April 24, 2019
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Maine expedition to study Gulf of Mexico whales

PORTLAND, Maine — A team from the University of Southern Maine and the conservation organization Ocean Alliance leaves this weekend for the Gulf of Mexico to take tissue samples to determine whales’ exposure to toxins in the oil-tainted waters, as well as the level of exposure it takes to make them sick.

The Ocean Alliance’s laboratory-equipped sailboat Odyssey will be used to start cell cultures, which will be transferred to USM for further study, said John Wise, the expedition’s scientific director.

In Maine, researchers will expose the cells to progressively higher levels of toxic substances found in Gulf Coast waters to determine the level it takes to break down DNA and ultimately kill cells, said Wise, who directs USM’s Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology.

Researchers also will compare the levels and types of toxins in Atlantic whales with those swimming, eating and breathing in fouled waters near the oil spill.

“Everyone is worried about acute toxic effects. Do you see whales dying because they’re exposed? But we’re more concerned about long-term effects. Does it break down DNA?” he said. The breakdown of DNA could hamper reproduction and cause long-term health problems, he said.

Researchers will use crossbows with special darts designed to avoid harming whales to obtain tissue biopsies from four species: humpbacks, sperm, Bryde’s and killer whales.

The long-term project was in the works before the massive oil spill but took on greater urgency as oil continued to flow into the gulf for three months, Wise said.

The 93-foot Odyssey is to leave Portland Harbor today, just days after British Petroleum reported success in stopping the flow of oil that began on April 20 with an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But the environmental impact of the oil and chemical dispersants is expected to linger.

“Our concern is that once the oil is cleaned and the very acute effects go away, that there’s the chronic effects of the exposure,” Wise said.

On the six-month expedition, USM students will assist researchers in obtaining whale tissue samples as well as water, food and fecal samples.

It will take two weeks for the Odyssey to reach the tip of Florida and researchers will be obtaining whale tissue samples along the way so they can compare whales swimming in the Atlantic with whales in the Gulf of Mexico, said Vicki Beaver, Ocean Alliance’s education coordinator.

The Odyssey, a research vessel used for the filming of the IMAX film “Whales,” will be equipped with satellite and Internet service so people can follow its progress, Beaver said.

USM and the Ocean Alliance will pay $150,000 to cover the first three months of research; after that, they’re hoping donations will fund the remaining three months. Wise said he hopes to return to the gulf each year or two to continue gathering data over the next 10 to 15 years.

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