NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
July 19 – August 3, 2018
Mission: Cetacean Survey
Geographic Area: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Coast
Date: July 26, 2018
Latitude: 40° 0.989″ N
Longitude: 67° 30.285″ W
Sea Surface Temperature: 22.1° C (71.8° F)
Sailing Speed: 4.65 knots
Science and Technology Log
Premier marine ecologist Dr. Robert Pitman is a member of our cruise. He works at the NOAA Fisheries at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division. He has traveled the world in search of cetaceans, turtles, flying fish, and seabirds. Currently he is doing extensive work with killer whales. Dr. Pitman has viewed almost all of the 80 plus species of whales known to man; however, seeing some of the Mesoplodon beaked whales in person has been elusive… until now. Dr. Pitman gave an excellent presentation on the different species of beaked whales that we might to see in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Blainville’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon densirostris)
The Blainville’s beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Henri de Blainville in 1817 from a piece of a jaw. The average length of a Blainville’s beaked whale is 4.4 meters. The most prominent feature of the whale is a high arching jaw. Blainville’s beaked whales have scars from raking which heal white. Males are very aggressive and proud. Dr. Pitman stated, “They want a pair of horns but only have a pair of teeth.” They leave deep scars with their pairs of teeth, because they will savagely charge each other. Sometimes barnacles will settle on their teeth. The head of a Blainville’s beaked whale is flat to expose the teeth.
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris)
The Cuvier’s beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Georges Cuvier from a skull in 1823. The skull had a large cavern in the head which was the reason for the name cavirostris (cavi means hollow or cavernous in Latin). Cuvier’s beaked whales also go by the name of goose beaked whale. The whale can grow to a length of seven meters. Cuvier’s beaked whales have the most variable coloration. Some Cuvier’s will be grey in color while others may be reddish brown in color. They have white sloping melons.
Gervais’ Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon europaeus)
The Gervais’ beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Paul Gervais in 1855. The average size of a Gervais’ beaked whale is 4.8 meters. The prominent feature of the Gervais’ beaked whale is the vertical striping along its back along with a dark band just behind the melon. A white circular spot is located just below the melon. The dorsal fin is dark. The male Gervais’ beaked whale has one set of teeth located about one-third of the way back from the tip of the beak. Males turn dark and lose their striping with age. Males also rake each other; however, scars from the encounters re-pigment a darker color.
Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens)
The Sowerby’s beaked whale was first identified by Englishman James Sowerby in 2804. The average size of a Sowerby’s beaked whale is 5.5 meters. They are one of the few whales that have a long beak. Males have one pair of teeth that are located about two-thirds of the way back from the tip of the beak (or rostrum). Males have make scratch marks along their backs; however, since the teeth are positioned so far back, scratch marks are from just one tooth and not a pair which would create parallel tracks. Scientists believe the scarring is due to male competition. The dorsal fin is located approximately two-thirds of the way along the back. These whales are not very aggressive and more than one male will be seen in a group. These animals do not usually travel alone unless it is a male.
True’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon mirus)
The True’s beaked whale is the dominant subject of study of this cruise. The True’s beaked whale was first identified by American Frederick True in 1913. Due to his excitement over his discovery of the marine mammal, he named it mirus, which means wonderful in Latin. A True’s beaked whale can grow to be about 5.4 meters. The identifying features of a True’s beaked whale include: a dark band behind the melon, a large light spot behind the dark band, a pale melon, two tiny flippers, dorsal fin that is small and triangular, and for males two tiny teeth at the front of the rostrum. These whales will have paired parallel scarring because their teeth are so close together.
First and foremost, I am in awe every day at the different things I see in nature on this cruise. I have seen so many birds that I cannot remember one from the other… not to mention the dolphins. I did not know there were so many kinds of dolphins. I watched the television series “Flipper” when I was a little girl, and now I can say I have seen a bottlenose dolphin in person. I think the scientists get almost as excited as I do about seeing an animal even though they have probably seen them hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Nature is always amazing no matter how many times you see it.
During Dr. Pitman’s presentation, I was captivated by the way he spoke about the whales like they were his best friends he had known forever. I found out why. He has spent most of his life studying them. Dr. Pitman is an amazing resource for me on this cruise. Being a marine mammal observer newbie, Dr. Pitman took the time to answer all of my questions about whales. I really value the conversations I have had with a famous whale lover.
The weather has not been ideal for marine mammal observation for several days. If the swell is too high, it makes it hard to see the animals, because they can breach in the waves where we cannot see them. The fog also makes it difficult to see the animals, and it is not safe on the flying bridge if it is raining. During times of foul weather, the scientists are busily working on projects except for the seabirder. The seabirder sees several birds during foul weather. The chief scientist, Dr. Danielle Cholewiak, has assembled an international crew of scientists who are as passionate as she is about beaked whales.
During the foul weather when people are not working on other projects, the galley is place to be. The scientists have taught me how to play a card game called Peanut. It is a wild version of a multiplayer solitaire. I am usually pretty good at catching on how to play card games, so learning another game was fun. It gets fast and furious, and you cannot be faint of heart. The first person to 100 wins, but the person with the lowest score which can be negative also gets to be the winner of the lowest score. Sometimes even a NOAA Corps officer will join in on the excitement. All kinds of fun happens on board the Gordon Gunter!
One of the best experiences I have had so far on this cruise is talking with the crew. They are from all over the country and take their work very seriously. As different NOAA Corps officers on board get promoted, they may not stay with the Gordon Gunter and may move to other ships. Most of the crew, however, sticks with the Gordon Gunter. I thought when we went on the cruise that we were basically going on a “fishing” trip to watch whales and dolphins and no machinery would be on board. Oh how I was wrong! There are several pieces of heavy machinery on board including a crane and a wench. The boatswain is in charge of the anchors, rigging, and other maintenance including the heavy machinery. Boatswain is not a term I was familiar with before this cruise. The word is pronounced like “Bosun” not “Boat Swain.” Boatswain Taylor is the first one I see in the mornings and last one I see at night. He works tremendously hard to make sure the “work” of the ship is done.
Did You Know?
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Marine Mammal Program created a beaked whale identification guide. Check out the website: http://vertebrates.si.edu/mammals/beaked_whales/pages/main_menu.htm
- Audubon’s Shearwater Bird (Puffinus iherminieri)
- Barn Swallow Bird (Hirundo rustica)
- Blue Shark (Prionace glauca)
- Brown Booby Bird (Sula leucogaster)
- Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
- Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
- Cory’s Shearwater Bird (Calonectris diomedea borealis)
- Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris)
- Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus)
- Great Shearwater Bird (Puffinus gravis)
- Leach’s Storm Petrel Bird (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)
- Parasitic Jaeger Bird (Stercorarius parasiticus)
- Pilot Whale (Globicephala)
- Pomarine Jaeger Bird (Stercorarius pomarinus)
- Portuguese Man O’war (Physalia physalis)
- Pygmy Sperm Whale (Kogia breviceps)
- Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)
- Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus)
- Spotted Dolphin (Stenella frontalis)
- South Polar Skua Bird (Catharacta maccormicki)
- Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens)
- Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
- Striped Dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba)
- True’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon mirus)
- White-faced Storm Petrel Bird (Pelagodroma marina)
- Wilson’s Storm Petrel Bird (Oceanites oceanicus)
- Barnacles (balanus glandula) – sticky crustaceans related to crabs and lobsters that permanently stick themselves to surfaces
- Blowhole – similar to “nostrils” in humans which sits on top of the head to make it easier for cetaceans to breath without breaking their swimming motion.
- Dorsal fin – a fin made of connective tissue that sits on the back of a whale believed to be used for balance, making turns in the water, and regulating body temperature
- Fluke – a whale’s tail is comprised of two lobes made of tough connective tissue called flukes which help it move through the water
- Melon – an oil-filled sac on the top of a beaked whale’s head that is connected it vocal chords. The melon helps the whale to make clicks which help it to find food.
- Rostrum – snout or beak of a whale
- Winch – a machine that has cable that winds around a drum to lift or drag things
“Beaked Whale Sets New Mammalian Diving Record.” The Guardian. 27 March 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/27/beaked-whale-new-mammalian-dive-record
“Blainville’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon denisrostris).” NOAA Fisheries: Species Directory. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/blainvilles-beaked-whale
“Gervais’ Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon europaeus).” NOAA Fisheries: Species Directory. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/gervais-beaked-whale
“Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens).” Ocean Treasures Memorial Library: The Legacy Continues. http://otlibrary.com/sowerbys-beaked-whale/
Photographs of True’s beaked whales taken by Salvatore Cerchio. Images collected under MMPA Research permit number 21371.