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

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.

John

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


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

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