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

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.

John

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 www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

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