Crew Voices - Whiplash On the High Seas: On the prowl for sperm whales with the crew of the Ocean Alliance
Our Director of Photography Ian Kellett recounts tales from his three-day stint on the Ocean Alliance’s research sailboat the Odyssey as it searches for whales in the Gulf of Mexico:
Aboard the RV Odyssey off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, eight miles from the epicenter of the Deepwater Horizon site, Ethan Roth, a fit self-assured 25-year old scientist from Scripps uses an acoustic ping to release a 250-pound, underwater audio recording device from the bottom. His lab is hoping to collect valuable data about whale activity in the area of the oil spill.
It was uncanny how the dark rain clouds of the squall arrived at the exact moment the recorder reached the surface. Good thing I ordered new porta-brace rain cover. By zip tying the neoprene dome cover from the Aquatica housing over the nanoflash recorder, I was able to capture some dramatic footage of foul weather oceanography.
The bright red RV Odyssey is a 94-foot custom built steel hulled catch, built in New Zealand in 1975. For the last five years she has been filming and doing scientific work on sperm whales all over the world.
We towed a hydrophone array behind the boat to listen and track sperm whales. On the second day of the voyage, the seas picked up and we heard the telltale click of sperm whales echolocating deep underwater. In my mind the mechanical clicking sounds are helping these underwater leviathons hunt giant squid (or amassing an army to attack oil based marine industry).
Student researchers Matt Braun and Johnnie Wise spotted a group of Juvenile sperm whales and nimbly scampered down the erratically metronoming mast. The two "biopsers", one wedged atop the bowsprit and the other mounted forty feet over the water in a tree hunting stand at the end of the spinnaker pole, wield powerful crossbows and shoot specially made darts that collect tissue samples of the whales. The scientists are trained toxicologists and culture the sperm whale cells on board the ship. Pretty cool stuff. None of the arrows hit home, but I just got an e-mail from John the day I left saying that they sampled five whales that day – it’s the same "shoulda been here yesterday" that plagues me. It was pretty rough out there. I learned a new term: high altitude projectile vomiting.
Sailboats should use their sails. It would have helped stabilize the hull albeit at a new angle. Johnnie pointed out that it cuts down the field of vision for spotting animals in the water. I still vote that less neck snap atop the mast would make for easier spotting, especially if you could use the binocs.
There was a good trolling rod aboard and I was hoping to catch some Tuna. I shot a questioning look to Chief scientist John Wise as he walked by: " Nope, I wouldn't eat it."
I had some great conversations with John across a range of subjects from the future of humanity to metabolizing toxins to the future of citizen science.
Wildlife in the Gulf seemed spartan to me. I saw an osprey, looking lost heading towards land, maybe abandoning a nest on a rig and looking for less toxic hunting grounds. There were three sperm whales, some small tuna and plenty of flying fish, including a dead one on deck that was dutifully sampled. Other than that, there was not much else except the blade runner-esque super structures of oceanographic oil suckers.