What I Did This Summer: Conduct whale research
"What I Did This Summer" follows a number of University of South Carolina students this summer as they work, travel, and explore the world. Many of them are blogging about their adventures. This is the ninth story in the series.
Very early one morning this summer, Patrick Boyle stood on a Delaware beach and watched a lifeless North American right whale being towed to shore.
Boyle wasn't alone: some 25 to 30 scientists were watching, too.
"It was a rare event, pretty exciting," said Boyle, a marine science sophomore from Annapolis, Maryland. He is a summer intern with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Network.
"You usually don't get to see right whales because they are endangered -- only about 400 still exist -- and getting to examine and study one is even rarer.
"This whale was over 45 feet long and weighed 60,000 pounds," he said. "It was towed to shore so that scientists could determine cause of death and collect skin, flesh, and organ samples to test for chemicals, toxins, disease, worms, and other harmful elements.
"At first, it kind of looked gruesome," he admitted. "But we wanted to figure out how this critically endangered animal died. We wanted to see if it was diseased, and we wanted to learn what it ate and how its organs developed. We know a lot of that information already, but there is always new information to get from a whale, or really any organism. Once we started taking samples and removing the meat from the bones, we forgot about what it looked like."
In addition to assisting with the whale research, Boyle has worked on a project to capture and test Maryland's population of Canadian geese for the West Nile virus across the state and participated in a necropsy on an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.
"After I graduate, I want to keep working in marine science and conservation, but I haven't decided on a specific area yet, maybe coral reefs or marine biology," he said. "The oceans are so pretty. We don't want that stuff to go away."
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