Christopher Faist: Beast or Famine, July 30, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 30, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  19 ºC
Water Temp: 18 ºC
Wind Speed: 12 knots
Water Depth: 64 meters

Science and Technology Log

When traveling in the ocean you never know what you will get.  Scientists can try to predict the weather or the amount of animals that will be seen in a particular area but nothing is as valuable as going to the area and recording what you see.  For the last couple of days we have been traveling in deep water off the continental shelf of the east coast of the United States.  Yesterday, we made a turn toward the edge of the shelf and we were very surprised by what we found.  (Check the Ship Tracker to view our path.)

The ocean can best be described as a patchy, dynamic environment.  Some days we have traveled for hours and not seen a single animal but on days like yesterday, we saw so many animals our single data recorder was busy all day.  Since the start of this cruise we have averaged about 30 sightings a days.  Yesterday, we had 30 sightings in the first 30 minutes of observation and ended with over 115 sightings.

Two Common Dolphins
Two Common Dolphins

Species ranged from abundant Common Dolphin, to rare and elusive beaked whales.  The sighting conditions were so outstanding the Marine Mammal Observers were identifying everything from a small warbler to the second largest whale, a Fin Whale.  Large whales, like Sei and Minke Whales, were concentrated in one area, while the dolphins were seen in other areas.  We passed over several undersea canyons and cetacean abundance over these canyons was like nothing one of the scientists had ever seen.

Two tools in the ship’s wide array of scientific tools, help scientists document the small animals that the whales and dolphins might be feeding on over the top of the canyons.  One is the XBT, or Expendable Bathythermograph, and the second is a VPR, or Video Plankton Recorder.  The XBT is launched from the moving ship to document the temperature  and water density along the ship’s track.  They are inexpensive and record data in real-time, giving accurate and up to date information about the area the animals are most abundant.  The VPR is a tool used at night, while the ship moves slowly, to take pictures of the plankton that occurs along our route.

Example of a VPR image
Example of a VPR image

The combination of temperature, depth and photographs of plankton gives scientists a clear picture of the environment that congregates large densities of cetaceans.  By understanding the factors that contribute to cetacean population changes, scientists are able to make recommendations to lawmakers about how to protect this natural resource from human impact like bycatch from the fishing industry or ship strikes in commonly trafficked shipping lanes.

Personal Log

I am disappointed that we only have two days left on our trip.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at sea.  Crazy weather this morning of 30 knot winds and 6-8 foot seas will not be a fun memory but thankfully, this evening the weather settled down and we watched a beautiful sunset while playing games on the top deck.  I am not sure that I could be a marine mammal observer but I look forward to taking this unique opportunity and turning it into a learning experience for my students.

Since this will be my last post from sea I thought I would leave you with some images of ocean life that was not a marine mammal or seabird.  Enjoy.

Flying Fish
Flying Fish
Blue Shark
Blue Shark
Dusky Shark
Dusky Shark

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