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Inside the lab of the Blue Panda: collecting biopsies from whales to test for plastic contamination

The Blue Panda has just concluded a scientific research within the Pelagos Sanctuary for cetaceans, one of the most important marine protected areas in the Mediterranean. Last June, for four weeks the team - six whale observers plus the Blue Panda crew - has been sailing across the Sanctuary to collect and analyse skin and blubber samples from fin whales to determine levels of chemical contamination mainly from plastic and monitor the status of cetacean populations.

© Maité Baldi / WWF
The Blue Panda has just concluded a scientific research within the Pelagos Sanctuary for cetaceans.

The team was composed of: Denis (Head of WWF’s cetaceans team), Sébastien (marine biologist), Céline (WWF cetacean researcher), Anouck (oceanographic scientist), Marion (education expert), Isabelle (sailor and cetaceans observer), Stéphane (captain), Mélisandre (second captain).

What is a day of scientific research really like?

5.30 am: Sunrise. The first observation team of the day (Denis, Sébastien, and Céline) gets ready for the daily mission. Denis checks the weather and - taking into account the areas where it will be most likely to encounter fin whales - he defines the route with Stéphane, the captain of the Blue Panda.

6 am: The team starts its observation from the flybridge, an open deck situated up above the boat. Everyone is oblivious to its 60 degree angle while fully absorbed in trying to spot a fin whale. They use binoculars every 10 minutes to do a quick scan of the horizon. The boat sails at 11 km/h.

8 am: The team rotates every 2 hours: it’s now Anouk, Marion, and Isabelle’s turn to look out for the big marine mammals.

9 am: Anouk notices a white smoky blow far away. She checks through the binoculars and then reports it to the team. Yes, it is a fin whale! The mission can start.

© Maité Baldi / WWF
Fin whale blowing away in the Pelagos Sanctuary

9.15 am: Denis gathers all the material on the inflatable dinghy, Little Panda: a camera for photo identification (dorsal fins particularly allow individuals to be distinguished), a drone to measure the size of the whale, and a crossbow, necessary for the collection of the skin and fat samples. Denis is the pilot. Sébastien the marksman. Céline the photographer. They board Little Panda while the others stay on the flybridge and report, via a transmitter, the location of the whale to the team at sea. Situated 4 meters above the surface they have a far better view than those in the dinghy.

9.25 am: Little Panda stays 15-20 meters to the right of the whale. The jaw of the fin whale is white on the right and grey on the left. The convention is to take the photos from the right side to collect more information on the ID of the animal.

9.35 am: photos have been taken. Denis now moves the dinghy so that Sébastien is in a good position. Click! Sébastian takes the biopsy and puts it into a piece of aluminium. Mission accomplished!

© Maité Baldi / WWF
The drone helps measuring the size of the whale during the mission.

9.45 am: the team can go back to the Blue Panda. They were lucky: the weather was great and the whale surfaced several times.

9.55 am: Céline goes to the laboratory. She meticulously prepares the lab bench. No plastic material can come into contact with the samples: any contamination would distort the results of the analysis. After having extracted a small black part, nearly 1 cm in diameter and 4 cm long - found on the tip of the arrow - the young researcher separates the greyish skin from the clearer fat. While the skin part of the biopsy allows the researchers to know the sex of the animal, the blubber provides information on the level of contamination from phthalates. These are groups of chemicals added to plastics, commonly found in packaging, shower curtains, cables, varnish, medicines, paint, etc. but also in cosmetics like nail polish, hairspray, perfume. After the process is complete, Céline puts the biopsies into the freezer, at - 20 degrees. The team is back on the flybridge, the search continues.

© Maité Baldi / WWF
Céline is preparing the analysis of the fat sample.

12 pm: Sailing 60 kilometers offshore above water which goes down to a depth of more than 2 kilometers a whale is visible on the surface. The whale’s back can be easily seen as the sun reflects on its wet skin.

12.15 pm: the team is again collecting samples from the whale. The animal dives into the deep blue. They need to wait 8 to 12 minutes on average until it comes back to the surface.

1.15 pm: it takes one hour to complete the mission: a new biopsy will join the others in the freezer... 

9 pm: it is time to sort the photos and group them according to each whale’s identity. The observation data, collected on a tablet during the day, is downloaded and secured on the computer. Once this is done, the team prepares for the next day.

At the end of the 4-week mission, the team has collected 45 biopsies. These will be transported to the laboratory of Perpignan. The results of this year’s mission will be available towards the end of 2019.

Our 3-year analysis confirmed that cetaceans in Pelagos are contaminated by phthalates: at least three types of phthalates known to be toxic have been found in non-negligible concentrations. Among these, we identified a high presence of DiBP, a chemical added to plastic packaging for food in particular.

Denis Ody,Head of WWF’s cetaceans team
© Maité Baldi / WWF
At the end of the 4-week mission, the team has collected 45 biopsies. These will be transported to the laboratory of Perpignan.

​Our mission in numbers

Distance covered in whale observation: 1320 kilometers
Total distance covered by Blue Panda during this mission: 3340 kilometers
In total during the one month mission, the team spotted 76 fin whales, 1209 striped dolphins, 3 Risso’s dolphins, and 25 bottlenose dolphins
Total number of biopsies taken to test for plastic contamination = 45
Total number of large and small plastic waste pieces seen at sea = 279

The presence of crowded tourist coasts and large commercial ports make the Pelagos Sanctuary a crucial area for intervention, to ensure cetaceans are effectively protected against the threat of plastic pollution and ship collisions. As shown by WWF’s last report, the coasts of Marseille and Nice - close to Pelagos - have some of the highest levels of plastic contamination in the region.

If even protected areas like Pelagos are not safe from plastic pollution, it’s clear that urgent action is needed to drastically cut plastic consumption and stop leakage into nature and the sea.

© Maité Baldi / WWF
The WWF team on the Blue Panda boat

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