Whale study boat visits BR

Ocean Alliance researcher Catherine Wise and Vice President Ian Wise stand on the deck of the Odyssey research vessel Thursday while explaining the process of taking a tissue sample from a sperm whale. The vessel is docked on the waterfront to meet the public until Sunday, when the crew will set off for another research trip in the Gulf. Show caption
Ocean Alliance researcher Catherine Wise and Vice President Ian Wise stand on the deck of the Odyssey research vessel Thursday while explaining the process of taking a tissue sample from a sperm whale. The vessel is docked on the waterfront to meet the public until Sunday, when the crew will set off for another research trip in the Gulf.

The 93-foot Odyssey sailboat has been around the world studying whales, but for the next couple of days the boat and its crew are visiting Baton Rouge.

The crew is taking a small break in the middle of their second summer of research in the Gulf of Mexico looking at the impact last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil leak had on the ecosystem.

Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit organization with a mission to study whale health around the globe, is partnering with the University of Southern Maine to collect tissue samples from whales in the Gulf. The samples are being tested for such things including presence of heavy metals that could have come from the oil leak and/or dispersants used.

These samples are compared against what Ocean Alliance staff found in a five-year worldwide sampling tour done 2000-2005.

The work is supported through foundations and individuals, and a primary sponsor is Albemarle Corporation, which has offices in Baton Rouge.

The Odyssey is docked in the city to give Albemarle Corporation employees a chance to thank the crew for their work, said Steve LeVan, vice president of advocacy for Albemarle.

There will be an event Friday for Albemarle employees to meet the crew. Then on Saturday, members of the crew will be at the city docks downtown from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to discuss their work with the public, he said.

The crew sailed from Portland, Maine, in July and made their way to the Gulf, where they sailed for two weeks at a time looking for whales.

When a whale is spotted, a sample-taking arrow is fired at the whale and a small sample — about the size of a pencil eraser — is taken from the whale. The sample is taken to a small onboard laboratory where it is washed in penicillin to remove bacteria and then split into parts.

One part is used for genetic testing; the skin is tested for contaminating metals; and the blubber is tested for organic pollution.

A small section where the skin and blubber meet is removed and used to grow cell lines that can be tested under various circumstances such as exposure to oil and/or dispersants, explained Catherine Wise, an undergraduate student at University of Southern Maine who is doing lab aboard.

Information collected is taken to the University of Southern Maine and reviewed by scientists at the Wise Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology.

“The Gulf is kind of a microcosm of the larger marine ecosystem,” said Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance.

The goal is to perform sampling for five years to get an overall picture of the impacts last year’s oil leak had on whales — the top of the food chain — and the ecosystem of the deep water Gulf, he said.

“Ultimately, there’s a human health risk here,” Kerr said. “Whales occupy roughly the same level on the food chain as humans.”

Ocean Alliance founder and president Roger Payne explained that there are some substances that get into the food chain at the bottom level. As they are consumed by larger animals, the substances can’t be metabolized, so they accumulate in the larger animals.

Kerr said it’s too early to reach conclusions, but preliminary results show there is some cell death and DNA damage in the cell lines cultured from the whales when these cell lines are exposed to oil or dispersant. In addition, preliminary samples, when compared with worldwide averages, show elevated levels of chromium and nickel.

The research isn’t to place blame but to say that this oil leak has happened, so what does that mean, Kerr said.

The group is also collecting samples of fish, invertebrates, water and sediment for testing, Kerr said. “You want to put things in context.”