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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Geographic

Air Date: Week of

NPR’s Alex Chadwick takes us aboard the schooner “Odyssey” on which scientists are looking for sperm whales and what they have to tell us about what chemicals are doing to the oceans.


TOOMEY: Before conservation laws ended most whaling, great fleets hunted the creatures for meat, oil, and bone. Today, a scientific schooner is off on a three-year, around the world voyage. Its crew is looking for sperm whales, and what they may tell us about chemicals that have some scientists worried, even frightened, about the health of the seas. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick reports from on board a ship called the Odyssey.

(Boat engines)

CHADWICK: A shake-down cuise out of Baja, Mexico, four months ago in the Sea of Cortez. In the morning, we can already see whales from the deck.

JONES: We're looking right now at probably five whales here. There are three clusters close by the boat.

CHADWICK: There are vast schools of squid in these depths, and in whale terms, squid means something like gobs of free ice cream.

JONES: At ten o'clock there is one cluster of two animals, looks like a big animal and a small animal. And that's 250 meters away.

CHADWICK: The Odyssey's first mate and chief science officer, Josh Jones.

JONES: What it is, there are seven more on the surface on the other side, so we have the luxury of being surrounded by whales.

(Water lapping against the boat)

CHADWICK: They're sperm whales. Not the biggest of their kind, but some are more than 50 feet. Josh sidles out a very long aluminum spar, jutting off from the bow. It ends in a small platform a couple of yards above the water. Here he settles, and uses a walkie-talkie to guide the pilot of the Odyssey to get a whale in range.

(Voices on radio)

CHADWICK: He carries a crossbow and a harmless sampling dart. It will bounce off the whale, a plug of tissue stuck in its hollow tip. It's an unexpectedly delicate maneuver, closing a large boat on a large animal without scaring it. And you’d think it wouldn't take much to hit a whale with a dart gun at 50 feet or so. But I'm glad I'm not taking this shot. Listen for the bow to snap.

(Ringing, a snap)

JONES: Good job.

CHADWICK: You got him?

JONES: I think we got a good sample on that one.

(Water against the boat)

CHADWICK: The bit of skin and fat they'll get from the floating dart is no bigger than a pencil's eraser, but it can reveal a lot. The Odyssey belongs to a conservation group, Ocean Alliance, led by while scientist Dr. Roger Payne.

PAYNE: We're collecting data on the background concentrations of stuff in the sea, particularly synthetic pollutants.

CHADWICK: He is looking for what he calls immortal poisons: dioxins, PCBs, and other chemical compounds that last a long, long time. They get used in agriculture and industry and eventually they drain or get dumped into the ocean, because that's where a lot of stuff ends up. But how much and where, who knows?

PAYNE: It's just absolutely incredible that we could have been dumping into the ocean for 50 years a series of compounds which have devastating effects on living systems, and still have made no effort, up until now, to find out what the overall picture is.

CHADWICK: Scientists disagree about the full effects of these compounds, but they are known to accumulate in the fats of animals that eat them. And the government limits them in the fish we eat to minute amounts.

PAYNE: Because they're synthetic compounds that have never existed in nature before, and therefore there are no mechanisms built into animals to get rid of them. So they concentrate them, and just hang onto them.

CHADWICK: Roger Payne thinks these compounds are extremely dangerous. With help from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, he will try to use whale tissue samples to establish baseline data, a map of these pollutants in the world's oceans as we begin this century. We talked in the stern of the Odyssey with a canvas shroud hung to make a shadow from the sun. A sperm whale, hanging at the surface of the calm, flat sea a mile away, was slapping the water with its tail like a bass drum metronome.

(Distant, deep slaps)

PAYNE: Exactly right. It is a mile, because I counted five second. Now if you were in the water you'd hear it after one second.

(Another slap)

CHADWICK: The study focuses on whales for two reasons, Dr. Payne said. First, the chemical compounds settle in fats, and whales have more fat than any other animal on Earth. And, people care about whales.

PAYNE: They also are very charismatic. People are interested in whales. So maybe we can get the world interested in this problem of toxic stuff in the sea and getting into fish and getting into humans. And very soon, I suspect, some species of fish, in fact some of the ones we like to eat most, will become so polluted you can't eat them any more.

CHADWICK: Research partners at Cambridge University and Cornell are taking genetic data from the whales and making audio recordings for bio-acoustic studies. This is what they sound like.


CHADWICK: It's not very interesting, is it? Sperm whales seem to use sound simply as a kind of radar. They send out a series of clicks to bounce back images of what's around them. The whales to listen to are humpbacks.

(Whale songs)

CHADWICK: That's a recording we made a couple of years ago in Hawaii. But if you're heard them before, it's probably from an album that came out in the 70s: "Songs of the Humpback Whale."

(Whale songs continue)

CHADWICK: The album was put together from Roger Payne's field tapes. He is a co-discoverer of whale song. He's the one who told the world about them.

PAYNE: I think that they are irresistible. And I think when people finally heard them, they suddenly realized there was some presence in the sea that was worth their attention, and they fell in love with them.

CHADWICK: And that's who's leading the Ocean Alliance study of whales. The Alliance is still fundraising, but has already launched the first toxicology study ever planned to track one ocean species around the world over a period of years. Hundreds of tissue samples are at Woods Hole and other sites already. The first data from the studies should be available in a few months. They'll put regular expedition reports on their Web site, oceanalliance.org.

(Boat engines)

JONES: Okay, keep your eyes peeled somewhere directly ahead.

CHADWICK: One morning, Josh took us out in the dinghy. We wanted to record a passing whale, and the dinghy was much easier to maneuver.

JONES: You find a group and watch them for a while, and put the boat sort of in front of them and cut the motor, and let them come to us. That works far better.

CHADWICK: It did work more easily than I expected. The whales swim at the surface, where they loll along, breathing easily. And they travel in a straight line. All you do is get in front and wait, quietly.

(A blowhole)

CHADWICK: But the thought does occur: sitting here, this dinghy is pickup size, and the whale bearing down on us is more like a city bus. It's going to pass within a few feet, or maybe closer. But probably it doesn't want to bump its head any more than I want it to.


CHADWICK: It comes on at majestic speed, a long, low, black oval in the water, tail beating powerfully just beneath the surface, leaving barely any wake.

JONES: Here comes a fluke.

CHADWICK: And then, very close, with no change in speed or direction, the whale raises its massive head from the water. I think I can see it looking back at me, but I know I hear it, the steady toc-toc-toc of whale radar pinging us.

(Pinging sounds)

CHADWICK: Then, satisfied, or simply uninterested, the great creature settles back into the Sea of Cortez, and slowly disappears into the horizon.

(Water splashes)

CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.

TOOMEY: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Our story on the Odyssey was produced by Carolyn Jensen and engineered by Marcia Caldwell.



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