Alexandra Keenan: Right Whales Everywhere! June 25, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 25, 2012

Science and Technology Log:

Greetings from Canadian waters!

Bigelow flying Canadian flag

Ships must fly the flag of the nation whose territorial water they are sailing in.

Thanks to a tip from an aerial survey, we are on Georges Basin– the northern edge of Georges Bank. Incredibly, we saw around 30 right whales yesterday! The science crew quickly got to work photo-identifying every right whale we could safely approach.

Photo-identification is the process of distinguishing individuals of a species from one another using markings and other cues in photographs of an individual. It is possible to identify individual right whales by markings called callosities on their heads, scars on their bodies, and notches in their flukes.

Photographing right whales

I use a telephoto lens to photograph right whale callosities to use in identifying individuals.

taking good notes

Research analyst Genevieve Davis takes good notes on each whale that is photographed, including frame numbers and identifying characteristics. These are essential when going through the photographs later.

the chief

Chief Scientist Allison Henry knows right whales. I was amazed by her ability to recognize individuals by name or number.

Callosities are patches of rough skin on right whales’ heads that appear white because of small organisms called cyamids that inhabit these areas (a sort of “whale lice”). Like human fingerprints, each right whale has a unique callosity pattern. In order to photo-ID a whale, photographs of the animal’s head and body are taken with a telephoto lens when the animal surfaces. These photographs can later be compared to a catalog of right whale individuals to determine who has been spotted (some whales have names, some have numbers).

Scientists use unique markings on the head called callosities to identify individual whales. (graphic/photo: New England Aquarium)

The team also has “cheat sheets,” or laminated cards containing information on certain whales that are of interest or need to be biopsied. These references can help scientists quickly identify whales in the field that need to be studied further.

cheat sheets

These sheets contain photographs and drawings of individual whales’ markings and callosities.

As one of the most endangered whale species, there are only about 450 individual right whales left. We were privileged to see a little less than 10% of the entire right whale population in one day. This is amazing, but also quite disturbing.  Even though right whaling has been illegal since 1937 , right whales still face entanglement from commercial fishing gear and getting hit by vessels. They are particularly vulnerable because they seasonally migrate through world shipping lanes, are relatively slow swimmers, and closely approach vessels.

One right whale we encountered, named Ruffian, had huge scars all over his back. I asked Allison the Chief Scientist what happened to him.

Below are two videos: the first a shot of the numerous spouts (note the characteristic v-pattern of the spouts) that gives an idea of how surrounded we were by right whales, the other is a short video of a right whale surfacing near our bow.

Alexandra Keenan: Singing Whales, June 23, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – June 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 23, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air temperature: 14.4° C
Sea temperature: 13.3° C
Wind speed: 10.5 knots
Wind direction: from the SW

Science and Technology Log:

Whales are social creatures with a remarkable ability to communicate with one another over long distances using sounds. Male humpback whales, for example, can sing for days on end over mating grounds to attract the ladies, or over feeding grounds such as the ones on Georges Bank (where we are!) The acoustic behavior of sperm whales may even provide for distinct cultures within the species.

Listen: Song of a humpback whale (courtesy Denise Risch)

Given these vocalizations, it is possible to monitor the distribution and behavior of acoustically active marine animals using special recording units called “marine autonomous recording units” (MARUs). For the past few days, we have been zig-zagging and loopty-looping around Georges Bank to retrieve several of these MARUs (track our ship’s course here).

MARUs are little buoys designed to sit on the ocean floor and record all sounds within a certain range of frequencies. The MARUs we retrieved during this cruise have been on Georges Bank since the March cruise on the Delaware II (see Chief Scientist Allison Henry’s blog post).

To retrieve a buoy:

1. An acoustic signal (a sound) is sent out from a speaker lowered into the water that basically says to the buoy, “Hello! Are you there?” Listen: Signal used to contact buoy

pop-up buoy retrieval

Bioacoustician Denise Risch sends a signal to the MARU.

2. The buoy can then respond with another acoustic signal, “Yup!”

listening for the pop-up buoy

Research analyst Genevieve Davis and intern Julia Luthringer listen for a response from the MARU.

3. Upon hearing confirmation that the buoy is indeed in the area, the bioacoustician can send another signal to the buoy telling it to burn the wire anchoring it to the sandbags on the ocean floor.

4. The buoy is free! It floats to the sea surface and is retrieved from the side of the ship.

Denise Risch, Genevieve Davis, and Julia Luthringer wait for the ship to approach the MARU (small yellow dot in ocean).

5. Data is retrieved from flash memory on the buoy for further analysis.

MARU

MARU ready for data retrieval.

What will these MARUs be able to tell bioacousticians (scientists that study sounds produced by living organisms)?

Lots!  Using passive acoustic monitoring (recording the sounds that marine mammals make), scientists can study the distribution of acoustically active mammals and can couple distribution data with environmental measurements of the area to identify relationships between conditions on the ocean and acoustic activity. Scientists can also distinguish whale species based on their sounds, so certain species of whale can be monitored.

Physics break: Why do you think whales have evolved to use sound rather than sight or smell to communicate underwater?

Personal Log:

I have been amazed by the amount of maintenance being done while we are underway. Even with a relatively new ship like the Bigelow, there is always something to be done, whether it be grinding away at the deck for subsequent repainting or fixing a malfunctioning pump.

Maintenance on the Bigelow

Deck crew member Tony repaints the deck after grinding off the old paint while we are underway.

We spend most of our days out on the fly bridge watching for whales, and mostly we see whales.

whale watching

Equipment used for watching for whales from the flybridge.

However, once in a while a shark, turtle, or mola mola floats by. I really get a kick out of the mola molas. They look like they could be the subject of a Pokemon trading card– a big flat fish head with fins sticking out. They eat jelly fish and have few natural predators. Adults weigh an average of 2200 lbs!

mola mola

The other-worldly mola mola.

A short video of one in action below:

Finally, I wanted to introduce everyone on the science team for this cruise:

aglow following a blue whale sighting

From left to right: Me, Scientist Pete Duley, Bioacoustician Denise Risch, Chief Scientist Allison Henry, Scientist Jen Gatzke, Research Analyst Genevieve Davis, and Intern Julia Luthringer (photo courtesy CO Zegowitz)

Alexandra Keenan: Watching for Whales, June 21, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – June 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 21, 2012

Weather data from the bridge:
Air temperature: 15.84° C
Wind speed: 7.42 knots
Wind direction: coming from N
Relative Humidity 94.9%

Science and Technology Log:

We departed from Naval Station Newport (NAVSTA) shortly after 2:00 pm on June 18th. During our first three full days at sea, we have been intermittently retrieving marine acoustic recording units (MARUs–more on this later) and recording whale sightings on Georges Bank.

Georges Bank is an elevated area of sea floor extending from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia. This special place is a feeding ground for cetaceans because the topography and position of the bank result in an upwelling of nutrient-rich water which supports a high level of productivity.

Our day begins at 7:30 am when we begin watch sessions.  Every hour and a half, we rotate through three stations. Scientists at two stations use high-power binoculars, dubbed “big eyes,” while a scientist at another station records sightings.

sighting data entry

Peter Duley enters data from a sighting on the fly bridge.

big eyes

Me on the “big eyes” scanning for whales.

The following information is recorded for each sighting:

  • species
  • position of animal relative to the ship
  • distance of animal from ship
  • number of animals in the group
  • calves (if present)
  • animal behavior (porpoising, swimming, breaching, etc.)
  • swim direction

Environmental conditions and ship position data are recorded concurrently. All of this data can then be used together to monitor certain species and to create statistical models of whale populations.

In this area, we expect to see humpback, sei, fin, pilot, and right whales. In order to distinguish species while on watch, we must take into account a few important characteristics:

Spout: The spout is a column of moist air emitted from the whale’s nostril (blowhole) on its back as it exhales. Right whales and humpbacks have short, bushy spouts, while fin and sei whales have tall, columnar spouts. If the wind is strong, it can be hard to distinguish them. Luckily, there are a couple of other ways to identify whales  from a distance.

Dorsal fin: This is the fin on the whale’s back behind the blowhole. Right whales do not have dorsal fins, and humpback whales have a bit of an extra “hump” on their dorsal fin. Fin and sei whales are slightly more tricky to distinguish. The best way to distinguish them is to recognize that the dorsal fin on a sei whale is taller than on a fin whale. There is also a white coloration pattern forward of the dorsal fin on a fin whale called a chevron. Sei whales do not have these. Fin whales also have white markings on their lower jaws, which sei whales do not have.

Fluke: The fluke is the whale’s “tail.” Humpbacks and right whales show their flukes more often than the others when they dive. Right whales have a very smooth black fluke, while humpback whales have more deeply notched flukes that can range in color from all white to all black.

So far on this cruise we have seen: humpback whales, pilot whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, sperm whales, common dolphins, white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, striped dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, mola-mola, and a Portuguese man o’ war.

No right whales yet, though tomorrow we plan to cross the Great South Channel in order to retrieve more MARUs, with a possibility of a sighting there. There was also an aerial survey over Georges Basin– the extreme northern edge of George’s Bank– today that reported 12 right whales. We hope to see plenty before the cruise is over, as right whales are the species targeted for biopsy and photo-identification on this mission.

Common Atlantic white sided dolphin

Dozens of common dolphins surrounded the ship on June 19th.

dolphins near ship

Dolphins playing around the ship.

Listening to dolphins

Genevieve Davis records dolphin whistles using the ship’s hydrophone as I listen on headphones.

From the starboard 01 weatherdecks (the decks on the right side of the boat when facing forward), I was able to hear the dolphins whistling to each other as they played around the ship on June 19th. Scientists Denise Risch and Genevieve Davis recorded their acoustics using a hydrophone mounted on the ship’s centerboard.

Personal Log:

Henry B. Bigelow

Galley stores are loaded on to Henry B. Bigelow just before departure.

Seeing the Bigelow from my cab as we drove onto the pier on June 17th was a bit of a shock for me. I didn’t realize quite how huge it was going to be. As I sauntered up the gangway with my backpack, I thought there was no way I could get seasick on a ship this big. My confidence grew as we left port on the 18th and I felt fine. By the end of the next day (our first full day at sea), though, I was looking for a rock to hide under. A stationary rock.

Happily, today felt great. I feel like my normal self again, have gotten into the swing of things aboard, and know my way around the ship. Everyone here has been exceptionally welcoming and nice which made the seasickness easy to forget. Tonight the ship had a summer solstice party on the flybridge. The weather was absolutely beautiful– complete with an orange sunset and glassy seas.

survival suit

Me in my survival suit during an abandon ship drill.

Overall, things are going great here. The ship is  comfortable, the food is delicious, and the whale sightings have been absolutely incredible. I could get used to this.

The video below is a short tour of my stateroom.

Happy sailing!

Alexandra Keenan: A Whale of an Adventure Begins! June 16, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
(Almost) Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – June 29

Mission: Cetacean biology
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 16, 2012

Personal Log

Saludos! My name is Alexandra Keenan, and I teach Astronomy and Physics at Rio Grande City High School. Rio Grande City is a rural town located at the arid edge of the Rio Grande Valley. Because of our unique position on the Texas-Mexico border, our community is characterized by a rich melding of language and culture. Life in a border town is not always easy, but my talented and dedicated colleagues at RGC High School passionately advocate for our students, and our outstanding students gracefully rise to and surmount the many challenges presented to them.

Che's

Me in downtown Rio Grande City. Our historic buildings are evocative of the old “Wild West.”

Rio Grande City

Taquerias dot the highway running through our town– evidence of the binational character of the community.

I applied to the NOAA Teacher at Sea program because making careers in science seem real and attainable to students is a priority in my classroom.  NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides a wonderful opportunity for teachers to have an interdisciplinary research experience aboard one of their research or survey ships. I believe that through this extraordinary opportunity,  I can make our units in scientific inquiry and sound come alive while increasing students’  interest in and enthusiasm for protecting our ocean planet. I will also be able to provide my students firsthand knowledge on careers at NOAA. I hope to show my students that there is a big, beautiful world out there worth protecting and that they too can have an adventure.

The adventure begins on June 18th when the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow departs from Newport, RI. I’ll be on the vessel as a member of the scientific research party. We will be monitoring populations of the school-bus-sized North Atlantic right whale by:

  • using photo-identification techniques
  • obtaining biopsies from live whales (wow!)
  • catching zooplankton
  • recovering specials buoys that have been monitoring the whales’ acoustic behavior (the sounds they make)

Aerial view of North Atlantic right whale swimming with calf. (photo: NOAA)

Why would we do all of this? Because North Atlantic Right Whales are among the most endangered whales in the world. Historically, they were heavily hunted during the whaling era. Now, they are endangered by shipping vessels and commercial fishing equipment. The data we gather and analyze will help governing bodies make management decisions to protect these majestic animals.

NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow (photo: NOAA)

The next time you hear from me, it’ll be from the waters of the Gulf of Maine!

Fair winds!