Scientists hope that studying how oil and dispersants affect sperm whales could offer an idea about the future of all creatures in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps even a guide for the long-range impact on humans.
A Maine-based scientist plans to spend the next several months in the Gulf of Mexico. Working from a base in Mobile, he and a student team will collect samples from sperm whales and Bryde’s (pronounced “brooda”) whales in the northern Gulf.
“They’re people in the Gulf, if you will,” said John Wise, director of the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health at the University of Southern Maine. “They’re mammals, we’re mammals. So they represent us. The way it affects them is the way it could affect us.
There are an estimated 2,000 sperm whales in Gulf waters, but just 15 to 20 Bryde’s whales.
Wise and a crew of nine others aboard the Odyssey, a 93-foot sailboat, are working through the nonprofit organization Ocean Alliance.
On Friday, George Waldron and his son, Brent, local representatives from the sandwich company Quiznos, met with Wise in Mobile. Quiznos has donated $20,000 to Ocean Alliance, which Wise said covers almost one-third of his team’s expenses for a month.
“After the oil spill disaster, Quiznos was drawn to Ocean Alliance for their reputation for thorough and longstanding work researching whales and ocean life,” said Ellen Kramer, chief communications officer for Quiznos. “Quiznos felt confident that we had found a strong research organization that could truly make a long-term difference.”
En route to the Gulf, Wise and his crew collected samples from six sperm whales in the Atlantic Ocean for comparison with samples from Gulf whales. Wise said the team expects to collect between 50 and 100 Gulf whale samples in the next three months.
“The thing that I worry most about is, what is this pollution doing to their DNA?” Wise said. “If it damages their DNA … they’re not going to be able to reproduce. Now you’re really decimating the population at a pace that you can’t recover very well.”
The crew uses sonar equipment to detect the “click” sounds whales make as they approach food thousands of feet below the surface. Once the whale returns to the surface, a crew member shoots an arrow that plucks a small chunk of skin from the whale.
“To a whale, that’s like a mosquito bite,” said Wise’s son, John P. Wise Jr., a student at the Maine university.
Scientists are not sure whether oil or dispersants have seeped into the whale food chain.
The elder Wise said that he expect his examinations of whale skin and blubber to be a years-long process. He plans to return to the Gulf in the spring and then on a yearly basis for as much as a decade.
“The question is, what do we see today, what do we see next spring, what do we see the following year?” Wise said. “Is it getting worse? Is it getting better?”