Christopher Faist: Beast or Famine, July 30, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 30, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  19 ºC
Water Temp: 18 ºC
Wind Speed: 12 knots
Water Depth: 64 meters

Science and Technology Log

When traveling in the ocean you never know what you will get.  Scientists can try to predict the weather or the amount of animals that will be seen in a particular area but nothing is as valuable as going to the area and recording what you see.  For the last couple of days we have been traveling in deep water off the continental shelf of the east coast of the United States.  Yesterday, we made a turn toward the edge of the shelf and we were very surprised by what we found.  (Check the Ship Tracker to view our path.)

The ocean can best be described as a patchy, dynamic environment.  Some days we have traveled for hours and not seen a single animal but on days like yesterday, we saw so many animals our single data recorder was busy all day.  Since the start of this cruise we have averaged about 30 sightings a days.  Yesterday, we had 30 sightings in the first 30 minutes of observation and ended with over 115 sightings.

Two Common Dolphins

Two Common Dolphins

Species ranged from abundant Common Dolphin, to rare and elusive beaked whales.  The sighting conditions were so outstanding the Marine Mammal Observers were identifying everything from a small warbler to the second largest whale, a Fin Whale.  Large whales, like Sei and Minke Whales, were concentrated in one area, while the dolphins were seen in other areas.  We passed over several undersea canyons and cetacean abundance over these canyons was like nothing one of the scientists had ever seen.

Two tools in the ship’s wide array of scientific tools, help scientists document the small animals that the whales and dolphins might be feeding on over the top of the canyons.  One is the XBT, or Expendable Bathythermograph, and the second is a VPR, or Video Plankton Recorder.  The XBT is launched from the moving ship to document the temperature  and water density along the ship’s track.  They are inexpensive and record data in real-time, giving accurate and up to date information about the area the animals are most abundant.  The VPR is a tool used at night, while the ship moves slowly, to take pictures of the plankton that occurs along our route.

Example of a VPR image

Example of a VPR image

The combination of temperature, depth and photographs of plankton gives scientists a clear picture of the environment that congregates large densities of cetaceans.  By understanding the factors that contribute to cetacean population changes, scientists are able to make recommendations to lawmakers about how to protect this natural resource from human impact like bycatch from the fishing industry or ship strikes in commonly trafficked shipping lanes.

Personal Log

I am disappointed that we only have two days left on our trip.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at sea.  Crazy weather this morning of 30 knot winds and 6-8 foot seas will not be a fun memory but thankfully, this evening the weather settled down and we watched a beautiful sunset while playing games on the top deck.  I am not sure that I could be a marine mammal observer but I look forward to taking this unique opportunity and turning it into a learning experience for my students.

Since this will be my last post from sea I thought I would leave you with some images of ocean life that was not a marine mammal or seabird.  Enjoy.

Flying Fish

Flying Fish

Blue Shark

Blue Shark

Dusky Shark

Dusky Shark

Christopher Faist: It Happened, July 27, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 27, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  17 ºC
Water Temp: 17 ºC
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Water Depth: 4365 meters

Science and Technology Log

Well it happened.  This morning I was taking care of a few things before heading to the observation post and while I was below deck they spotted Killer Whales.  By the time I got to the deck the animals were gone.  Initially, I was disappointed but the day continued with another sighting of Killer Whales, some Risso’s dolphins, a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins, a couple of Sperm Whales, a group of Sowerby’s Beaked Whales and a couple of Basking Sharks.  This list of animals is long but keep in mind this was over the course of 11 hours of observation.

Marine Mammal Observers use a variety of strategies to keep themselves “fresh” and able to look for animals for long periods of time through every weather condition.  The design of their survey procedure allows each observer to take a 30-minute break during each 2-hour session.  This gives them time to rest their eyes, get out of the weather and get something to eat.  Some of the other techniques to stay sharp may go unnoticed but are important and can only be learned from experienced observers.

Observer with Fireball

Observer with Fireball

Standing for hours and looking through binoculars on a rolling ship is not for everyone.   After spending some time observing animals at sea I can pass along a few tricks.  The days can be long but playing music can help keep the time moving.  Talking to other observers keeps your mind engaged and helps to stay focused.  When you start to feel like you need a jolt to stay awake try an Atomic Fireball.  These small candies pack a spicy reminder that you need to stay alert.  In this picture, one of the observers is holding her Fireball in her hand because she was not able to handle the intense heat.

To get a job as a Marine Mammal Observer you need to withstand these challenges while maintaining your ability to tell the difference between a splash and a white cap from three miles away.  Once you do detect the animal you still need to identify the animal with only a quick glimpse of the animal.  Below are a few pictures taken recently for you to test your skills.  Can you use the links above to correctly ID the animals?

RD ID

RD ID

AtSp ID2

AtSp ID2

SW ID

SW ID

BS ID

BS ID

Personal Log

Now that I have overcome my run in with seasickness, life at sea is great.  We are so far out, over 200 nautical miles, that we have lost our satellite TV connection and that is fine with me.  I have seen a variety of species for the first time and I am enjoying being surrounded by people who share my passion for the ocean and marine mammals.

Christopher Faist: Endless Horizon, July 26, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 26, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  20 ºC
Water Temp: 20 ºC
Wind Speed: 3 knots
Water Depth: 4141 meters

Science and Technology Log

To quantify sea conditions, scientists use the Beaufort Scale.  Calm waters with no wind is a Beaufort state of zero but when the wind speed increases and white caps start to form the Beaufort state raises to a 4.  Good observation conditions for sighting marine mammals fall between sea state 0-3.  When the white caps form it gets difficult to distinguish between a white cap and a dolphin splash, decreasing our chances of seeing all the animals in our survey area.

Today, the sighting conditions were good with the sea state varying from a 1-3 over the course of the day.  While the conditions were good we did not see any animals for hours.  This was surprising to many of the scientists so we looked more closely at the conditions in the water to investigate the lack of sightings.

Bongo Net

Bongo Net being deployed

Three times a day (morning, noon and night) a system of nets with a probe attached is deployed to sample the water under the ship.  The net is called a Bongo net, due to its dual net design that looks similar to a Bongo drum.  The net is made of a fine mesh that catches small animals swimming below the ship.  The probe, attached to the net, is called a CTD, which stands for conductivity, temperature and depth.  Scientists can use the combination of the animals found in the net and the readings from the CTD to make conclusions about the productivity of the waters around the ship.  The data collected at our noon deployment gave great insight into our lack of visual and acoustic sightings.

During our noon Bongo net deployment an interesting phenomenon was seen in the data.  First, the nets that typically collect animals were nearly empty.  Secondly, the CTD data showed very little change in water density between the surface and 200m.  This lack of change tells scientists that there is very little mixing of the ocean currents in this area of the North Atlantic.  Mixing usually causes colder, nutrient rich water to move toward the surface supplying animals with the oxygen and nutrients they need to grow and reproduce quickly.  When mixing is absent small animals are not as abundant eliminating the food source for the rest of the food chain.  With no food, dolphins and whales move out of the area to more fertile waters.  Hopefully, we will move to more productive areas and increase our cetacean sightings.

Personal Log

Chris Processing Bongo

Chris Processing the Bongo Sample

We have been at sea for 5 days now.  I have figured out my routine and I am really enjoying being away from land.  Surprisingly for a ship, internet speeds are quick, DirectTV is crystal clear and the laundry facilities are efficient.  (It pays to be on one of the newer, technologically advanced ships in NOAA’s fleet. )  The food has been outstanding and I am making some new friends.  Getting up early, 5am, may bothersome, but the sunrises and clear air have made the mornings a great part of the day.  After dinner the crew has a variety of games to pass the time including ladder golf, bean bag toss and darts.  If you think these games are challenging on land, adding the roll of the ship adds a new level of difficulty.

Christopher Faist: Dolphins and Crossbows, July 24, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 24, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  23 ºC
Water Temp: 21 ºC
Wind Speed: 11 knots
Water Depth: 35 meters

Science and Technology Log

Bottlenose Dolphin bowriding

Bottlenose Dolphin bowriding

Continuing our quest to count mammals and seabirds has brought us to shallower waters.  Currently we are moving in an area south of Martha’s Vineyard.  In this area we have had better visibility allowing us to sight species like the south polar skua and bottlenose dolphin.  Increased sightings bring new equipment and tools utilized by scientists to give a clearer picture of the diversity of animals in our survey area.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua

In addition to seeing animals through binoculars, scientists also want to learn about animal genetics and vocalizations.  Specialized equipment like a crossbow loaded with a biopsy dart or a towed hydrophone array can give scientists greater insight into the animals they are trying to study.

Pete ready to take a biopsy sample

Pete ready to take a biopsy sample

Pete, one of the marine mammal observers is also tasked with using a crossbow and biopsy dart to take a small sample of whale or dolphin tissue.  When the visual sighting team (using binoculars) spots an animal, they direct the bridge (where the ship is controlled) to steer the ship toward the animal or group of animals.  At this point, Pete begins to prepare his genetic sampling equipment.  On the bow of the ship are two raised platforms, one on each side.  With his crossbow in hand Pete harnesses himself to the ship, climbs on a platform and loads a biopsy dart.  If the animals are close enough he will then fire the dart, which is tethered to the ship, and collect a very, small piece of skin and blubber from the animal.  This tissue sample can be used by scientists to study the animal’s DNA, sex, health, diet, pollution levels and in females, check for pregnancy.

Crossbow loaded with biopsy dart

Crossbow loaded with biopsy dart

Another tool used to deepen a scientist’s understanding of marine mammals is a towed hydrophone array.  Included in a thin tube towed behind the ship are underwater microphones or hydrophones.  These are used to listen to noises in the ocean but for this cruise, the hydrophones are tuned to pick up sounds made by marine mammals.

One of the problems associated with using visual sightings to count marine mammals is they only spend a short period at the surface where they can be visually observed.  To ensure that all animals are counted, scientists like Rob and Sandra listen for animals that may be underwater when the ship passes.  Using multiple hydrophones they can use computer software to locate the noises and note the presence of animals that may be missed by visual observers.

Personal Log

Today was our first day of good weather that lasted all day.  What that means is 12 hours on deck looking for animals.  Even though I can take a break whenever I need it, I am worried that if I leave the deck I will miss something interesting.  After that many hours on deck it is great to get some dinner and head for bed.  I have been sleeping really well, making  getting up at 6am to start surveying almost enjoyable.

Next posting I will talk about the CTD/Bongo sampling device that I am helping to deploy every day at lunch.

Christopher Faist: Limited Visibility, July, 21 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 21, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  21 ºC
Water Temp: 19 ºC
Wind Speed: 19 knots
Water Depth: 163 meters

Science and Technology Log
The purpose of cruise is to accurately count marine mammals and seabirds in the North Atlantic.  There are two separate groups of scientists: the marine mammal team and the seabird team.

Chris Faist using the "Big Eyes"

Chris Faist using the "Big Eyes"

Mammals
The first order of business on a trip to count marine mammals is to ensure that all observers (including myself) are familiar with the types of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) that may be seen during the survey.  Last night all of the marine mammal observers gathered in the conference room to review photographs and field guides depicting each of the species that might be seen on the trip.  Using high-resolution photographs, we reviewed length, coloration, body shape and behaviors that distinguish each dolphin and whale to the most specific level of classification, Genus and species.

To make sure that all (or as close to all as possible) animals in the study area are counted, observers will be using high power binoculars, or “Big Eyes”, to extend their ability to see and identify animals even at great distances (about 7 miles from the ship).

Observation Station

Observation Station

Two teams of four, highly experienced observers will work simultaneously during the survey time.  From two different locations on the ship, the flying bridge (top deck) and the roll tank deck (about 15 feet below the flying bridge) each team of observers will rotate stations every 30 minutes.  One observer will start on the port (left) “Big Eyes” to observe animals on that side.  The second observer will be at the computer to record what is seen and search for animals close to the boat without using binoculars.  The 3rd observer will start on the starboard (right) “Big Eyes”, while the 4th person is on break.

It is believed that this method, of two teams of 4 observers each, will allow observers to count all of the animals in the survey area.  After the cruise is over the scientists will use math equations to get estimates of animals within the North Atlantic.

Pencil Close Up

Pencil Close Up

Birds
Since the weather was windy today, the mammal team did not work but there is a team of seabird observers on-board as well.  Mike and Marie are here to count all of the seabirds that occur in the survey area.  They are able to spot seabirds in rougher conditions (higher wind speeds) allowing them to collect data during most daylight hours.  Today, Mike was showing me how to accurately judge the distance between the boat and birds.  While technology may help others Mike likes to use an old fashion “pencil method”.  If you look carefully at the picture you will see marks on the pencil.  When he holds the pencil at arm’s length and puts the top of the pencil at the horizon, each of the marks indicate a different distance.  The top mark is 300m from the ship, middle is 200m and the bottom mark indicates 100m.  This gives Mike and Marie a quick guide to accurately judge distance to record their seabird observations.

Personal Log

Due to foggy and windy conditions the marine mammal observers are waiting for better conditions to start surveying.  While this is bad for the scientists, it is great for me.  I have had some time to learn to navigate the ship, nap, get my “sea legs” and interview many of the scientists and crew.

What I am finding is a highly trained, experienced group of individuals that love the ocean.  Each person brings a unique set of talents and background forming a complete team with the same goal, accurately counting the numbers of protected species in the North Atlantic.  I am very excited to be a part of such a great team.

Christopher Faist: Introduction, July 14, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 14, 2011

Personal Log

My name is Chris Faist and I am a NOAA Teacher At Sea participant for the 2011 field season aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow.  I teach middle school life science in southern California at Carmel Valley Middle School.  In a few days I will be traveling from Rhode Island to the coastal waters off the east coast to experience the North Atlantic for the first time.

I have been assigned to a cetacean (whale and dolphin), sea turtle and seabird survey cruise in the North Atlantic.  The cruise objectives are to:
1) determine the distribution and abundance of cetaceans, sea turtles and sea birds within the study area;
2) collect vocalizations of cetaceans using passive acoustic arrays;
3) determine the distribution and relative abundance of plankton;
4) collect hydrographic and meteorological data;
5) when possible, collect biopsy samples and photo-identification pictures of cetaceans.

Chris Faist with a Gray Whale

Chris Faist with a Gray Whale

As the trained observers look for animals, my job will be to record their observations in a computer system.  They will be reporting what species they see, the approximate number and location of the animals which I will then input into the ship’s computer.  These observations, as well as the recordings taken from our underwater microphone, or hydrophone, will allow scientists back in the lab to estimate the number of animals that live off the east coast of the United States.

All of my previous boat trips have been in the Pacific Ocean, so this cruise will give me an opportunity to see whales, like the North Atlantic Right Whale, that I have never seen before.

Wish me luck!