Michael Wing: Seabirds to starboard, whales and seals to port, July 18, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of the Golden Gate Bridge
Date: Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind Southeast, ten knots. Wind waves less than two feet. Swell 4-6 feet ten seconds. Patchy morning fog.

Michael Wing and Fulmar
Michael Wing and the R/V Fulmar

Science and Technology Log

We loaded the boat yesterday at 3:00 PM and I met a lot of people including the three co-principal investigators Jan Roletto of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Danielle Lipski of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and Jaime Jahncke of Point Blue Conservation Science. There are others, including volunteers and visitors, and I will try to introduce some of them in future posts.

Today we didn’t collect water or plankton samples. We’ll do that tomorrow.  We sailed west from the Golden Gate Bridge on a track called “Line 5” at ten knots until we passed the edge of the continental shelf and then dropped south and cruised back to our dock in Sausalito on another line called “Line 7.” Plankton and water samples are for the even-numbered lines. Our purpose today was to count seabirds, whales and seals and sea lions. It’s not simple. By 7:30 AM we are assembled on the “flying bridge” (the highest part of the boat) with Jaime and the Greater Farallones Association’s Kirsten Lindquist on the starboard side and volunteers Jason Thompson and Rudy Wallen on the port. Kirsten notes birds, focusing just on the area from dead ahead to the starboard beam and calls out things like “Common murre, zone two, thirteen, flying, bearing 330 degrees.” This means she saw thirteen common murres flying northwest together not too far from the boat. This time is called being “on effort” and she is really focused on it. I don’t talk to her unless spoken to. Jamie enters all this into a database on his laptop.

On bird patol
On bird patrol

The guys on the port side are doing the same thing for marine mammals and saying “Animal, by eye, bearing 320, reticle seven, traveling, immature California sea lion, one-one-one.” These last numbers are estimates of the most probable number of animals in the group, and maximum and minimum estimates. Obviously, in this example just one animal was seen.

I am in awe of their ability to identify species, maturity and other things from just a glimpse. Kirsten can tell the difference between a Western gull and a California gull from hundreds of feet away, even if the gull is flying away from her. They also record floating trash, dead animals, and boats and ships.

So what are we seeing? Common murres, western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls, sooty shearwaters, pink footed shearwaters, storm petrels, black footed albatrosses, red necked phalaropes, tufted puffins, Pacific white sided dolphins, northern fur seals, a bottlenose dolphin, humpback whales, a dead seal, Mola molas (ocean sunfish), one flying fish, mylar balloons (4), a paper cup, a piece of Styrofoam. The flying fish was totally unexpected because they are mostly tropical and everyone talked about it all afternoon.

Port side
The port (left) side is for spotting marine mammals

Some of these birds have come here from Chile, New Zealand, or Hawaii in their “off” (non-breeding) season because there is a world-class food supply here for them. The sooty shearwaters start in New Zealand and fly to Japan, to Alaskan waters, and then down the west coast of North America before returning to New Zealand across the Pacific! However, a lot of these were far away. Visually, the ocean looks pretty empty from the flying bridge.

striped crab
This little crab was clinging to a piece of kelp we caught with a boat hook

Personal Log

The specter of seasickness haunts us on the first day of a cruise. Most of us are snacking on starchy treats like pretzels and Cheez-Its and drinking carbonated drinks. Paradoxically, these foods help prevent nausea. I have not taken any seasickness medicine and I am feeling a little queasy during the morning, but by noon I feel great. Nobody throws up. The Fulmar doesn’t roll from side to side very much but she does lurch when smacked head-on by a wave. It helps that the waves weren’t very big today. Soon we’ll all get our “sea legs.”

Also, you might appreciate these photos of me getting into a “Gumby suit” in under a minute, as part of my safety training. This is a survival suit meant to keep you from freezing to death if the boat sinks. You have to be able to get into it in less than a minute.

survival suit
Getting into the survival suit. I have 1 minute, and the suit is stiff. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett
into survival suit
I am into the survival suit. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett

Did You Know? Here’s what you need to untangle fishing nets from a frustrated humpback whale: Boathooks, sharp knives, and a GoPro digital camera on the end of a pole. The GoPro helps you study the tangles so you can decide where to make that one cut that causes the whole mess to fall apart and off the whale.


life ring
R/V Fulmar’s life ring

15 Replies to “Michael Wing: Seabirds to starboard, whales and seals to port, July 18, 2015”

  1. looks cold,
    im interested in the marine life in that area, if you spot any more keep us posted

    1. Dear Blake: My last post (dated July 24, titled “What’s there to see out there?” should appear on the home page later today; it has photos of whales and fish. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


  2. So how were you able to see the Mola Mola? Seeing how its a fish. Also aren’t they tropical?

    1. Dear Brock: The molas lie on their sides right at the surface and they are almost white, so they are easy to see. There’s a photograph of one in my last post; that post has not yet appeared on my home page but it will soon. Yes; they are tropical. We are seeing so many of them because some tropical water has moved up here due to El Nino. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


  3. Glad you’re helping the poor whales… how often do you find an entangled humpback whale in our area?
    I would imagine it would be difficult to swim wearing a “Gumby suit”, so I hope you find yourself a life boat if need be. I saw something about the measurements you were taking, and it included temperature measurements; what is the average water temperature?
    Also, how’s the weather? Once you get off the coast a bit, are you still stuck in the same boat (pun intended) as San Franciscans?

    1. Dear Lily: It’s windier and colder off the coast than it is on land. My post “Introduction to El Nino” is all about the water temperature. It’s a lot warmer than usual; but it can change quickly if upwelling occurs. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


  4. beautiful survival suit. I like the sleek contouring and the all-orange palet. The detailing of the black and reflector bits really makes the ensemble. Tell me, was this off-the runway or custom?

    1. Dear Elise: The survival suit was off the shelf, or actually it came out of an orange bag.


    2. Dear Elise: it was off the shelf; or actually out of an orange bag.


  5. Hey Doc, this is Dylan Fryer. I was wondering whether or not you had personal experience untangling a humpback whale. Also, what is the scientific goal of counting species? If there aren’t that many of them, what could you do about it? If you don’t see very many, could that mean they just weren’t in your area?

    1. Dear Dylan: No, I haven’t personally untangled a whale. You are absolutely right that if we don’t see that many it can mean that the whales are just somewhere else. What can we do about it if whale numbers are down? Not that much, but still there may be some things we can do. Put more restrictions on fishing, for example, or make the container ships slow down even more. Sometimes container ships hit whales by accident. I guess the point is, we can’t work on solving a problem if we don’t even know if there is a problem. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


  6. Hello Doc, this is Hayley Newman. I have just returned from a two week stay at Stinson beach. During the trip we found a dead juvenile mola mola on the beach. Some people who were looking at the fish said that it was very rare for an ocean sunfish to wash up on the beach. Is this true? Here are some questions I have for you:

    How did you see the ocean sunfish when you were counting them? I looked at some pictures of the ocean sunfish while in the water, it appears they have a large fin sticking upwards. Did you see the mola mola’s fin? Or, was the fish surfacing?

    Why do you think the ocean sunfish washed up on the beach? Could it be due to the rising ocean temperatures? Or, is it just an occurrence where the juvenile fish separated somehow from its mother at an early age?

    Do juvenile ocean sunfish stay with there mothers until a certain age?

    Do mola mola’s travel in groups?

    I love reading your blogs! They’re really interesting.

    1. Dear Haley: Yes, it’s rare for an ocean sunfish (mola) to wash up on the beach but there are more of them out there than usual because of the warmer-than-usual water. They are actually very easy to see because they stay right at the surface and they are big and light colored. The adult ones are usually by themselves, but once we saw about 15 young ones in a tight cluster. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


  7. Hi Doc,
    Sounds incredible! So much to see and so much to learn! It must be incredible getting to see so much wildlife. How does the data you have collected compare to previous years? Have the various populations of these creatures visibly declined? And how accurate does this method of recording wildlife tend to be?I really enjoyed hearing about your trip and look forward to learning more in next years science class.

    1. Dear Claire: The methods we use to measure bird and whale populations aren’t perfect at all, but over the long term I think they’re accurate enough. We are seeing more whales this year; that’s good! I’m looking forward to next year’s class too. yours, Michael (“Doc”) Wing


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: