In order to reach the whale-watching platform, you strap into a harness and scale a makeshift rope ladder strung between two braided steel cords that connect to the mast. At the top of the climb, your hands have to leave the safety of the ladder to grab onto the railing and then swing out over empty space forty feet above the deck. The first time I attempted this at sea with the boat swaying to sickening angles in the wind, I could only make myself do it because I did not want either the hard-drinking crew or the cute female students to think I was a pussy. This is the sole psychological reason journalists are able to report on anything frightening.
I spent two weeks in the Gulf of Mexico on a 90-foot sailing research vessel the summer following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The boat was named the Odyssey, and its crew was there to study whales. By the time I joined them, the core of the crew had been at sea on the cramped vessel for just under three months. The price of joining for a leg of the journey was doing the duties of the science team, including shifts on the mid-level platform where we watched for whales. Strapped into a harness that I didn't trust, connected to a carabiner and a rope line that I didn't want to test, I hoped I'd get used to it as the trip went on.
It was 8 a.m. and the sun still hid behind a gaggle of slate clouds, spikes of light cutting through to spotlight pieces of the distant sea. After barely sleeping two hours the night before due to the challenges of a narrow, cramped bunk and a boat that pitched and sloshed incessantly (it was like being shaken awake every 3.5 seconds), I was glad to be outside drawing a breath of cool morning air. My companion, an assistant professor from the University of Southern Maine, was not doing as well. He had already cinched a plastic bag full of vomit to the railing. When his shift ended, a grad student named Kait replaced him. We chatted for less than five minutes before she went quiet.
"Sorry," she said. "This is going to be gross."
And with the platform tilting to a solid twenty-degree angle, she vomited into a Ziploc bag.
In an attempt to cheer her up, I said, "Jeez, I usually have to take a girl out twice before I get that reaction."
She was too seasick to find this at all funny.
Throwing Darts at Giant Beasts
When I heard of Dr. John Wise and his mission in the Gulf, I began sending the man e-mails in an attempt to weasel my way aboard.
Wise is the leader of the Wise Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine. Among other things, the lab has long running studies investigating "the effects of metals and particulates on humans and marine mammals." When the Deepwater Horizon sank and its deep-sea well started spewing 5,000 barrels of oil into the Gulf every day, Wise felt obligated to bring his expertise to the situation and teamed up his lab with Ocean Alliance, the pre-eminent whale conservation organization in the world. Even with the well capped, an estimated five million barrels of oil seeped into the Gulf. Add to that the unknown effects of the Orwellian-named chemical dispersant Corexit, and you have a toxicological stew with almost no existing research to predict how it will affect the ecosystem.
As Wise dryly put it to me, "We're betting it's not good."
The second day we found a pod of whales.
It was 6:30 a.m., and I was both tense and still fuzzy with sleep, having taken my allotted post on top of the pilot house with a pair of binoculars.
Dr. Wise's undergrad son, Johnny, called out the first blow, a spout of air and water geysering about 400 yards off starboard. Captain Bob Wallace put the Odyssey to work, slithering up beside the whale. And then it was next to us, so remarkably close that for a moment I tasted the creature somewhere in my throat, a brew of salt and brine and sediment, my visceral reaction to this sudden collapse of distance. The whale rose out of the water, between thirty and forty feet long, slick and black with skin like wet rubber. The knobs of its spine protruded in gruesome notches just above its tail, and at less than ten yards I could see the scars of the wild on its back: grooves where flesh had been torn, likely by the giant squid these beasts hunt up to a thousand feet under the water's surface.
Johnny aimed the crossbow but didn't get a good enough look at the back. They were supposed to shoot only at the middle of the creature's back—not the tail or head where even a flimsy biopsy dart could possibly do damage. Someone spotted another blow on the horizon, maybe 200 yards away, and we are off into the yellowish-gray light of the morning.
Here's the thing: the ideal way to study the effects of toxins on whales would be to sequester several in different tanks and expose them to higher and higher levels of oil, Corexit and combinations of the two until you found out how much it takes to kill them. This is obviously not possible. The next best method is to take samples from the whales with a biopsy dart plucking a small cylinder of skin and blubber (Wise likened it to a pinch on the ass).
As for why sperm whales are an important species to study, Wise explained, "There are no magic indicator species, but a series of them, and sperm whales are big, easy to find, we know their behaviors, and they've been studied before. Sperm whales kind of reflect humans in the ocean."
Wise fears that the "toxic stew" now lingering in dispersed clouds deep under the Gulf waters could damage the whales' reproductive systems.
"What happens if in ten years, these whales simply aren't reproducing?" he said.
Thar She Blows!
After that long morning of unsuccessful maneuvering and two darts that failed to collect a sample, a storm came hurtling in from the north. We rushed back out to the deck, and stood in the warm, euphoric rain streaking down from a fog-white sky that glowed with a rumor of sunlight. First mate Ian soaped his bare gut and cackled. Kait took down her long blue hair, which fell nearly to her waist. Wet, it looked like a cartoon waterfall.
Just when everyone had returned below deck to dry off, two whales surfaced beside the boat. We'd spent all morning chasing them in circles, and the second everyone felt like giving up for the day, there they were: big, fat targets right off the starboard side.
Johnny hustled above deck and I followed while the rest of the crew scrambled to get back to their stations.
"Shit, shit, shit," Johnny said as he hurtled to the bow wearing nothing but a pair of pajama pants, soaked immediately by the rain. In one fluid motion, he scooped up the crossbow, hopped onto the railing of the boat and fired the dart. This one found its target perfectly, bouncing off the whale's back with a loud thwap. "Grab it!" he cried at me.