It’s hotter than August in Osage County. This isn’t a reference to the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play, although the play’s title does reference the feeling of desperation the heat invokes. It’s the hot of my youth in northeastern Oklahoma’s Osage County. It’s oven hot, but with humidity that reaches inside your shirt and inside your pores to jerk the sweat straight out of you before you have the chance to react.
We’re braving the heat of the Cambodian dry season to study strange endangered dolphins of the Mekong River. Known as Irawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), they are endemic to southeastern Asia and live in fresh water for most of the year. The Mekong population is one of the most endangered marine mammal populations on the planet, less than 100 individuals. We want to know what is driving the decline and try to do some science that will help the recovery. In particular my colleague Bob Pitman and I are here to teach local biologists to collect skin biopsy samples from as many dolphins as possible. These will be used for an array of tests, including genetic studies and measuring contamination loads.
Making such measurements using skin biopsies isn’t easy, preferably you’d have a blood sample, but wild whales and dolphins aren’t too keen on that, so the industry standard is skin (more on how we collect these samples later). To ensure we get the best data possible from the samples we have to keep them cold… real cold, -321 degrees Fahrenheit cold!! This is the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Lucky for us liquefied nitrogen is fairly readily available in most major cities around the world (presumable for shrink welding – a process of cooling metal fittings so they fit tightly together at normal temperatures). Our local boss in this operation, Gerry Ryan of World Wildlife Fund, found the perfect ‘mom and pop’ compressed gas store (where you can also get welding supplies – acetylene and oxygen etc.).
They were a bit perplexed when we first told them what we wanted to do, but they were happy to offer their services in support of our crazy cryo-preservation ideas. One of their employees was up to the challenge. He grabbed the dry-shipper and when to the back, we followed to guide the operation. In a large warehouse behind the storefront a hazardous materials safety nightmare awaited. Rows and rows of high-pressure compressed gas cylinders – the kind used to fill up balloons at the hardware stores – stood precariously perched all around; most of these had valve stems, none of them had valve covers, none of them chained to a wall. If one of these were to fall over and break the stem it would turn into a 6ft, 100-pound rocket, which would set off a chain reaction of epic proportion. See here what happens when a storage facility like this one goes up – yikes!
Of course it is important to keep things in perspective. I consulted my good friend Mike, who works in safety and compliance back home in Oklahoma. He stated it well, “being in SE Asia alone is a safety violation”. Well said.
We filled our liquid nitrogen container – which rests safely in my hotel room at a balmy -321F. We head out in two days for the field sight where will try out some different methods for collecting the samples – more on that tomorrow. For now, we’re working on staying cool in the hot town of Phnom Penh.