Melanie Lyte: May 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic 
May 22, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 12.01 degrees Celsius or 54 degrees fahrenheit
Wind Speed: 8.88kts
Relative Humidity: 97%
Barometric Pressure: 1,012.42mb

Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter
Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter
Photo credit: Mark Weekely

Science and Technology Log

(by Carl Sandburg)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

And that’s just what we awoke to this morning – heavily clouded skies and fog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t moved on yet, and actually looks like it’s here to stay. This made visibility very poor. The fog horn had been blasting every few minutes all night so the fog didn’t come as a surprise, but was a disappointment. My first shift on watch was moved to the wheel house and we watched with the “naked eye” instead of the “big eye” (giant binoculars that are outside on the bridge).  Our primary mission is to search for right whales, but any sea life observed is recorded. I was lucky enough to see 6 white sided dolphins on my first watch after Allison Henry (chief scientist) pointed them out to me.  By mid-morning, the fog had lifted and the visibility improved. I am on 90 minute shifts from 7am-7pm with 90 minute breaks between shifts. While working we either watch for whales or record data as others watch for whales.

The scientists want to identify each whale they see. They do this by examining the unique patches of callosities the whales have on their  heads and backs. The whales’ callosities are categorized as either broken or continuous.

Callosity comparison
Diagram from New England Aquarium

They have cataloged 669 right whales using this method since they began the identification process in the late 70’s. The callosities are the same color as the whale’s skin, but appear white or yellow due to the presence of thousands of tiny crustaceans called cyamids, or “whale lice”.

Learning about dermal tags
Photo credit: Allison Henry

If we spot a right whales and the conditions are good (no fog and the seas are not too choppy) some of us will go in the “small boats” to photograph the whales, and to do a biopsy sample on the whale if it has not already been sampled.

Biopsy tag in right whale
Biopsy tag in right whale
Photo Credit: NOAA/NEFSC/Lisa Conger under Permit #775-1875

Another small boat will try to tag the whale. Tagging the whale is a sophisticated process and uses high tech equipment. Mark  Baumgartner from Woods Hole Oceanic Institute (WHOI) showed us the dermal tag he will be using on whales. He also showed us how the tagging equipment has evolved over the last few years. The tag is shot into the whale where it goes into the skin about 3 inches. It has a GPS attached to it so it can be recovered from the whale when it falls off (usually in 24 hours). The scientists can set it to come off the whale in a certain amount of time. The implantable dart stays in the whale’s skin until it eventually works its way out which they estimate to be in 3-4 weeks. This process startles the whale, but is not thought to cause them pain.

Personal Log

We have been out on the water for 24 hours at this point, and I feel like I am adjusting well to life at sea. No seasickness yet (knock on wood), and I slept very comfortably last night (I know that comes as no surprise to any of you who know the ease with which I sleep in any situation). Everyone on the ship has been very friendly and willing to share information with me. The food is excellent, with lots of vegetarian choices, great mixed greens salad, and even a pineapple upside down cake for dessert last night.

Did You Know?

Did you know that right whales are identified by the callosities on their heads and bodies?

Did you know that the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales? It is estimated that there are only about 470 right whales alive today.

Question of the day: What is the smallest whale in the world?