The Ocean Alliance research vessel Odyssey came out of drydock Monday in preparation for its first major expedition from its new homeport of Gloucester, heading for the oil-stained Gulf of Mexico to study the impact of the disaster on whales and other sea creatures.
The expedition is set to depart from Gloucester Harbor early Thursday morning.
A crew of 10 — five researchers from the Ocean Alliance, which owns the Odyssey, and five from the University of Southern Maine — will travel together to the Gulf, according to Iain Kerr, vice president and CEO of the alliance.
Kerr will co-lead the expedition with Southern Maine's John Wise, a professor of environmental toxicology and chemical cancers and the expedition's scientific chief.
The R/V Odyssey project combines pure research with public education, according to a paper on the project by the Ocean Alliance, which maintains offices in Lincoln while rehabbing Gloucester's historic Paint Factory, which it acquired in 2008.
"Currently, there is no long-term effort directed at assessing the impact of the oil crisis in the Gulf on the whales," the alliance paper explains. "Most current efforts are limited to a side effort of the cleanup."
However, Kerr said, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated in a recent article that "in the aerial surveys that are being performed as part of the cleanup and marine mammal observations, we are requesting that people report dead floating whales."
Kerr said the alliance believes it is essential to conduct whale health assessments in both the Atlantic Ocean — before and after the oil arrives — and throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The University of Southern Maine is one of the nation's leaders in marine mammal toxicology, while the Ocean Alliance has been a global leader in whale research and education for more nearly four decades, and earned its reputation during a five-year global research cruise on the Odyssey that was well-documented on television and in print.
But it was the work of its founder, Roger Payne — who, with a colleague Scott McVay, first recorded the "songs," or a sort of speech, among humpback whales in the 1960s — that seemed to propel whales into a category of human interest they hadn't had before.
The alliance description of the research and education expedition explains why the spill could not have occurred in a worse place for whales.
"There is a resident population of about 1,600 sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico," the alliance report indicates. "This population is endangered, as all sperm whales are, but this population is considered to be at particular risk because the size of the group is so small. Losing even a few whales will have dramatic population effects because individual whales take a long time to reach sexual maturity and then only produce a few calves over their lifetimes.
"The Gulf Oil spill is a specific threat to these sperm whales, because they occupy deeper waters and thus are much closer to the greatest amount of oil. Moreover, studies show that prior to the explosion, many sperm whales spent a lot of time near the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
"Oil can have immediate and long-term impacts on whales and other marine mammals," the report continues. "Marine mammals breathe air and, thus, if they surface to breathe in an oil slick, they can inhale the oil resulting in respiratory issues. Even if they do not surface within the slick itself, they may inhale sufficient amounts of the strong fumes emanating from the slick that can render them unconscious and cause them to drown.
"Oil can contaminate their food, and if they eat it, they can experience digestive disorders and immune system effects," the report adds. "Oil can also have long-term effects such as damaging their DNA. If this occurs, it can impair the whales' ability to reproduce, thus, reducing the number of calves born ..."
Kerr said he also sees the expedition including another goal: He said he would also bring a message of solidarity from the fishermen of Gloucester to the fishermen of the Gulf.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 987-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com.