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The Cutting Edge of Whale Toxicology Research

The tail of a sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico

While in port in Baton Rouge, the joint USM-Ocean Alliance expedition to research the effects of last year’s Gulf oil spill received confirmation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that, “…we are indeed the only group studying the toxicology of chemicals in these Gulf whales.”

As team leader and USM toxicologist Dr. John Wise notes in his latest blog post from the Gulf, “Welcome to the cutting edge of whale toxicology research.”

Wise and the nine-member team of USM students and staff are midway through the second summer on the Gulf of Mexico, trying to determine the toxicological impact of oil and dispersants on the health of Gulf of Mexico wildlife, particularly the Bryde's and sperm whales.

Essentially, the crew aboard the 93-foot Ocean Alliance vessel “Odyssey” are searching for whales, using non-invasive techniques to collect small skin samples, and grow cell cultures in an onboard lab. Further analysis is conducted at USM’s Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology in Portland. The team of students and staff has been able to collect cell cultures from a total of 50 whales.

But, as Wise noted in his post, “The edge can be a very lonely place as science is a discipline built on skepticism. The more one can answer and address that skepticism with data, the stronger the work becomes and the quieter the criticisms get. The challenge is, when you work on the

edge, this far out on the edge, you are like a fish in a small barrel for the skeptics. Little data and lots of vision, great fodder for those who like to criticize.”

Upon further reflection, however, Wise realized, “…I am

not out here on my own. We have, have had, and will have, a crew of people on board who devote themselves to this project with me. We have a team of researchers in my (USM) lab working hard every day to ensure we have the support we need and that samples that come home are handled

correctly. We have fantastic partners at Ocean Alliance and a myriad of exceptional expert collaborators. We have generous and insightful financial supporters. We have a University of administrators, faculty, staff and students helping us with essential work in payroll, human resources, sponsored programs, business services, information

technology, research compliance and many other departments to help us succeed. We have all of you with words of encouragement and interest. We are a team here out on the edge of whale toxicology. Thanks.”

The port of call itself was anything but lonely. The city of Baton Rouge proclaimed July 22 “Odyssey Day,” news crews filed several stories, including one by The Advocate in Baton Rouge. and hundreds of people visited the boat at dockside.

The “Odyssey” set sail down the Mississippi from Baton Rouge on Sunday, July 24 and as of the 25th was back in the Gulf, on “…the cutting edge of whale toxicology research.”

You can check on their progress by clicking on the Gulf voyage link on The Wise Laboratory webpage.