Vessel to study the oil spill’s effects – Sea Shepherd, Ocean Alliance partner to research whales in Gulf

Jul. 4, 2013 |

Written by Kevin Robinson

Ocean Alliance Founder Roger Payne and a group of environmental activists with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are making a port of call in Pensacola on board the RV Odyssey. The conservation group and the 93-foot research vessel is operating in the Gulf of Mexico collecting data on whales and sea-life in the gulf as it relates to the BP oil spill.

Watching the Whales: Listen to Eliza Muirhead, discuss how 12 members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Ocean Alliance’s mission, Operation Toxic Gulf, will spend the remainder of July tracking sperm whales 100 miles off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Ocean Alliance have arrived in Pensacola with the 93-foot research vessel RV Odyssey. The group is making a port of call in Pensacola as part of its Operation Toxic Gulf mission in the Gulf of Mexico. / Tony Giberson/

An International crew of the scientists and activists will be docking in Pensacola periodically this month while they study the effects of the BP oil spill. About 12 members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Ocean Alliance will spend the remainder of July tracking sperm whales 100 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The sperm whale is at the top of the food chain, so all of the toxins consumed by smaller animals eventually end up accumulating inside the sperm whales,” crew member Eliza Muirhead said. The crew of the Odyssey will examine changes in sperm whale health and behavior to get a snapshot of how toxins from the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the chemical dispersant sprayed to contain it are affecting marine ecology. To help people understand their research and its ramifications, the crew allowed the public to tour the Odyssey on Wednesday. About a dozen people wandered the 93-foot craft, snapping pictures and asking questions.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a controversial environmental group featured on the popular Discovery Channel program “Whale Wars.” The group has gained notoriety for its aggressive tactics pursuing, harassing and sometimes boarding Japanese ships in the Southern Ocean conducting research by killing whales. Sea Shepherd contends the Japanese whaling operation is illegal and immoral. “My brother and nephew watch ‘Whales Wars,’ so when they told me they were coming down I decided to come along,” said Wendy Hauman. “I got to talk to the crew and the scientists. It’s cool to see what they do in person and see live some of what they do on TV.”

The team has a full laboratory on the ship to begin preliminary analysis of the data collected during the expedition. Lead researcher Robert Payne said it could be up to a year before the findings of the study are published.
Payne, the founder of Ocean Alliance, has studied whale behavior since 1967. He and colleague Scott McVay are credited for discovering that humpback whales sing songs.

Payne said that by partnering, Ocean Alliance and the Sea Shepherds are able to accomplish goals they could never have achieved alone. “The value of this study is that normally scientists work in their own little world,” Payne said. “People who take action work in a whole different world. Those two worlds are finally getting together.”
Payne said that by pairing the research-minded Ocean Alliance and the action-oriented members of the Sea Shepherds, the expedition could more fully investigate an environmental disaster that he said has been largely marginalized by special interests and the federal government.

“The mission of one side is to confuse things and our job is to clarify,” Payne said. “We’re dealing with a problem you can’t see, so it’s easy for people to pretend it doesn’t exist.” The research expedition will be documented online on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Ocean Alliance Facebook pages.

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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