Surprised by lack of oil in Gulf

A team of researchers and students from Maine found no outward negative effects on the hundreds of whales, dolphins and birds they saw while traversing the Gulf of Mexico this summer to assess the impacts of the BP PLC oil spill.

John Wise Sr., an environmental toxicologist at the University of Southern Maine, said Tuesday he was surprised to not see any signs of oil — in the water or on animals — during 59 days of crisscrossing the Gulf. But he thinks whales and other animals could suffer long-term damage from the oil and the dispersants that were used to break it up.

Wise was the scientific director on a 93-foot laboratory-equipped sailboat taking tissue samples from whales, fish, squid and other marine organisms. The samples are being analyzed at USM, and Wise plans to return to the Gulf next spring to take more samples.

“There were no oiled birds. There were no whales having a hard time swimming. The dolphins all seemed very happy,” he said in his laboratory, accompanied by four students who were on his expedition.

A team of researchers and students from USM and the conservation organization Ocean Alliance left Portland in July aboard the Odyssey, an Ocean Alliance research vessel. They were expecting the worst, Wise said, given that more than 170 million gallons of oil ended up spewing after the April 20 oil rig explosion.

During their time in the Gulf of Mexico, they used crossbows with special arrows to obtain DNA samples from humpback, sperm, Bryde’s and killer whales. The ship was equipped with an onboard laboratory so they could conduct research at sea.

They didn’t see any signs of oil, except when they caught a tainted mullet while fishing from a pier in Grand Isle, La., during a port call.

“As soon as I cut open the belly, the oil started oozing out,” said John Wise Jr., a USM student and Wise’s son who was on the voyage.

Wise said he is hypothesizing that that long-term tests could show DNA damage from the oil and the dispersants that broke it up. DNA damage in time could lead to cancer, reproduction deficiencies and other problems, he said.

“The idea is this would be a baseline first year and that we would do a five- to 10-year study to understand how it’s changing over time,” he said.

Preliminary evidence from cell cultures suggest that dispersants used to combat the oil spill are toxic to human cells, Wise said. He suspects they are toxic to whales as well.

“We’re more concerned with the dispersant and the dispersant mixed with oil than we are about the crude oil itself,” he said.