A Conversation with Captain Bob
Operation Toxic Gulf crewmember Jessica Guertin spent some time talking to RV Odyssey captain Bob Wallace while working in the Gulf of Mexico. Here she shares a portrait of our beloved captain:
Robert Wallace, or “Captain Bob” to his crew, is sitting in the mess with one eye shut and the other peering through a magnifying glass that scans over his computer screen. Someone jokes that we should buy him some glasses, to which he responds that he doesn’t need any. A deckhand laughs and says that Bob’s got his magnifying glass; he doesn’t need specs.
Bob is trying to take it easy right now. After almost 40 years at sea without incident, he recently broke a rib while on board the Odyssey in the Gulf of Mexico. Inaccurate reports echoed around the world of his heroic survival after a fall overboard into the rough seas off the coast of Florida–accounts he would later read out loud to the crew with an air of cheeky surprise about having fallen overboard and not even realising.
In actuality Bob had been hit by the railing of the ship while he was on deck during a patch of rough weather while at sea for Ocean Alliance’s Operation Toxic Gulf. For anyone lucky enough to spend any time with this captain it’s easy to understand how tall tales of his life could spread–almost as a testament to the mythos that surrounds Captain Bob; a man whose seafaring tales could easily consume the pages of any travel magazine.
Bob was born in Washington D.C. and grew up it Maryland. He learned to sail in on the Chesapeake Bay as a Sea Scout and fell in love with images he saw in the National Geographic magazines he would see at his aunt and uncle’s house. Serene and exotic shots of Irving Johnson’s brigantine Yankee in foreign places are what inspired him to join a voyage in 1975 that would define his career.
The year of 1975 could not have happened without NASA’s Apollo 17 lunar expedition. Captain Bob came to Florida to watch the last moon shot off Cape Canaveral in December of 1972. He liked the weather and white sand beaches so much he postponed his trip back north and promised his mother he would be home for Christmas. Christmas turned into New Years, New Years turned to six months and 42 years later Bob is now a resident of Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys–although due to his sea service he has not lived there full time in over two years.
Bob’s first work in Florida was on the railroad where he pursued his passion for trains, and even now his fellow crew are eager to tell him when there are old trains about. He happily shows me articles written by him for Trains magazine about his risky train-jumping, and that time in Sydney when he nearly missed the train but managed to run and jump into a car from the platform much to the surprise of the other passengers. It’s clear that Bob is a romantic and not surprising that he found his way onto the brigantine Romance after his mother told him about a round the world voyage leaving from Grenada.
Bob visited the Romance as a tourist, submitted his interest and found himself sailing around the world as a deckhand. His fellow railroad workers thought he was crazy for paying the ship owners to work onboard as a deckhand, but Bob was motivated by the images that covered the pages of National Geographic when he was a kid and the unique chance to sail off to far exotic places.
Bob was at sea touring the world for nineteen months and still owns a piece of wood he took from Irving Johnson’s ship, the Yankee, which was wrecked on Rarotonga in 1964, 12 years before his arrival onboard the Romance. Bob has since sailed around the world 3 1/3 times and still carries this piece of the Romance on board every vessel he sails on as a good luck charm.
After his time on the Romance, Captain Bob moved onto other traditionally rigged ships before transitioning into private yachts and sailboats like the Odyssey. Bob currently works for Ocean Alliance, which is a Massachusetts-based whale research organisation. Bob jokes that when Ocean Alliance purchased the vessel, which was “half donated,” they purchased him as well. He recounts that when he met the organisation’s CEO Iain Kerr over twenty years ago, he laughed at the idea that the Odyssey, then listed for sale at $1 million dollars, would ever be donated to Ocean Alliance by the ship’s owner Tony. However, in 1991 the ship’s owner did exactly that. Sort of half purchased and half donated, Ocean Alliance, then known as the Whale Conservation Institute, obtained the beautiful 93-foot sailboat through the persistence of Iain, who had fallen in love with the vessel during a trip to Fort Lauderdale.
Captain Bob initially stayed with the vessel because, in his mind, he was still looking after Tony’s boat, but he quickly came to believe in the vision of the organisation’s leaders while spending fourteen months in the Galapagos studying whales in 1993. Bob has since sailed all over the world with Ocean Alliance studying whales and has been on board for the last five years while the organisation studies the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
While spending some time in the region, it became apparent that many people have forgotten about the tragedy that unfolded on their shores just four years ago. However, the work conducted by Ocean Alliance could soon serve as a reminder that such a disastrous event will have many long term and chronic consequences. The crew of the vessel, part Sea Shepherd and part Ocean Alliance, has been obtaining biopsies from whales in the Gulf and is currently at the end of their five year campaign to obtain data from the region’s sperm whales, although the crew is excited about recent samples taken from Brydes and beaked whales.
Studies of prior samples have already demonstrated that there are higher concentrations of the DNA-damaging metals chromium and nickel in the Gulf sperm whales than in whales in other parts of the world prior to the spill. Widespread reports from environmental scientists have also condemned the chemical dispersant used to control the oil spill, claiming the dispersants actually made the disaster worse and could be the reason behind an increase in cases of vibrio vulnificus, often described as flesh-eating bacteria. Ultimately Ocean Alliance’s work may affect the way similar incidents are handled in the future.
With only a few more weeks left of campaign Captain Bob should have been out of action with his broken rib. However, he chose to remain with the vessel even though walking, sitting and sleeping are all activities that can cause him to release painful grunts. In spite of his crew’s wishes that he remain resting, his passion for the vessel and its mission has kept him mobile; even working late into the night to supervise crew working on the vessel’s shore power. After days of requests, Captain Robert Wallace has finally taken a rest in his cabin where his dedicated crew are watching over him. In the years to come the work done on the vessel he captains will provide the world with valuable information about our effects on our marine environment.