College of Science, Technology, and Health

Wise Lab At Sea Team Spends 70 days in the Gulf of Mexico studying the long-term impacts of the BP Oil Spill

Wise Laboratory Team of Researchers and Students

A team of researchers and students from the Wise Laboratory for Environmental and Genetic Toxicology spent 70 days during the summer of 2011 in the Gulf of Mexico aboard the Ocean Alliance’s RV Odyssey. The group of 11 people was in the Gulf to study the long-term impacts of the BP oil spill, a disaster that has become the largest environmental oil crisis in U.S. history and the second largest in world history.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded on April 20, 2010, released over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. Following the explosion, chemical dispersants were sprayed on the spilled crude oil in unprecedented amounts. The Wise Lab team, headed by John Wise, Professor of Toxicology and Molecular Epidemiology, took their first voyage to the Gulf during the summer of 2010. During their Gulf voyages, the team collected samples and biopsies from whales and other marine life and brought the samples back to the Wise Laboratory for further study.

One major concern is the impact of the BP oil disaster on wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico. As a key species for the ocean ecosystem and coastal economies, marine mammals are a particular concern. 1,600 sperm whales, 15-20 Bryde’s whales and numerous resident dolphins from several different species are found throughout the Gulf. The BP disaster provided the Wise lab team with a unique and critical opportunity to understand the impact of ocean pollution on marine life.

Days aboard the RV Odyssey, a 93-foot ketch motorsailer that is the only sailboat in the world equipped with a state-of-the-art cell culture laboratory, were spent searching for whales needed to obtain biopsy samples. Students would be stationed in the crow’s nest to watch for the whales, while another student would typically sit at the end of the bowsprit to shoot a dart at the whale. The dart, used to collect a small sample of flesh, would then be pulled on board to retrieve the sample for analysis.

During the 2011 voyage, the team traveled 3,741 miles, biopsied 83 whales from 3 different species, and collected over 100 liters of water from 23 different locations, along with numerous air samples, fish, invertebrates, and plant life. The Wise Laboratory plans to return in the summer of 2012 to continue gathering samples for research and analysis.

Gulf of Mexico Voyage Helps Protect Gulf of Maine

Decisions made and actions taken before and during the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico can serve as an important lesson in what needs to be done to protect the Gulf of Maine. By comparing and contrasting conditions in the Gulf of Maine with those in the Gulf of Mexico, much can be learned about both locations. The plan is to study the whales in the Gulfs of Mexico and Maine over several years, with the first voyages establishing a baseline of conditions.  Data collected can provide scientists, policymakers, the general public, and stakeholders who rely on the Gulfs with a clear understanding of the immediate and long-term potential consequences of oil and chemical dispersants on the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic food chains.

Student Quote

This was easily two of the most interesting and exciting weeks of my life and I was nauseous 60% of the time. Ryan Duffy, senior at USM majoring in biotechnology.


Did you know?

The Wise Laboratory for Environmental and Genetic Toxicology has the largest marine mammal cell line collection in the world.


Check out the Wise Laboratory’s YouTube channel for footage of the Gulf of Mexico voyage and dolphin and whale sightings.

Study STEM @ USM

USM Pioneers students speak about why they are interested in staying in Maine to study in the STEM fields.

Learn More

Connect With Us