Kimberly Gogan: Science Spot Light – Marine Mammal Observing, April 12, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kim Gogan
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 7 – May 1, 2014

MissionAMAPPS & Turtle Abundance Survey Ecosystem Monitoring
Geographical Area of Cruise:  North Atlantic Ocean
Date: April 12, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temp: 10.3 degrees Celsius
Wind Speed: 10.5 knots
Water Temp: 8,2 degrees Celsius
Water Depth: 145.65 meters


Jen Gatzke, Chief Scientist of AMAPPS Leg 2 aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.
Jen Gatzke, Chief Scientist of AMAPPS Leg 2 aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.

Science and Technology Log

In the last blog I talked about all the different scientists who are working on Gordon Gunter. Today I am going to explain why. First, all of the scientists are here working under a program called the  Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, or AMAPPS for short. It is a multi-year project that has a large number of scientists from a variety of organizations whose main goal is “to document the relationship between the distribution and abundance of cetaceans, sea turtles and sea birds with the study area relative to their physical and biological environment.” The scientists are here working under the AMAPPS because of several government acts: the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act require scientists to do periodic checks of the populations of the protected species and the ecosystems they live in to make sure there have been no major human activities that have affected these species.

The National Environmental Policy Act also requires scientists to evaluate human impacts and come up with new plans to help the protected and endangered species. Finally the Migratory Bird Treaty requires that counties work together to monitor and protect migratory birds.  The project has a variety of activities that need to be conducted which is why all the different scientists are needed from the different groups like NOAA, Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Navy, and NOAA Northeast  and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers.  The variety of activities that are being done over multiple years under the AMAPPS include: aerial surveys, shipboard surveys, tag data, acoustic data, ecological and habitat data,  developing population size and distribution estimates, development of technology tools and modes, as well as development of a database that can provide all the collected data to different users. The AMAPPS project is also collecting  in depth data at a couple of areas of  special interest to NOAA & BOEM where there are proposed Offshore Wind Farms  to be built in the ocean.


Two of the Observer Team working their shifts on the Fly Bridge in on the "
Two of the Observer Team members working their shifts on the Fly Bridge in on the “Big Eyes”

Science Spot Light

Let me introduce the Chief Scientist, Jen Gatzke and the Marine Mammal Observer Team. Chief Scientist Jen works with the Protected Species Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). She primarily studies right whales.

Her main job here on the ship is to coordinate the teams of scientists so that each team is able to accomplish what it needs most efficiently while meeting the goals of the research mission. In this case the goal is to survey a large number of transect lines in a variety of marine habitats, both inshore and offshore.

She started sailing on NOAA ships 24 years ago in Pascagoula, Mississippi! Even thought Jen oversees all the science going on here on the Gordon Gunter, she is also part of the Marine Mammal Observer Team that does a rotating watch for mammals. The observer team starts its day at 7AM and works until 7PM except  for the 1 hour break at lunch when the daytime Oceanography team can conduct some of their sampling.

When they start their day observing it is called “on effort.” This means that the observer team and NOAA Corps are all ready to conduct the shipboard surveys the way they have determined would be best. This means a group of scientists that are all at their stations are ready to go and the NOAA Corps makes sure the ship stays on a particular designated course for a particular amount of time. When the team is “on effort” they have 4 rotating stations. There are two on the very upper deck, called the fly deck that watches with 2 very large (25×150) binoculars they call the “big eyes” on each side, port (left) and starboard (right) of the ship  Then there is another station on the lower starboard (right)  side deck that also use the “big eyes”  to scan for marine mammals as well. The last  station is the recorder who is located on the Bridge, or wheelhouse, where the NOAA Corps man the ship. The recorder is entering valuable data into a computer program designed specifically for this activity. Not only is the recorder keeping track of the different mammals that are spotted on the “big eyes,” they are also keeping track of important information about the weather, glare of the sun, and conditions of the ocean.

I learned the teams use some cool nautical terms during their observations and recordings. The first one is  the Beaufort Scale for sea state, or basically how calm or rough the seas are. Beaufort is measured by a numerical system with 0 being very calm and with no ripples to a 5 which is lots of white caps with foamy spray. Beaufort numbers go higher but it is very difficult to spot any sort of mammal evidence in seas that are rougher than a Beaufort 5. The team also measures the distance of the sighting using another measurement tool called a Reticle. The reticle is a mark on the inside of the “big”eye” binoculars. Its scale goes from 0 -20 and the 0 is always lined up with the horizon and allows the observer to give a quick reference number that can be used in a hurry to provide distance with a simple geometry equation.

The head shot of' "Thorny" the Right a whale taken by observer Todd Pusser on the Gordon Gunter AMAPPS Leg 2.
The head shot of’ “Thorny” the Right Whale taken by observer Todd Pusser on the Gordon Gunter AMAPPS Leg 2.

Although there are several other pieces of information the observers are looking for and giving to the recorder, the positive identification of the particular species of mammal is the most important. There are some species like the North Atlantic Right Whale, that is of particular interest to the team because they are the most endangered large whale in the North Atlantic Ocean. Not only is it exciting for the team and the rest of the ship as well to see sightings of them, their detected presence in particular areas could mean the implementation of tighter rules, like speed limits for ships that might be in the areas these animals are seen frequently. When the teams sights one of these whales, the ship is allowed to go “off effort” and follow the swim direction of the whales in order to get pictures with very large cameras that will allow the scientist to positively identify the particular whale.  Some of the other species seen frequently are humpback whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, pilot whales, striped dolphins, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, gray seals, harbor seals, loggerhead sea turtles, sharks and ocean sunfish.

Me on the Fly Bridge watching for whales and seals.
Me on the Fly Bridge watching for whales and seals.

Personal Log

So far for the first leg of the trip we have taken one very rough trip offshore and because of the weather we have been doing a string of transect lines that are close to the shore off Martha’s Vineyard, which is one of the areas of special interest to NOAA due to the projected offshore wind farm.

The day before yesterday, at just about dusk, the Chief Scientist Jen was the first to spot one of the North Atlantic Right Whales. I was in the lab at the time that Jen came running through yelling “we have right whales!”

She very quickly came back with a huge case which held the team’s camera used for close-ups of the whales. By the time I was on deck, so were many of the off duty scientists and the ship’s crew. Everyone was very excited and joined the frenzy of following, tracking and getting some good shots of the group of right whales. There ended up being 4 whales in all, which mean that there are enough to trigger a Dynamic Management Area (DMA), a management zone designed to provide two weeks of protection to three or more right whales from ship collisions. Ships larger than 65 ft are requested to proceed through the designated area at no more than 10 knots of speed.

One of the observers, Todd Pusser also had a large camera and was able to get a good head shot of one of the whales to send back to the lab. Allison Henry, another right whale biologist at NEFSC, was able to positively identify the whale as an adult male known as “Thorny”, aka EGNO (Eubalaena glacialis number) 1032, who has been seen only in the northeast since the 1980s! (click on “Thorny” to see the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog which houses and handles the identifications for all North Atlantic right whales.) It’s pretty cool that I actually got to see him too. Even thought it’s not the warmest job, it makes it all worth it just to see something as amazing as that!

Genevieve & I  up on the Fly Bridge on the "Big Eyes!"
Genevieve & I up on the Fly Bridge on the “Big Eyes!”

Did you know?

Did you know you can listen to Right Whale sounds and see where Right Whales are on the East Coast? Check out this page!  Click on this link for The Right Whale Listening Network.  NEFSC even has an Apple APP for seeing where the Right Whales are on the east coast and explains how to avoid them 🙂 Go to the app store – its free!

Me all dressed up in the "Mustang' suit helping the team keeping an eye out for whales.
Me all dressed up in the “Mustang” suit helping the team keep an eye out for whales.

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