NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather
June 5 – 26, 2017
Mission: Hydro Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Southeast Alaska – West Prince of Wales Island Hydro Survey
Date: June 15, 2017
Wind: 3 knots from the west
Visibility: 6 nautical miles
Barometer: 997.6 hPa
Air temperature: 9°C
Cloud: 100% cover, 1000’
Science and Technology Log:
While Fairweather is a hydrographic research ship, responsible for collecting data for navigational charts, one of the side reports the survey crew makes is a Marine Mammal Observation Log. When a marine mammal is spotted on a survey, its location is noted, the species is identified if possible and notes about the numbers, behavior and any other observations are documented. Along with documenting sightings of these animals, the coxswains also follow protocols for minimizing disturbance and impact to these creatures.
Since joining this leg of the hydrographic research, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangilae) have been the most numerous whale species seen. These whales that spend the summer in South-east Alaska winter mainly in Hawaii. Mating happens during the winter and the calves are born 11 months later. The calves stay with their mother for about 11 months after they are born. Individuals can grow up to 60 feet in length and live 50 years. These large grey whales have numerous barnacles that attach to their skin and filter feed as the whale travels. It is thought that the whales find shallower rocky areas to swim alongside in order to rub off the barnacles. It was in some of the shallower survey areas that I first saw humpbacks.
Harbor seals have fast become one of my favorites during my time here in Alaska. Growing to about six feet in length, the harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, have a diet of shellfish, crustaceans and fish and appear to be non-migratory, staying here year round. They are grey in color and can weigh up to 250 lbs as a mature male. Data seems to suggest that in some areas of their range in Alaska, the populations are declining but in other areas, seem stable. As the seals give birth in the summer, we’ve been fortunate enough to see seal pups too on this leg of the research.
The Northern sea otter, Enhydra lutris kenyoni, has perhaps been the most numerous marine mammal so far on this trip. Appearing small next to the seals and whales, upon reading more about them, I learned that they not small creatures, as they measure up to five feet in length and weigh up to 100 lbs. Feasting on a diet of invertebrates, such as clams and sea urchins, the sea otters are often spotted floating on their backs and are often associated with kelp beds. The otter fur trade began in the 1700’s and by 1900 populations were on the brink of extinction. Legislation has allowed the populations to rebound in most areas in the last 100 years, and they are seen regularly by survey crews and from the bridge.
Another species I saw here, up a small shallow cove, was the river otter, Lutra Canadensis. Five heads popped up in front of me and then bobbed under. Seconds later the otters were up on land running in to the trees. Seemingly fast and sleek, they were not acting like sea otters. It was not any behavior we had observed before. A little bit of research confirmed our suspicions that these were indeed river otters. Sea otters rarely come out on land, and when they do, do not move swiftly, having more flipper-like back legs, making land movement more arduous. River otters are smaller than sea otters weighing up to 35lbs and are 40-60 inches in length.
While obviously not a marine mammal, the bald eagle is pretty much a guaranteed daily sight as the surveys are being done. A friend referred to the bald eagle as an Alaskan pigeon, and while I have not experienced as many bird species or numbers of birds here as I thought I would, the eagle has been one of the main species sighted. With an estimated population of 30,000 in Alaska, more numerous here than any other state, that hasn’t always been the case. With bounties on them at the turn of the 20th century, and population reductions due to pesticides and habitat loss, especially in the lower 48 states, the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, was put on the Endangered Species List in 1967. Measures put in place both locally and nationally have been so successful that in 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List.
Another species I have seen regularly but not up at close range, is the Marbled Murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus. These small, almost 10 inch long marine birds are in breeding plumage right now and, although they have been hard to see, due to distance and poor light conditions in the rain, are beautiful shades of brown and cinnamon. They build nests here in southeast Alaska in the mossy branches of old growth conifer trees or on the ground.
While it’s easy to get sidetracked with the mammals and birds here, there is a host of other species here that play significant roles in the food web. Kelp has been one of the organisms that I’ve seen a lot while doing the small boat surveys, and on our first completely sunny day, I got the chance to get up close and personal with the kelp from the vantage point of a kayak. The Fairweather has several kayaks that on occasion the crew uses to explore the local area. Together with NOAA Corps Junior Officer ENS Peter Siegenthaler and Hollings scholar Carly Laroche, we filed a Small Boat Plan with the bridge, stating where we were going and our anticipated return time, picked up radios, and carried the kayaks down from the top deck. It’s a little tricky to get a small kayak in the water from a large ship, but with the help of a small boat, we launched and paddled, in almost glassy water, over towards the shoreline.
Being even closer to the water in a shallow keel-less boat, allowed us to paddle through those kelp forests, pick up the otter-opened clamshells and explore the intertidal community much more easily. We were also able get close to some of the terrestrial species, the Sitka spruce and the other trees species growing vertically out of often steep slopes, right down to the high tide mark. We paddled along these inter-tidal edges listening to hermit thrush sing from the trees up the hillsides as we debated how logging companies actually cuts trees on such steep slopes. It was a glorious day, a rare sunny, calm day in the early summer of southeast Alaska, and perfect for paddling. This area is filled with small islands and coves, waiting to be explored, especially at low tide, when more inter-tidal life is exposed. My fingers are crossed that the weather and water conditions will allow for more explorations by kayak before I have to leave Fairweather in Kodiak.
Fact of the day: KELP
There are three species of kelp found here in southeast Alaska: bull kelp, ribbon kelp and sugar kelp. Kelp is an algae, not a plant, although it does photosynthesize. It is an essential part of the ecosystem here and many species are dependent on it.
Word of the day: Baleen
Humpbacks are a baleen whale, meaning that they have these plates, up to 600, make out of a substance called keratin in their mouths that act as filters in feeding. The keratin is referred to as baleen and is similar to our fingernails. In an earlier blog posting I held up a piece of baleen in an art store in Ketchikan. Below is a picture of baskets woven out of strips of baleen.
What is this?
(Previous post: The picture is of the sonar equipment on the bottom of the small boats).