Allison Irwin: Whales! July 16, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

07-25 July 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 16, 2019

Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 15 July 2019

We’re slowly coasting through a dense patch of fog. I can see about 20 meters off the deck before the horizon tapers to a misty, smoky haze. Then my eyes are affronted with a thick wall of white. It’s like we’re inside a room covered in white felt wallpaper – one of those rooms in a funhouse where the walls keep closing in on you as you walk through it.  For safety, the ship keeps sounding a loud horn at least once every 2 minutes to announce our position for other boats in the area. It’s been like this for an hour now. It’s a little spooky.


PERSONAL LOG


On a brighter note, we saw whales earlier this morning! We were one mile off the coast of southern Oregon, and ahead of us we saw the backs of a few whales peeking out of the surface. I was able to grab a pair of binoculars sitting next to me on the bridge, and with those I could clearly see their dark bodies in the water! Every once in a while one would gracefully lift its tail above the surface as it prepared to dive. They were so cute!

Eventually we got closer to them and we started to see more whales on either side of the ship. I spent probably 15 minutes moving from one side of the bridge to the other with my binoculars to get a better look. I’m lucky the NOAA Corps officers are so accommodating! Otherwise I think my constant fluttering from one area to another could’ve been construed as a pain.

The officers like to see whales too, so they were happy to share what they knew with me. It turns out we were most likely watching Humpback Whales. LT Dave Wang, Operations Officer on the ship and trained as an ichthyologist (fish biologist), said most whales have a distinctive blow pattern, tail shape, and dorsal fin size that makes it easier to identify which kind he’s looking at. I had no idea before today that there were so many different species of whales. I knew Orca – Free Willy, Humpback, and maybe something called a Blue Whale? But that would’ve been the extent of it. In the marine mammals identification guide housed on the ship, there are 45 types of whales in the table of contents! And that’s probably not a complete list of all whale species.

At one point today, eventually, once the fog lifted, we were 36 miles off shore and started seeing shoals of coastal pelagic species all around the ship. We could pick them out easily because each shoal looked like a dark, churning, rippled inkspot on the otherwise smooth-as-glass surface. While the low wind conditions are partly what left us in a thick layer of fog all afternoon, it is what also kept the water smooth enough to pick out the shoals. So I guess not all was lost. We saw even more whale activity around these shoals than we saw this morning, and they were a lot closer to the ship! 

One of the whales just off the starboard bow left a footprint. Larger whales like the Humpback produce larger footprints, and the calm sea state today allowed us to see them! It looked like a smooth patch of water in the center of concentric circles.

I’ve been trying to see whales and other marine mammals the whole trip. I saw a sea lion the other day, just one glimpse of it before it went under the water and we left the area, but now having seen the whales I feel pretty content.  The Commanding Officer of the ship also told me that seals or sea lions like to hang out on the pier that we’ll be docking at in San Francisco, so there’s still hope yet!


THE SCIENCE


If you’ve ever been whale watching on a boat, the type of whale you probably saw was a Humpback Whale. They can often be seen near the shore since they like to stay within the continental shelf, and they spend a lot of time near the surface compared to other whales. Not all whale species exhibit this same behavior.  If whales had a personality, I would call the Humpback Whales the Jersey Shore cast of the sea. They do things that come across as attention-seeking behaviors to the outside observer – slapping their unusually long flippers on the surface of the water, smacking their tails against the water in agitation, flipping their tails in the air before diving, and sometimes breaching the surface with their whole bodies. Of course, they’re not doing it to get our attention. But it makes for easy and exciting observation!

All Humpback Whales have unique patterns of coloration and texture on their flukes, so scientists can use photos to track specific animals as they migrate or go about their regular activities in a similar fashion to how we use fingerprints to uniquely identify people.

They also have the advantage of something called countershading. One of the whales I saw today had a silvery-shiny underside to its fluke that glistened in the sunlight and contrasted greatly with the dark, almost black color of its back. A lot of fish and marine mammals like whales and porpoises use countershading to help camouflage them by having naturally darker backs (dorsal side) and lighter stomachs (ventral side). This way when something is looking down at the creature, it blends in with the dark depths of the ocean, and when something is looking up at the creature, it blends in better with the lighter, sunlit layer of water near the surface.

Anything from krill to small fish are fair game for Humpback Whales when they’re hungry. Sometimes a group of Humpback Whales will work together as a team to catch fish. One way they do this is by bubble net feeding. It’s rare to witness, but a bubble net is a pretty sophisticated way to catch fish. It reminds me of the trawling we do each night from NOAA Ship Reuban Lasker except in this case the whales use a circular pattern of bubbles to corral a bunch of fish into one area… then they thrust forward aggressively, quickly, to scoop up the masses. We use a trawl net to corral the little critters into a codend instead of swallowing them whole.

bubble net
Photo of Humpback Whale Using Bubble Net to Catch Anchovies.
Photo by LT Dave Wang, taken earlier this year
krill in a jar
Quart Jar Filled with Krill Collected in a Bongo Tow

Baleen whales, like the Humpback, have a unique mouth that is hard to explain. If you can visualize a pelican’s beak, it looks a bit like that from the outside. These whales gulp a whole mouthful of water – including zooplankton, krill, and small fish – into their mouths, but they don’t swallow it down outright and they don’t exactly chew their food either. With all that saltwater and prey in their mouths, they use long rows of baleen attached to their upper jaw like a fine-toothed comb. And just like we would use a cheesecloth to strain the moisture off of runny yogurt, Humpback Whales filter the water out of their mouths through the baleen and keep the fishy goodness for themselves.


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


Watching the whales all day kept drumming up images in my mind from when I read Grayson by Lynne Cox. I wrote a review of Grayson in July 2014 on the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) blog. This book, by far, is one of my favorite recommendations to read aloud to students.

If you’re not an English teacher, you probably didn’t spend a lot of late nights in college reading novels to cram for a test. It wasn’t part of your major. But you’re missing out! There are so many ways to use novels and literary nonfiction across the content areas.  Grayson, for example, is artfully written. In the book review I wrote it tells Lynne’s “account of meeting a baby whale in the ocean during one of her early morning training swims. This lonely whale, separated from its mother, stays close to Lynne in the water while fishermen search for the mother.  This true yet almost unbelievable story is hauntingly beautiful.”

Taking 15 minutes of class time to read an excerpt from this book aloud could enrich any classroom. There are many instances when she writes about wanting to give up and swim back to shore. The baby whale is ultimately not her responsibility. It was very cold. She’d been out there in the ocean for hours with nothing but her own strength and experience to keep her afloat. She hadn’t eaten all day. But she stayed with the baby whale. She resolved to see it through to the very end. Any teacher can use her stick-with-it attitude as an example to encourage students to work through academic challenges.

One of my friends, blogger Allyn Bacchus, is a middle school social studies teacher. He uses historical fiction in his class every year. He writes, “My 8th grade U.S. History class covers a unit on Industry and Urban Growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  I have supplemented our unit with the historical fiction novel Uprising written by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  It covers the story of 3 teenage girls and their involvement in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911.  The author brings to life the living, working, and social conditions of the time period and allows my students to experience this unit through the eyes of girls who are living in it.”

Through the eyes of girls who are living in it.  This is something a textbook cannot do.

No one knows your discipline, your students, and your intended classroom environment better than you. Take an hour to fall down the Amazon rabbit hole! Search for a topic you find interesting and relevant to your curriculum, read the book review, click on the comparable book recommendations… you get the point.  Most of the time you can find a book preview to check out the text before purchasing – is the font too small? Too complicated? Too boring? Choose a short excerpt from a text you like for your first attempt at using literature in the classroom and build from there.


TEACHING RESOURCES


Since we’re talking about literature today, I’ll narrate the resource list.

  • We can search online for other educators who have already blazed the trail for us. Here is a blog post written by Terry McGlynn titled Assigning Literature in a Science Class.  The post itself is well written, and if you take the time to read through 54 comments below it, you will find lots of other text recommendations for a science classroom.  This article written by Kara Newhouse titled How Reading Novels in Math Class Can Strengthen Student Engagement shows why two math teachers read books in their high school classrooms. One of those teachers, Joel Bezaire, wrote a blog post with suggestions for other novel studies in math class. The other teacher, Sam Shah, shares a student example to explain how powerful it can be to use literature in a math class. It gets students to understand abstract and often elusive mathematical concepts.
  • I’ve written four nonfiction book reviews to accompany this NOAA Teacher at Sea experience and PCTELA is posting one review each week in July to the new media platform on their website. If not Grayson, then maybe you’ll find useful one of the books I read and reviewed to prepare for this trip. They include Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
  • And finally, I would be remiss to end this post without steering you toward The Perfect Storm written by Sebastian Junger about a small fishing vessel and crew caught in an Atlantic storm and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick – a captivating true story about the whaling industry which is thought to be the inspiration for Moby Dick.

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