“Odyssey” Leaves for Gulf to Collect Samples to Study Impact of Oil Spill on Whales; Privately Funded Expedition to Last at Least Three Months

By Carol McCracken (Post # 526)

Kellie Joyce, 24, was standing on the dock in front of the 93 ft. ketch Odyssey – the ship she would be boarding in a few hours to begin a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Joyce is in the USM graduate program for biochemistry and molecular biology. She studies toxocology in humans.

The Odyssey has been docked at PYS having work done to its rigging. This work was done in preparation for a three month trip to the Gulf area to obtain samples from as many whales as possible for analysis back here in Portland a the USM Wise Lab on the impact of the oil on whales. The Odyssey left the dock last night shortly after 7 pm. They expect to make New York City by Tuesday.

The attractive Joyce said that her primary job aboard this first leg of the expedition will be as photographer of the whales from which samples are taken. Whales are identified by their tales and fins. So when a whale dives and shows its tail, she has to be ready with her camera. These photos are then added to the whale bank to aid in tracking them. Joyce said that 2,000 whales have been identified on the eastern seaboard.

The Odyssey will locate and trail whales through an acoustic system. Odyssey carries 300 ft. of yellow tubing on board that will be trailing behind the ship when it gets out into open waters. There are speakers in Odyssey that will pick up a clicking noise that sperm whales make. These whales will be “targeted” by the shooters for sampling of their skin. Probably hundreds of permits were necessary for the owner of the Odyssey to obtain in order to take just one sample from each whale. The “shooter” is given three chances to take a sample for each whale. If the shooter is not successful in those three chances, the Odyssey must back off for another day.

Joyce continued that there are “shooters” aboard the Odyssey. They will stand on a boom extended 30 ft. over the water and using bow and arrow type equipment shoot a tiny dart at the whale. The dart is the size of a pen cap. Eventually it will fall into the water where it will be scooped up by a crew member with a net. The material will be taken into the Odyssey’s lab where it will be preserved and more cells will be grown and returned to the USM lab – for current and future research. Joyce expected to assist in the Odyssey lab as well.

Johnny Wise, Jr., one of the shooters on Odyssey took up the narrative from there as Joyce went aboard to escape the hot sun. Wise said this is a first-time experience for the USM students. This is the short-term expedition, but the group expected to make other trips in the future to study the longer term effects of the oil spill on the whales there. The group, led by his father, Dr. John Wise, the leader of the expedition, to return in five years and in ten years again.

“With the well just having been capped, we are getting started at a good time. People are now going to be asking just what are the short and long term effects of this oil spill on mammals in the Gulf. NOAA is doing similar research, but not to the extent we are,” said Wise.

For more information, please see post # 524, dated July 15 herein. And visit www.oceanalliance.org also