This is the second installment of "The Quest for Whale Blow,"detailing our newest research project focused on collecting and analyzing right whale blow. You can read Chapter 1 here.
Blow analysis is very much the cutting-edge frontier of marine mammal research, and it's often quite difficult to find funding for innovative new research ideas like this. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (O.N.R.) has a particular interest in developing methods to detect and ameliorate effects of chronic stress in marine mammals (particularly the effects of noise, because of the Navy's need to use military sonar). ONR Program Officer Michael Weise, Ph.D., has even taken the trouble to sponsor several research conferences on the topic, inviting the top stress researchers from around the world to brainstorm ideas about innovative new methods for assessing stress in marine mammals. These conferences have essentially jump-started a whole new research field on marine mammmal stress. The ONR has recently given us funding to study stress hormones in feces of 3 different cetaceans (see, for example, our previous posts on our beaked whale project in the Bahamas). And now the ONR has also funded our study to study stress hormones in respiratory blow of North Atlantic right whales.
So here we are in the Bay of Fundy, trying to catch right whale blow!
Right off the bat we faced three fundamental questions:
1. Can we build a device that can capture enough blow vapor? Previous studies only succeeded at collecting infinitesimal amounts, about 50ul (picture a tiny droplet about the size of a poppyseed). What we need is at least four times more, about 200ul (approximately apple-seed size). That may still sound tiny, but it's much more than anybody's collected before from a large whale.
2. Can we actually get the device over the blowhole of a free-swimming whale? We know we can approach right whales very closely, but the whales are constantly swimming and rolling and moving around, and it's not at all clear how easy it will be to hold a blow collector right over their blowholes.
3. If we succeed at both #1 and #2, and if we actually get samples and get them back to our lab, will the samples actually contain any measurable hormones?
Dr. Rosalind Rolland operating the customized blow-collecting pole
on the R/V Callisto.
To get the project underway, Aquarium researcher Scott Kraus, Ph.D. spent much of the spring months designing and building a telescoping 32' carbon-fiber pole mounted on a beautiful, custom-machined swiveling mount that is bolted to to the bow of our boat, Callisto. Meanwhile, I spent innumerable weeks designing a blow collector that can be put on the end of the carbon-fiber pole. I tested a variety of bottles, hoops, rings, and different kinds of absorbent material that we could potentially hold over a whale's blowhole to catch absorbent vapor. My best blow collector has turned out to be a plastic bottle covered with 2 yards of nylon tulle bridal veil. Yes, that's right, bridal veil - what can I say, bridal veil just turned out to be the best fabric I tested for catching small droplets of vapor! From a distance, the finished collectors look uncannily like a person's head draped in veil, so of course we've taken to calling them "Bride's Heads".
To date I've made several different, improved versions of bride's-heads (I'm now on Bride's-Head Model 8), and as I write this the forward cuddies of Callisto are stocked with 20 different bride's-head blow collectors of various designs. Our beautiful carbon-fiber pole and mount are working smoothly, and in trial runs, Aquarium researcher Rosalind Rolland has developed a considerable degree of skill at swinging the huge pole around. Roz and I have also worked out a method to rapidly retrieve a used bride's-head and swapping a new one onto the pole.
Now all we need is good weather, and whales!
Stay tuned for Chapter 3!