October 23, 2014  

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Southern Miss Research Scientist Tags Whale Sharks with Legendary Oceanographer, Sylvia Earle

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Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a University of Southern Mississippi research scientist at the university’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, has joined forces with world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle and Mission Blue to study the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf of Mexico whale sharks.

Hoffmayer and Earle recently spent three days in the Gulf of Mexico where they discovered an extraordinary gathering of more than 100 feeding whale sharks 90 miles south of Grand Isle, La., and approximately 60 miles west of the oil spill.

“This may be one of the largest gatherings of whale sharks in the northern Gulf of Mexico observed by science,” explained Earle.

Hoffmayer and Earle photo identified scores of whale sharks and tagged four of them. One of the tags was equipped with satellite tracking sensors. Those sensors allow anyone to follow the shark over the Internet via www.GTOPP.org and Google Ocean.

 “Whale Sharks are presently considered a ‘vulnerable species,’ which is a mere single notch down from being considered an endangered species,” said Hoffmayer.

Earle, who is currently an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, is a highly respected and influential oceanographer. “I can only hope to do in my career a fraction of what she has done. Hopefully her involvement will help bring resources to the study of these threatened animals,” said Hoffmayer.

Whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning they siphon marine organisms at the surface of the water as food. With dispersed oil floating on the water surface, whale sharks will ingest the chemical substance along with their food. 

“Some have said that these are death row whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, and that could be true,” said Earle. “Because of their feeding habits, skimming right at the surface where the oil accumulates, they’re in harm’s way.” 

Indeed, since the tagging expedition, Hoffmayer has heard reports of whale sharks swimming in oil near the Deepwater Horizon spill site. “I don’t think there is any question we’re going to lose whale sharks to this oil spill. That’s why we need to tag these sharks so that we can determine how they are impacted by the oil,” said Hoffmayer. “Whale sharks are gentle giants that grow between 40 to 50 feet long and aren’t aware of the oil spill around them,” explained Hoffmayer. “They are very susceptible to the oil because they spend so much time at the surface of the water.”

The entire Whale Shark tagging expedition was captured by film director Robert Nixon and an Insurgent Media film crew which is filming Mission Blue, a feature documentary following Earle on her quest to protect the world’s oceans.

“Interacting with these death row whale sharks was a transformative experience. We may not be able to save these gentle giants from the oil. We do hope our underwater footage of Dr. Hoffmayer tagging whale sharks will galvanize the public to act to save the oceans, our life support system,” declared Earle.

For more information on the research underway by Hoffmayer visit: http://www.usm.edu/gcrl/whaleshark/index.php.

For more information on Insurgent Media and Mission Blue, contact director Robert Nixon at

RHNixon@me.com

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