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Dr. Roger Payne on the bridge of the R/V Odyssey.
Photo : Chris Johnson

March 24, 2004
The Science of the Voyage -
Collecting Biopsy Samples from Sperm Whales
    A Special Video Report

Real Video
  56k   200k

Log Transcript

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Ocean Alliance's whale research vessel Odyssey.

Day and night the crew searches the sea for sperm whales. By night they listen for the loud clicks sperm whales make, and by day they also watch for blows.

Listening usually works best to find whales because their sounds can be heard a lot further than you can see them from Odyssey. For that reason we tow an array of underwater microphones (called hydrophones) behind Odyssey at all times. The sounds the hydrophones pick up are then broadcast inside the pilot house.

Once we hear a group of sperm whales we use a computer program invented by Douglas Gillespie of the International Fund for Animal Welfare to find and follow them. The program, called Rainbow Click, assigns a different color to the clicks of each different sperm whale, and displays those clicks without ocean noise.

While the Odyssey slowly approaches a group of sperm whales, the biopsy dart person sits on the bow and fires a small dart from a crossbow in order to take a tissue sample.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The crew of Odyssey has become so skilled at doing this that if we hear just one 'click train', we can almost always find the group, and having done so, stay with it for days as long as at least one of the whales in the group keeps clicking.

We fire a dart at the whale using a crossbow. When the dart hits it bounces off the whale's back bringing a skin/blubber sample with it in the dart's hollow tip. When the first dart misses, a second crewmember is standing by with a second crossbow and dart.

The dart is hard to see in the water so we throw in a life ring next to it to mark its position. The dart has a foam collar at its tip to float it so we can retrieve it with a dip net.

Once on board, the dart is carried to a sterile area in the pilot house where the sample is removed from the hollow tip and cut into eight pieces, each of which receives a different treatment in a different fixative and/or preservative. Some of the samples are frozen, others are stored at room temperature.

The samples we get are little plugs of skin, along with the blubber underlying it. They come from high on the sperm whale's flank where the blubber is about a foot thick. The dart tip is about three eighths of an inch in diameter and two inches long. In relation to the to the size of a sperm whale it's as large as the finest hypodermic needle is in relation to you or me.

After the dart hits the whales flank, a rubber stopper causes it to bounce out. A conical stainless steel tip at the end of the dart extracts a tiny sample containing skin and blubber the size of a pencil eraser. In relation to the size of a sperm whale it's as large as the finest hypodermic needle is in relation to you or me.
Photo : Chris Johnson

While those in the sterile lab area are dealing with preparing, labeling and preserving the sample, others enter data about such things as the size of the whale, when and where it was sampled, its companions, the treatments its samples got, the state of the sea, what photographs were made of the tail (the trailing edge of every sperm whale tail is unique) as well as notes about any other distinctive marks on the whale - so we can recognize the same individual and avoid darting it twice.

All this time, the spotters continue looking for blows and reporting what they see to whoever is on the helm. Typically, it isn't long before the next whale is sighted, approached, sampled, and the dart brought into the lab. This activity may go on all day, during which time the boat is a beehive of activity.

Because everyone on the boat is needed to collect data properly, if, by nightfall, whales are still with us we will have to follow them all night and to start working with them at dawn the next day.

Once we have finished working in a given ocean region, the samples from that region, along with the data covering them are packed and shipped to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in Massachusetts.

Once there, they are unpacked and put into freezers, and are only removed when it is time for analysis. Our samples get analyzed for a variety of things. Primary among these, and the main focus of our study, is determining the concentrations of Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs, in the blubber part of each plug of tissue.

Dr. Celine Godard examines a tissue sample from a sperm whale.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Dr. Celine Godard, Voyage of the Odyssey Chief Scientist -

    "What you see here are all of the samples collected from various regions and the biopsy samples are embedded in paraffin - the black part is the skin, the yellowish part is the blubber."

Roger Payne-

We also look at the skin where we use chromosomes to tell the sex of each whale, and how closely sperm whales are. This is a way to learn about whale stocks - information necessary for proper management.

This is what some people are saying about the Voyage of the Odyssey:

Michael Moore

Dr. Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution -

    "To question whether or not that there are any safe, clean, pristing areas in the world, the answer is 'no'... The value of a global study of a single marine mammal species is enormous. It allows you to get a consistent assessment of the status of that species without all the variables that are inherent in dealing with different laboratories, different studies, different focuses, various agendas and essentially brings to the table a body of information that is consistent and believable and worthwhile in terms of the interpretation of whatever parameters you care to look at in terms of that study."

John Bohannon

John Bohannon, Contributing Writer, SCIENCE Magazine -

    "My impression is that this is far larger than the average scientific project. I think that the most outstanding aspect is the effect that has had on the communities it has visited - particularly these island communities. I am amazed at the depth of the education that is being conveyed and the richness of the scientific information that is being gathered. In a year or two, I think that the world will know what the Odyssey has achieved."

John Price

John Price, United States Ambassador to Mauritius -

    "Well, I think that what you are doing is very exciting. We are excited to see you in port and hearing what you are doing is very exciting for humanity and future generations. One of my main concerns, is the protection of the biodiversity that exists in the oceans and that is rapidly disappearing in many areas. I hope that what you are doing will make a great awareness for others to do the same. If we can get our arms around this situation we will have generations to come being able to enjoy the open ocean and the whales that you are working with. It's great! We are happy that you are here and we support it one hundred percent."


Log written by Roger Payne.

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