Daniel Rivera, Days 3 & 4 Bird & Mammal Observation

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Daniel Rivera

Aboard the Ship R/V Fulmar

July 16-24, 2014

 

Mission: Water conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) readings; marine bird and mammal counts

Geographical Area: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries; Sonoma County Coast, Pacific Ocean

Dates: July 18 and 19, 2014

 Weather Data from the bridge: Wind speed variable, less than 10 knots; wind waves less than 2 feet; visibility about 3 KMs, temperature range from 59-68

 Science and Technology Log: Friday and Saturday are mostly filled with marine bird and mammal observations, and we covered many transect lines in the last 2 days: Lines 1, 3, 5, 7, N1, and N3-N7.

These are the paths, or transect lines, taken by our ship on our cruise.

These are the paths, or transect lines, taken by our ship on our cruise.

The transects lines with an “N” stand for near-shore lines, and they are shorter. During these two days the near-shore lines were the only lines where we took CTD readings, so the majority of the time was spent monitoring birds and mammals from the flying bridge, which is the top deck of the boat.

Scanning for birds and mammals while riding atop a moving vessel can be quite challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, a boat is at mercy of the waves, so the bobbing motion makes it hard to focus your eyes. Second, the organisms you are monitoring are in motion as well, so you have to have a quick eye to see them and follow them. Finally, many of the organisms aren’t directly in front of the boat, so you have to be well-trained in spotting the subtle and not so subtle differences in hundreds of organisms. It’s a tough job that requires good eyes, patience, a strong stomach, lots of practice, and the ability to withstand ever-changing weather conditions.

When a marine bird is spotted, there are a series of codes that the watcher calls out to the person recording the sightings on the laptop. As mentioned in an earlier post, these codes stand for location, number of organisms, etc. For example, when on the top deck you might here this: Common Murre 2, zone 1, flying, 160. This means that there are two Common Murre birds within 100 meters of the boat, and they are flying toward 160 degrees in relation to the boat (in a 360-degree circle). For this protocol, zero degrees is always at the bow, or the front, of the boat, and 180 degrees points directly to the stern, or the back, of the boat.

When a marine mammal is sighted, there are even more codes. For example, you may hear this: Mammal, by eye, bearing 270, reticle 7, observer 9, side 1, traveling, immature, sex unknown, 2-2-2.

Now, that is a lot of information. What does all this mean? Take a look at this picture, which has the meanings for all of the codes.

Here are the codes that are called out while monitoring marine mammals and birds. As you can see, there is a lot of information that is called out during a spotting.

Here are the codes that are called out while monitoring marine mammals and birds. As you can see, there is a lot of information that is called out during a spotting.

Now look at the bottom half of this picture where it’s labeled Line Transect Entries-Marine Mammals and Vessels. In order to make sense of these codes, start with the left column and work your way down, moving along to the second column on the right and back down again. By using this chart, you realize what is being said: Marine mammal, spotted by eye (as opposed to binoculars), and it’s located at 270 degrees. Next up is reticule, which is a bit more complicated.

On reticule binoculars, there are 14 tick marks in a vertical column that the observer can see when looking through the lens; the top tick mark is 0 and the bottom is 14. When looking for marine mammals, you can estimate where they are located by these tick marks, called reticules. Reticule 0 is the horizon, and reticule 14 is the boat. If you have a mammal sighting at reticule 7, that means the mammal is roughly somewhere in the middle between the horizon and the boat, which is quite a distance. It takes a lot of practice to accurately estimate distance this way, especially on a rocking boat, but the ACCESS crew is well versed in this task. This is an important data point because the computer program will use compass direction and distance to provide a location on the ocean for the observation. At the end of the cruise, all the observations will be mapped out and you can see how many of which animals were seen in what locations as we criss-crossed the ocean on the boat.

The rest of the codes are pretty self-explanatory until you reach the counts, which gives your best estimate for number of organisms. A count of 2-2-2- means your best estimate of number of organisms is 2, the high number of organisms is 2, and the low count is 2; when you hear a call like this, the observer is certain that the number of organisms is 2 because there is no fluctuation. If you heard a count of 2-3-2, the observer saw at least 2 organisms but it could have been 3. The observers include these different estimates because sometimes it is very hard to count exactly how many dolphins or other fast-moving animals there are.

Here are some pics from the flying bridge (or top deck of the boat). Notice the different weather conditions on two different days, and how the observers have to be prepared to bundle up for the fog and have on hats and sunglasses against the sun. Conditions can change rapidly while at sea.

Many hours are spent perched atop the flying bridge when marine mammal and bird observations take place.

Many hours are spent perched atop the flying bridge when marine mammal and bird observations take place.

A sunny day on the flying bridge.

A sunny day on the flying bridge.

 

Personal Log: I woke up later these past two days because I learned there is time to wake up while the boat is heading out to the first transect. There is no need to wake up before the crew starts the engines because on days such as these we have at least one hour from when we leave port to ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

As mentioned earlier in the blog, these past two days were mostly bird and mammal observations with CTD readings toward the end of the day. When the boat first set out in the morning, we headed out to the west end of the transect line, and because we have more time, everyone on board shares stories, some work-related, some personal. It’s quite nice to have time for these conversations because even though you spend 8 days at sea with everyone, it’s hard to fit in conversation when you’re watching for organisms or trying not to fall off the boat while deploying a net.

Dani Lipski, the Research Coordinator from Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, is a dive master for NOAA. She has lots of wonderful stories about diving, conducting research on different ships and islands up and down the West coast, and she is great at preventing me from tripping over myself on the back deck (I work with Dani the most). Kirsten Lindquist, from the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, loves to cook, spent two seasons in Alaska studying whales, and is an expert seabird observer. Rudy, the man in charge of IT at Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can spot birds, mammals, and even mylar balloons; if it’s on or in the ocean, he’ll notice it. He is also the resident comedian, providing many instances of humor throughout the day. In short, everyone on board is knowledgeable about their jobs and dedicated to protecting the health of the world’s oceans, and it’s inspiring to be around a group as dedicated as the ACCESS cruise team.

Some other tidbits learned: Jaime–the director of all the marine work at Point Blue Conservation and the master of the Tucker Trawl–has a favorite spot to rest on the boat; the bunk rooms never seem to completely dry out; the best place to feel well on a boat is the back because of the least amount of up and down motion; and Dru, mammal spotter extraordinaire from Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can make an excellent guacamole.

Speaking of food, Cheez-It’s are a favorite of everyone on board, Coke Zero is consumed at nauseam, and apparently the presence of M&Ms brings whale sightings (having a Teacher at Sea on board also seems to bring good whale sightings). Everyone takes turns cooking dinner, but breakfast and lunch are a free-for-all; you basically eat when you want or can while at sea, but dinner is a time for everyone to come together and share their day.

One interesting fact I forgot to mention is that when you come back to shore after spending 10 hours at sea, you still feel like you are moving up and down. When I was in the shower or even just sitting down on land, I felt like I was bobbing up and down and moving back and forth. You have a dizzy-like feeling,. Some people who don’t get sick at sea will get sick from this feeling when they return to land; this is called dock rock. Who knew?!

 

Did you know? Northern Right whale dolphins do not have dorsal fins.

Question of the Day? What types of foods do you think are ideally suited to a trip to sea with limited or no refrigeration?

New Term/Phrase/Word: Reticule

Something to Think About: Bananas on a boat are considered bad luck for several reasons. First, when they go bad the give off a gas that causes other fruit to rot faster. But there are more superstitious reasons as well: banana boats tended to be overloaded and, thus, sank a lot. Bananas carry tarantulas in them, so sailors didn’t want to get bit. You don’t want to bring something from the mountains to the sea, so you can’t bring bananas; there are sure to be more reasons why.

Challenge Yourself: Next time you’re at the shore or beach, count how many different species of birds you see and try to estimate their direction of travel, using a 360-degree circle as reference and using the horizon as 0 degrees.

Richard Chewning, June 15th, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Richard Chewning
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
June 4 – 24, 2010

NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak) to eastern Bering Sea (Dutch Harbor)
Date: June 15th, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge

Position: eastern Bering Sea
Time: 1530
Latitude: N 55 47.020
Longitude: W 165 24.970
Cloud Cover: overcast
Wind: 14 knots
Temperature: 6.4 C
Barometric Pressure: 1003.7 mbar

Science and Technology Log

In addition to researchers on the lookout for seabirds, the Oscar Dyson is also hosting researchers hoping to catch a glimpse of some the world’s largest animals: marine mammals. Either ocean dwelling or relying on the ocean for food, marine mammals include cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins), manatees, sea lions, sea otters, walrus, and polar bears. Although marine mammals can be enormous in size (the largest blue whale ever recorded by National Marine Mammal Laboratory scientists was 98 feet long or almost the length of a ten story building laid on its side!), studying marine mammals at sea can be challenging as they spend only a short time at the surface. Joining the Dyson from the NMML on this cruise are Suzanne Yin, Paula Olson, and Ernesto Vazquez. As a full time observer, Yin spends most of the year on assignment on various vessels sailing on one body of water or another and only occasionally is to be found transitioning through her home of San Francisco, California. Paula calls San Diego, California home and spends most of her time when not observing at sea working on a photo identification database of blue and killer whales. Ernesto is a contract biologist from La Paz, Mexico and has been working on and off with NOAA for several years. Ernesto has worked with several projects for the Mexican government including ecological management of the Gulf of California Islands.

Yin keeping warm from the cold

Ernesto keeping sharp lookout for marine mammals

Paula keeping an eye on the horizon

Yin, Paula, and Ernesto undoubtedly have the best view on the Oscar Dyson. Working as a three member team, they search for their illusive quarry from the flying bridge. The flying bridge is the open air platform above the bridge where the ship’s radar, communication equipment, and weather sensors are located. One observer is positioned both on the front left and front right corners of the flying bridge. Each observer is responsible for scanning the water directly in front to a line perpendicular to the ship forming a right angle. Two powerful BIG EYE binoculars are used to scan this to scan this 90 degree arc. These binoculars are so powerful they can spot a ship on the horizon at over ten miles (even before the Dyson’s radar can detect the vessel!). The third person is stationed in the middle of the flying bridge and is responsible for surveying directly ahead of the ship and for scanning the blind spot just in front of the ship that is too close for the BIG EYES to see. This person is also responsible for entering sightings into a computer database via a lap top computer. The three observers rotate positions every thirty minutes and take a thirty minute break after one full rotation. One complete shift lasts two hours. Yin, Paula, and Ernesto start soon after breakfast and will continue observing until 9:30 at night if conditions allow.

Dall’s porpoise

Weather can produce many challenges for marine mammal observers as they are exposed to the elements for hours at a time. Fortunately, Yin, Paula, and Ernesto are well prepared. Covered from head to toe wearing insulated Mustang suits (the name come from the manufacturer), they are pretty well protected from light spray, wind, and cold. Although a certain amount of the face is always exposed, a shoulder high wind shield helps deflect most of the spray and wind. In addition to wind chill and wind burn, a strong wind can also produce large rolling waves called swells that make viewing through the BIG EYES next to impossible. Sometimes reducing visibility so much that the bow can barely be seen the bridge, fog is undoubtedly a marine mammal observer’s greatest adversary.

Humpback whales through the Big Eyes

Salmon fishing operation through the Big Eyes

So far during the cruise, Yin, Paula, and Ernesto have spotted many blows on the horizon and have identified several species of marine mammals. A common sighting is the Dall’s porpoise. Your eyes are easily drawn towards these fun marine mammals as they produce characteristic white splashes by repeatedly breaking the water’s surface exposing a white stripe on their side. Blows from fin whales have also been regularly observed. Other sightings include killer whales, humpback whales, Pacific white sided dolphins, and a rare sighting of a Baird’s beaked whale.

Personal Log

Life aboard a constantly moving platform can take a little getting used to! I imagine if a person doesn’t live in an area frequented by earthquakes, one will easily take for granted the fact that the ground usually remains stable and firm underfoot (I know I did!). Over the last view days, steady winds from the south have conspired to create conditions ideal for rolling seas. Large swells (waves created by winds far away) make the Dyson very animated as we push forward on our survey transects. In addition to making deployments of gear more difficult, routine personal tasks soon assume a challenging nature as well. Whether you are simply getting dressed in the morning, trying to make your way to your seat with lunch in hand, or taking a shower in the evening, a constantly pitching and rolling deck will make even a seasoned deckhand wobble and stumble from time to time.

Building seas

A piece of advice I have often heard during these conditions calls for “one hand for you and one for the ship”. Maintaining three points of contact with ship, especially when moving between decks, can save you from being tossed off balance. The crew is very considerate of these conditions and allows even more understanding than customary when you bump into shipmates. I have also learned the importance of securing any loose equipment and personal items after usage during rough seas as they might not be in the same place when you return. In addition to waking several times during the night and having a restless sleep, these conditions will also leave you feeling stiff and fatigued in the morning after a bumpy night of being tossed around in your rack. Once you muster the strength to get moving, your legs become surprisingly tired as you constantly try to keep your balance. Along with the rest of the crew, the Dyson also feels the effects of jogging through rough seas as you constantly hear the rhythmic sounds of the bow plowing though the next wave and of the ship’s superstructure groaning under the strain.

Measuring the Dyson’s roll

Passing through the fog

Did you know? Fog is essentially a cloud on the ground’s surface.