance. Blast the doors off (pun intended Michael) and feel the moment.

We are back on the swells and out to get more samples.  Captain Bob, first mate Hugh, second mate Ike, Johnny as primary biopsier and science team leader, and Sandy as photo-Ider and cook are all here and of course me.  Our new crew are

-Lou Falank, a technician in my laboratory who will be our backup biopsier;

-Mukhaye Muchimuti, an high school teacher from Hyde Academy in Bath Maine. who will be our data logger.

-Jaimyal Lindsey, an undergraduate from Mississippi Valley State College who will be our close-in photographer;

-Dr. Louis Hall, a Professor at  Mississippi Valley State College who will be a spotter while on whales;


– Conor Kennedy, a junior at Deerfield Academy, who will be on net/arrow recovery.

Attached is a picture of the team. Front right is Jaimyal in the gray t-shirt. To his right are Captain Bob with the sunglasses around his neck, Sandy and then Mukhaye in the black pants. Behind Jaimyal in the red is Louis Hall. To his right are Ike in the orange shirt and cap, Lou Falank in the black tank top, and Hugh in the light t-shirt and cap. Behind Ike is me, then the mast to my right, then Johnny in orange and Conor in the light blue tshirt.

I have also attached a picture of Boston playing at the concert and our cool sunset.

I will close with a quote from a Boston lyric – “Don’t look back. A new day is breaking.”  and for us let’s hope it has whales!

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.018N, 88.874W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

We are in Biloxi!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 43

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Day 43, Friday, July 6, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

As if mother nature read my last note, we had some wavy weather coming in. Nothing too serious for too long, but enough to rock us about a bit and give the new folks a taste of rougher seas. Not sure where exactly the storm came from (mom…) as it was not forecast, but we made it through just fine.

We are now headed into port and I imagine by the time I hit send, we will be there.  Here we will say goodbye to Amanda, Leah. Madison and Matt.  They were a great crew! When you exclude the sea time it takes to get out to the whales and then back into port, they averaged 7 whale biopsies a day a truly exceptional accomplishment! Port will be a time to relax, refresh, refuel and restock. James will be down for a weekend visit so it will be good to see him.  I will be in touch again when we return to sea.

I want to take one moment to recognize Matt. When we launched this effort in 2010, Matt was one of my first volunteers and one of only 4 to volunteer for sailing into the oil spill itself while the oil was still flowing. He showed exceptional courage and commitment to give up volunteer 4 months of his time that year to join us in this quest. He did every job we asked and worked through seasickness, heat, storms and exhaustion. He was unable to come last year, but here he was again volunteering to help this year in style.

For those who have followed since day 1, Matt was one of our original members of the monkey brotherhood and shared many a frozen banana with me in the bow. Our 2010 banana shopping spree remains a staple of voyage lore. Thanks Matt for 2 voyages of excellent help at sea. I look forward to seeing you back in the lab when I return.  Enjoy Minnesota and the family reunion!

We are in Biloxi!

Talk to you soon.

Good night.


If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Thriving in chaos, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Happy 4th of July!

I found a new version of frenetic. Amongst my good friends, I have something of a reputation for, well, thriving in chaos they call it. I can picture each one of them shaking their heads and chuckling each time I tell the latest news. Well, today, chaos reigned and we all thrived out here in the Gulf!   See what I mean – more head shaking and chucking and I haven’t even told the story yet!

It started out simply. Last night, I received a tip from a colleague about where to find whales in deeper water. You might remember, we tried deeper water  in the first leg and found absolutely nothing. But, still, it stuck in my mind that there were whales in the deeper water that I couldn’t find (for those of you that remember James and the lost FedEx samples during the 2010 voyage – well, now you know where he gets that tenacity from). Anyway, my colleague, who will remain nameless, gave me a confidential map and from it where to extrapolate and maybe find those deeper water whales. At least it would put us in the general ballpark.

Whale samples have become our version of hidden treasure and I just could not resist the chance to find another cluster. Despite our earlier failings, we turned the boat towards still deeper water. Murmurs of my insanity went around as those veterans of our last foray into the deep explained that we would see nothing. Not even a bird.

Since it was new territory and we had no real idea where the whales might be, Captain Bob suggested we motor and search through the night. I agreed and with that we started our quest. The array was silent.

I awoke to Johnny cooking 4th of July pancakes for the team (red and blue pancakes) and the general bustle of a day of watches. Everyone went about the key routines. The array was silent.

I sat down to write. Johnny pulled in a Sargasso weed sample and went on watch. The rest of the science crew began to collect samples. The water was flat calm. The array remained silent.

I wrote and wrote as it seems I do every day now. When I heard it. Click after click after click – it sounded like a popcorn machine. It was 11:00 am and we had found whales!

I stepped out on deck and shouted up to Johnny – “I’ve got a popcorn machine in here. Many loud clicks. Now find me whale!”  He nodded.

Thirty seconds later, Johnny yelled down “Whale dead ahead”. But, it fluked. He then radioed down “Well, I kept up my end of the bargain. I found a whale!”.

I told him it that one didn’t count. It was just a fluke… I know bad joke.  But, within a few minutes he spotted another.

“No. Wait.”, he called.  “It’s just dolphins”.

It was here that the chaos started.

I looked at the distance he indicated and searched for the “dolphins”. I couldn’t see them and when I realized the distance I knew it could only be one other thing – pilot whales!  As if reading my mind, he too realized that these were pilot whales and the work began.

Pilot whales are mostly all black with a sharp curved fin. They are small whales but bigger than dolphins. They move around rather quickly and only surface for a few moments. We do sample them, but they require a totally different approach than sperm whales and aside from Johnny, Bob, Sandy and me, this team had never experienced it before. It would take patience and focus and quick arrow changes. But, we had three pilot whales ahead and sperm whales on the array. The day looked promising. The tip I was given was good.

We sampled the first whale we encountered from the boom. We looked for another pilot whale to sample. There was one at 9 O’clock so we started to turn. No., wait Johnny and Madison had two at 3 O’clock. No wait. Hugh spotted 2 at 10 O’ clock. No wait Bob had three more dead ahead.  7 pilot whales!  No wait!

We were sitting in the middle of a pod of probably 40 or more pilot whales. They were everywhere with everyone calling at once.  Poor Ike, was wide-eyed at the helm listening to this total chaos with directions flying in everywhere. Where to go? The excitement was high. The whales were everywhere and everyone was calling out new sightings. It was total chaos and it was awesome!

Or, as my friends would say, a typical day for me.

I started with Ike. I explained that we would simply become a pinball and get no samples if we attempted to listen to everyone. He readily agreed. I told him we would pick one whale until we sampled it and then move to the next. He readily agreed. I said don’t listen to anyone else but me and that will be the whale we choose. He agreed. With Ike on board and raring to go, I shouted out the plan to the team.  All understood and we had a strategy.

I then turned to my biopsier.  Johnny was like a kid in a new toy store dazzled by all the toys and ready to play. He is my son so that means- headstrong and sure of himself. But, at the same time, we have a long history of working together so eventually he will listen. First, I had to get him off the whale boom. It is tempting to stay there because it gets you closer, but these whales are too quick and there were too many to invest the time there. He relented and came off the boom.

He moved on deck. Here he was free to sample from any part of the boat. Port side, starboard side, stern, bow, all were available. The rest of the team just had to move out of the way.  I realized quickly that this effort would need much faster reloading than he could do. The crossbows are very hard to cock. I went with a simple strategy. I would cock and load, while he sampled. He would fire. I would hand him a loaded bow and load the other while he took another sample.  The only challenge was finding the best sampling spot. We raced and raced around the boat, crossbows in hand whales everywhere and finally settled into the bowsprit.

We could see whales everywhere in the water. Absolutely amazing. Chaos returned. Whale on starboard, whale on port. People pointing out whales everywhere. It was awesome! Or in other words. just another day at the office.

I went through the same process I did with Ike.  Pick one whale. Sample it. Then move to another.  Johnny nodded and I asked the team to let me pick the whales. I crowed in the bowsprit with Johnny so I could hand him crossbows, call out the boat directions and keep him focused. Matt was right by my side so he could take pictures and help load the crossbows.  We could see each whale surface and release the arrow at just the right time. From time to time there would be no whales near the bowsprit and Johnny. Matt and I, each with crossbow in hand would race around the boat looking for a better angle. I imagine if you filmed it, we looked like the Keystone cops in shorts!

We sampled 5 pilot whales in about an hour, by which point the pod had dispersed and left. A remarkable accomplishment given how quick they move and how small the target. Only 1 miss I believe. Given the activity, the focus and the concentration, it felt like half the day went by. But, in reality, it was hardly more than an hour.  The sun was grueling hot. I stopped the boat and we all came in for Sandy’s annual 4th of July lunch (hot dogs and beans).  It had been an exhilarating fun time for all.

The day would end with us collecting 2 sperm whale biopsies and another pilot whale in the evening. 8 biopsies on the day. Great work team!

Sandy made us a scrumptious 4th of July lunch and dinner with traditional fare. Johnny, Madison, Ike and Matt lit the fireworks I had bought at Sam’s club and we had our own small private fireworks display.

It’s a 4th of July we will always remember. I hope yours was memorable too.

Attached are pictures of the team collecting samples from the Sargasso weed (Sandy in blue t-shirt in foreground, Madison in gray t-shirt and hat on her left, Matt shirtless next, then Leah in the red and Amanda in the white t-shirt); the team searching for that first whale of the day (all in same attire with Johnny on the boom. Hats appear to be off in this one); one of pilot whales; one of pilot whales near the boom; one amazing picture of dolphins that Sandy took, again showing that clear blue water; and then, in keeping with my comments about the incredibleness of nature- three pictures of some remarkable clouds (note the reflections and colors on the water) including our sunset.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.483N, 89.700W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

No Whales, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

I guess you’d say today was exactly the type of day we needed, especially after the marathon that was yesterday. I am not sure anyone would admit it though. You see today was the exact opposite of yesterday- no whales. Not even a single click on the array. No blows in the air and no fins in the water. No large whales at all.

The team was ready. But, there was nothing to sample. Even the plankton tow came up empty of stuff to collect (picture of Johnny and the girls looking for those samples attached). Things to see. Nothing to collect.

Dolphins (technically whales)? Yes. But, we do not sample them.

The dolphins came to the bow 3 or 4 times over the day. The best was in the morning. Spotted dolphins I think they were. They came and frolicked and we giggled with glee like school children. They were having so much fun and we were delighted to watch.

Then as if someone’s mom yelled “breakfast!”, they all sped away to some unknown location off our portside all at once. As if bow riding was their version of dodgeball or kick-the-can or some other neighborhood game. I have a couple of dolphin pictures attached. This group had a white tip to their beak as you can see from Sandy’s close up picture.

Thus, with no whales clicking or seen, the team could ease up a bit. All were still really worn out from yesterday. Even the youngest of us.

But, there was a notable side to the day. Once again we were awash in the beauty of nature’s colors at sea. It is difficult to choose a favorite they are all such incredible eye candy to enjoy.  I love them all. With such a slow day, you can really take it all in.

It starts with water being the purest of blues offset by bright clean white splash. It’s the kind of blue that just reaches into your soul and says, “Relax. Be at peace.”,  and within moments of mesmerized staring at it you realize you are. You have found a peaceful blue moment in a world mad with the pace of the modern day. You can’t help but melt into calmness and feel at one with the sea.

It then moves to warm pinks, fiery reds and awesome oranges than come with a brilliant sunset to end the day. You stand there riveted by their warmth and glory basking you in happy energy with color splashed across the sky and the water. A sunset that makes you warm all over and then goes “ta da” and disappears into the sea, followed by a eerie haze that makes you go “Wow, did that really just happen?!”

It ends with a pale full moon on a midnight blue sky which fades to black. The moon catching you in its hypnotic glow, flooding your senses with one simple word. Quiet. Within moments, without you even noticing, you are still and the world is quiet. You bathe in that quiet, cleansed by the brilliant white light and is amazing reflection on the water. You realize that all is well and you can now rest and relax and enjoy some warm moments of peace. So you do. You smile and you find grace and gratitude for this gift of a day and for all that you have been given especially for those you have to share it with and quietly you say thanks.

It is remarkable to spend at day at sea with nature’s colors. I highly recommend it. I hope I have been able to share it well with you in my words and pictures.

If you look at the daytime pictures you will see the clear blue water.
Can you feel it’s peace?

If you look at the sunset photos you will see the pinks and reds and oranges and if you look really close sunspots too (in sunset c). Can you feel the warmth?

Perhaps, it’s the moonlight that will touch you gleaming in the sky and shimmering on the sea. Maybe, for a moment, it will be quiet where you are.

I hope at least one brings you some joy. Enjoy the 4th.

The team is resting.

Until tomorrow..

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.889N, 89.715W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Ten, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 38, Sunday, July 1, 2012

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Day 38, Sunday July 1, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Today marks my tenth anniversary at the University of Southern Maine. The lab started July 1, 2002 with 5 people. Two of them, Hong Xie and Amie Holmes were basically new then.  10 years later they are now research faculty in my lab and keeping the land lab going while I am out here studying these whales and this crisis.  Thanks Hong and Amie for the last decade at USM, for working so hard and being such fine people!

It’s been quite a run. In these 10 years, we have earned more than $12,000,000 in research funds; trained more than 150 students ranging from high school through postdoctoral fellows; published 68 scientific papers, chapters and reports; published 314 abstracts at local, national and international scientific meetings plus another 135 abstracts at USM’s Thinking Matters student research day event; presented scores of seminars and posters at local, national and international venues; and been the subject of numerous articles, videos and commercials in the popular local, national and international press. We have been busy that’s for sure!

We could not have done it without the hard work of my core lab team, all of the staff and students we trained over the years, the dedicated USM staff in so many departments, especially those in sponsored programs and business services that I keep rather busy, my USM colleagues and faculty collaborators and the administrators of USM. Thanks to all of you for years of help and support. I appreciate all of the data, help and guidance. I did take some time to reflect on the many trials and tribulations that contributed to who we are and what we do. It’s been quite a journey.

The lab reached a peak of 50 people in the summer of 2010 when we launched the first Gulf Voyage. Funny thing, I started writing these emails in part to explain to those 50 why I had left and in part to reassure my wife, son and family who were not coming with me.  Who knew I still be writing in 2012.  I figured I would only write once…

Back to the boat.

Today was just weird, frustratingly weird. The early morning was slow, not much going on. The team had slipped into its new daily routine of 2 hours shifts on the mast and searching for whales. Its July so the temperature is getting hotter and hotter earlier. But about 9:30, Ike started screaming “whale” first softly and then louder and louder. Everyone thought he was joking, but then as the passion grew in his voice, we realized there really was a whale.  Indeed, a whale surprised everyone and just popped up next to the boat. The team moved into their sampling  positions. It was an odd beginning to what would be a very odd sequence of events.

I was scheduled to give Matt some more biopsy training so I had moved with him into the bowsprit. My normal position is in the pilothouse doorway so I can ensure things run smoothly. The day before had gone so well, I didn’t think much of the change.

The bowsprit is the very end of the front of the boat on a small platform-like structure that juts out in front of the deck giving the boat a pointy shape. It’s not so comfortable to stand there as the anchor is also there, but the view is fantastic. So I guess oddity #3 was my presence on whales in the bowsprit.  It seems Johnny was not expecting me there and since my presence that far out on whales usually means something is up, oddity #4 happened. He shot and missed. I think it was only maybe his third miss this year.

While the team worked to collect the arrow, Johnny, Matt and I discussed how weird it felt to them for me to be in the bowsprit at that time. Plus it seems I move with some stealth this trip so my movements are going undetected.  I guess it’s three seasons at sea have graduated me from bouncing around deck to gliding?  I am not sure.

While there, we witnessed oddity #5 (and it had only been about 15 minutes since this whole episode started) – the team missed the arrow. But the really weird part?  The 8 foot long net used to collect the arrow was also lost over the side.  That was a first. We watched in seemingly slow motion as they appeared to just toss the net in the water and then watched it sail by. Very weird. (FYI- it turns out the current pulled too hard yanking the net in the water).

But, the whale was back and so with a buoy launched to mark the location of the arrow and the net, we headed after it.

We never caught up.

After a while, we lost all track of the whale and it was time to find our buoy, net and arrow. But, it was nowhere to be seen. Odd. We designed these new buoys to be more visible and to have a radar button to track on radar. But, there we were searching high and low and looking and looking and looking for what seemed like an eternity. Finally after more than an hour, someone spotted it and we recovered all of the pieces. They were travelling at an estimated 1 mph.

That ended a very strange morning.

About noon, another whale was spotted.  I called whales and the team raced into place. As odd as the first one was, this one was textbook perfect. Ike, Hugh and Mat called out spotting directions. Bob steered the boat. Johnny collected the biopsy. Madison scooped the arrow with the net almost as soon as it hit the water. Amanda recorded the data. Leah processed the sample. Sandy took the photo-id picture. I stayed in the pilothouse doorway and coordinated.  Smooth as silk.  Great teamwork!

There were whales clicking all over the array. We anticipated many samples to come.  Just had a weird morning right?

Nope. Weirdness would be the order of the day. we would hear whales all day and get nowhere near them. In fact, the whales are clicking very loudly on the array now while I type. Loud clicks means they are very close to the boat and many load clicks means many whales. Figures, 11 pm at night and whales everywhere (yes I have considered ways to do night biopsying but none will work tonight).  I have attached a recording so you can hear them too. They are clicking so loud I can record them in the salon which is down the stairs and well away from the speakers. I sure hope the whales are there in the morning!

I have attached pictures of Amanda and Sandy again (This time from the bow. Hugh is in the background on the pilothouse and Madison in the person in green behind Amanda);  one of Ike and Madison on watch at the end of the day (Ike is up highest) and one of the whale waving good bye after giving us a sample.

We had a pretty sunset before it went behind the clouds. I have attached a picture of it and of Leah watching it (I took it from on the pilot house looking down).

I also attached a picture of Hong and Amie.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.493N, 88.837W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at and click on “read logs here”.

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

LIving in a laboratory…, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 37, Saturday, June 30, 2012

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Day 37 true, Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Living in a laboratory is not as romantic as it sounds.  No really, it’s not. Last night was a perfect example.

I had gone to bed late. Very late. It was about 1:30 am. We launched later in the evening, had dinner and then I needed to write my email to all of you. I figured it was a necessary email given the concern about out launch. So I stayed up and wrote.

As I finished up, we had spotty email service so it took some time to get the email sent.  I was up so late that my son James sent me an instant message via gmail expressing concern that I was still up. “Just writing”, I told him. Finally, with all notes sent and wrapped up I headed to bed.

No sooner than did my head hit the pillow when the incubator started alarming. It is an annoying little twinkling high pitched tone especially given the late hour and the fact that it was empty of cells at the moment. We learned some time ago that the racks inside the incubator can slide forward a bit in the waves and knock the seal slightly open. This crack causes the alarm. I got up adjusted it and went back to bed.

I was just drifting off to an overdue sleep, when Sandy started kicking me. The incubator was alarming again. Call it the consequence of sleeping on the outside of the bed or, perhaps, a perk of being the cook, but it fell to me to get up and adjust it again. I did. It stopped.

But then, again, as I started to drift off it went off again. I fixed it again. It went off again. I fixed it again. After several rounds of this routine I began to have thoughts of how to throw the incubator overboard and then go to sleep. But, we have work to do and I came to realize I would not be able to sleep until I fixed it somehow.

I know what you are thinking. Why not just turn it off?  Yeah, I thought about that too. The problem is that one never knows when we might be on whales and that incubator needed to be ready if sunrise lead us to a whale sample.

Now, the other problem I was facing is that the cook has to sleep and gets up at 6 am.  By now, it was 2:45 am so I had to avoid waking her. That meant minimize the clanging of metal shelves, keeping the alarm quiet and no overhead lights!  Quite the challenge for a sleepy scien.tist on a rocking boat. Oh yeah, and one final hurdle, the floor in front of the incubator curves up quite a few degrees with the hull of the boat so I would be standing uphill  the whole time!

So there I was standing uphill on a rocky boat, waves pushing me off this little incubator hill, wearing a headlamp to keep the light down, looking like a coal miner deep in a coal mine. I was quite the sight. I opened the door and assessed the problem. There were 4 heavy stainless steel gimbaled platforms we use to maintain the cells. Two large stainless steel shelves. and the racks to hold them. Outside, I had just enough space to hold 1 shelf. Not too promising.

I set to work. The waves pushed me back and I pushed back at them balancing precariously on this little hill while emptying the incubator in a dark room. The doors clanged together over and over. The alarm went off again and again.  Aware that while I had the light under reasonable control, but this cacophony of noise was not doing the cook any good. So I tossed her a pillow to try and drown the sound out. Yeah, I know, but it was the middle of the night, what else could I do. She covered her face

I tried reversing the racks.  No go, they stuck out too far in the opposite direction.  Two little feet sticking out and in the way.  I tried to velcro the racks to the back wall.  No good, the velcro would not hold tight. I dug through the supplies under our bunk to find the better velcro. It stuck but it could not get enough purchase to keep the rack from sliding.

My frustration was rising.  Three years I have slept with this incubator and only now in the middle of the night is it giving me these problems.  It was dark. I was hot and sweaty and tired. I swear I had walked up the tiny incubator hill 100 times pushed back by waves each time.  I reconsidered the throw it overboard option for a moment.

Finally, I gave the situation one more consideration. There really was only one option. I was going to have to try and velcro the small feet holding the racks into place.  There were four of them and they were about a half inch long and a quarter inch wide. A tiny amount of surface to velcro to the bottom. But they were the major points of contact with the incubator.

So I sized and cut and resized and recut and finally had all four of them done and in place.  Amazingly the darn things held pretty good! Only problem left was that it was now 3:45 am. I had had no sleep and would have to watch this incubator for another 30 minutes while it regained temperature so I could silence the alarm and see if this solution worked.

I played cards on my phone and watched. I heard Johnny start his helm watch and deploy the array. The degrees went up by decimals oh so slowly, and the alarm went off every 5 minutes, but sure enough, they held I was exhausted and knew I would get limited sleep for the day, but I was triumphant. I also had a chuckle later in the morning as Johnny wrote about the his helm watch and in it described the rest of us as peacefully slumbering in our beds. Oh if he only knew.  Next time, I am dragging him in to help!  I have attached a picture of the feet fastened with black velcro.

The day dragged on slowly for a long time. Then just before 4 pm, Bob told me we had some whales.  I made the call and by 4:30 we had 2 biopsies and by 6 we had 5.  It was a remarkable couple of hours and exhilarating for all, especially the new members who saw whales in the wild for the first time!

I have attached pictures of Leah delivering arrows to Johnny and processing samples in the lab; Amanda collecting data; and two perspectives of Madison working the net. One was taken by me and if you look in the background you can see Sandy taking a picture of me taking that picture (Johnny is the one on the whale boom). Thus the other picture is that picture Sandy took of Madison with me in the background.  She had the better light and the better camera.  Of course, I have attached the sunset picture of the day and one with Madison on the whale boom in the setting sun.

But now, I am really worn out from my late night incubator wrestling so I am going to sign off.  Tired but triumphant from an incubator solved and 5 biopsies taken.

Oh I did find the date on yesterdays was wrong (June 30). Since today is June 30, it was day 37. I am also pleased to report that as of right now, 10:45 pm,  that alarm has yet to go off since I fixed it and those shelves have not moved. Let’s hope it lasts.

Good night.


P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.06N, 88.246W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at and click on “read logs here”.

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A dream fulfilled, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 22, Friday, June 15, 2012

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Day 22, Friday, June 15, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

I was in my usual seat in the salon writing and working and waiting for whales. I heard the call on the radio and was in a bit of disbelief about it, but my feet are trained to react on their own so I moved quickly while sorting through the message:  “Some sort of whale! 100 yards ahead!”. That was a new sort of call. That is was Johnny just made it all the weirder as he has logged a crazy number of hours over 8 months of observing whales. He knows better than to be that vague.

But, precisely because it was him and he knows the routine so well, by the time my feet landed in the pilothouse, I shouted “whales! and hurry they are close!”. I was not sure where or what they are, but the excitement in his voice told me all I needed to know. This moment would be at least unusual.

I heard no team response so I paused at the door and shouted “hurry it up”. Matt was hot on my heels with the crossbows. By the time we reached the foredeck, Johnny was down. There they were a group of three beaked whales!

Beaked whales are strange looking whales that are secretive and poorly understood. The global voyage saw them only once, maybe twice in 5 years. We had never seen them here, though they have been reported in the Gulf. It is a truly a rare opportunity. Yet, there they were.

Johnny was beside himself with excitement and pleasure. He had been wishing to see beaked whales for some time now and there they were. They dove straight down deep shortly after the team started to emerge. Perhaps because they heard the sound of Matt’s arrow miss and strike the water. Perhaps, because they saw us gawking at them. Perhaps, because it was just their time to dive.   The time was short, but we got to see them and snap a picture and Johnny’s wish of a voyage came true after 8 months of time away on this boat.  He was the only one blessed with the chance to really observe all three whales, a calf, a mother and probably a grandmother. The rest of us mostly focused on the grandmother as she was so close to the boat. It was a really special moment for our entire effort, but especially for him.

Congratulations O’s on a dream fulfilled. It just goes to show that there are times when after working hard and diligently for a long time and dedicating yourself to an effort – life gives you a gift rewards you. Today was one of those days. You certainly have earned it! Thanks for sharing it with us.

We came near one sperm whale, but no biopsy.  The weather was clearly degrading fast. Mid-afternoon, I called Carolyne off the mast and stopped the searching. It was too rough.  I told the crew to get us into Pensacola as fast as they could because it was only going to get worse and it was time to get out of harm’s way. They cranked it into gear and off we went crashing over the waves and leaning heavily to port.

Morning will see us safely in port before the really bad weather arrives. Thus, my next email will be when the weather lets us back out to sea. As this leg ends, we say goodbye to Tania and Carolyne and thank them for their hard work. The next leg will bring new team members.

I have attached a couple of picture of the beaked whale that we think was a grandmother. I wish you all a good weekend!

The only problem now – the boat is leaning heavily to port and the bathroom is on starboard. It’s going to be a long night.

Good night.


P.S. As I can finally send this email we are safely in Pensacola
harbor nearing the dock.

If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.609N, 87.883W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Swim call, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 3), Day 21, June 14, 2012

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Day 21, Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

The engine whined as the boat accelerated into gear. I was is a deep sleep, but somewhere in my brain recognized that tone and my eyes flew wide open. A sudden acceleration so early in the morning could only mean one thing- whales!

I rolled out of bed. No sooner did my feet hit the floor than Sandy stepped in and confirmed what that sound had already conveyed – a whale was in sight! Barely awake yet, I grabbed my hat, my phone and my sunglasses and stumbled into the pilothouse. Sure enough a whale was just ahead.

I did a quick check of who was where.  All hands accounted for except one, Hugh.  I had not called whales because I figured someone else already had.  I went to get Hugh, but he heard the pitter patter of my little feet approaching and was up and headed my way before I could speak. With that a tired and groggy team was in place.

We approached the whale. The arrow was released. I heard the clear sound of arrow hitting water. Captain Bob at the helm said the same. I looked for the second arrow. It never came.

Those in the bow all heard a different sound, the one of an arrow bouncing off a whale. Besides, Johnny’s only missed once this summer and he released the arrow. Made sense to me that we further back had it wrong. Alas, when we collected the arrow, it was empty. The shot had hit water first – no sample. The whale was gone.

No worries, there were whales on the array and the break in the action gave us time to shake the cobwebs out of our heads and sharpen our focus. Well, not no worries exactly…in my experience a day with a 7 am whale call breaks one of two ways – we either work with whales all day or we see no whales the rest of the day. Either scenario poses challenges for managing the day.

In the first scenario, the team gets exhausted from sun and work and I pay very close attention to who is where, doing what, for how long to make sure no one overdoes it in the sun too much. I have to watch each whales distance and approach and time the call to minimize time in the sun. It’s not labor intensive per se, but it’s a lot of moving parts and requires quite a bit of concentration. Still it’s much better than the alternative scenario.

In the alternative scenario, we are up early with lots of activity so no rest, but there are no whales. Here the challenge is a tired, cranky and frustrated team that was amped up for whales early, but ended up only roasting on watches looking for them. Patience gets short and creates a whole different can of worms to manage.

It looked good early. Around 8 we collected a couple of biopsies. We had dolphins on the bow (always a team favorite). We even had a shark nearby. But, by 10 am, it was clear, this day would be scenario 2 – no more whales. Ghost whales were seen. Ones where someone sees a blow, but then it’s not seen again. The array software failed again, so whales were heard but not seen. Team was always ready, but never deployed. Frustration mounted.

By 5 pm, it was clear, there was only one thing left to do- swim call. I checked with Captain Bob and he said conditions were fine so I asked Ike, on the helm, to stop the boat. The team took a much needed swim in about 3,000 feet of water. The chance to release some pent up energy and frustration while cooling off was just the right salve for this very long and frustrating day. Cap the day off with a unique sunset and some singing under the stars with Ike and we are ready for a new day tomorrow.

2 biopsies is a good day. Array software is down, but that is nothing new, we just need to work more on steering by ear.  Heck it didn’t work all last year so we know we can work without it. The twitter feed is working. The Facebook page is receiving it and James has the logs on the website up to date (thanks James). The stars are shining and tomorrow is another chance to get samples at sea!

Attached is a picture of the team looking at dolphins on the bow, you can see them all there – Hugh in a hat at the tip of the bowsprit pointing. Then Matt is next in the bowsprit with no shirt and Captain Bob next to him in a dark shirt (you might need to zoom in to see them). Johnny is on the whale boom. Carolyne is in green and Tania in white on the starboard side. Sandy is in blue on the port side.

Now, I know what you are thinking…. where is Ike? Picture 2 shows you Ike. he was there too. Zoom in he is waving to you! Me, I was taking the pictures – then I too went and hung over the rail to see the antics of the dolphins playing with our boat and leaping out of the water. We all wished we too could have such fun and be a dolphin even if just for a day. Picture 3 is of those dolphins.


Also attached is a three stage picture of a unique sunset. Start with sunset 1, then 2 , then 3 and watch it go from interesting sky to a cool ending. It also reminds us that out here in this part of the Gulf, we are never far from oil rigs.

Good night.


If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.43531 N
088.36799 W

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are now
up to date and posted at and click
on “read logs here”.

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

We sailed over the epicenter of Deepwater Horizon, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 3), Day 20, June 13, 2012

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Day 20, Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

In this my third year at sea in the Gulf. In that time, I have learned that that there are two major keys to biopsy success – freeze pops and snacks. The freeze pops are nothing really but water, sugar and food coloring, but what an amazing delight when you are out baking in the sun.  Or for that matter, pretty much anytime as its always hot here in the Gulf to a person from Maine like me.

They come in lots of pretty colors blue (Josh and Bob’s favorite), pink (Ike, Carolyne, Matt and Sandy’s favorite), green (Hugh’s favorite) and orange (Johnny’s, Tania and mine). But, when on whales, everyone is happy with any color including purple or red. They refresh us and remind us of the kid inside each of us and ready us for the next hour under the sun.

The other key is snacks- chips, cookies, crackers and other delights that reside under the small bench on the salon.  If you lift up the bench seat you find a number of treats that will tempt you all day, but are especially good while on whale watch or as a quick treat when on whales all day. See Tania in the attached series of pictures getting her snacks (she’s really good at it) and then showing Captain Bob just how it is done!

My note is light today because we are worn out. The toll of pounding seas followed by lots of biopsy and sample work in the hot sun caught up to us and folks were just plum worn out. We collected 2 biopsies in the morning, which was followed by internet and array failures that took some time to sort out. We could hear them, but could not find the whales for the rest of the day.

My note is also light because today was also a somber day. We sailed over the epicenter of Deepwater Horizon and remembered that 11 people died here and then the oil started flowing.  This event changed our lives and brought us here into the Gulf for this our third year.

Unlike last year when we came to this spot and found nothing in sight at this site, this year 2 new oil rigs have been installed and are at work. It is remarkable how our society just marches on forward. If one rig explodes and fouls the Gulf – -then we simply build two more rigs in the essentially the same place. Yet, our work is still the only deep water toxicology study in the Gulf and we have yet to raise funds for analyzing our samples. Something seems wrong when our society builds two rigs to replace one that failed before any analysis of the consequences to the ecosystem has been done.  I truly hope these rigs were built to be safer than the last one.

So, for today, better to be light while worn out and staring at 2 new deep water rigs, because otherwise, it might feel like shoveling sand against the tide.  Our quest and efforts are needed now more than ever. We continue on and after admiring a group of dolphins bow riding in the setting sun, eating under the stars and with the ground fault on our array fixed (thanks for the pointers Josh) –  we find ourselves renewed and refreshed and ready to marshal on!

But seriously, we couldn’t do it without the freeze pops and snacks!

Attached are also pictures of the biopsy effort today and our glorious sunset. A sunset that is good for the soul.

Also, attached is a song that spontaneously came up at dinner when the singing started. I was surprised at this one and asked to record it with Ike and Johnny singing a family twist on the words. Its 30 seconds long but shows the camaraderie that continues at dinner so I think it will make many of you smile. It also has a subtle twist that really only my wife and kids would get so I won’t explain. This one’s for you Cathy- enjoy it! Hope the EPA is treating you well.

Ike and Johnny for Cathy mp3-1

Good night.


If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.43724 N
088.34048 W

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at and click on “read logs
here” or soon will be.

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Whales!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 3), Day 18, June 11, 2012

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Day 18, Monday, June 11, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

“Whales!” Wow, did it feel good to yell that again! I assembled the team for getting a sample. The whale was 400 meters ahead.

There are times that this work becomes remarkably peaceful and almost mystical. This day would be one of those times. Our sail was up and full of wind. The team was assembled. The whale was ahead. The sun was bright and glistening on the water. We headed for the whale. It slipped under the water and out of sight. It was then that the calm that comes from such a unique quest set in and all was peaceful.

The engine was on idle. Matt was up on the mast. Hugh was in the rigging. Johnny was on the whale boom. Sandy, Carolyne and Tania were on deck in the bow. Bob was on the pilot house. Ike and I were standing on the doors to the pilot house. All of us looking for the whale. A gentle breeze was blowing. It was completely silent, save for the hum of our air sampler.

We traveled by wind amidst this calm silence. All eyes scanning the horizon for that one whale that slipped from sight under the glistening sea. It was a true moment of peace and tranquility for the whole team after several hard days of pounding seas.

“Whale 1:30, 100 meters ahead ! ” came the call from Johnny on the boom. I relayed the call to the helm. Ike gently eased the boat into gear. We headed for the whale.

This was Ike’s first time steering the boat for us to collect a sample and the whale was directly in the sunlight. Captain Bob guided him from above. “10 degrees to port” Bob would say. I relayed the information to the helm. Ike adjusted course. We carried on like that for several minutes getting the boat ready for a sample shot. It was remarkable as I am known more for my sharp vision than my hearing. It was my buddy Scott who had the “ear of bat” as we called it as kids. Yet, each time Bob spoke, it rang out clear as a bell to me and I relayed the guidance to Ike.

The whale slipped under the water again.

Again the team searched and scanned and looked. Again a quiet calm settled over the boat.

“Whale 3:00, 200 meters ahead ! ” came the call again from Johnny on the boom. I relayed the call to the helm. Ike gently eased the boat into gear. We headed for the whale. Captain Bob gave guidance. I relayed the message, Ike brought us near the whale. This time, we were there! The whale was mere yards from the whale boom! Ike had us just where we wanted to be!

The whale slipped under the water again.

Once more, the team searched and scanned and looked. Once more tranquility returned.

“Whale 12:30, 200 meters ahead ! ” came the call. This time from Matt on the mast. Once more Bob guided. Ike steered and we slid up right next to the whale. There it was in perfect position just the right distance off the boom.

Johnny readied the crossbow. His eyes focused in like a laser just waiting for the whale to arch its back and provide the needed target. He waited and waited and waited. Typically, we try to sample as the whale prepare to dive deep. It arches it back. the sample is taken and then we get a picture of the fluke for later identification. This whale just laid in the water gliding along while we sailed with it. It was as if the same breeze was blowing us both along by aimlessly in the evening sun.

Then for a moment, the whale lifted itself just a little, just enough for Johnny to release the arrow, which struck true and collected biopsy number 12 for the season. The whale casually swam along.

We realized that the whale did not fluke and dive and we had no photo for later identification. So we traveled along with it. Sailing through the water like a Sunday drive just us and our whale friend. Twenty minutes of just admiring this marvelous creature sailing side-by-side until finally the time for us had come to get back to the sample. We said goodbye to this friendly spirit and went and recovered our arrow and buoy. We never did see a fluke.

That would be our only sample today. But, what a sample it was.

I am not sure if the others had a chance to soak in these special moments as we glided across the water. I imagine their minds were likely filled with the search for the whale and the work around it. But, I hope, for at least a few minutes today, each one of them found the peace and tranquility of this day. I hope they each had the chance to remember how special this work is, difficult moments and all. I hope they rediscovered the magic of working with such a fine creature. I am glad they had this day. I know they deserved it. They have persevered and worked hard. Great team!

The day ended with a quiet sunset, a fine dinner under the stars on the aft deck and lots of camaraderie and spirit as Ike once again led us in song. We relaxed and sang under the lights of Saturn, Mars, Arcturis and the big dipper. A peaceful ending to a peaceful day.

For those of you out there on land who were able – thank you for blowing the front out of the way. Today was sunny and calm enough to work. Both Matt and Carolyne are back up to speed again. All we needed was this whale to send our spirits soaring and so they are. I attached a picture symbolic of our soaring spirits.

I have also attached pictures of our sail full of wind from both sides (Matt is the one on the platform in the sail1 picture); pictures of some of the team in their various positions while searching for the whale (gave Tania and Carolyne the day off from photos); a picture of the whale in the glistening sun (can you find it. It’s there! Answer in tomorrow’s note) and, of course, a picture of our quiet sunset (sorry, no stars- the iPhone camera is just not that good yet).

What a day.

Good night.  May you all have a peaceful day tomorrow.


If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
23.51250 N
083.21975 W

John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D., Science Director

Follow us on Twitter

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Dear All,

For those who are interested in some updates in real time, we are
going to try to use twitter.  eventually, we hope to work out some
live video via this feed.  For those who have twitter- you can find
us  at, to tweet at us please use
@WiseLaboratory. For those new to twitter (like me) – you can sign up

Our twitter feed name is WiseLaboratory  Follow along and we will see
how it goes.  This leg will just be simple tweets to get used to doing
it. Next leg we will try and sort out the live video feed.  Hopefully,
it will be fun.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Leaving Port, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog, (Year 3), Day 14, June 7, 2012

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Day 14, Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Port is a funny thing. After numerous days at sea, you are excited to be headed into port. It’s a chance to have the ability to move around more than the limited space on board. It’s a

chance to shower and use the facilities without having to hold yourself from falling over. It’s a chance for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a crew favorite, and in Pensacola, you can buy them fresh out of the oven. They are warm and gooey and simply melt in your mouth. It’s a welcome change of pace from the constant work at sea.

But, after just a couple of days in port, you soon find yourself ready and eager to get back out to sea. It’s amazing how limited a space Port becomes. Very quickly the crew begins to ask when can we go back to sea. Then comes the moment when it’s time to go and excitement and elation buzzes through the team.

The other aspect of Port that is remarkable is the kindness of people in the area. For example, on this stop we discovered mold in a couple of the cell cultures. Mold is a very bad thing for cultures, but can be fought off with some anti-mold compounds if caught early. Only problem was – we were out of it. Fortunately, we live in the internet age and James (at home) found a contact at the University of South Alabama who did cell culture. I called and he generously agreed to give us some mold-killer and I drove over and picked it up. Many thanks to Dr. Brewer for his help and kindness. We have found such kindness to be a common feature of the Gulf coast community.

The time to leave has come. We have had our fill of doughnuts. Well, not really, it seems the team could eat those doughnuts every day. Tania even had doughnuts followed by a doughnut sundae (i.e. doughnuts with ice cream on top). But, the weather has cleared and we are now pleased to be back at sea.

To set the stage again, the team from the last leg is mostly the same. We have Captain Bob, first mate Hugh, second mate Ike, Sandy is our cook and whale photo-id person. Johnny is our primary biopsier, Tania is our cell culture person, Carolyne is our data logger and of course me. This leg we also have added Matthew Braun. Matt was on the 2010 voyage for almost the entire voyage taking classes online from the boat as we went into the fall. Matt will be our second biopsier.

The waves are really rolling us around tonight and the boat is quite warm. But while stomachs for some may be low, spirits are high and the team is eager to find whales!

Good night.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D., Science Director

Video team departs; Final leg of 2011 Gulf expedition begins: ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Days 62-64, August 9-11, 2011

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Another quick port call in Pensacola and we are now back out for our final leg of this year’s expedition. We said goodbye to Iain Kerr, Jonah, James and Franklin in port. We enjoyed our time with each of them, all fine men. Fortunately, there is ample footage of our time with them as around 1,000 film segments were taken over the last leg.

On this leg, we will pass through some Bryde’s whale territory on our way to one more day in some sperm whale places. Then we will turn back into Bryde’s territory and end the expedition on about August 17 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

We welcome three people to the expedition. Andy who was on as part of the film crew, will now work on the science crew. It turns out in the fall he will be a graduate student in England studying animal behavior. Thus, this leg will be a chance for him to also enjoy some biology work, though I am not clear whether the animal behavior he will find interesting will be the whales or us! Maybe both. On this leg, he will be the science photographer.

We also have Dr. Michael Carvan, a toxicologist from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I have known Mike for a number of years. He does important and elegant work on mercury toxicity using fish as a study species. He was also one of the first to culture dolphin cells some years ago. You can check out his lab at: He will man the arrows and net on this leg.

Finally, we have Laura Savery on board. Laura is the senior doctoral student in my laboratory. That means: 1) She has been there the longest; 2) She is the voice for all of the students confusion with my directions and ideas (i.e. she keeps me in line); and 3) She will graduate soon. Laura is doing her dissertation work on metal levels in sperm whales using both the global voyage dataset and these Gulf
whales. Laura will be the data keeper on this leg.

The rest of the crew remain, Johnny, Cathy, Sandy, Captain Bob, First mate Ian, John Bradford and me.


P.S. We are in the Gulf. Our current location is 30 degrees 01.8 minutes North and 87 degrees 17.5 minutes West, for those who want to track us as we go. For Google maps (not Google Earth – but maps) or Bing maps use (include letters and comma):  30.018 N, 87.175 W.

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

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)

Odyssey takes her 1000th sperm whale biopsy today! ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Day 11, June 18, 2011

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Today was a special day.

It started out fairly ordinary. Sunny and hot, mild seas and crew working their various watches and jobs. I worked on some grants and some papers. Sent a few emails and reviewed the voyage path with Ian. Then we heard some whales clicking about noon. Excitement grew, but we never found them. I looked at the path and we were beyond “sperm whale country” and I wondered if we would see anymore whales the rest of the day. Rick noticed where we were and promised today the arrows would fly.

I went to catch a catnap and the boat slowed down. In the pilothouse there were lots of whale clicks and there was Ian grinning like the Cheshire cat. I told him he earned a gold star for the day for finding whales again. Even gave him one. I decided with the whales clicking it was the perfect opportunity to tune the array with Josh Jones from Scripps. I called Josh at home.

Three hours behind us and three thousand miles away in beautiful San Diego, Josh took my call. Josh is an Ocean Alliance legend having spent a lot of time on the global voyage and universally acknowledged as the best array person around. We began the process of troubleshooting the array though I warned him, with a whale clicking, I might be called away. The whale clicked. We worked the array. Then the whale stopped. That meant a whale at the surface and, sure enough, a few minutes later, Nora called out a whale ahead. A little while later, with Ian at the helm, we had sperm whale biopsy #999. Our first biopsy of the season!

The day dragged on. Four O’clock approached. We wondered whether we might get biopsy #1000. Ian spotted a whale from the pilothouse, but alas he got away. I noticed Rick and Cathy on watch on the midlevel platform. I called up to them and announced we needed one more whale or no dinner for them. Rick said “ok” and I resumed my work with Josh. Fifteen minutes later Rick spotted a whale sraight ahead. Then he asked for dinner.

Ian turned the helm over to Bob as he felt that since this whale could be biopsy #1,000, and since Bob was captain for most of those 1,000, Ian felt that Bob should have the honor of running the helm. Ian went to spot whales on the top of the pilothouse.

When Bob learned we were after number 1,000 I could see a gleam in his eye. The boat sped up. Johnny was on the whale boom and Rick in the bowsprit ready with the crossbows. Sandy was ready for the photo ID and Cathy had the data board ready. Cyndi was atop the pilot house spotting and Nora stood ready with the net. We were near the whale in no time–so quickly that Shanelle had to take pictures from halfway up the mast.

We approached the whale. Both Rick and Johnny released their arrows. Johnny’s glanced off and did not take a sample, but Ricks hit straight on and a few minutes later Nora had our #1,000 whale biopsy in the net! Cyndi processed the sample having been trained by Cathy on sample 999. It was a great moment! I have attached Sandy’s pictures of the arrow taking the #1,000 biopsy.

Indeed, the Odyssey took her 1000’th sperm whale biopsy today! In fact, we went a bit beyond and now the Ocean Alliance/University of Southern Maine sperm whale biopsy collection is at 1,002 biopsies, and for all whales is at 1,010 biopsies and counting. Pretty impressive and exciting collection.

It was a nice moment and a moment hard earned. The team is tired, but has a bounce in their step having collected the first 4 biopsies of the voyage. We all ended the day with dinner at 8 pm and a beautiful sunset to watch. Tonight, I imagine I will sleep my first good night of sleep on the boat knowing we have made a good step forward in our summer voyage. My head is already heavy.


P.S. Our current location is somewhere off of southern Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. 26 degrees 18.6 minutes North and 84 degrees 46.6 minutes West, for those who want to track us as we go.

(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)

At sea at last! ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (Year 2), Days 2-7, June 9-14, 2011

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At sea at last! At sea at last! Thank God Almighty we are at sea at last!

We sailed out of Key West today and are motoring out to 3000 feet deep where the whales are. We expect to be there some time tomorrow. The past few days in port were filled with hard work and moments that simply tried our patience. We had four issues to resolve before we could go: 1) USM needed to finalize the contract with Ocean Alliance to release us to go; 2) the weather had to clear; 3) there were some small boat repairs to finish; and 4) there were some science details to finalize. At times it felt like our job was to confirm Murphy’s law, while other issues that came up seemed simply to define absurdity. But at 4;17 pm yesterday, USM finalized the contract and, with that final piece in place, we knew today would be the day we could finally go to sea.

The team was as excited as can be. The final hours leading up to departure seemed like years. But, finally at 3 pm, we were on our way. The weather was beautiful and the seas calm. We are hopeful for a productive leg of the research expedition.

I guess my first email missed some people as I had some email glitches so I will again introduce the team: Captain Bob is at the helm. Ian Glass is first mate. Johnny is our primary biopsier and student team leader. Cathy is running the cell culture lab and Sandy is the cook/whale photo identification person. Rick is our second biopsier. Shanelle Dugan will be taking video and photos. Cynthia Browning will be processing whale samples. Nora Daley will be preparing biopsy darts and working the recovery net. Alyssa Catalano is our new deckhand.

We are set up to collect whale samples, prey, water, air, sediment and sounds. Lots of samples and lots of work.

We enjoyed a nice dinner on the aft deck with a sunset on our starboard side and a moon rise on our port side. In the attached dinner picture, Captain Bob is sitting on the rail so he looks to be standing. Deckhand Alyssa is in the sunglasses, Then there is (left to right): Nora, Cathy and Johnny. Rick is in the hat.

I look forward to telling you all about the adventure.


(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)