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News from the Field
 
News from the Field

News and information written by crew members directly from Operation Toxic Gulf

 

Our Five Years in the Gulf Draw to a Close

By Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

Each and every person who has crewed on the Odyssey in the Gulf has left with a profound sense of purpose about what we are doingEach and every person who has crewed on the Odyssey in the Gulf has left with a profound sense of purpose about what we are doing
Photo: Sea Shepherd
This week marks the end of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, the fifth and final year of Ocean Alliance’s program assessing the health of the Gulf of Mexico’s marine ecosystem, in a toxicological context, through the bio-indicators that are sperm whales. It’s also the end of our second year working in partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society--what is hopefully the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship from which the true winner will be the oceans, the life which inhabits them, and ultimately, our own species.

Certainly, much of the difficult work has been done, but we cannot forget the hard road ahead of us--the analysis of the data accumulated over the five-year-study. When all is done, we should have a comprehensive picture of how the toxicants released into the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil blow-out affect the long-term health of marine mammals, and hopefully the marine ecosystem, how we can go about protecting it, and how future toxicological catastrophes might better be contained. The next step is to raise the funds for this expensive yet incredibly important data analysis.

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Saving the Best for Last: the Final Leg of Operation Toxic Gulf2014

By Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014
Photo: Sea Shepherd
With the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 being the return of the RV Odyssey to her homeport of Key West, FL., and with numerous crewmembers on tight schedules with flights to catch, there were always time limits on how much we could achieve along the way. As part of our schedule, we had only one full day on the traditional sites southwest of Pensacola where we normally search for whales. As any crewmember could tell you, one day is never enough.

There has been a consistent theme across these “leg summaries,” all centered around how to describe the emotions when we find a whale against the odds. As before, during this highly successful campaign, experience, patience and a vessel perfectly suited to finding and tracking whales proved a tough combination to beat. Sure enough, around midday on our first and only day in the traditional sperm whale habitat we had quiet clicks, then loud clicks, then blows, then a biopsy.

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Wrapping Operation Toxic Gulf – Part 1

By Iain Kerr

The RV OdysseyThe RV Odyssey
Photo: Sea Shepherd
This Sunday, the RV Odyssey will return to port in Key West for the final time this summer, and the at-sea portion of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, our joint campaign with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, will conclude. We have had five productive summers here in the Gulf of Mexico, and our campaign is not over, just as the effects of this disaster are not over. We will continue our efforts on land, and data analysis with the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology.

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What is a Drone and How Can it Help Whales?

By Iain Kerr, Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 Expedition Leader

Multiple drones participating in trials aboard the RV OdysseyMultiple drones participating in trials aboard the RV Odyssey
Photo: Sea Shepherd
I am writing this blog from the RV Odyssey, 120 nautical miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, on the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Most of the day, we are tracking whales acoustically (oh for a drone to help us find whales), but for part of every day on this leg, we are conducting ship trials (at sea launch and recovery exercises) on a variety of drones.

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The Encounter of a Lifetime

By Iain Kerr

Iain KerrIain Kerr
Photo: Sea Shepherd
Beyond the hard work, there are many special moments at sea: great sunsets, spectacular light shows from thunder storms, and the joy of seeing a team work so well together for a common cause.  A couple of days ago, I had one of these lifetime moments.

I was sitting out on the whale boom as we slowly approached a whale. Rather than diving under, the whale turned towards us, and I asked Captain Bob to put the Odyssey’s engine into neutral. The whale spy-hopped (lifted its head out of the water), swam over to where I was sitting, rolled over sideways and looked up at me. It felt like we were less than five feet away from each other, eye to eye (it was most likely more). The whale just hung there for a few moments as we looked at each other. I doubt that the whale was in awe, but I was. I could see the very texture of its skin, scars on its body, creases under its eye, clearly this animal was checking us out and then, alas, it slowly turned away and dove into the abyss.  

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Offshore Chaos in the Gulf – Part 2

Friday, July 12, 2014

By Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne on the bow of the RV OdysseyDr. Roger Payne on the bow of the RV Odyssey
Photo: Sea Shepherd
We are here to find out how those whales are reacting to the oil that got released during the oil blowout from Deepwater Horizon, and the dispersants that were sprayed on the oil to sink it out of sight (and out of mind), but that seem to be worse poisons than the oil itself. This is the fifth year of our research, and what we are already finding out is disturbing. 

On board our boat are five crew members from our partner organization, Sea Shepherd—all of them dedicated, all of them hard and willing workers, all of them unpaid volunteers, all of them good company. We arise at dawn to the sounds of sperm whale clicks drifting through the boat, and when we see the whale surface in the distance we drive over to it and use a biopsy dart to obtain a skin/blubber sample that we can analyze later for the poisons in it from the oil spill and the dispersants. Today we had perfect calm weather and got eight biopsies. We will keep up our collection until we have at least 50 biopsies and will then return to analyze them for oil and dispersants. And we will publish those results so the world can find out what the true state of the Gulf is in the aftermath of the oil spill. Meanwhile, we urge you to follow our progress (I also urge you to judge for yourself whether it is safe to eat the seafood from these waters—something about which I’ll have more to say in the future.)

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Offshore Chaos in the Gulf – Part 1

Friday, July 12, 2014

By Roger Payne

Dr. Roger PayneDr. Roger Payne
Photo: Sea Shepherd
I am writing this from 80 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico where you might safely imagine that so far from land, there ought to be just us and the sperm whales in the perfectly mirror calm seas that have surrounded our boat Odyssey (Ocean Alliance’s research vessel) all day. However, what surrounds us way out here, so far from land, feels more like another major waterfront with traffic coming and going as it services a line of oil rigs that stretch like beads on a chain to the horizon. 

There is only one rig in sight with a drilling tower on it, so most of them must already be attached to successful wells that are producing oil and gas. Some of the rigs are flaring off clouds of burning gas…just throwing it away. If you or I bought enough gas to create a display like that in our backyard, we'd be broke in a few hours. But what the hell, it’s the oil world here, where people are big, and oil is plentiful, and money and crude are flowing, so who gives a damn about that, or the future, or the planet, or whether we’re acidifying the seas, or little niceties like quality of life, or whether the rest of earth’s creatures can survive our ever-so-natural rapacity? 

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A Rare Sighting of the Endangered Bryde’s whale

By Andy Rogan and Iain Kerr

The Bryde’s whale (pronounced broodas) is a baleen whale of approximately 40-45 feet in lengthThe Bryde’s whale (pronounced broodas) is a baleen whale of approximately 40-45 feet in length
Photo: Sea Shepherd / Eliza Muirhead
I had been up the mast for around an hour-and-a-half before something caught my eye in the periphery of my vision. I turned quickly, but whatever I saw had quickly disappeared beneath the waves. I continued looking in the general direction, quite far off of our port bow, and sure enough, a couple minutes later a large dark shape cut through the water heading straight at us! I couldn't immediately identify the species, but what I did know was that I had never seen it before, and that it was special.  

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New 1,000-Pound Tar Mat Washes Up in Pensacola

Commentary by Dan Haefner, First Mate, RV Odyssey

Dan HaefnerDan Haefner
Photo: Sea Shepherd / Eliza Muirhead
On the 20th of June, Pensacola was the recipient of yet another “present” from the oil-filled Gulf of Mexico - a 1000-pound tar mat washed up in Ft. Pickens Park. Tar balls wash up almost every day along the coast between Pensacola Beach and Ft. Pickens, but sometimes a large mat is uncovered by waves. 

I started the day as I like to spend most of my days in port, walking the beaches of Ft. Pickens. As a local Pensacolian, I feel a special connection to the beaches there. It has been a place of fond memories: I camped there as a Boy Scout when I was young; I learned to surf at one of the parking lot beaches when I was 15; I created a national science fair project there in high school that won many awards. I still go there as one of my favorite recreational outings. It was on one of these outings that I spotted a few Coast Guard workers digging up a tar mat and I immediately called my friends aboard the RV Odyssey into action. I wanted to show my crewmates how much tar actually comes up from one of these. I Usually, they are scooped up and forgotten all too quickly. Most people have been brainwashed into believing that the Gulf is clean, our beaches are clean and the seafood is safe to eat. As a local, it was important for me to share the truth.

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The Highs and Lows of Operation Toxic Gulf

By Andy Rogan

Andy RoganAndy Rogan
Photo: Sea Shepherd / Eliza Muirhead
The second leg of our Operation Toxic Gulf campaign was quite extraordinary. When I decided to write a blog about the leg, it quickly became apparent that I could not justify cramming it all into one entry, and so it was split into two. This blog documents the first half of the leg.

The trip certainly started off in high hopes. For those that do not know, the crew of the RV Odyssey locate their primary study species, sperm whales, acoustically using a set of hydrophones dragged behind the boat. During our first leg from Key West up to Pensacola, we did not have this equipment. Picking the hydrophone up at our home base of Pensacola, we set out into the gulf with high hopes, even if it was only going to be a short trip.

We arrived back in Pensacola five days later after a trip of high emotions and some quite wonderful encounters. More than anything, it offered a renewed sense of purpose on the importance of protecting the magnificent biodiversity of the Gulf of Mexico. Some things, evidently, are very much worth fighting for.

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