The following are daily logs written by Dr. John Wise. Along with his team, Dr. Wise traveled in and around the Gulf of California in search of whales. Dr. Wise runs The Wise Laboratory of Environmental & Genetic Toxicology.
In preparing for an expedition, I have learned there is an ever-increasing amount effort, planning, commitment and luck to allow us to make it to the boat, assemble as a team and prepare for days of work at sea. Last minute snafus, uncertain weather, complex details all conspire in a symphony of chaos to disrupt and challenge us as we prepare for the voyage ahead. At last, we can turn our attention to the task at hand and seek out the whales. Many days of hard work lay ahead with their own trials and tribulations and we will tackle them with our best effort. It took us all day (9 hours) in the hot Cortez sun and some remarkable crossbow work by Johnny, and we managed to successfully sample both whales. It’s a great way to start the trip - 2 biopsies on day one after so many obstacles overcome!
We came across scores of dead ducks. The cause of their death unknown and uncertain. But numerous bloated bodies floating like buoys in the water made it clear something untoward was going on. The dead fish we saw yesterday, and the dead sea lion we passed today only serve to enhance the mystery and highlight the need for better surveillance and understanding of ocean pollution. The majesty of the sea came when a large humpback whale breeched in brilliant fashion right in front of the bow of the boat with all of us watching! We got our first biopsy of the morning from a feeding humpback with an excellent display of teamwork as Mark expertly guided us to the whale from the crow’s news.
I realized early today was going to be a character building day for all of us. X would not mark the spot on this day; long hours of searching would be required. With the sun baking us for a third day – the whale was ahead of us. Then it was behind us. Then it was left of us. Then it was right of us. Wow, Bryde’s whale are quick. So we went straight. We turned around and went back. We went left. We went right. Every direction the whale wanted us to turn. We turned. Still no closer. And then as if it knew the game was over, the whale surfaced and Carlos shouted from the crow’s nest. “Its right there! Right next to the boat”. Indeed, the whale surfaced right next to the two biopsiers and a sample was earned. We and the whale parted ways. We eventually found another whale much later in the day – a fin whale this time and we earned another sample. The team has really meshed and is working well together. Our total is now 7 biopsies from 5 whales and 3 different species.
Just as I was nodding off for a morning nap, I heard the call “ballena”, Spanish for whale. Of course, the first thing I had to do is make a quick decision. The fin whale was about two miles in one direction. Two humpback whales were about 2 miles in the opposite direction and opinions differed on which direction to go. I decided we would split into two groups as there was little chance at all 3 whales as a single group. We did as we do, and churned away the distance moving closer and closer, but never close enough to the whale. The dinghy on the other hand, as I feared, could not find the humpback whales and soon returned empty handed too. But, their return solved another matter and with us guiding them, they were able to get a biopsy of the whale, and we returned to our course journeying north towards our ultimate goal of San Felipe where we will swap out Wise Lab crew.
This work involves three different groups – the Wise Laboratory team, the Sea Shepherd crew and the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS) team.
Carlos and Andrea: students of Jorge, who is our local host and collaborator and holds the necessary Mexican sampling permits.
Captain Fanch: captain, Carolina: media expert, Sheila: our cook, Nathan: deckhand from France
Wise Lab Team:
Mark: Captain on our Gulf of Maine work, Rick: from our Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Maine voyages, Rachel: Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville, Johnny: whale biopsier extraordinaire, Sean: incoming Ph.D. student, James: scientist
Lastly, there is me. I am the head of this adventure and the leader of the Wise Laboratory.
With 11 voices, from 3 teams with 3 different working cultures, it’s not trivial work, but it is fun and it is flowing and we are really working together very well. It’s a great group of people, all dedicated and hardworking!
[There] was a humpback whale right near our anchorage swimming to and fro, possibly sleeping so we started to follow. Eventually, the whale just appeared on our port bow in perfect biopsy position so we took one and considered in an early Easter gift. Our biopsy count was at one for the day.
And then… Sperm whales! That’s right shortly after lunch – a sperm whale was spotted just ahead. An hour passed, and then the whale surfaced, and along with it the second whale. Now we knew where they were headed. Where next? I gave it my best guess. Another hour passed. Then, magically, the whale appeared just off our port side. I had guessed right. We missed that first whale, but biopsied the second one. Eight whales and three species all biopsied in one magnificent Easter day! We had collected 26 biopsies from 21 whales and 4 different species (sperm, humpback, fin and Bryde’s).
A quiet day for the most part, as we covered some ground in our quest to biopsy whales, and pick up new crew in San Felipe. Riding against the current in a channel was slowing us down, so Captain Fanch raised the sail to cross it. Each of us were delighted at the chance to sail for a bit.
All the biopsy action today happened early in the day, and from the dinghy. We had dangerous rocks under the water, making it difficult to navigate in the Martin Sheen. We deployed the dinghy as the whales were closer to shore, and the charts had a lots of uncertainty about just where the rocks were. After a short time, Johnny and Carlos had 4 biopsies from the dinghy, and we were back on our way, and hopeful for more. Yet, that would pretty much be it for the day, as we only saw and biopsied one more whale on the day. We have 34 biopsies from 27 whales so far with the 5 whales we sampled today. We have weather coming in so will have to be in San Felipe a day early.
To read Dr. Wise's full logs or to read about more of his work, please visit The Wise Laboratory Website. Part II coming soon.