Staci DeSchryver: Super Bonus Spiritual History Blog! July 29, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Sanctuary  

Date:  July 29, 2017


Location:  
20 deg, 20.0 min N, 156 deg, 08.6 min W

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Scattered Clouds

Visibility: 10 nmi

Wind @ 23 kts from 65 degrees

Pressure: 1015.1 mb

Waves: 4 – 5 feet

Swell:  7-8 feet at 70 deg

Temp: 26.5 deg

Wet bulb:  23.5 deg

Dewpoint: 25 deg

Bonus Spiritual History Blog

On July 23, we briefly suspended our operations to help out fellow scientists camped out on the French Frigate Shoals (Lalo), located along the Northwest Hawaiian Island chain – about halfway between the northernmost main islands and Midway (Kuaihelani).  The trip was brief, and we never set foot on terra firma, but with the help of the Big Eyes we could see something that we had not seen up close in 3 days – land.

Two nights prior, we finally crossed over to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands – a sacred and certainly mysterious (at least to me)  area for the Hawaiian People.  I was waiting with some anticipation for the moment we would cross into these waters.  The entire Northwest Hawaiian Island chain and its surrounding seas are limited-access for the vast majority of seafarers; the waters are protected by a proclamation signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, and expanded by President Barack Obama in 2016. This Marine Sanctuary’s designated area begins near the start of the Northwest Hawaiian Island chain, and stretches all the way to the Kure Atoll (Hōlanikū), just past Midway Island (Kuaihelani).  We were not permitted to cross into these waters until we had a permit, part of which included a component requirement of a briefing on the history of the area before we entered.  ers Native Hawaiian Program Specialist Kalani Quiocho introduced us to this sacred ground during our pre-cruise training with this briefing on this Marine National Monument, Papahānaumokuākea.  His presentation was so moving that I felt it necessary that the story of these waters (through my limited experience) must be told.

Mr. Quiocho’s presentation began with the name song for Papahānaumokuākea.  His voice bellowed out in an ethereal chant – one in a smooth and haunting language with sound combinations like nothing I had ever heard before.  His song was punctuated with ‘okinas and kahakōs, and accented with stunning photographs of ocean life, ritual, and artifact.  The music moved me to a tear, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint the emotion that was supposed to accompany it.

name song for papahanamoukuakea

The Name song for Papahānaumokuākea, reprinted with permission from Kalani Quiocho.

I realize now that I have traveled to this sacred place that it was one of simple reverence for the culture and its people who belong so fully to it.  It was at that moment that I realized that this trip would be a whole other ball game – one that is sacred, cosmic, and mysterious.

Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Papa-hah-now-mow-coo-ah-kay-a) is the first officially designated Mixed Cultural and Heritage site, and is the largest fully protected conservation area in the United States.   Its name commemorates the union of two Hawaiian ancestors – Papahānaumoku and Wākea, who according to Hawaiian ancestry gave rise to the Hawaiian archipelago, the taro plant and the Hawaiian people.  These two ancestors provide a part of the Genesis story for Hawaiʻi – land to live on, food to eat, and people to cultivate, commune, and thrive as one with the gifts of their ancestors. The namesake alone of this marine sanctuary highlights the importance of its existence and its need for protection.  Many of the islands are ancient ceremonial sites, two of which we passed on the way to the Shoals (Lalo).

Crossing over to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands also marks a celestially significant line in the Hawaiian archipelago – the Tropic of Cancer.  The Tropic of Cancer is the furthest north that the sun will reach a direct overhead path during the solar year – you might know this as the summer solstice.  Right on the Tropic of Cancer lies the island Mokumanamana, a sacred place of cultural distinction for the Hawaiian people.  The Tropic of Cancer divides the entire Hawaiian archipelago into two distinct sections, Pō and Ao – the Ao represents the more southern islands and spiritual daylight, and the Pō representing the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and spiritual twilight.

ao and po

This diagram shows the separation between the NWHI and the main Hawaiian Islands. The horizontal line through the center divides day (Ao) from night (Pō) and lines up with the Tropic of Cancer. The Island Mokumanamana lies directly on the boundary between the living and spiritual realms. Our destination was Lalo, or French Frigate Shoals, though our travels took us much further northwest than that. (Diagram Credit: Kalani Quiocho)

The crossing over as we passed Mokumanamana is significant in that we entered a different spiritual zone of the Hawaiian Islands.   The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument’s website (click here to read much more about it) describes the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as “a region of primordial darkness from which life springs and spirits return after death.”  In this sense, transiting past Mokumanamana represented a “crossing over” into a different realm of ancient history.  Mokumanamana is known for its high density of ancient ceremonial sites and is considered a center of Hawaiian religion and ideology.  Mr. Quiocho expands on the geographical importance of the area to the Hawaiian people in his commentary stating that,

“Papahānaumokuākea encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands which is ¾ of the Hawaiian archipelago and includes high basalt islands and low-lying atolls, and surrounding marine environments. It stretches nearly 2,000 kilometers and straddles the Tropic of Cancer also known to Hawaiʻi as Ke Ala Polohiwa a Kāne – The sacred black glistening path of Kāne, the patron god of the sun. It is believed that the Hawaiian Archipelago is divided into two regions called Pō and Ao, which essentially means night and day. Most of the NWHI is within Pō, a place of creation and origin where ancestors return to after death. The region known as Ao includes the main Hawaiian Islands where man resides. The entire Hawaiian Archipelago represents the dualisms and cycles of the Hawaiian universe. From the east where the sun rises and the islands are volcanically birthed from the oceanic womb to the west where the sun sets and the islands return to the sea. And all of the extraordinary biology that is found in the Northwestern and main Hawaiian Islands are accounted for in our oral traditions. The Kumulipo, a creation chant with more than 2,000 lines expresses the cosmology of the Hawaiian Islands, beginning with the birthing of the coral polyp and eventually the Hawaiian people. Naturally this is an inspiring place that is the framework of our worldview and the knowledge systems that tell us we are people of place. Which is why many refer to this area as the kūpuna islands, kūpuna meaning elder or grandparent.”

Today, Native Hawaiians will travel by double-hulled canoes from the main islands all the way up to Nihoa and Mokumanamana during times of ritual importance and follow in the footsteps of their ancestors to honor the tradition and the spiritual practice.  I’m sure the journey is both treacherous and fulfilling, one that would rival other more commonly known great expeditions, especially considering its spiritual significance.

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Papahānaumokuākea is rich with history – both ancient and recent, and full of its own surprises!

Mr. Quiocho continues by expanding on the importance of the navigation of these waters to the Hawaiian people and how it honors their homeland connections:

“Native Hawaiians believe that the vast region that makes up the NWHI is an incredibly sacred place and is regarded as the construct of their cosmological genealogy. This region is rooted in creation and origin as a place where all life began and to which ancestors return after death. Native Hawaiians have historical connections to all parts of their homeland, which encompass all the islands, atolls, shoals, coral reefs, submerged seamounts and ocean waters that connect them. While the islands themselves are focal destinations for traditional voyages, the vast ocean is equally important. It is a cultural seascape that is imbued with immense value. The ocean is more than an unknown empty space that isolates islands, but rather a pathway for movement and potential.

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A rare sighting of Tropical Pacific Orca – one of the first Cetaceans to welcome us to the Monument. What a gift!

Long-distance voyaging and wayfinding is one of the most unique and valuable traditional practices that Native Hawaiians have developed and continue to advance. It is an ancient way of interacting with the ocean that continues to inspire and create social change. The ocean region surrounding the NWHI is the only cultural voyaging seascape within the Hawaiian Archipelago. The main Hawaiian Islands are large enough for any novice navigator to find, but the ocean region throughout and surrounding Papahānaumokuākea provides challenging opportunities for apprentice navigators to excel. This expansive ocean environment was the setting for ancient Hawaiian chiefs to voyage back and forth between the main Hawaiian Islands and the NWHI over the course of 400 years.”

On our journey, we slipped passed Mokumanamana in the cover of night – through the invisible gates and into this ancient ancestral realm.  Although we had been in the monument since the previous day, for some reason this crossing marked a distinction for me personally in an indescribable way.  Since arriving on Oahu and in my travels since, I’ve known there was something special and different about this place, and I’ve known that part of the “different” was me.  Walking through Ala Moana Park on the 4th of July revealed threads of a culture that formed a beautiful tapestry of family, community, and heritage as I strolled past hundreds of families camped out in anticipation of the upcoming fireworks over the ocean.

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A volcanic neck stands high above the waters surrounding the shoals.

There was something communal and sacred about it, even though the time and event was modern.  There was an “old” feeling of togetherness that buzzed through the park amongst strangers and friends.  I knew I was an outsider to this energy, but I didn’t feel entirely left out of it.  It’s one thing to feel like a foreigner on the “day” side of the Tropic of Cancer, but the “night” side held a spiritual distinction, as though I was trespassing in a dimension to which I did not belong. Knowing that the only passage of ships through this area would come with permits and regulations left a feeling of emptiness in an already vast ocean.  Knowing the ocean is full beneath with life both current and past – fish and whale and ancient Hawaiian spirit alike gave back some reassurance that we were not entirely alone.  For the first time I didn’t want to just know about Papahānaumokuākea, I wanted the ocean to tell me the story herself.

Nestled in the middle of Papahānaumokuākea was our target destination – French Frigate Shoals (Lalo).  On this tiny island a small team of scientists have been camped out for a little over six weeks studying the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.  We were tasked with delivering critical supplies to the scientific team – fuel, replacements of scientific gear, and a small care package with a few creature comforts they had not had access to in quite some time.  (I mean, seriously.  Who drops off fuel without dropping off chocolate? Not us!)   We also picked up some specimens from them to take back to the lab in Honolulu. The Shoals are a special place – a World War II military outpost slowly decays on the far side of the island, providing some cover for the scientists as they work. The island hosts thousands upon thousands of terns, flying en masse around the island in huge swarms.

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A closer view of the island. The dots in the air above the island are all birds.

The terns were in preparation of fledging, and in anticipation of that day, tiger sharks stalked the surrounding waters, waiting for their next meal. On the opposite side of the island a few hundred meters away from shore, a lone sandbar (formerly dredged up for use as a military runway) rose to the surface providing a quiet place for a monk seal and her two pups to lounge in the sand.  One seal pup practiced swimming in the shallows as the mother casually glanced in its direction.  The other pup would hobble a few feet away down the beach, only to run back to its mother and lie next to her for a time.  It was a little reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell beach vacation painting, had Rockwell chosen an animal personification route as his medium.  A turtle dotted the far edge of the landscape on the main island, basking in the rising sun as the waves gently rolled on to the beach behind him.

runway

This flat strip of land is a dredged up runway, slowly returning back to the ocean after years of abandonment from use. A mother seal and two pups lounge on the sand, enjoying the sun.

The structures on the land from afar looked like a distant movie set for an apocalyptic storyline. The wind howled as we approached the atoll, and birds fought against the invisible currents in frantic circles around the island.  Two boats lay destitute along the far side of the island while waves crashed merciless against the sea wall built to hold the atoll in place during the time the island was volunteered to serve in a wartime capacity. The island itself is a surreal duplicity – serving both as a protector of life and a vessel of war.  I found myself taking stock of this history;  watching from far away to learn the eternal evolution of this strange place – first a volcano, sunk beneath the surface, then to a primordial breeding ground for coral, fish, and shark – onto a pristine landscape, possibly used by ancestral Hawaiians for ceremony and stopover en route to Kure (Hōlanikū) – a military base as a refueling station and an outpost – and finally a protected home for hundreds of species, some hanging desperately onto the last strings of life but finally thriving under the care of a dedicated research team.

As much as I desperately wanted to go on to the island to have a look at this former military operations base-turned-endangered-animal-sanctuary, none of us could go on shore – even those who shuttled supplies to the scientists.  French Frigate Shoals marked the first time I had ever seen a coral atoll in anything other than a picture, and it seemed a natural part of my inner explorer to want to pop on to shore to have a look about, even for just a few minutes.  Everything in French Frigate Shoals is protected under the Papahānaumokuākea permitting restrictions.

pulley system

Supplies were hauled ashore by the small pulley system jutting up from the shoreline – visible on the left-middle portion of the island.

Had we wanted to explore the land, we would have needed to quarantine our clothing and ourselves for a minimum of 72 hours to protect the landscape from anything foreign taking foot on shore. Our ship couldn’t make it much closer than a mile or two from the island so as not to put it in danger of running aground. So, a team of four people shuttled supplies in the small boat, navigating the shallows and hauling the supplies on shore through a pulley system.  Two quick trips out to the island, and we were soon on our way again in our search for cetaceans.

When Mr. Quiocho parted ways with us after our training, he made a casual but powerful statement in closing.  He told us the whale dives deeply to commune with ancient wisdom commissioned to the deep ocean, bringing this deep knowledge from the ancestral depths to the surface so that it can become part our collective consciousness. Our trip, then, is a not merely a collection of data or a series of samples.  Each time we interact with the whales, they are bringing us the knowledge of the ancients in hope that we will continue to pass that information on to anyone at the surface willing to listen. The responsibility of our work when described in this light brought a new reverence to the study – one that is not just a story for the present in hopes of preserving for the future, but that weaves ancient knowledge from the past into our work, as well.

Did you know?

  •         Each day at noon, the ship’s alarms are tested to ensure they will work in an emergency situation.  Guess who got to test the alarms?

    fire alarm

    Yup! I got to test the alarm. Thanks Lieutenant Commander Rose!

  •         Ship safety is the height of the focus of everyone on board.  Each Friday, we complete drills to make sure we are ready in the event of an emergency.  Of the many dangers at sea, a fire can prove to be most catastrophic.  It’s not like the fire department can come out to the middle of the Pacific at the first sign of burning bacon (which may or may not have happened to me two days before I left for Oahu).  The entire Sette crew acts as the fire department, so it is important for them to practice in the event of an emergency.  This week we simulated a live-fire scenario, complete with a fog machine.  I got to call the drill up to the bridge!  It was a little extra fun built into a very serious situation.
  •         Classes are still continuing each afternoon on the bridge, Monday through Friday. 
    amanda and hexacopters

    Dr. Amanda Bradford gives the Wardroom a lesson on Hexacopter Operations (see blog #5 for more!)

    tim and msds

    ENS Tim Holland gives a lesson on MSDS chemical safety sheets.

  •         Officers are in a friendly competition to see who is on watch when the most sightings occur, among other friendly battles.  It is the topic of lively discussion at most meal times.  

    The tallys

    Officers can make a competition out of ANYTHING!  Here are the tallys for the past 25 days.

Staci DeSchryver: The First Rule of Mammal Club, July 24, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Near the Maro Reef, Northwest Hawaiian Islands

Date:  July 24, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Location: 23 deg, 39.5 min N, 169 deg, 53.5 min W

Wind:  85 degrees at 12 kts

Pressure:  1017.0

Waves: 2-3 feet at 95 degrees

Swell: 3-4 feet

Temperature 27.5

Wet bulb temp: 26.2

 

Science Log

Most of us know the first rule of Fight Club – Don’t talk about Fight Club.  In previous blogs, we’ve established that if acoustics hears a vocalization from the lab, they do not inform the observers on the flying bridge – at least not until all members of the vocalizations are “past the beam”, or greater than 90 degrees from the front of the ship.  Once the vocalizations are past the beam, acoustics can elect to inform the observers based on the species and the specific protocols set for that particular species.  The purpose of this secrecy is to control for bias.  Imagine if you were a marine mammal observer, headed up for your last two hour shift on your ten hour day.  If you stopped by the acoustics lab to say hello and found the acoustician’s computer screens completely covered with localizations from a cetacean, you might change the way you observe for that animal, especially if you had a general idea of what angle or direction to look in. One experimental goal of the study is to eliminate as much bias as possible, and tamping the chatter between acousticians and the visual team helps to reduce some of this bias.  But what about the observers?  Could they bias one another in any way?  The answer to that question is yes, and marine mammal observers follow their own subset of Fight Club rules, as well.

Let’s say for example, a sighting of Melon-Headed Whales is occurring.  On the flying bridge, available observers come up to assist in an abundance estimate for that particular group (more on how these estimates are made later).  They also help with photographing and biopsy operations, when necessary.  Melon-Headed Whales are known to travel in fairly large groups, sometimes separated into sub groups of whales. After spending some time following the group of whales, the senior observer or chief scientist will ensure that everyone has had a good enough opportunity to get a best estimation of the number of Melon Headed Whales present.  At this point, it’s time for the observers to write their estimates.  Each observer has their own “green book,” a small journal that documents estimation numbers after each observation occurs.  Each observer will make an estimation for their lowest, best, and highest numbers.  The lowest estimate represents the number of cetaceans the observer knows for certain were present in the group – for example they might say, “There couldn’t possibly be fewer than 30”.  The highest estimate represents the number that says “there couldn’t possibly be any more than this value.”  The best estimate is the number that the observer feels totally confident with.  Sometimes these values can be the same.  The point is for each observer to take what he or she saw with their own eyes, factor in what they know about the behavior of the species, and make a solid personal hypothesis as to the quantitative value of that particular group.  In a sighting of something like our fictitious Melon Headed Whales, those numbers could be in the hundreds.

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Marine Mammal Observer Allan Ligon records his cetacean estimates in his “green book” after a sighting.

Once the documentation is complete in the green books, the observers direct the ship to return back to the trackline, and begin observing again.  They never discuss how many animals they saw.  This is such an important part of what marine mammal observers do as professionals.  At first glance, one would assume that it would be beneficial for all observers to meet following an observation to come to a consensus on the numbers sighted.  But there are a lot of ways that discussion on numbers can turn sideways and skew overall data for the study.  Let’s take an obvious example to highlight the point.

Imagine if you were a new scientist in the field, coming to observe with far more senior observers.  Let’s assume you’ve just spotted a small group of Pygmy Killer Whales and although you are new on the job, you know for an absolute fact that you counted six dorsal fins – repeatedly – through the course of the sighting.  If the sighting ends, and the more senior observers all agree that they saw five, the likelihood that you are going to “cave” and agree that there were only five could be higher.

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Scientist Paula Olson recording her numbers after a sighting, keeping her information separate from others.

If you never talk about your numbers, you never have to justify them to anyone else.  The question often comes up, “What if an observer consistently over or underestimates the number of cetaceans?”  It’s much better for the scientists to consistently over or underestimate their counts than to spend time trying to fine tune them against the rule of another’s estimate.  If counts skew high or low for a scientist each leg of the trip as the co-workers change, that can create a problem for those trying to analyze the abundances after the study is complete.  Further, not discussing numbers with anyone at all ever gives you a very reliable estimation bias over time.  In other words, if you consistently over estimate, the people who complete the data analysis will know that about you as an observer and can utilize correction factors to help better dial in cetacean counts.  It is because of this potential for estimation bias that all marine mammal observers must never talk numbers, even in casual conversation.  You’ll never hear a marine mammal observer over dinner saying, “I thought there were 20 of those spinner dolphins, how many did you think were there?”

Where do these data go after the study is over?  Data from each sighting gets aggregated by the chief scientist or other designee and the group size for each sighting is determined.  Then, via many maths, summations, geometries, and calculuses, population abundance estimates are determined.  This is a dialed-in process – taking the number of sightings, the average sighting group size, the length of the transect lines, the “effective strip width” (or general probability of finding a particular cetacean within a given distance – think smaller whales may not be as easy to see from three miles away, and therefore the correction factor must be taken into account), and finally the probability of detection – and combining those values to create a best estimate for population density within the Hawaiian EEZ.

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Scientist Kym Yano on the bow of the ship, trying to get an up-close ID photo.

The probability of detection is an interesting factor in that it used to always be considered as a value of 1 – meaning that if a cetacean shows his friendly (or ferocious) mug anywhere on the trackline (the predetermined path the ship is taking in the search) the value assumes that a mammal observer has a 100% chance of spotting it.  This is why there is a center observer in the rotation – he or she is responsible for “guarding the trackline,” providing the overlap between the port and starboard observers in their zero to ninety degree scans of the ocean.  Over time, this value has created statistical issues for abundance estimates because there are many situations when a 100% detection rate is just not a realistic assumption.  Between the HICEAS 2002 study and the HICEAS 2010 study, these detection factors were corrected for, leading to numbers that were reliable for the individual study itself, but not reliable to determine if populations were increasing or decreasing.

Other factors can play a role in skewing abundance estimates, as well.  For example, beaked whales often travel in smaller-sized groups and only remain at the surface for a few minutes before diving very deeply below the surface.  Sightings are rare because of their behavior, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are declining in population.  In HICEAS 2002, there was an unusual sighting of a large group of these whales.  When the statistical methods were applied for this group as a whole, the abundance numbers were very high.   In 2010, the sighting frequency was more “normal” than finding the anomalous group, and the values for the numbers of these whales dropped precipitously.  There wasn’t necessarily a decline in population, it just appeared that way because of the anomalous sighting from 2002. Marine mammal observer Adam Ü assists on a sighting by taking identification photos.

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Marine mammal observer Adam Ü assists on a sighting by taking identification photos.

Statistical analysis methods have also changed over the years once scientists took a harder look at some of the variables that the marine mammal observers must contend with in their day to day operations.  At the start of every rotation, mammal observers make general observations about the sea conditions – noting changes in visibility, presence of rain or haze, wind speed, and Beaufort Sea State.  Observers will go “off effort” if the Beaufort Sea State reaches a 7.  To give you an idea of how the sea state changes for increasing numbers, a sea state of Zero is glass-calm.  A sea state of 12, which is the highest level on the Beaufort scale, is something I’m glad I won’t see while I’m out here.  Come to think of it, we have gone “off effort” when reaching a sea state of 7, and I didn’t care for that much, either.    

Most of our days are spent in at least a Beaufort 3, but usually a 4 or 5.  Anything above a 3 means white caps are starting to form on the ocean, making it difficult to notice any animals splashing about at the surface, especially at great distances – mainly because everything looks like it’s splashing.  Many observers look for splashing or whale blows as changes against the surrounding ocean, and the presence of waves and sea spray makes that job a whole heck of a lot more difficult.  Beaufort Sea States are turning out to be a much bigger player in the abundance estimate game, changing the statistical probabilities of finding particular cetaceans significantly.  

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Everyone loves a cetacean sighting! Corps officers Maggied and Frederick on the bow looking at a dolphin sighting.

One species of beaked whale has a probability of sighting that drops off exponentially with increasing sea state.  As sea state goes up, the chances of seeing any cetacean at all decreases.  Other factors like sun glare play a role in decreased sightings, as well.  When a beaked whale “logs” at the surface in glass calm waters, chances are higher that it will be spotted by an observer. When the ocean comes up, the wind is screaming, and the waves are rolling, it’s not impossible to see a whale, but it sure does get tough.

The good news is that for most species, these abundance estimates account for these variables.  For the more stealthy whales, those estimates have some variation, but overall, this data collection yields estimate numbers that are reliable for population estimates.

 

Personal Log

It is darn near impossible to explain just how hard it is to spot mammals out in the open ocean.  But, being the wordy person I am, I will try anyway.

I had some abhorrently incorrect assumptions about the ease at which cetaceans are spotted.  These assumptions were immediately corrected the first time I put my forehead on the big eyes.  Even after reading the reports of the number of sightings in the Hawaiian EEZ and my knowledge of productivity levels in the tropical oceans,  I had delusions of grandeur that there would be whales jumping high out of the water at every turn of the ship, and I’d have to be a blind fool not to see and photograph them in all of their whale-y glory.

I was so wrong.

Imagine trying to find this:

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Try spotting this from two miles away. There is a Steno Dolphin under that splash!

In this:

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Sun Glare. It’s not easy to find mammals in these conditions.

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Beaufort 6 sea conditions: When you’re looking for splashes…and it’s all splashes…

Here’s the long and short of it – there were times when we were in pretty decent conditions, and marine mammal observers were “on” a sighting, and I trained the big eyes in exactly the direction and my eyes at the exact distance and I still couldn’t see them.  There were times when the mammals pretty much had to be launching themselves out of the water and onto the ship before I was like, “Oh, hey!  A whale!”  I can think of at least four sightings where this happened – whales were out there, everyone else could see them…and I couldn’t find them if they were pulled out of the water and handed to me in a paper bag.  Which is extra disappointing because a) a whale doesn’t fit in a paper bag, and 2) if it did, it would likely soak the bag so that it fell out of the bottom and now I’d have a whale that I couldn’t see anyway who now has a headache and is ornery because someone shoved him in a paper bag that he promptly fell face first out of.  And as I’ve learned over the time I’ve been on the ship and through many forays into the wilderness – don’t anger things with teeth.

I have had the good fortune of watching our six marine mammal observers as they do their work and I am continually floored at the ability and deftness in which they do their jobs.  I have done a few independent observation rotations – I try to get in at least three each day – and I have only once been able to complete a rotation in the same way the observers do.  Looking for forty minutes through the port side big eyes, sitting and guarding the trackline for 40 minutes, and looking for forty minutes through the starboard side big eyes is exhausting.   Weather conditions are constantly changing and sometimes unfavorable.  The sun could be shining directly in the path of observation, which turns the whole ocean into the carnage that could only be rivaled by an explosion at a glitter factory.  While the canopies protect the observers from a large majority of incoming sunlight, there’s usually a few hours in the day where the sun is below the canopy, which makes it blast-furnace hot.  Today the winds are blowing juuuuust below the borderline of going off effort due to sea state conditions.  Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow at all, or worse –  it blows at the exact speed the ship is traveling in – yielding a net vector of zero for wind speed and direction.  Out on the open ocean, Beaufort Sea States rarely fall below a 3, so observers are looking through piles of foam and jets of sea spray coming off the waves, searching for something to move a little differently.  Trying to look through the big eyes and keep the reticle lines (the distance measures on the big eyes) on the horizon during the observation while the ship moves up and down repeatedly over a five foot swell?  I can say from direct experience that it’s really, really hard.

The animals don’t always play nice, either.  It would be one thing if every animal moved broadside to the view of the observers, giving a nice wide view of dorsal fin and an arched back peeking out of the water.  A lot of cetaceans see ships and “run away.”  So, now as an observer, you have to be able to spot the skinny side of the dorsal fin attached to a dolphin butt.  From three miles away.   Some whales, like sperm whales, stay at the surface for about ten minutes and then dive deep into the ocean for close to an hour.  We’re lucky in that if we aren’t on the trackline and spot their telltale blows when they are at the surface, the acoustics team knows when they are below the surface and we can wait until they do surface, so that’s a benefit for everyone on the hunt for sperm whales.

But overall? These things are not easy to find.   We aren’t out here on a whale watching tour, where a ship takes us directly out to where we know all the whales are and we have endless selfie opportunities.  The scientific team couldn’t bias the study by only placing ourselves in a position to see cetaceans.  In fact, the tracklines were designed years ago to eliminate that sort of bias in sampling.  Because we cover the whole Hawaiian EEZ, and not just where we know we are going to see whales (looking at you, Kona) there could be times where we don’t see a single cetacean for the whole day.  As an observer, that can be emotionally taxing.

And yet, the marine mammal observers persevere and flourish in this environment.  Last week, an observer found a set of marine mammals under the surface of the water.  In fact, many observers can see mammals under the water, and it’s not as though these mammals are right on the bow of the ship – they are far far away.  Most sightings happen closer to the horizon than they do to the ship, at least initially.  The only reason why I even have pictures of cetaceans is because we turn the ship to cross their paths, and they actually agree to “play” with us for a bit.   

Over the last three weeks, I’ve tried to hone my non-skill of mammal observation in to something that might resemble actual functional marine mammal observation.  I have been thwarted thus far.  But I have gotten to a certain point in my non-skill – where at first, I was just in glorious cod-faced stupor of witnessing cetaceans, and trying to get as many photos as possible – now, a sighting for me yields a brief moment of awe followed by an attempt to find what the observers saw in order to find the animal.  In other words, I “ooh and ah” for a few moments at first, but once I can find them, I start asking myself, “Ok, what do the splashes look like?”  “How do the fins look as they come out of the water?”  “What does the light look like in front or behind the animal, and would I be able to see that patterning while I’m doing an observation?”  So far, I’ve been unsuccessful, but I certainly won’t stop trying.  I have to remember that the marine mammal observers who are getting these sightings have been doing this for years and I have been doing this for hours comparatively.  Besides, every sighting is still very exciting for me as an outsider to this highly specialized work, and the star-struck still hasn’t worn off.  I imagine it won’t for quite some time.  

 

Ship Fun!

Being at sea for 28 days has its advantages when it comes to building strong connections between scientists, crew, and the officers.  Everyone pitches in and helps to make life on this tiny city a lot more enjoyable.  After all, when you spend 24 hours a day on a ship, it can’t all be work.  Take a look at the photos below to see:

 

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Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana hosts a shave ice party (a traditional Hawaiian treat) on a Monday afternoon

 

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The scientific team gets fiercely competitive when it comes to cribbage!

 

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The Doc and I making apple pie after hours for an upcoming dessert!

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Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana fires up the smoker for a dinnertime pork shoulder. Yum!

 

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Husband and wife team Scientist Dr. Amanda Bradford and Crewmember Mills Dunlap put ice on a freshly caught Ono for an upcoming meal.

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Commanding officer CDR Koes makes a whale shaped ice cream cake to “call the whales over” and aid in our search effort.

Staci DeSchryver: Boobies, Wedgies, and the Neurolinguistic Re-Programming of a TAS, July 21, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands

Date:  July 21, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

 

Science and Personal Log

I’m putting both the science and personal log together this time around for a very special reason.

See, I have a confession to make.  Many of my friends from home know this about me, but I have a secret I’ve kept under wraps for the vast majority of this trip, and it’s time to officially reveal it now, because it just seems to fit so well.  Ready?  True confessions from a Teacher At Sea:

I have an irrational fear of birds.

There.  I said it.  It stems from a wayward trip to London in the Study Abroad program and involves me, innocently consuming an over-priced deli sandwich on a bench outside of the Museum of Natural History when I was suddenly accosted by a one-footed pigeon who made away with my lunch – but not before attacking my face full-force with every wing, beak, and claw it had.  My lunch then became a free sidewalk hoagie, available for all nearby pigeons (you know, like every pigeon from London to France) to feast upon as I sat helplessly watching the gnashing of beaks and flyings of feathers in a ruthless battle to the end for over-processed deli ham and havarti on rye.  I was mortified.  From that moment forth, I was certain every bird wanted a piece of my soul and I was darned if I was going to let them have it.

After many years of active bird-avoidance, my first Teacher At Sea experience allowed me to remove Puffin from the exhaustive list of these ruthless prehistoric killers.  After all, Puffins are not much more than flying footballs, and generally only consume food of the underwater persuasion, so I felt relatively sheltered from their wrath.  Plus they’re kind of cute.  The following year, a Great Horned Owl met its demise by colliding face-first into one of our tall glass windows at the school. When the Biology teachers brought him inside, I felt oddly curious about this beast who hunts with stunning accuracy in the black of night, and yet couldn’t manage to drive himself around a window.  I felt myself incongruously empathetic at the sight of him – he was such a majestic creature, his lifeless body frozen in time from the moment he met his untimely ending.   I couldn’t help but wish him alive again; if not for his ability to hunt rodents, but simply because nothing that beautiful should have to meet its maker in such a ridiculous manner.  And so, I cautiously removed Owls from the list, so long as I didn’t have to look much at their claws.

This has suited me well over the years – fear all birds except for Puffin and Owl, and as a side note Penguin, too, since they can’t do much damage without being able to fly and all.  Plus, you know, Antarctica.  But when I found out that the cetacean study also happened to have bird observers on the trip, I felt momentarily paralyzed by the whole ordeal.  I had (incorrectly) assumed that we wouldn’t see birds on this trip.  I mean, what kind of bird makes its way to the middle of the Pacific Ocean?  Well, it turns out there are a lot that do, and it’s birders Dawn and Chris who are responsible for sighting and cataloging them alongside the efforts of the marine mammal observers.  I promise I’ll come back to my story on bird fear, but for now, let’s take a look at how our birders do their job.

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NOAA bird observer Dawn scans the horizon from her seat on the flying bridge

The birders follow a similar protocol to the marine mammal observers.  Each birder takes a two-hour shift in a front seat on the flying bridge.  While the marine mammal observers use big eyes to see out as far as they possibly can out onto the horizon, the birders only watch and catalog birds that come within 300m of the ship.

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You can find the distance a bird is from the ship using a basic pencil with lines marked on the side. Each line is mathematically calculated using your height, the ship’s height, and the distance to the horizon.

How do they know how far away the 300m mark is?  Over the years they just become great visual judges of the distance, but they also have a handy “range finder” that they use.  The range finder is just a plain, unsharpened pencil with marks ticked off at 100m intervals.  By holding the pencil up to the horizon and looking past it, they can easily find the distance the bird is from the ship. They divide this 300m range into “zones” – the 200-300m zone, the 100-200m zone, and the less than 100m zone from the bow of the ship.  Anything further than 300m or outside of the zero to 90 degree field of vision can still be catalogued if it is an uncommon species, or a flock of birds.  (More on flocks in a moment.)

They choose which side of the ship has the best visibility, either the port or starboard side, and like the mammal observers, birders take only the directional space from zero (directly in front of the ship) to 90 degrees on the side of their choosing.  If the visibility switches in quality from one side to the other during a shift, he or she can change sides without issue.

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A sooty tern soars high above the ship. We’ve seen many sooty terns this trip!

The bird team also records information such as wind speed and direction (with respect to the ship), the Beaufort Sea State, visibility, observation conditions, and the ship’s course.  Observation conditions are a critical component of the birder’s tool bag.  They mark the observation conditions on a five-point scale, with 1 being extremely bad conditions and 5 being very good conditions.  What defines good conditions for a birder? The best way to make an observation about the conditions is to think about what size and species of smaller birds an observer might not be able to see in the outermost range. Therefore, the condition is based on species and distance from the ship.  Some birds are larger than others, and could be easier to spot farther out from the ship.  The smallest birds (like petrels) might not be observable in even slightly less than ideal conditions. Therefore, if a birder records that the conditions are not favorable for small birds at a distance of 200m (in other words, they wouldn’t be able to see a small bird 200m away), the data processing team can vary the density estimates for smaller birds when observers are in poor visibility.

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White terns look like they belong on holiday cards! A new favorite of mine.

If a bird flies into the designated “zone”, the species is identified and recorded on a computer program that will place a time stamp on the GPS location of the sighting. These data are stored on the ship for review at a later time.  Ever wonder where the maps of migration patterns for birds originate?  It is from this collected data.  Up until this point, I had always taken most of these kinds of maps for granted, never thinking that in order to figure out where a particular animal lives let alone its migratory pattern must come from someone actually going out and observing those animals in those particular areas.

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An albatross glides behind the ship, looking for fish.

The birder will record other information about the bird sighting like age, sex (if able to identify by sight) and what the lil’ fella or gal is up to when observed.  Birds on the open ocean do a lot more than just fly, and their behaviors are important to document for studies on bird behavior.  There are 9 different codes for these behaviors, ranging from things like directional flight (think, it has a place to go and it’s trying to get there), sitting on the water, or “ship attracted.”  There are certain species like juvenile Red-Footed and Brown boobies and Tropic Birds that are known to be “ship attracted.”  In other words, it could be out flying along a particular path until it sees this super cool giant white thing floating on the water, and decides to go and check it out.  This is how I wound up with that fun photo of the Booby on the bridge wing, and the other snapshot of the juvenile that hung out on the jackstaff for two full days.  These birds would not normally have otherwise come into the range to be detected and recorded, so their density estimates can be skewed if they are counted the same way as all other birds.

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This Brown Booby wants in on the food action near the ship. Boobies are ship attracted, and we’ve had a few hang out with us while they take a rest on the mast. This is not the exact booby that made me change my bird ways, but he’s a close cousin (at least genetically speaking) of the one who did.

Any groups of five or more birds within one “reticle” (a measuring tool on the glass of the big eyes seen when looking through them) can be flagged by the marine mammal observers for the birders.  While many flocks are found miles away and might be difficult to see in the big eyes by species, the birders know the flight and feeding behaviors of the birds, and can usually identify the different species within the flock. They have a special designation in their computer program to catalog flocks and their behavior, as well.

I sat with Dawn on a few different occasions to learn how she quickly identifies and catalogs each bird species.  At first, it seems like all the birds look fairly similar, but after a few hours of identification practice, I can’t imagine that any of them look the same. The first bird Dawn taught me to identify was a Wedge-Tailed White Shearwater, more affectionately known as a “Wedgie White.”  To me, they were much more easily characterized by behavior than anything else.  Shearwaters are called “Shearwaters” because they…you guessed it… shear the water!  They are easy to spot as they glide effortlessly just above the water’s surface, almost dipping their wings in the cool blue Pacific.

I then continued my bird observation rotation learning all kinds of fun facts about common sea birds – how plumages change as different species grow, identifying characteristics (which I’m still trying to sort out because there are so many!), stories of how the birds got their names, migration patterns, population densities, breeding grounds, and what species we could expect to see as we approached different islands on the Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain.  Dawn knows countless identifiers when it comes to birds, and if she can’t describe it exactly the way she wants to, she has multiple books with photos, drawings, and paragraphs of information cataloging the time the bird is born to every iteration of its markings and behaviors as it grows.  To be a birder means having an astounding bank of knowledge to tap into as they have a limited time to spot and properly identify many species before they continue on their journey across the Pacific.

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This Great Frigate Bird was flying about fifteen feet overhead, with a mast directly in front of him as he flew. He’s looking around for birds to steal food from. The Hawaiian term for Frigate Bird is ‘Iwa, meaning “thief.”

After two weeks of watching for birds with Dawn and Chris, I feel like I can properly identify a few different species – Wedgies, Frigate Birds (these are the klepto-parasite birds that steal other birds’ dinners), Tropic Birds, two types of Terns, and boobies, though I can only best ID boobies when they are not in flight.  I find myself up on the flying bridge on independent observation rotations calling forward to the birder on rotation, “Was that a tern?”  And now, my identifying skills have vastly improved over the last few days as I have engaged in the process of this very important data collection.

So, what has become of my irrational bird fear?  Well, I have to be honest; much like Puffin and Owl, the Red-Footed Booby melted my heart.  There he was, perched on the bridge’s shade railing, a lonely little fellow staring up at me with no reservation about my presence or expectation of a sandwich.  There we were in the middle of a vast ocean, and he was all alone – simply looking for a place to rest his wings or search more earnestly for the hint of a delicious flying fish escaping the water.  I spent a fair amount of time photographing the little guy, working with my new camera to find some fun angles and depth of field, and playing with the lighting.  He was a willing and I daresay friendly participant in the whole process (in fact I wondered if he had seen a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model), and I felt myself softening my stance on placing the Red Footed Booby amongst the likes of attack pigeons.  By the end of our encounter, I had mentally noted that the Booby should now be placed on the “safe bird” list.

As I’ve spent more time with Dawn and Chris and learned more about each species, seabirds have one by one slowly migrated over to the safe list – to the point now where there are just too many to recite and I feel it is time after fifteen years to do away with the whole of it entirely.  As soon as I changed my perspective, the beauty of all of them have gradually emerged to the point where I can easily find something to appreciate (even admire) about each of the species we’ve seen.  Terns fight fiercely into the wind as they fly, but when they can catch a thermal or pose for an on-land photograph for an ID book, look dainty and regal in their appearance – as if they should be a staple part of every holiday display.  And baby Terns?  Doc (our Medical Doctor on board) showed me a photo of a tern chick that followed him around Midway Island last year and the lil’ guy was so darn cute it could make you cry glitter tears.  Today near French Frigate Shoals many of the species I’ve seen from afar came right up to the ship and glided effortlessly overhead, allowing me to observe them from a near perspective as they flew.  (None of them pooped on me, so if they weren’t off the list by that point, that act of grace alone should have sealed their fate for the positive.)  Frigate Birds can preen their feathers while they fly.  Watching each species cast their wings once and glide on the air while looking all around themselves was oddly entertaining, certainly peculiar, but also impressive.  I can’t walk on the ship looking anywhere besides exactly where I want to go and yet birds can fly five feet away from a mast and casually have a proper look about.

If this has taught me anything, it has shown me the truth in the statement that fear is just ignorance in disguise.  When I accidentally gave my bird aversion away during our quick stop at French Frigate Shoals (more on this in an upcoming blog post) many of the scientists said, “I’d have never guessed you were scared of birds.  How did you keep it secret?”  The easy answer is “Teacher Game Face.” But, more deeply rooted in that is a respect and admiration for those who enjoy the things that I’m afraid of.  Dawn and Chris have dedicated their entire careers to identifying and cataloging these creatures, and they are both so kind and respectable I find it hard to imagine that they would study anything unequal to the vast extent of their character.  Thankfully I learned this early enough on in the trip that it was easy to trust their judgement when it comes to Procellariiformes.   This experience is once-in-a-lifetime, and how short-sighted would I be to not want to explore every aspect of what goes on during this study because I’m a little (a lot) afraid?

In Colorado, before I ever left, I made a personal commitment to have a little chutzpah and learn what I can about the distant oceanic cousins of the sandwich thieves.  And when it came to that commitment, it meant genuinely digging in to learn as much as I can, not just pretend digging in to learn at little.  I figured if nothing else, simple repeated exposure in short bursts would be enough for me to neurolinguistically reprogram my way into bird world, and as it turns out, I didn’t even really need that.  I just needed to open up my eyes a little and learn it in to appreciation.  Learning from Dawn and Chris, who are both so emphatically enthusiastic about all things ornithology made me curious once again about these little beasts, who over the last two weeks have slowly transformed into beauties.

Sorry, pigeons.  You’re still on the list.

Pop Quiz

What is to date the silliest question or statement Staci has asked/made during her TAS experience?

  1.       In response to a rainy morning, “Yeah, when I woke up it sounded a little more ‘splashy’ than usual outside.”
  2.      “So, if Killer Whales sound like this, then what whale talk was Dory trying to do in Finding Nemo?”
  3.       “So, there is no such thing as a brown-footed booby?”
  4.      After watching an endangered monk seal lounging on the sand, “I kind of wish I had that life.”  (So…you want to be an endangered species? Facepalm.)
  5.       All of the above

If you guessed e, we’re probably related.

 

Staci DeSchryver: Things We Deliberately Throw Overboard Part Deux: The Ocean Noise Sensor July 20, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – Aug 2

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain, Just past Mokumanamana (Necker Island)

Date:  July 20, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Science and Technology Log:

As promised in Blog Post #3, I mentioned that “Thing number four we deliberately throw overboard” would have a dedicated blog post because it was so involved.  Well, grab some popcorn, because the time has arrived!

Thing number 4 we deliberately throw over the side of a ship does not get thrown overboard very often, but when it does, it causes much hubbub and hullaballoo on the ship.  I had the unique opportunity to witness one of only ten ocean noise sensors that are deployed in US waters come aboard the ship and get redeployed.  These sensors are found all over US waters – from Alaska to the Atlantic.  One is located in the Catalina Marine Sanctuary, and still others are hanging out in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are going to be sailing right past one!  To see more about the Ocean Noise Sensors, visit the HICEAS website “other projects” tab, or just click here.  To see where the Ocean Noise Recorders are, click here.

The Ocean Noise Sensor system is a group of 10 microphones placed in the “SOFAR” channel all over US waters.  Once deployed, they collect data for two years in order to track the level of ocean noise over time.  It’s no secret that our oceans are getting louder.  Shipping routes, oil and gas exploration, and even natural sources of noise like earthquakes all contribute to the underwater noise that our cetacean friends must chatter through.  Imagine sitting at far ends of the table at a dinner party with a friend you have not caught up with in a while.  While other guests chat away, you and the friend must raise your voices slightly to remain in contact.  As the night progresses on, plates start clanging, glasses are clinking, servers are asking questions, and music is playing in the background.  The frustration of trying to communicate over the din is tolerable, but not insurmountable.  Now imagine the host turning on the Super Bowl at full volume for entertainment.  Now the noise in the room is incorrigible, and you and your friend have lost all hope of even hearing a simple greeting, let alone have a conversation.  In fact, you can hardly get anyone’s attention to get them to pass you the potatoes.  This is similar to the noise levels in our world’s ocean.  As time goes on, more noise is being added to the system.  This could potentially interfere with multiple species and their communications abilities.  Calling out to find a mate, forage for food, or simply find a group to associate with must now be done in the equivalent din of a ticker-tape parade, complete with bands, floats, and fire engines blaring their horns.  This is what the Ocean Noise Sensor is hoping to get a handle on.   By placing sensors in the ocean to passively collect ambient noise, we can answer two important questions:  How have the noise levels changed over time?  To what extent are these changes in noise levels impacting marine life?   

Many smaller isolated studies have been done on ocean noise levels in the past, but a few years ago, scientists from Cornell partnered with NOAA and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab to streamline this study in order to get a unified, global data source of ocean noise levels.  The Pacific Marine Environmental Lab built a unified sound recording system for all groups involved in the study, and undertook the deployments of the hydrophones.  They also took on the task of processing the data once it is recovered.  The HICEAS team is in a timely and geographical position to assist in recovery of the data box and redeploying the hydrophone.   This was how we spent the day.

The recovery and re-deployment of the buoy started just before dawn, and ended just before dinner.

 Our standard effort of marine mammal observation was put on hold so that we could recover and re-deploy the hydrophone.  It was an exciting day for a few reasons – one, it was definitely a novel way to spend the day.  There was much to do on the part of the crew, and much to watch on the part of those who didn’t have the know-how to assist.  (This was the category I fell in to.)

At dawn, an underwater acoustic command was sent to the depths to release a buoy held underwater attached to the hydrophone.  While the hydrophone is only 1000m below the surface seated nice and squarely in the SOFAR channel, the entire system is anchored to the ocean floor at a depth of 4000m.  Once the buoy was released, crew members stationed themselves around the ship on the Big Eyes and with binoculars to watch for the buoy to surface.  It took approximately 45 minutes before the buoy was spotted just off our port side.  The sighting award goes to CDR Stephanie Koes, our fearless CO.  A crewmember pointed out the advancement in our technologies in the following way:  “We can use GPS to find a buried hydrophone in the middle of the ocean…and then send a signal…down 4000m…to a buoy anchored to the ocean floor…cut the buoy loose remotely, and then actually have the buoy come up to the surface near enough to the ship where we can find it.”  Pretty impressive if you think about it.

The buoy was tied to the line that is attached to the hydrophone, so once the buoy surfaced, “all” we had to do was send a fast rescue boat out to retrieve it, bring the buoy and line back to the ship, bring the crew safely back aboard the ship, hook the line up through a pulley overhead and back to a deck wench, pull the line through, take off the hydrophone, pull the rest of the line up, unspool the line on the wench to re-set the line, re-spool the winch, and then reverse the whole process.

Watching the crew work on this process was impressive at least, and a fully orchestrated symphony at best.  There were many tyings of knots and transfers of lines, and all crew members worked like the well-seasoned deck crew that they are.  Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana is no stranger to hauling in and maintaining buoys, so his deck crew were well prepared to take on this monumental task.

Much of the day went exactly according to plan.  The buoy was safely retrieved, the hydrophone brought on board, the lines pulled in, re-spooled, and all sent back out again.  But I am here to tell you that 4000m of line to haul in and pay back out takes. A Long. Time.  We worked through a rainstorm spooling the line off the winch to reset it, through the glare of the tropical sun and the gentle and steadfast breeze of the trade winds.  By dinner time, all was back in place, the buoy safely submerged deep in the ocean waters, waiting to be released again in another two years to repeat the process all over again.  With any luck, the noise levels in the ocean will have improved.  Many commercial vessels have committed to adopting “quiet ship” technology to assist in the reduction of noise levels.  If this continues to improve, our cetacean friends just might be able to hear one another again at dinner.

 

Personal Log

So, I guess it’s pretty fair to say that once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher.  I could not fully escape my August to May duties onboard, despite my best efforts.  This week, I found myself on the bridge, doing a science experiment with the Wardroom (These are what all of the officers onboard as a group are called).   How is this even happening, you ask?  (Trust me, I asked myself the same thing when I was in the middle of it, running around to different “lab groups” just like in class.)  Our CO, CDR Koes, is committed to ensuring that her crew is always learning on the ship.

 If her staff do not know the answer to a question, she will guide them through the process of seeking out the correct answer so that all  officers learn as much as they can when it comes to being underway –  steering the ship, preparing for emergencies, and working with engineers, scientists, and crew.  For example, I found out that while I was off “small-boating” near Pilot Whales, the Wardroom was busy working on maneuvering the ship in practice of man overboard scenarios.  She is committed to ensuring that all of her staff knows all parts of this moving city, or at a minimum know how to find the answers to any questions they may have.  It’s become clear just how much the crew and the entire ship have a deep respect and admiration for CDR Koes.  I knew she was going to be great when we were at training and word got out that she would be the CO of this Leg on Sette and everyone had a range of positive emotions from elated to relieved to ecstatic.

As part of this training, she gives regular “quizzes” to her staff each day – many of them in good fun with questions for scientists, crew, engineers, and I.  Some questions are nautical “things” that the Wardroom should know or are nice to know (for example, knowing the locations of Material Safety Data Sheets or calculating dew point temperatures), some questions are about the scientific work done onboard, while others are questions about personal lives of onboard members.

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The Chief Medical Officer, “Doc” gives a lesson on water quality testing.

 It has been a lot of fun watching the Wardroom and Crew seek out others and ask them where they live while showing them their “whale dance” to encourage sightings.  It has exponentially increased the interactions between everyone onboard in a positive and productive way.

The other teaching element that CDR Koes has implemented is a daily lesson each day from Monday to Friday just after lunch.  All NOAA Officers meet on the bridge, while one officer takes the lead to teach a quick, fifteen minute lesson on any topic of their choosing.  It could be to refresh scientific knowledge, general ship operations, nautical concepts, or anything else that would be considered “good to know.”

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The Chief Engineer gives a rundown on the various ship emergency alarms.

 This sharing of knowledge builds trust among the Wardroom because it honors each officer’s strong suits and reminds us that we all have something to contribute while onboard.

I started attending these lunchtime sessions and volunteered to take on a lesson.  So, this past Tuesday, I rounded up some supplies and did what I know best – we all participated in the Cloud in a Bottle Lesson!

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Here I am learning to use a sextant for navigation.

The Wardroom had fun (I think?) making bottle clouds, talking about the three conditions for cloud formation, and refreshing their memories on adiabatic heating and cooling.  It was a little nerve wracking for me as a teacher because two of the officers are meteorologists by trade, but I think I passed the bar.  (I hope I did!)

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Teaching about adiabatic cooling with the the Cloud in a Bottle Demo with the Wardroom!

It was fun to slide back into the role of teacher, if only for a brief while, and served as a reminder that I’m on my way back to work in a few weeks!  Thanks to the Wardroom  for calling on me to dust up my teacher skills for the upcoming first weeks of school!

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ENS Holland and ENS Frederick working hard making clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facebook Asks, DeSchryver Answers

I polled all of my Facebook friends, fishing (ha ha, see what I did there?) for questions about the ship, and here are some of the questions and my answers!

 

Q:   LC asks, “What has been your most exciting moment on the ship?”

It’s hard to pick just one, so I’ll tell you the times I was held at a little tear:  a) Any sighting of a new species is a solid winner, especially the rare ones  b) The first time I heard Sperm Whales on the acoustic detector c) The first time we took the small boat out for UAS operations….annnndddd d) The first time I was on Independent Observation and we had a sighting!

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A group of Melon-Headed Whales, or PEPs, cruise along with the ship.

Q:  JK asks, “What are your thoughts on the breakoff of Larsen C?  And have there been any effects from the Alaskan quake and tsunami?”

We’re actually pretty isolated on board!  Limited internet makes it hard to hear of all the current events.  I had only briefly heard about Larsen C, and just that it broke, not anything else.  I had no clue there was a quake and tsunami!  But!  I will tell a cool sort of related story.  On Ford Island, right where Sette is docked, the parking lot is holding three pretty banged up boats.  If you look closely, they all have Japanese markings on them.  Turns out they washed up on Oahu after the Japan Tsunami.  They tracked down the owners, and they came out to confirm those boats were theirs, but left them with NOAA as a donation.  So?  There’s tsunami debris on Oahu and I saw it.

 

Q:  NG asks, “Any aha moments when it comes to being on the ocean?  And anything to bring back to Earth Science class?”

So many aha moments, but one in particular that comes to mind is just how difficult it is to spot cetaceans and how talented the marine mammal observers are! They can quite literally spot animals from miles away!  There are a lot of measures put in place to help the marine mammal observers, but at the end of the day, there are some species that are just tougher than nails to spot, or to spot and keep an eye on since their behaviors are all so different.  And as far as anything to bring back to our class?  Tons.  I got a cool trick to make a range finder using a pencil.  I think we should use it!

 

Q:  MJB asks, “Have you had some peaceful moments to process and just take it all in?”

Yes.  At night between the sonobuoy launches, I get two miles of transit time out on the back deck to just absorb the day and be thankful for the opportunities.  The area of Hawai’i we are in right now is considered sacred ground, so it’s very powerful to just be here and be here.

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These sunsets will give Colorado sunsets a run for their money.  No green flash in Colorado = point awarded to Hawai’i.

 

Q:  SC asks, “What souvenir are you bringing me?”

Well, we saw a glass fishing float, and we tried to catch it for you, but it got away.

Q:  LC asks, “What’s the most disgusting ocean creature?”

Boy that’s a loaded question because I guarantee if I name a creature, someone out there studies it for a living.  But! I will tell you the most delicious ocean creature.  That would be Ono.  In sashimi form.  Also, there is a bird called a Great Frigate bird – it feeds via something called Klepto-parasitism, which is exactly how it sounds.  It basically finds other birds, harasses them until they give up whatever they just caught or in some cases until it pukes, and then it steals their food.  So, yeah.  I’d say that’s pretty gross.  But everyone’s gotta eat, right?

Q:  KI asks, “Have you eaten all that ginger?”

I’m about two weeks in and I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten about a pound. I’m still working on it!

Q:  HC asks, ”Have you seen or heard any species outside of their normal ocean territory?”

Sort of.  Yesterday we saw Orca!  They are tropical Orca, so they are found in this area, but they aren’t very common.  The scientific team was thinking we’d maybe see one or two out of the entire seven legs of the trip, and we saw some yesterday!  (I can’t say how many, and you’ll find out why in an upcoming post.)  We have also seen a little bird that wasn’t really technically out of his territory, but the poor fella sure was a little far from home.

Q:  JPK asks, “What kinds of data have you accumulated to use in a cross-curricular experience for math?”

We can do abundance estimates with a reasonably simplified equation.  It’s pretty neat how we can take everything that we see from this study, and use those numbers to extrapolate how many of each species is estimated to be “out there.”

Q: AP asks, “What has surprised you about this trip?”

Many, many things, but I’ll mention a couple fun ones.  The ship has an enormous movie collection – even of movies that aren’t out on DVD yet because they get them ahead of time!  Also? The food on the ship is amazing.  We’re halfway through the trip and the lettuce is still green.  I have to find out the chef’s secret!  And the desserts are to die for.  It’s a wonder I haven’t put on twenty pounds.  The crew does a lot of little things to celebrate and keep morale up, like birthday parties, and music at dinner, and shave ice once a week.  Lots of people take turns barbecuing and cooking traditional foods and desserts special to them from home and they share with everyone.  They are always in really high spirits and don’t let morale drop to begin with, so it’s always fun.

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Celebrating Engineer Jerry’s Birthday.

Q:  TS asks, “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve done?”

I’ve done lots of exciting things, but the one thing that comes to mind is launching on the small boat to go take photos of the pilot whales.  Such a cool experience, and I hope we get good enough weather to do it again while we’re out here!  Everything about ship life is brand new to me, so I like to help out as much as I can.  Any time someone says, “Will you help with this?” I get excited, because I  know I’m about to learn something new and also lend a hand. 

 

Staci DeSchryver: When They Go Low, We Go High (Pilot Whales, that Is!): A view of Cetaceans using Drone Technology July 17, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard: Oscar Elton Sette

Cruise Dates: July 6 – Aug 2

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Northeast of Kauai, headed toward Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI)

Location:  24 deg 41.9 min N, 170 deg 51.2 min W

Date:  July 17, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Visibility:  10 Nmi

Scattered Clouds

Wind:  11 kts at 90 deg

Pressure: 1018.2mb

Wave height: 1-3 m

Swell at 50 deg, 2-3 ft

Air Temp: 29 degrees

Wet Bulb Temp: 25 degrees

Dewpoint: 28 degrees

 

Science Log

Technology definitely finds its way into every corner of life, and cetacean studies are certainly no exception.   One of the most recent additions to the Cetacean team’s repertoire of technology is a fleet of UAS, or unmanned aerial systems.  (UAS is a fancy term for a drone, in this case a hexacopter.  Yes, we are definitely using drones on this mission.  This seriously cannot get much cooler.)  HICEAS 2017 is utilizing these UAS systems to capture overhead photos of cetaceans in the water as they surface.  And the best part of all of this?  I was selected to be a part of team UAS!  

 

The UAS can only fly under certain atmospheric conditions.  It can’t be too windy and the seas can’t be too rough.  We had the chance to practice flying the hexacopters on one of the few days we were off the Kona coast of the Big Island, where the wind and seas are typically calmer.  Dr. Amanda Bradford is leading the HICEAS 2017 drone operations.  She is involved in securing air clearance that might be required for a hexacopter flight, as well as all of the operations that take place in preparation for deployment – of which there are many. The UAS is launched preferentially from a small boat, although it can be launched from the ship.  So, in order to do boat-based UAS operations, we must first launch a boat off of the side of the ship.  There are four people involved in the small boat UAS operations – the UAS pilot, the UAS ground station operator (Dr. Bradford and scientist Kym Yano alternate these positions), a coxswain to drive the small boat (NOAA crewmember Mills Dunlap) and a visual observer/data keeper (me!)  for each flight the hexacopter makes.

We all load up our gear and equipment onto the small boat, along with the coxswain and one team member, from the side of the ship.  The ship then lowers the boat to the water, the remaining teams members embark, and we are released to move toward the animals we are trying to photograph.  I don’t have any photographs of us loading on to the ship because the operation is technical and requires focus, so taking photos during that time isn’t the best idea.  I will say that the whole process is really exciting, and once I got the hang of getting on and off the ship, pretty seamless.

 

Our first trip out was just to practice the procedure of getting into the small boat, flying the UAS on some test flights, and returning back to the ship.  The goal was to eventually fly the hexacopter over a group of cetaceans and use the camera docked on the hexacopter to take photogrammetric measurements of the size and condition  of the animals.

Launching a hexacopter from a boat is quite different from launching one on land.  Imagine what would happen if the battery died before you brought it back to the boat!  This is why numerous ground tests and calibrations took place before ever bringing this equipment out over water.  The batteries on the hexacopter are good, but as a security measure, the hexacopter must be brought back well before the batteries die out, otherwise we have a hexacopter in the water, and probably a lot emails from higher ups to answer as a result.  Each time the hexacopter flies and returns back to the small boat, the battery is changed out as a precaution.  Each battery is noted and an initial voltage is taken on the battery before liftoff.  The flights we made lasted around10 minutes.  As soon as the battery voltage hits a certain low level, the pilot brings the hexacopter back toward the boat to be caught.  My job as the note taker was to watch the battery voltage as the hexacopter comes back to the small boat and record the lowest voltage to keep track of battery performance.

 

The UAS has two parts, one for each scientist – the pilot (who directs the hexacopter over the animals), and a ground station operator.  This person watches a computer-like screen from the boat that has two parts – a dashboard with information like altitude, time spent in flight, battery voltage, distance, and GPS coverage.  The bottom portion of the ground station shows a monitor that is linked to the camera on the hexacopter in real time.

The pilot has remote control of the hexacopter and the camera, and the ground station operator is responsible for telling the pilot when to snap a photo (only she can see from the monitor when the animals are in view), watching the battery voltage, and the hand launching and landing of the drone.  As the hexacopter is in flight, it is the coxswain’s and my responsibility to watch for obstacles like other boats, animals, or other obstructions that might interfere with the work or our safety.

 

To start a flight, the hexacopter is hooked up to a battery and the camera settings (things like shutter speed, ISO, and F-stop for the photographers out there) are selected. 

The ground station operator stands up while holding the hexacopter over her head.  The pilot then begins the takeoff procedures.  Once the drone is ready to fly, the ground station operator lets go of the drone and begins monitoring the ground station.  One important criterion that must be met is that the animals must never come within 75 overhead feet of the drone.  This is so that the drone doesn’t interfere with the animals or cause them to change their behavior.  Just imagine how difficult it is to find an animal in a camera frame being held by a drone and flown by someone else while looking on a monitor to take a photo from a minimum of 75 feet from sea level!  But Amanda and Kym accomplished this task multiple times during the course of our flights, and got some great snapshots to show for it.

 

On the first day of UAS testing, we took two trips out – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon.  On our morning trip, Kym and Amanda took 5 practice flights, launching and catching the hexacopter and changing between piloting and ground station monitoring.  In the afternoon, we were just getting ready to pack up and head back to the ship when out of the corner of my eye I saw a series of splashes at the ocean surface.  Team.  I had a sighting of spinner dolphins!   I barely stuttered out the words, “Oh my God, guys!  There are dolphin friends right over there!!!!”  (Side note:  this is probably not how you announce a sighting in a professional marine mammal observer scenario, but I was just too excited to spit anything else out.  I mean, they were Right. There.  And right when we needed some mammals to practice on, too!)  They were headed right past the boat, and we were in a prime position to capture some photos of them.  We launched the hexacopter and had our first trial run of aerial cetacean photography.  

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On the second day, we had a pilot whale sighting, and the call came over the radio to launch the small boat.  Things move really fast on a sighting when there is a small boat launch.  One minute I was up on the flying bridge trying to get some snapshots, and the next I was grabbing my camera and my hard hat and making a speedy break for the boat launch.  We spent a good portion of the morning working the pilot whale group, taking photos of the whales using the hexacopter system.  We were lucky in that these whales were very cooperative with us.  Many species of whales are not good candidates for hexacopter operations because they tend to be skittish and will move away from the noise of a small boat (or a large one for that matter).  These little fellas seemed to be willing participants, as if they knew what we were trying to accomplish would be good for them as a species.  They put on quite a show of logging (just hanging out at the surface), spyhopping, and swimming in tight subgroups for us to get some pretty incredible overhead photographs.  I also had the chance to take some great snapshots of dorsal fins up close, as well.

These side-long photos of dorsal fins help the scientific team to identify individuals.  There were times when the whales were less than twenty yards from the boat, not because we went to them, but because they were interested in us.  Or they were interested in swimming in our general direction because they were following a delicious fish, and I’d be happy with either, but I’d like to think they wanted to know what exactly we were up to.

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While photographing the whales a couple of interesting “other” things happened.  I had a brief reminder that I was definitely not at the top of the food chain when Mills pointed out the presence of two whitetip sharks skimming beneath the surface of the water.  Apparently these sharks know that pilot whales can find delicious fish and sort of hang out around pilot whale groups hoping to capitalize.  I wondered if this was maybe my spirit animal as I am following a group of scientists and capitalizing on their great adventures in the Pacific Ocean, as well.

Another “other” thing that happened was some impromptu outreach.  While working on the small boat, other boats approached the whales hoping to get some up close snapshots and hang out with them for a bit, as well.  Two were commercial operations that appeared to be taking tour groups either snorkeling or whale watching, and one was just a boat of vacationers out enjoying the day.  The scientific team took the opportunity to approach these boats, introduce us, and explain what we were doing over the whale groups.  They also took the opportunity to answer questions and mention the HICEAS 2017 mission to spread the word about our study.  It was a unique opportunity in that fieldwork, apart from internet connections, is done in relative isolation in this particular setting.  Real-time outreach is difficult to accomplish in a face-to-face environment.  In this case, the team made friendly contacts with approximately 45 people right out on the water.  Congenial smiles and waves were passed between the passengers on the boats and the scientific team, and I even saw a few cell phones taking pictures of us.  Imagine the potential impact of one school-aged child seeing us working with the whales on the small boats and thinking, “I want to do that for a career someday.”  What a cool thing to be a part of.

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Personal Log

Over the last couple of days, the ship was near the coast of the Big Island, Hawai’i.  One morning, we approached on the Hilo side, which is where Mauna Loa is spewing forth her new basaltic earth.  It treks down the side of the volcano, red-hot and caustic, only to be tempered immediately as soon as it strikes the anesthetic waters of the Pacific.  Having never seen real lava before, I was hoping to capitalize on the big eyes and catch a glimpse of it as it splashed into the ocean’s cool recesses, forming solid rock and real estate on the side of the mountain.  Unfortunately, I failed to account for the laws of thermodynamics – forgetting that hot things make water evaporate and re-condense into steam.  I suppose I was just romanticizing the idea that I could possibly see this phenomenon from an angle that not many get to see it from – miles out on the Pacific Ocean. And the truth is, I did, just not in the way I had imagined.   I did get to see large plumes of steam extending up from the shoreline as the lava met its inevitable demise.  While I didn’t get to see actual real lava, there was definitely hard evidence that it was there, hidden underneath the plumes of white-hot condensation.  I took a few photos that turned out horribly, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I almost sort of saw lava.  (I know, I know.  Cool story, bro.)  If you can’t believe that fish tale, surely you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you next – I didn’t see the lava – but I heard it.

Starting in the wee hours of the morning, the acoustics team deployed the array only to find an unidentified noise – a loud, sharp, almost cracking or popping noise.  They tried to localize the noise only to find out that it was coming from the shores of the big island.  Sure enough, when they figured it out, the acoustics lab was a popular place to be wearing headphones.  The snapping and cracking they were hearing was the lava cooling and cracking just beneath the ocean surface on the lava bench.  So, I didn’t see the lava, but I heard it solidifying and contracting on the acoustics system.  How cool is that?

 

Ship Quiz:

Why do the head stalls (AKA bathroom stalls) lock on both sides of the door?

  1.       So that you can lock your friends in the bathroom as a mean prank
  2.      Extra protection from pirates
  3.       To give yourself one extra step to complete to get to the toilet when you really gotta go
  4.      To keep the doors from slamming with the natural movement of the ship

If you said “D”, you are correct!  The bathrooms lock on both sides because if left to their own devices, they would swing and bang open and shut with the constant motions of the ship.  So, when you use the bathroom, you have to lock it back when you finish.  Now you know!

 

 

Staci DeSchryver: A Brief Lesson on All the Things We Deliberately Throw Over the Side of the Ship, July 12, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Hilo Coast, Hawaii

Date:  July 12, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Location:  22 deg 38.0 min N, 159 deg 33.9 min W

Cloudy with rain squalls all around

Visibility: 10 nmi

Wind: E @ 23 kts

Pressure: 1019.1mb

Waves: 2-3 ft

Swell:  60 degrees at 3-5 ft

Temp: 27 degrees

Wet Bulb Temp: 24 degrees

Dewpoint: 26 degrees

Relative Humidity:  96%

 

Science and Technology Log

Today, we will be exploring all of the equipment we deliberately toss over the stern of the ship.  There are a number of different audio recorders that the HICEAS and other teams use to detect various species while underway.  Chief scientist Erin Oleson gives a great perspective when she says that, “We pass through this particular area for this study only one time.  Just because we may not see or hear an animal, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not there, or that it won’t come by this area at a later time.”  In order to compensate for the temporal restrictiveness of the ship being in one spot at one time, the team will periodically launch buoys over the side to continue the listening process for us.  Some buoys are designed to last a few hours, some report the information real-time back to the ship, some are anchored to the ocean floor, some drift around, and all serve different needs for the scientific team.

Thing we deliberately throw off the ship #1:  Sonobuoys

Since arriving on the ship, I have been recruited to “Team Sonobuoy” by the acoustics team for deployments!  It is my job to program and launch two sonobuoys on a set schedule created by the scientific team.   Sonobuoys are designed to pick up low-frequency sounds from 0 – 2 KHz, most often made by baleen whales.  The sonobuoy will send information back to the ship in real-time.  Once launched over the side, the sonobuoy will drift in the ocean, listening for these low frequency noises.  They are a temporary acoustic tool – lasting anywhere from 30 mins to 8 hours of time.  Most of the buoys are set to record for 8 full hours.  After the pre-set recording time is up, the float on the buoy pops, and the buoy is no longer active.  It is my job to launch two sonobuoys, and then monitor the signal coming back to the ship via VHF until we are too far away to detect the frequency coming back to us.  This usually happens between 2 and 3 miles after launch.   The recordings are sent onshore for processing.  Fun fact: sonobuoys were originally developed by the Navy to listen for enemy submarines!  The scientists thought they would be a handy tool for baleen whales, and picked up the technology.  We have deployed sonobuoys almost every evening of the cruise.

Thing we deliberately throw off the ship #2:  DASBRs

DASBRs, or Digital Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders, are floating recorders launched at certain waypoints in the ocean.  The word “spar” simply means that the buoy floats vertically in the water.  There are two types of DASBRs, one records from 0 – 128 KHz, and one goes all the way from 0 – 144 KHz.  Now, these particular buoys get launched, but they don’t get anchored.

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Shannon and Jen connect the buoy to the DASBR before deployment

Inside the DASBR is a transmitter that shows the location of the buoy so that the scientific team can recover them at a later time.

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Erik waits to deploy the DASBR at the proper GPS location.

So, in effect, this is a buoy we deliberately throw off the ship only to bring it back on after a predetermined amount of time.  These recorders do not transmit back to the ship.  They store all of the data on the  DASBR, which is why recovery of the DASBRs is so important.  A DASBR that does not get recovered keeps all of its secrets as it floats along in the ocean.  We can track DASBRs real time, and they follow interesting patterns as they float freely in the ocean – some track in a given direction along with the current, while others corkscrew around in the same area.  So far, we have deployed 4 DASBRs in the first 8 days of the cruise.

Things we deliberately throw off the ship #3:  HARPS

HARPS, or High Frequency Acoustic Recording Packages, are the third type of microphone deployed off the ship.  HARPS record all sounds between 0 and 100 KHz. They last far longer than both sonobuoys and DASBRS in terms of time out on the water. They are limited not by data storage, but by battery power.  HARPS are deployed at one location and are anchored to the ocean floor.  Small yellow floats rise to the surface to alert ships and other traffic to their presence.  They are a little easier to find when it comes to recovery, since they have a GPS known location and are secured to the ocean floor, but they are a little more difficult to wrangle on to the back deck of the ship when recovered and deployed, since there is an anchor associated with them.

DeSchryver_HARP

The HARP in the Wet Lab undergoing repairs before launch.

On this cruise we have both recovered and deployed HARP systems.  The HARPS also store information within  the HARP, so recovery is important to the scientific team because the data does not get transmitted in real time back to any computers.

Things we deliberately throw off the ship #4:  Ocean Noise Sensors

There are data recorders that record the level of noise in the ocean over time.  We are currently on our way to pick one of these recorders up, complete some maintenance on it, and re-deploy it.  This will be a full day commitment for the scientific team and the crew, so I’m going to keep you guessing on this one until we actually complete this part of the operation.  We have many hands working together both on the ship and between organizations to make the ocean noise-monitoring program effective and cohesive, so this section of “Things we deliberately throw off the ship” will get its own blog post in the future as we complete the haul in, maintenance, and re-deployment.  Stay tuned.

 

Personal Log

Team.  You’ll never guess what I did.  I.  Drove. The Ship.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I drove the ship, and – AND – I didn’t hit anything while I did it!  What’s better is that I didn’t tip anyone out of their chairs while I made turns, either!  This is cause for much celebration and rejoicing among scientists and crew alike.  The Commanding Officer, CDR  Stephanie Koes invited me, “Spaz the TAS” up to the bridge for a little steering lesson two days ago, in which I happily obliged.  ENS Fredrick gave me a little mini-lesson on the onboard radar systems, which were picking up rain just off our starboard side.

I also learned of the existence of the many GPS positioning systems and navigation systems onboard.  The NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations, or OMAO, is not lost on system redundancies.  From what I can surmise, there are two of everything on the bridge in order to ensure the NOAA OMAO’s number one priority – safety. Everything on the bridge has a backup, or in many instances, a preferential option for each officer responsible for the bridge at any given time.  Some systems are fancy and new, while others maintain tradition on the bridge.  For example, a bell will still chime every half hour to remind the watch stander to record weather data on the bridge and a navigational fix on a paper chart.  ENS Fredrick says that the bell is an older maritime system, but is very handy when things get busy on the bridge –  the bell ringing is a perfect audio cue for him to stop what he’s doing and get to the logbook to record the weather.

Turning a giant ship sounds difficult, but in reality, it’s really difficult.  The actual act of turning doesn’t take much – a simple flip of a switch to take the ship off what I termed “cruise control” and a turn of the wheel (which by the way looks exactly like a smaller version of the ship wheels you see in all of the fabulous movies – I’m looking at you, Goonies) and an eye on the bearing angle (the compass direction in which the ship is headed).  But here’s the real issue – this moving city technically has no brakes.   So as the ship begins to turn, the driver has to pull the rudder back in the opposite direction before the bearing angle is reached, otherwise the bearing angle gets overshot.  If you turn the wheel too far one way or the other too quickly, the ship responds by  “leaning into” the turn at a steep angle.

DeSchryver_driving ship

This is me not running in to things while steering the ship with ENS Fredrick!

This sounds like it might be fun until the chef downstairs rings the bridge and chews the driver out for making the cheesecake fall off the galley countertop.  Then the driver must take the heat for ruining the cheesecake for everyone else on the ship waiting quite impatiently to eat it.  Thankfully, I tipped no cheesecakes.  That would make for a long month onboard being “that guy who turned the ship too hard and ruined dessert for everyone.”  I’m pretty sure had I not had the direction of ENS Fredrick as to when and how far to turn the rudder, I’d be in the dessert doghouse.

Another fabulous part of turning the ship is that I got to use the radio to tell the flying bridge (and anyone else who was listening) that I had actually turned the ship and it was correctly on course.  Luckily I had been listening to the radio communication for a few days and put on my best radio voice to make said announcements.  I think my performance was middling to above average at least, and fully qualified to speak on the radio without sounding too unfortunate at best.  However, there was one element of driving the ship that made me terrified enough to realize that I probably am not quite ready to hack the job – everything else that is going on up on the bridge while you are keeping the ship on-course.

Watch standers are notoriously good at keeping data.  They record every move the ship makes.  If the mammal and bird team go off effort due to weather or too high of a Beaufort state, the bridge records it.  They also record when they go back on effort. They log every turn and adjustment the ship makes.  They log every time we deploy a CTD or any kind of buoy.  I watched the watch stander on the bridge take a phone call, make a turn, log the turn, put the mammal team off-effort, put the mammal team back on-effort, take a request on the radio and record weather data all in a span of about two minutes.  It seemed like everything was happening all at once, and he managed it all like it was just another day in the office.  For him, it was.

To be a member of the NOAA OMAO means that you must be willing to learn, willing to make mistakes, willing to follow orders, willing to be flexible, and willing to be one heck of a multi-tasker.  I, for one, went quickly cross-eyed at all of the information processing that must happen up on the bridge during an officer’s shift. Thankfully, I didn’t go cross-eyed while I was trying to turn the ship.  That would have been bad, especially for cheesecakes.  I’m thinking that if I play my cards right, I can enlist as a “backup ship driver” for future shifts on Oscar Elton Sette.  I figure you never know when you might need someone fully unqualified to steer a giant moving city in a general direction for any given amount of time.  But I think I can do it if I do it like the NOAA Corps – taking everything one turn at a time.

Cetacean and Fish Species Seen:

Risso’s Dolphins

Striped Dolphins

Melon-Headed Whales

Blainsville Beaked Whales

Sperm Whale

False Killer Whales

Kogia – unidentified (These are either pygmy Sperm Whales or Dwarf Sperm Whales)

Flying Fish

Wahoo or Ono (Ono in Hawaiian means “tasty” – the name was confirmed as I enjoyed a few pieces of Ono sashimi last night at dinner)

 

Seabirds spotted as of July 14:

White Necked Petrel

Juan Fernandez Petrel

Hawaiian Petrel

Black-Winged Petrel

Cook’s Petrel

Pycroft’s Petrel

Bulwer’s Petrel

Wedge-Tailed Shearwater

Christmas Shearwater

Newell’s Shearwater

Band-rumped Storm Petrel

Red-Tailed Tropic Bird

White-Tailed Tropic Bird

Masked Booby

Brown Booby

DeSchryver_brown footed booby

A juvenile Red-Footed Booby takes a two day rest on Sette‘s Mast.

A juvenile Red-Footed Booby who has taken up residence on the mast of the ship for two full days and pretends to fly from the mast – highly entertaining.

 

Red-Footed Booby

Great Frigatebird

Brown Noddy

Sooty Tern

Grey-Backed Tern

White Tern

Ruddy Turnstone

Sanderling

Japanese Quail

 

 

Staci DeSchryver: Listening with Your Eyes – How the Acoustics Team “Sees” in Sound, July 10, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Kona Coast, Hawaii

Date:  July 10, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

TAS DeScrhryver_weather data

Location and Weather Data

 

Science Log

While the visual team is working hard on the flying bridge, scanning the waters for our elusive cetacean friends, acoustics is down in the lab listening for any clues that there might be “something” out there.

TAS DeSchryver array

The hydrophone array is a long microphone pulled behind the ship

At any given time, two acousticians are listening to the sounds of the ocean via a hydrophone array. This array is a long microphone pulled behind the ship as she cuts through the water.  When the acousticians hear a click or a whistle, a special computer program localizes (or determines the distance to) the whistle or the click.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s a lot of noise in the ocean.  The array will pick up other ship noise, cavitation (or bubbles from the propeller) on our ship, or anything it “thinks” might be a cetacean.  The acoustics team must determine which sounds are noise and which sounds belong to a mammal.  What the acousticians are looking for is something called a “click train.” These are sound produced by dolphins when they are foraging or socializing and are a good indicator of a nearby cetacean. On the computer screen, any ambient noise shows up as a plotted point on an on-screen graph.  When the plotted points show up in a fixed or predictable pattern, then it could be a nearby cetacean.

The acousticians are also listening to the sounds on headphones.  When they hear a whistle or a click, they can find the sound they’ve heard on the plotted graph.  On the graphical representation of the sounds coming in to the hydrophone, the x-axis of the graph is time, and the y-axis is a “bearing” angle.  It will tell which angle off the ship from the front the noise is coming from.  For example, if the animal is right in front of the bow of the ship, the reading would be 0 degrees.  If it were directly behind the ship, then the plotted point would come in at 180 degrees.  With these two pieces of information, acousticians can narrow the location of the animal in question down to two spots on either side of the ship.  When they think they have a significant sound, the acousticians will use the information from the graph to localize the sound and plot it on a map.  Often times they can identify the sound directly to the species, which is an extraordinary skill.

Here’s where things go a little “Fight Club.”  (First rule of fight club?  Don’t talk about fight club.)  Once the acousticians localize an animal, they must determine if it is ahead of the ship or behind it.   Let’s say for example an acoustician hears a Pilot Whale.  He or she will draw a line on a computerized map to determine the distance the whale is to the ship using the data from the graph.

DeSchryver HICEAS-AC20

This is a “clean” localization of a marine mammal. Notice the two spots where the lines cross – those are the two possible locations of the mammal we are tracking. The ship is the red dot, the blue dots are the hydrophone as it is towed behind the ship.

Because the hydrophones are in a line, the location provided from the array shows on the left and the right sides.  So, the map plots both of those potential spots.  The two straight lines from the ship to the animal make a “V” shape.  As the ship passes the animal, the angle of the V opens up until it becomes a straight line, much like opening a book to lay it flat on the table and viewing how the pages change from the side.  As long as the animal or animal group is ahead of the ship, the acousticians will alert no one except the lead scientist, and especially not the marine observers.  If a crew member or another scientist who is not observing mammals just so happens to be in the acoustics lab when the localization happens, we are sworn to secrecy, as well.  Sometimes an acoustician will send a runner to get the lead scientist to discreetly tell her that there is something out there.

TAS DeSchryver HICEAS-AC25

The screenshot on the left shows a series of spotted dolphin “click trains.” Notice the marks all in a line along the graph. The right photo shows the various localizations that the acoustics team has picked up from the click train graph. The red dot is the ship, the gray line is the “track line”, and the two blue dots behind the ship are the hydrophone arrays. Notice the V shape gradually goes to a straight line and then turns in the opposite direction.

 

This way, the lead scientist can begin the planning stages for a chase on the mammals to do a biopsy, or send the UAS out to get photos with the Hexacopter.  (More on this later.)

As the mammals “pass the beam” (the signal is perfectly on either side of the ship, and starting to make an upside down V from the ship), the acousticians can alert the visual team of the sighting.  As soon as everyone is aware the mammals are out there, either by sight or sound, the whole scientific group goes “off effort,” meaning we funnel our energy in to counting and sighting the mammals we have found.  When this happens, communication is “open” between the acoustics team and the visual team.  The visual team can direct the bridge to head in any direction, and as long as it’s safe to do so, the bridge will aid in the pursuit of the mammals to put us in the best position to get close enough to hopefully identify the species.  Today, one mammal observer had a sighting almost 6 miles away from the ship, and she could identify the species from that distance, as well!  Even cooler is that it was a beaked whale, which is an elusive whale that isn’t often sighted.   They have the capability of diving to 1000m to forage for food!

When the visual team has a sighting, the three visual observers who are on shift have the responsibility to estimate the group size.

TAS DeSchryver chris takes photos

Chris captures photos of Melon Headed Whales for Photo ID.

 

Here we go with Fight Club again – no one can talk to one another about the group sizes.  Each mammal observer keeps their totals to themselves.  This is so that no one can sway any other person’s opinion on group size and adds an extra element of control to the study.  It is off limits to talk about group sizes among one another even after the sighting is over. We must always be vigilant of not reviewing counts with one another, even after the day is done.  The scientific team really holds solid to this protocol.

Once the sighting is over, all parties resume “on effort” sightings, and the whole process starts all over again.

Now, you might be thinking, “Why don’t they just wait until acoustics has an animal localized before sending the mammal team up to look for it?

TAS DeSchryver ernesto big eyes

Ernesto on the “Big Eyes” during a Melon Headed Whale Visual Chase

Surely if acoustics isn’t hearing anything, then there must not be anything out there.”  As I am writing this post, the visual team is closing in on a spotted dolphin sighting about 6.5 miles away.  The acoustics did not pick up any vocalizations from this group.

TAS DeSchryver acoustics lab 2

Shannon and Jen in the acoustics lab “seeing” the sounds of the ocean.

This also happened this morning with the beaked whale.  Both teams really do need one another in this process of documenting cetaceans.  Further, the acoustics team in some cases can’t determine group sizes from the vocals alone.  They need the visual team to do that.  Each group relies on and complements one another with their own talents and abilities to conduct a completely comprehensive search.  When adding in the hexacopter drone to do aerial photography, we now have three components working in tandem – a group that uses their eyes to see the surface, a group that uses the ocean to “see” the sounds, and a group that uses the air to capture identifying photographs.  It truly is an interconnected effort.

 

Personal Log

I haven’t gotten the chance to discuss just how beautiful Hawai’i is.  I would think that it is generally understood that Hawai’i is beautiful – it’s a famed tourist destination in an exotic corner of the Pacific Ocean. But you have to see it to believe it.

TAS DeSchryver melon-headed whales

Melon-Headed Whales take an evening ride alongside the starboard side of Sette.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the islands from a unique perspective as an observer from the outside looking inland, and I just can’t let the beauty of this place pass without mention and homage to its stunning features.

Hawai’i truly is her own artist.  Her geologic features create the rain that builds her famed rainbows, which in turn gives her the full color palate she uses to create her own landscape.  The ocean surrounding the shores of Hawai’i are not just blue – they are cerulean with notes of turquoise, royal, and sage.  She will not forget to add her contrasting crimson and scarlet in the hibiscus and bromeliads that dot the landscape. At night when the moon shines on the waters, the ocean turns to gunmetal and ink, with wide swaths of brass and silver tracing the way back up to the moon that lights our path to the sea.  With time, all of her colors come out to dance along the landscape – including the sharp titanium white foam that crashes against the black cliffs along Kona.  And if a hue is errantly missed in her construction of the landscape, early morning showers sprout wide rainbows as a sign of good fortune, and as a reminder that she forgets no tones of color as she creates.

It is our responsibility to protect these waters, this landscape – this perfect artistry.  It is critically important to protect the animals that live in the ocean’s depths and the ones that cling to the island surface in their own corner of paradise.  I like to think that this study takes on this exact work.  By giving each of these species a name and identifying them to each individual group, we share with the world that these cetaceans are a family of their own with a habitat and a purpose.  When we “re-sight” whales that the team has seen in past studies, we further solidify that those animals have families and a home amongst themselves.   The photo identification team counts every new scar, marking, and change in these animals to piece together the story of their lives since they last met with the scientists.  Everyone on Oscar Elton Sette  talks about the new calves as if we were at the hospital with them on the day of their birth, celebrating the new life they’ve brought forth to continue their generations.  I like to think we all make a little room in the corner of our hearts for them as a part of our family, as well.

Did you know?

The Frigate bird has a Hawaiian name, “Iwa”, which means “thief.”  They call this bird “thief” because they steal prey right from the mouths of other birds!

 

“Spyhopping” is the act of a whale poking his head out of the water and bobbing along the surface.

 

It is legal for research ships to fish off the ship, so long as we eat what we catch while underway.  This led to the shared consumption of some delicious mahi mahi, fresh from the depths for lunch today.  Yes.  It was as good as it sounds.

 

Oscar Elton Sette knows how to celebrate!  Yesterday was Adam’s birthday, a marine mammal observer.  They decorated the mess in birthday theme, cranked up the dinnertime music, and the stewards made Adam his favorite – blueberry cheesecake for dessert!

 

Much of the crew likes to pitch in with food preparation.  The on ship doctor, “Doc”, makes authentic eastern dishes, and the crew made barbeque for everyone a few nights ago at dinner.