Michael Wing: What’s there to see out there? July 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Date: July 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 5 to 15 knots, wind waves 1’ to 3’, west swell 3’ at 14 seconds, patchy fog.

Science and Technology Log

I’ve been putting in long hours on the back deck, washing plankton in sieves and hosing down the hoop net. Often by the time the sample is safely in its bottle and all the equipment is rinsed off, it’s time to put the net down and do it all again.

On the back deck

Here’s where I wash plankton on the back deck

But, when I look up from the deck I see things and grab my camera. The surface of the ocean looks empty at first glance but it isn’t really. If you spend enough time on it, you see a lot.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross

Black footed albatrosses turn up whenever we stop to collect samples. They probably think we are a fishing boat – we’re about the same size and we have a cable astern. They leave once they find out we didn’t catch any fish. Kirsten tells me these birds nest on atolls east of Hawaii, and that most of the thirty or so species of albatross live in the southern hemisphere.

Mola

Mola

We also see lots of molas, or ocean sunfish. These bizarre looking fish lie on their side just under the water’s surface and eat jellyfish. They can be really large – four feet long, or more. I wonder why every predator in the ocean doesn’t eat them, because they are big, slow, very visible and apparently defenseless. The scientists I am with say that sea lions sometimes bite their fins. Molas are probably full of bones and gristle and aren’t very appetizing to sharks and seals. There are more molas than usual; one more indicator of the extra-warm water we’re seeing on this cruise.

Spouting whales

Humpback whales; one has just spouted

whale back

The back of a humpback whale

And of course there are WHALES! At times we a have been completely surrounded by them. Humpback whales, mostly, but also blue whales. The humpbacks are black with white patches on the undersides of their flippers and barnacles in places. They are playful. They breach, slap the water with their flippers, and do other tricks. The blue whales are not really blue. They are a kind of slate grey that may look blue in certain kinds of light. They are longer and straighter and bigger than the humpbacks, and they cruise along minding their own business. Their spouts are taller.

Humpback whale flukes

Humpback whale flukes

When we see one whale breaching in the distance, we call out. But, when a bunch of whales are all around us, we speak in hushed voices.

Personal Log

Orange balloon

Orange balloon

I have seen six balloons floating on the water, some dozens of miles offshore. Four of them were mylar, two like this one. The scientists I am with say they see the most balloons in June, presumably because June has more graduations and weddings. Maybe it’s time to say that balloons are not OK. When they get away from us, here’s where they end up.

Container ship

Container ship

We see container ships on the horizon. Sometimes they hit whales by accident. Every t-shirt, pair of sneakers, toy and electronic device you have ever owned probably arrived from Asia on one of these. Each of those boxes is forty feet long.

This is my last post from the R/V Fulmar. I go home tomorrow. I sure am grateful to everyone on board, and to NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary for giving me the opportunity to visit this special place.

Common murre

Common murre

Did You Know? When common murre chicks fledge, they jump out of their nests onto the surface of the sea. The drop can be forty or fifty feet. At this point they can swim, but they don’t know how to fly or find food. So, their fathers jump in after them and for the next month or two father and chick swim together on the ocean while the father feeds the chick. These are small birds and they can easily get separated in the rough seas. When this happens, they start calling to each other. It sounds sort of like a cat meowing. We have heard it often on this cruise.

Murre with chick

Adult murre with almost-grown chick

Michael Wing: Introduction to El Niño, July 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Bodega Bay, California
Date: July 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 15-25 knots, wind waves 3’-5’, northwest swell 4’ – 6’ at eight seconds, overcast.

Science and Technology Log

UC Davis graduate student and Point Blue Conservation Science intern Kate Davis took some plankton we collected to the Bodega Marine lab in Bodega Bay. She said she is seeing “tropical” species of plankton. A fellow graduate student who is from Brazil peeked into the microscope and said the plankton looked like what she sees at home in Brazil. The flying fish we saw is also anomalous, as is the number of molas (ocean sunfish) we are seeing. Plankton can’t swim, so some of our water must have come from a warm place south or west of us.

Farallones

The Farallon Islands are warmer this year

The surface water is several degrees warmer than it normally is this time of year. NOAA maintains a weather buoy near Bodega Bay, California that shows this really dramatically. Click on this link – it shows the average temperature in blue, one standard deviation in gray (that represents a “normal” variation in temperatures) and the actual daily temperature in red.

NOAA buoy data

Surface seawater temperatures from a NOAA buoy near Bodega Bay, California

http://bml.ucdavis.edu/boon/climatology.html

As you can see, the daily temperatures were warm last winter and basically normal in the spring. Then in late June they shot up several degrees, in a few days and have stayed there throughout this month. El Niño? Climate change? The scientists I am with say it’s complicated, but at least part of what is going on is due to El Niño.

Ryan at flying bridge

San Francisco State University student and Point Blue intern Ryan Hartnett watches El Nino

So what exactly is El Niño?

My students from last year know that the trade winds normally push the surface waters of the world’s tropical oceans downwind. In the Pacific, that means towards Asia. Water wells up from the depths to take its place on the west coasts of the continents, which means that places like Peru have cold water, lots of fog, and good fishing. The fishing is good because that deep water has lots of nutrients for phytoplankton growth like nitrate and phosphate (fertilizer, basically) and when it hits the sunlight lots of plankton grow. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton; fish eat the zooplankton, big fish eat little fish and so on.

During an El Niño event, the trade winds off the coast of Peru start to weaken and that surface water bounces back towards South America. This is called a Kelvin wave. Instead of flowing towards Asia, the surface water in the ocean sits there in the sunlight and it gets warmer. There must be some sort of feedback mechanism that keeps the trade winds weak, but the truth is that nobody really understands how El Niño gets started. We just know the signs, which are (1) trade winds in the South Pacific get weak (2) surface water temperatures in the eastern tropical pacific rise, (3) the eastern Pacific Ocean and its associated lands get wet and rainy, (4) the western Pacific and places like Australia, Indonesia, and the Indian Ocean get sunny and dry.

This happens every two to seven years, but most of the time the effect is weak. The last time we had a really strong El Niño was 1997-1998, which is when our current cohort of high school seniors was born. That year it rained 100 inches in my yard, and averaged over an inch a day in February! So, even though California is not in the tropics we feel its effects too.

Sausalito sunset

Sunset from the waterfront in Sausalito, California

We are in an El Niño event now and NOAA is currently forecasting an excellent chance of a very strong El Niño this winter.

NOAA map

Sea surface temperature anomalies Summer 2015. Expect more red this winter.

What about climate change and global warming? How is that related to El Niño? There is no consensus on that; we’ve always had El Niño events and we’ll continue to have them in a warmer world but it is possible they might be stronger or more frequent.

Personal Log

So, is El Niño a good thing? That’s not a useful question. It’s a part of our climate. It does make life hard for the seabirds and whales because that layer of warm water at the surface separates the nutrients like nitrate and phosphate, which are down deep, from the sunlight. Fewer phytoplankton grow, fewer zooplankton eat them, there’s less krill and fish for the birds and whales to eat. However, it might help us out on land. California’s drought, which has lasted for several years now, may end this winter if the 2015 El Niño is as strong as expected.

Golden Gate Bridge

Rain will come again to California

Did You Know? El Niño means “the boy” in Spanish. It refers to the Christ child; the first signs of El Niño usually become evident in Peru around Christmas, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The Spanish in colonial times were very fond of naming things after religious holidays. You can see that in our local place names. For instance, Marin County’s Point Reyes is named after the Feast of the Three Kings, an ecclesiastical holy day that coincided with its discovery by the Spanish. There are many other examples, from Año Nuevo on the San Mateo County coast to Easter Island in Chile.

Window selfie

Michael Wing takes a selfie in his reflection in the boat’s window

Michael Wing: How to Sample the Sea, July 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Marin County, California
Date: July 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ four seconds apart.

Science and Technology Log

On the even-numbered “lines” we don’t just survey birds and mammals. We do a lot of sampling of the water and plankton.

Wing on Fulmar

Wing at rail of the R/V Fulmar

We use a CTD (Conductivity – Temperature – Depth profiler) at every place we stop. We hook it to a cable, turn it on, and lower to down until it comes within 5-10 meters of the bottom. When we pull it back up, it has a continuous and digital record of water conductivity (a proxy for salinity, since salty water conducts electricity better), temperature, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence (a proxy for chlorophyll, basically phytoplankton), all as a function of depth.

CTD

Kate and Danielle deploy the CTD

We also have a Niskin bottle attached to the CTD cable. This is a sturdy plastic tube with stoppers at both ends. The tube is lowered into the water with both ends cocked open. When it is at the depth you want, you clip a “messenger” to the cable. The messenger is basically a heavy metal bead. You let go, it slides down the cable, and when it strikes a trigger on the Niskin bottle the stoppers on both ends snap shut. You can feel a slight twitch on the ship’s cable when this happens. You pull it back up and decant the seawater that was trapped at that depth into sample bottles to measure nitrate, phosphate, alkalinity, and other chemical parameters back in the lab.

Niskin bottle

Niskin bottle

When we want surface water, we just use a bucket on a rope of course.

We use a hoop net to collect krill and other zooplankton. We tow it behind the boat at a depth of about 50 meters, haul it back in, and wash the contents into a sieve, then put them in sample bottles with a little preservative for later study. We also have a couple of smaller plankton nets for special projects, like the University of California at Davis graduate student Kate Davis’s project on ocean acidification, and the plankton samples we send to the California Department of Health. They are checking for red tides.

Hoop net

Hoop net

We use a Tucker Trawl once a day on even numbered lines. This is a heavy and complicated rig that has three plankton nets, each towed at a different depth. It takes about an hour to deploy and retrieve this one; that’s why we don’t use it each time we stop. The Tucker trawl is to catch krill; which are like very small shrimp.  During the day they are down deep; they come up at night.

Tucker trawl

Part of the Tucker trawl

 

krill

A mass of krill we collected. The black dots are their eyes.

What happens to these samples? The plankton from the hoop net gets sent to a lab where a subsample is taken and each species in the subsample is counted very precisely. The CTD casts are shared by all the groups here – NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the University of California at Davis, San Francisco State University. The state health department gets its sample. San Francisco State student Ryan Hartnett has some water samples he will analyze for nitrate, phosphate and silicate. All the data, including the bird and mammal sightings, goes into a big database that’s been kept since 2004. That’s how we know what’s going on in the California Current. When things change, we’ll recognize the changes.

Personal Log

They told me “wear waterproof pants and rubber boots on the back deck, you’ll get wet.” I thought, how wet could it be? Now I understand. It’s not that some water drips on you when you lift a net up over the stern of the boat – although it does. It’s not that waves splash you, although that happens too. It’s that you use a salt water hose to help wash all of the plankton from the net into a sieve, and then into a container, and to fill wash bottles and to wash off the net, sieve, basins, funnel, etc. before you arrive at the next station and do it all again. It takes time, because you have to wash ALL of the plankton from the end of the net into the bottle, not just some of it. You spend a lot of time hosing things down. It’s like working at a car wash except with salty water and the deck is pitching like a continuous earthquake.

The weather has gone back to “normal”, which today means 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ only four seconds apart. Do the math, and you’ll see that occasionally a wind wave adds to a swell and you get slapped by something eight feet high. We were going to go to Bodega Bay today; we had to return to Sausalito instead because it’s downwind.

sea state

The sea state today. Some waves were pretty big.

We saw a lot of humpback whales breaching again and again, and slapping the water with their tails. No, we don’t know why they do it although it just looks like fun. No, I didn’t get pictures. They do it too fast.

Did You Know? No biologist or birder uses the word “seagull.” They are “gulls”, and there are a lot of different species such as Western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls and others. Yes, it is possible to tell them apart.

Michael Wing: Seabirds to starboard, whales and seals to port, July 18, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of the Golden Gate Bridge
Date: Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind Southeast, ten knots. Wind waves less than two feet. Swell 4-6 feet ten seconds. Patchy morning fog.

Michael Wing and Fulmar

Michael Wing and the R/V Fulmar

Science and Technology Log

We loaded the boat yesterday at 3:00 PM and I met a lot of people including the three co-principal investigators Jan Roletto of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Danielle Lipski of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and Jaime Jahncke of Point Blue Conservation Science. There are others, including volunteers and visitors, and I will try to introduce some of them in future posts.

Today we didn’t collect water or plankton samples. We’ll do that tomorrow.  We sailed west from the Golden Gate Bridge on a track called “Line 5” at ten knots until we passed the edge of the continental shelf and then dropped south and cruised back to our dock in Sausalito on another line called “Line 7.” Plankton and water samples are for the even-numbered lines. Our purpose today was to count seabirds, whales and seals and sea lions. It’s not simple. By 7:30 AM we are assembled on the “flying bridge” (the highest part of the boat) with Jaime and the Greater Farallones Association’s Kirsten Lindquist on the starboard side and volunteers Jason Thompson and Rudy Wallen on the port. Kirsten notes birds, focusing just on the area from dead ahead to the starboard beam and calls out things like “Common murre, zone two, thirteen, flying, bearing 330 degrees.” This means she saw thirteen common murres flying northwest together not too far from the boat. This time is called being “on effort” and she is really focused on it. I don’t talk to her unless spoken to. Jamie enters all this into a database on his laptop.

On bird patol

On bird patrol

The guys on the port side are doing the same thing for marine mammals and saying “Animal, by eye, bearing 320, reticle seven, traveling, immature California sea lion, one-one-one.” These last numbers are estimates of the most probable number of animals in the group, and maximum and minimum estimates. Obviously, in this example just one animal was seen.

I am in awe of their ability to identify species, maturity and other things from just a glimpse. Kirsten can tell the difference between a Western gull and a California gull from hundreds of feet away, even if the gull is flying away from her. They also record floating trash, dead animals, and boats and ships.

So what are we seeing? Common murres, western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls, sooty shearwaters, pink footed shearwaters, storm petrels, black footed albatrosses, red necked phalaropes, tufted puffins, Pacific white sided dolphins, northern fur seals, a bottlenose dolphin, humpback whales, a dead seal, Mola molas (ocean sunfish), one flying fish, mylar balloons (4), a paper cup, a piece of Styrofoam. The flying fish was totally unexpected because they are mostly tropical and everyone talked about it all afternoon.

Port side

The port (left) side is for spotting marine mammals

Some of these birds have come here from Chile, New Zealand, or Hawaii in their “off” (non-breeding) season because there is a world-class food supply here for them. The sooty shearwaters start in New Zealand and fly to Japan, to Alaskan waters, and then down the west coast of North America before returning to New Zealand across the Pacific! However, a lot of these were far away. Visually, the ocean looks pretty empty from the flying bridge.

striped crab

This little crab was clinging to a piece of kelp we caught with a boat hook

Personal Log

The specter of seasickness haunts us on the first day of a cruise. Most of us are snacking on starchy treats like pretzels and Cheez-Its and drinking carbonated drinks. Paradoxically, these foods help prevent nausea. I have not taken any seasickness medicine and I am feeling a little queasy during the morning, but by noon I feel great. Nobody throws up. The Fulmar doesn’t roll from side to side very much but she does lurch when smacked head-on by a wave. It helps that the waves weren’t very big today. Soon we’ll all get our “sea legs.”

Also, you might appreciate these photos of me getting into a “Gumby suit” in under a minute, as part of my safety training. This is a survival suit meant to keep you from freezing to death if the boat sinks. You have to be able to get into it in less than a minute.

survival suit

Getting into the survival suit. I have 1 minute, and the suit is stiff. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett

into survival suit

I am into the survival suit. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett

Did You Know? Here’s what you need to untangle fishing nets from a frustrated humpback whale: Boathooks, sharp knives, and a GoPro digital camera on the end of a pole. The GoPro helps you study the tangles so you can decide where to make that one cut that causes the whole mess to fall apart and off the whale.

 

life ring

R/V Fulmar’s life ring

Michael Wing: The Ocean Is Our Front Yard, May 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 26, 2015

Mission: Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Survey
Geographical Area: Northern California coast
Date: May 9, 2015

Science and Technology Log

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you’ve seen our “front yard” many times. You have looked west while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, walked on a beach and faced into the wind, maybe even gone on a whale watching trip. How well do we know it? Besides the fog and wind, the whales and waves, what’s out there? After living here for two decades, I’m going to find out.

What's it like out there?

What’s it like out there?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency of the federal government. They’re the people who run the National Weather Service, among other things. They also do oceanographic research, and through their Teacher at Sea Program they place teachers on oceanographic ships. I am one of those fortunate teachers.

I work at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. Lots of NOAA Teachers at Sea get on an airplane, fly to a distant city, board a big ship and cruise hundreds of miles out to sea; but my experience will be very local. I will never be more than about fifty miles from my house, as the gull flies. In fact, Sir Francis Drake High School is the closest major school to the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where a lot of my time will be spent. I will also be working the waters of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. A marine sanctuary is sort of like a national park that is underwater.

The cruise I will be on is a routine one; part of a scientific program called the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Survey (ACCESS). The California Current is a cold, south-running current; part of a global circulation pattern called the North Pacific Gyre. Upwelling of deep ocean water keeps it fertile. There used to be very productive commercial fishing here, before we caught too many fish in the 20th century. There are still lots of plankton, birds, and marine mammals. The ACCESS cruises happen three or four times each year. We sample, count and/or measure seawater temperature and salinity, plankton, krill, birds and whales and other marine mammals. This way we’ll know the ecological health of our front yard.

Our Front Yard

Our Front Yard

The boat I will work on is specially designed for this environment. NOAA has oceanographic vessels hundreds of feet long for offshore studies, but I will be on the R/V Fulmar, an aluminum-hulled catamaran only 67 feet long. She is technically a “small boat” and not a ship at all. She is fast and stable and six people can sleep on board, as I will. “R/V” stands for “Research Vessel.” A fulmar is a seabird that looks like a stocky gull. It spends nearly all of its life at sea. Northern Fulmars fish in the waters of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. A catamaran is a boat with two side-by-side hulls instead of one. My jobs will include standing watches, doing science, housekeeping chores and keeping this log.

Personal Log

What do I hope to get out of this? We do a plankton lab at my school, but it is very basic. I should be more of a plankton expert after this experience. I have been interested in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary ever since Drake High became a NOAA Ocean Guardian School last year. We picked up hundreds of pounds of marine plastic debris on the beaches of the Point Reyes National Seashore and analyzed where it comes from. A lot of it is related to commercial crabbing and fishing and international shipping. Also, I and my students read flipper tags on northern elephant seals for the National Park Service, and our seals swim though these waters. So, I’ll keep an eye out for floating plastic and elephant seals.

Really, though, I can’t yet know what this experience will lead to. Serendipity is a guiding principle for most scientists; the word implies luck, chance, surprise, and the wisdom to respond appropriately to the unexpected. It means spotting opportunities and following up on them. Since I’m so local, maybe there will be a way to get a new collaboration going with NOAA. Maybe just being in a new environment with new people will make me think outside of my daily grind. All of my best ideas have come to me while traveling.

Unlike practically every other teacher in the world, I have the same students two years in a row. So if you are one of my wonderful ninth graders now, you will be one of my wonderful tenth graders when I come back from this experience. So, to my wonderful ninth graders now (and ninth-graders-to-be): Follow this blog in July! Post a comment, question, or idea. We’re going to follow up in the fall.

Did you know that Sir Francis Drake missed discovering the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay when he sailed these waters in 1579? (The “Golden Gate” is the channel of water that the bridge crosses over; there was a Golden Gate long before there was a bridge.) We shouldn’t criticize him too harshly for that because the Spanish sailed past the Golden Gate every year for 250 years without seeing it or discovering the bay! Apparently, it doesn’t look like much from out at sea.