“Follow your passion. Wherever it takes you. Sometimes there are setbacks and difficulties, but just be honest with yourself and follow your passion. And, it’ll work out.”

The 16 year voyage: Returning to the Sea of Cortez

In 2000, a friend gave John Wise whale skin samples from over 17 different regions in the Pacific Ocean. His team discovered very high levels of the carcinogenic pollutant chromium in the skin of whales in the Sea of Cortez. The levels in the whales resembled levels you would see in a worker who made chromate compounds for 20 years and who died of lung cancer.

John is a Professor at the University of Louisville and the head of the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology. 16 years have passed since his initial study. John’s crew is going to sea on the first of April. I caught up with John as he’s preparing for their next voyage.

John’s team is the winner for our first Experiment Challenge Grant.


Cindy Wu: John, how did you first get involved in science?

John Wise: You know that is an interesting question because I’ve been into science since I was a little kid. When I was five I would read Ranger Rick and other things like that. I guess when other kids wanted to be an astronaut or policeman I wanted to be a naturalist. Kind of a strange thing for a five year old to say I suppose.

Ranger Rick Issues from 1983 and 1984.

How did you know what a naturalist was when you were 5?

Well I read Ranger Rick, so I said to my Mom and she said, “Oh, you want to be a naturalist.” I was actually quite pleased when years later I got my bachelor’s degree in biology with a focus on Zoology. Technically speaking, I was a naturalist, so I had actually achieved that, that unexpected goal. It just stayed with me my whole life. I was just really into science and biology.

Did wanting to be a naturalist stick with you all throughout middle school and high school?

Yeah, yeah I had a brief foray in my early undergraduate and late high school years thinking that maybe I would do theater. I started out as a psychology major.

My brother and I were on the debate team at UCLA. We were competing as a group for a national championship and he was the best debater in the country, so he had to travel a lot. I was okay, but he was outstanding. He asked me to sit in on his classes and take notes. So I would sit in his upper division biology classes taking notes for him. I found that far more interesting than my my introductory psychology classes, ultimately switched my major to biology and never looked back.

Debate is quite a handy skill for a scientist to have. Once you switched to biology did you do any research while in undergrad?

I did. I did. Yes. You know, sort of a funny serendipitous sort of story. I was working for a wholesale pet store because of a professor at the university got me a job there. Then that lead to me working with him to try to breed some various fish in captivity. The funny story was that I wanted to go to medical school, and the thinking was, you had that lab experience to strengthen your medical school application.

I would be checking the newspaper in class, I mean before class. Not in class. Before class, regularly. This young woman who would sit next to me who say, “Well, what are you doing?” And she was like, “You know, you should call my ex-boyfriend. He works in a lab.” You know, I’m not going to call some girl’s ex-boyfriend to get a job. And, she for whatever reason took it upon herself to call him and got me an interview in the lab he was in and that led me my first lab job. That actually lead to my position as a graduate student, because my mentor hired me away from that lab. He and I are still very close friends, so, it’s funny how life works sometimes.

Where did you do your graduate work?

I graduate work was George Washington University. My undergraduate started at UCLA, but I finished at George Mason University. Because, when I switched from psychology to biology, I also switched schools for a fresh start. It’s kind of a different path.

Let’s fast forward a bit to the first time you went to the Sea of Cortez. Can you tell us about that?

I wasn’t part of the that initial voyage to the Sea of Cortez personally. That was my collaborator from Ocean Alliance.

They did the first five year voyage. During that voyage, I met them and they gave me the whale samples to process. We did the sample analysis and we wrote a bunch of papers that we’re using as the basis for this to look years later to see if they’re getting better or not.

My first actual trip to sea was in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Me and my research partner, Gavin, went. We were in the gulf for four months in 2010, three months in 2011, and three months in 2012. I did a three year study on the oil spill. Most people don’t realize, in the addition to the oil there’s a lot of metals in a big whales. We’ve published a paper showing how high metal levels were in the sperm whales on the Gulf of Mexico.

So that was my first time at sea.

What is a typical day look like when you’re at sea?

A typical day at sea is probably one of the most exhausting things you’ll experience. Because it’s not the romantic vision of surf sailing around the bay. You know, you’re out on the ocean, so the first thing is everything is constant motion. You lie in your bed, you’re still moving. All of your muscles in your body are constantly in motion when you’re at sea.

And for me, being the scientific leader and sometimes the expedition leader, there’s a lot of worry about because you want to make sure that everybody gets back safe and sound. When we’re doing whale work, we start at sunrise. Somebody’s going up to the crow’s nest to look for whales, and then we stop when it’s dark out when we can’t see anymore. But all that does is then you go into the boat and sit at the computers and process all of the samples and the data that you obtained for the day, so it gets fairly, you know, these are 18-20 hour days. And you’re not getting the most restful asleep.

Having said that, it’s also the most profound way of searching you’ll ever do because you are out there in the middle of the ocean with these magnificent creatures swimming around you. It’s both deeply rewarding and exhausting at the same time.

How long are you out there for?

We typically do two week legs with 10 to 14 days and then come in to port to restock. In the Gulf we were actually swapping out students as well because we wanted to maximize student involvement. We typically had about twelve people on that boat and anytime we went into port about four or five people got switched out.

The Sea of Cortez study is a short trip. It’s gonna be about two weeks. We are taking advantage of the fact that another organization Sea Shepherd is out there. Actually the boat we’re using used to belong to Ocean Alliance, so we know the boat well and we’re going to take advantage of the crossing down the Sea of Cortes to sample the whales. So, the boat cost are substantially lower.

What are some of the most surprising things or results that came out of the study that you did with the samples from the first Sea of Cortez trip in 2000?

Well what was the most strange thing was the a metal called chromium was so high in the whales. No one had really looked at chromium before and chromium is a known human carcinogen. It accumulates in tissue and people might have heard of it because Julia Roberts did a movie years ago called Erin Brockovich that was about Chromium pollution in California’s water supply.

So, our lab does a lot of work on chromium. One of the first things we looked at were chromium levels. We didn’t expect to see them high, but they were extremely high in some animals to the point where they resembled levels you would see in a worker who made chromate compounds for a company and who died of lung cancer. If you had a worker who had chromium induced lung cancer he’d worked with chromium for twenty years the level of his lungs were similar to what we were seeing in whale skins. We saw very, very high levels of chromium. That was quite startling. The other thing that was startling was that voyage went around the globe and sampled I think seventeen different regions all over you know from the Galapagos’ out to the middle of the Pacific and some places in the Indian ocean and there was no place that didn’t have some level of metal content base.

What did you hypothesize as the source of Chromium?

I hypothesize the source of chromium is actually coming from emissions into the air. Chromium is not well absorbed when you eat it, but it is pretty well absorbed when you inhale it, and we played around with some numbers of chromium in the air. This is not measured very regularly but there are some historical numbers in Baltimore harbor or out by Hawaii and we played around with that data. If you took that level in the air and took a whale’s lungs and how much they breathe, you actually come up with that they’re inhaling an amount that would be similar to somebody working in the chromium industry.

When most people think about pollutants in the ocean, they think water borne, food borne. We think there’s a significant component as air borne pollution.

It’s very interesting. So your Experiment is funded. When do you plan to go out to the Sea of Cortez and what does your team plan to do out there?

Well, we are expecting to go out April 1st through the 14th. We are working on those details with the boat captain now. She recommended that we come April 1st and stay for two weeks, so that will be the period we go to sea and then we’ll bring the samples back to the lab and work them up in the lab. The whole team won’t be going to sea. It’ll probably be me and three others, simply because of the space on the boat.

Tell us more about your research team.

Well, I have kind of a cool team.

First off, all three of my children all now graduate students in different toxicology programs in the country. They went to sea with me in the Gulf of Mexico all three summers.

My son, Johnny, spent the entire time we were at sea, in the Gulf, he was our primary biopser. I think he’s taken over 200 whale biopsies. It’s actually remarkably good at biopsying a whale.

At times on the boat, on that boat. That’s not the boat that we’ll be using at the Sea of Cortez. But on that boat, we have, what we call, the “whale boom,” which was a pole sticking out of the side of the boat with a deer stand seat on the end of it. And he would have to go sit at the end of that seat, not strapped in or anything, and hold himself you know with with the waves and water and stuff like that. And he still managed to take a biopsy and not miss. And you think that a whale’s a big animal, so how hard can it be to miss? But remember you’re only sampling a little bit of the whale that is above the water. You have to sample back on the flank. We don’t sample on the head at all. And the whale is moving up and down and the waters moving up and down and side to side as the boat is moving up and down, so it’s a lot of motion. One of the things we joke about is on land he’s not nearly as accurate as he is on sea. So, he’ll actually be going with me and being the primary biopsier.

My other son James is our tech specialist. We also have a hidden team member Chris, Chris likes to remain anonymous he is not on the website he’s had a long history in the federal government and military doing IT stuff and working with us for probably twelve years now.

And, my daughter was the first person to successfully grow whale cells at sea. She and James, my oldest, won’t be able to go because of there in exams and classes, whereas, Johnny is beyond that point in time. Then we have Dr. Laura Savery, who did her PhD with me, and has done a lot environmental consulting, and wrote a lot of papers from the primary voyage, and has helped a lot with the fundraising, and getting the data together.

And then we have Mark Patrick Martin, who is a field researcher from Vieques, Puerto Rico where he has been focused a lot on conserving the bioluminescent bio bay that is there, and working with us on sea turtles and lion fish. He also has a sea captain’s license. He has gone to sea with us a couple of times before to biopsy whales.

Then we have Russ Lowers, who works at NASA as a field research biologist. And we do a lot of gator work with Ross, so he helps us catch the gators. In fact, he does most of the catching and we do most of the watching, but fantastic field guy, also a sea captain.

Then we have Jamie Young who’s been a student of mine and has worked much extensively in the field and does a lot of our social media stuff with James and helps a lot with analysis so she plays such a big role as well.

We also have Ben Scheelk who helps us with fundraising and works at the Ocean Foundation and makes sure that the project is managed in the right way, as far as the funds go, so we appreciate Ben’s involvement as well.

If you raise more money, where will that money go?

Finding the whales is the challenge. We’ve been talking a lot Ian and one of the things we used in the Gulf of Mexico is called an array is very large and very expensive, 4-microphone cable you tow behind the boat with specialized software to help you find it. It’s enormously heavy and enormously expensive and we’re not sure taking that to the Sea of Cortez for two weeks is the best solution.

So instead we’re thinking of of buying and building what’s called the directional hydrophone. It is basically a pole with a microphone on it that you stick it in the water and use to listen. You just turn it clockwise and when you hear the whales, then you know where they are. You head in that direction. It’s a bit lower tech, but it’s going to be a lot more transportable and light and still just as effective as the other option. It’s just with the hydrophone you have to stop the boat and listen or you’ll hear the propeller. With a long cable behind the boat you can listen with out stopping. We would use funds to buy and build the directional hydrophone. Extra funds will go to help ship stuff to and from the Sea of Cortez.

I have one last question. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a younger version of yourself? Maybe it’s that advice that you give to your kids.

Follow you passion, that’s what I tell them. Follow your passion. Wherever it takes you. Sometimes there are setbacks and difficulties, but just be honest with yourself and follow your passion. And, it’ll work out.

That’s a good one. Is there anything that you want to add to this interview that you think is important?

You know, first off I’d like to thank you and Experiment for giving us an opportunity to do this. It’s been a fascinating experience so far and it’s created an opportunity we may have missed because the Sea of Cortez thing was a unique window, with the boat being offered to us. But we still needed a certain amount of money and it can be hard to find money on a very very short period of time. So thank you for that.

We are also extremely grateful to all of our backers. Many of them are friends and family who worked very hard to raise the money and support us. For those who we haven’t met yet, we really can’t do this alone, it takes a, without a village, you know. It takes a lot of people to pull the whole thing together and we’re extremely grateful for and humbled by all the support and interest. You know we’re hopeful to give it back, not only do the science but share the whole the experience with emails and postings on the site. We’re not entirely sure if we’ll be able to post directly from the boat. When the captain of the boat is often offshore I’m not hearing back from her, so I’m imagining they don’t have active internet offshore. However, in the past I’ve written an email everyday from the boat. I still may do that, I just don’t know if it will transmit it. If there is no internet, the story may have to be told on time delay. So I may write all the emails from the boat, and a if I can’t send them then we’ll simply post them one day at a time.


John’s team was awarded an additional $2,000 from Experiment’s Marine Mammals Challenge Grant. You can receive emails from John’s team while at sea by backing his Experiment with at minimum of $1.

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