Ship sets off to seek out whales - FOX 13 News

Ship sets off to seek out whales


At 93 feet, the Odyssey will be among the smallest ships in the armada of research vessels canvassing the Gulf of Mexico. Small -- but largely unique.

It is a sailboat, for starters. And this former yacht with a fire-engine red paint job bears a resemblance to a Gasparilla-style pirate ship.

"She's a very seaworthy boat," said Roger Payne, Ph.D., founder of Ocean Alliance, which operates the Odyssey.

The Odyssey and its crew are also far from home, which is in New England.

Payne said the vessel, albeit a bit out of its element, is well suited for oil-related research, a conclusion he reached when first looking at it.

"We found one wonderful feature," he said. "It only had one major bathroom."

By sacrificing private 'facilities' for the crew of ten, the Odyssey gains open space that now houses a full-fledged laboratory.

"We can get more work done," he said.

The floating lab will be thrust into action beginning this weekend, as the Odyssey sails on a two month oil research mission. Despite its comparatively small size, the boat will probe the deepest waters of the Gulf.

Finding whales is priority one.

"We're mammals, they're mammals. They represent us in the ocean. So, by understanding how it's affecting them, we'll get insight into how it's affecting us as well," said John Wise, Ph.D., a University of Southern Maine researcher who will be aboard the Odyssey.

The ship is nimble enough, Wise said, to pull right alongside packs of whales.

"They kind of line up like logs, in a row," he said. Wise said that taking small skin and blubber samples by dart will help scientists write volumes about the oil and its impact on sea life and, perhaps, people.

Payne said there is great interest in the scientific community.

"As far as I am concerned, it's a total unknown," he said. "We don't have any preconceptions as to what we're going to find."

"I don't imagine any of this is beneficial to the whales," he said of the oil and dispersants. "But, we'll find out."

The crew weighed whether it was wise to sail into the Gulf Mexico during hurricane season.

Ultimately, the scientists said they had a sense of obligation to commence the research as quickly as possible.

Wise predicted Gulf studies will extend well beyond the Odyssey's eight week journey.

"There's a lot of research to be done in the next five or ten years," he said.

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