CNN.com, August 2010
Sunday, August 15, 2010, 4am – Drifting in the Night:
It’s 4am and I just started my watch at the helm. This watch is a world of difference from the previous night’s watches. That night we left St. Petersburg at midnight and discovered our autopilot wasn’t working. This meant a whole night of hand steering and non-stop focus at the wheel. But Saturday night we shut the engine down at 8:15 to drift during the dark hours.
We’re only doing visual observations for Bryde’s whales since they are not found acoustically. Since we won’t see them at night we’ve stopped to wait for daylight before continuing.
Bryde’s whales (pronounced “broodus”) are one of the four main whale species we’re hoping to sample here in the Gulf. They are named after a Norwegian whaler, Johan Bryde, who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. They are a medium-sized baleen (non-toothed) whale, averaging 40-55 feet. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, estimates there are around 15 Bryde’s whales in the northern Gulf of Mexico, so we’ll need sharp eyes and much luck to find them.
It’s important to keep a wheel watch even though we aren’t moving, mainly to make sure no one runs into us in the night. We have our lights on, and the odds are slim, but we still need to be on the lookout for ships or other boats. Every now and then I get up from my laptop and scan in all directions for lights looming on the horizon. Luckily it’s a beautiful, flat calm night. It’s a dark night too, with countless stars, and we’re at the tail end of a meteor shower so I’ve seen a couple fantastic shooting stars.
There are ‘stars’ in the water too. Actually it’s bioluminescent plankton, (plankton that creates light when disturbed), that sparkles in the slight motion of the waves. We’re hoping to see much more of this, and on dark nights the wake of the boat might be entirely illuminated from within.
Around mid-day we were descended upon by the largest pod of spotted dolphins yet! They came leaping in from all directions and amassed at the bow and along our beams. They would ride the bow, then as I watched, some would swing back to flank the boat and leap in our wake alongside before reaching the bow once again. I’m figuring out their timing and am getting better photos.
Matt climbed out to the end of the whale boom with the Hero (underwater) video camera and got some nice footage as he and the boom were hoisted up and down with the swell. He even caught dolphins from the side underwater as they bow rode when he himself got dunked a couple times.
Quote of the Day:
“Lunch is leftover spaghetti with a chance of homemade bread.”
Monday, August 16, 2010 – Big Swells, Rough Travel
The observation platforms were emptied around 6pm so we could end our zig zagging over the 200 meter contour line in search of Bryde’s whales, and head straight for Mobile, Alabama. The swell had been building for the last day or so, and kept growing. We all had a rough evening as the boat pitched from port to starboard as if on a giant, aquatic pendulum.
Sleeping was especially difficult this night and many of the crew sought multiple floor or cushion space around the boat, abandoning our bunks with the hope of fining sleep elsewhere. I optimistically tried to wedge myself into the far crevice of my bunk in the forward cabin but once I finally fell asleep it took just one big wave to hurl me onto the floor like a bag of bricks. Note to self: make lee cloth, or learn how to sleep with one foot ‘kickstanding’ on the opposite wall like Captain Bob does.
The next spot I tried was the galley bench but it was near impossible to ignore the percussion of food containers and eating implements banging in the cupboards, the sliding compost bucket, cookie sheet cymbals, and the roll-thunking of the 6lb can of green beans in the bench under me.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010 – Mobile, Alabama
The swell stayed with us all the way to the mouth of the Mobile Commercial Channel, and as usual lately we made a late-night arrival. Super narrow, the channel markers passed by us at close range. (We made sure to keep our arms and legs inside the vessel.) Natural gas platforms, drilling ships, tugs and barges and the busy industrial Mobile Bay lit up the night as we navigated our way to downtown Mobile. We tied up at 1am and several of us de-boated and roamed the empty streets.
Here Cathy, Greer and Ryan leave us and we welcome new USM crew members. Finally at our voyage’s ‘home’ port, we look forward to picking up our replacement hydrophone array and once again go to deep waters in search of sperm whales.
(Blog by: Vicki Beaver, Odyssey Educator and Crew)
A month in already, hard to believe. Seas were active again but still comfortable for most. Not a lot sighted until about 3 pm when Johnny spotted something that looked like whale blows about 2 miles off. One and a half miles in that direction and we encountered the largest pod of dolphins we have seen so far. Way too many to count. There were dolphins racing to the boat from all directions- 90 degrees to starboard,, 90 degrees to port, directly behind us, directly in front of us and all angles in between! Dolphins everywhere. There were bow riding in the front and porpoising on the side- 6 or 8 leaping in the air at a time! They were flipping and flopping, playing chase and just having a whale of a time (no pun intended). We watched the for over an hour until they wore us out and even after we stopped watching they continued on for some time.
Matt wore himself out racing on and off the whale boom, desperate to accidentally on purpose fall in with them. That he managed not to do, though he did manage to get himself satisfactorily wet and he did have to head to bed early from all the added exercise. The funniest moment, which also ended his antics, came when his life jacket suddenly and unexpectedly expanded giving him a big inflated yellow vest around his neck. You see these are safety lifejackets that inflate if they get wet. That way, if you hit your head and fall in the water, the lifejacket still inflates. Well, Matt did not know this aspect and so was scared silly when a wave hit his life jacket and POOF everything inflated. With that event, it was time for him to return from the whale boom. By 4:30 pm we lost Ryan for the night. We are still not sure if he meant to take a short nap and simple slept through or if he felt seasick again and just went to bed for the night. We will find out which in the morning.
Thus, by 7 pm it was Greer and Johnny on the mast looking for whales and Cathy and me atop the pilot house looking for whales and Ryan and Matt fast asleep from their dolphin adventures. It truly was amazing and distracting to see such an overwhelming number of animals. As for the whale blows, Captain Bo
b felt they were due to the dolphins jumping so high and splashing so much. Johnny maintains they were blows and we just lost focus due to the overwhelming number of dolphins. Which it is we don't know, but to his credit Johnny maintained his vigilance on the mast while those dolphins were with us, but did not see another blow. We did not travel very far today, but we did look hard- except during our dolphin hour.
Tomorrow we will increase the watches further with 4 people on watch almost all day.
It appears the national press is losing its interest in Gulf stories. This development does not surprise me, in part, because the well is capped, but also in part because it has been over 100 days of coverage and that's a long time to keep America's attention. We did not come here for the press. We came here to begin to address our nation's biggest marine pollution disaster in history and try to learn the lessons necessary to diminish its impact and to protect the other waters in the US should another big oil spill happen somewhere else. We now have to learn what are the consequences of this one, so the same mistakes are not repeated.
Our work has only just begun and will continue for many years as there are many levels to dissect. How toxic are dispersants to whales? Do they accumulate in their tissues? How long do they last? Are they damaging DNA? The same questions get asked for crude oil and for metals and then one moves into understanding the mixtures of them. Do mixtures make them more toxic? These are not easy questions and certainly not quick answers. But once we know them, we will know better how to address future problems and the impacts of this one.
I think seeing and knowing how hard we work and how thorough we are we hopefully attract research funds to support us and more undergraduates to USM to learn in these unique research settings.
Having said that, we are receiving lots of local press which is flattering. James has posted many links to those articles on our website.
I also submitted our first scientific abstract today to the national meeting of the Society of Toxicology and Environmental Chemistry (thanks for the help Sandy). We will see if its accepted, but that too will be an important phase- going to local, regional and national meetings to present what we see.
(Blog by: John Wise, Science Director)
Fox News Video: Odyssey Gulf Expedition