Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: September 1, 2023
When referring to sailing knots, the bitter end signifies the end of the line (i.e. rope to non-seafarers). I thought this fitting, considering the conclusion of my rich time at sea! From interacting with the different deck crew, I learned different ways to tie knots—sometimes the same type of knot. For example, though I knew the bowline before I set sail, I didn’t have a process that stuck in my memory. With the aid of the crew, I solidified a process for myself. Exposure to different ways to tie a knot (or in the case of the mathematics classroom, different ways to approach a problem) gives the learner autonomy to choose a method that suits their learning. I also learned how to splice. See pictures below!
Science and Technology Log
In the final week, all science teams (birders, marine mammal observers, acousticians, plankton team) wrapped up and prepared to disembark the ship. Traveling a total distance of 4,819.2 km, Leg 2 spanned 28 glorious days at sea. The cetacean team tallied 90 visual sightings (visually identified 15 species) and 122 acoustic detections. The seabird side saw 37 species and 4,124 individuals. The plankton team completed 39 net tows on Leg 2 and totals 44 tows overall. The images below from the HICEAS Map Tour page detail the specific cetaceans sighted and heard. I also include some cetacean photos taken by the marine mammal observers (MMOs).
It was an incredible experience to witness science in action. I often referred to my time at sea as “Science Camp!” Cruise leader-in-training, Yvonne Barkley (featured in this previous blog post), briefly interviewed me for the HICEAS 2023 Map Tour. Aside from the science, she asked me what I’ll bring back home with me from this experience. I had to incubate on this question and after some reflection, realized that what I’ve gained are all the connections I made with my ship mates.
Gigantic mahalo to Fionna Matheson (Commanding Officer). We had many conversations during the Conductivity Temperature Depth operations and over meals. We bonded over being women in leadership positions, as well as sharing family stories. Thank you for a smooth cruise!
My true purpose on the ship was to create crossword addicts. I love collaborating on crosswords, so I brought a book of Monday-Friday New York Times (NYT) crosswords on the ship. The book mostly stayed up on the flying bridge where someone “off effort” (someone not currently observing) would read clues for the marine mammal observers on effort. In many of our jobs, listening to music, audiobooks, podcasts, etc, help us focus on the work at hand; similarly, pondering crossword clues helped the MMOs concentrate on searching for mammals. By the end of the leg, Andrea Bendlin (MMO) printed out a clipboard full of more NYT crosswords, and both Suzanne Yin and Paul Nagelkirk (MMOs) made their own crosswords that incorporated both the science and the science team members. I’d say I left my legacy!
Alexa Gonzalez (Acoustician) was one of my roommates! A Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology at University of Hawaii, Manoa initially brought Alexa from sunny California (Santa Clarita! We’re practically neighbors.) to sunny Hawaii. During her time at school, she volunteered for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) doing data entry and some monk seal responses for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. She also participated in outreach and marine mammal response for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. After graduation in 2018, Alexa had a fun job working on a tour boat wearing many hats as a deckhand, snorkel guide, and bartender. In 2019, she worked on monk seal population assessment efforts at the Hawaiian monk seal field camp at Holoikauaua/Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Atoll). Right after, she was recruited by the Science Operations Division to fill the role she’s in now, Biological Science Technician. She participates on different research projects at PIFSC as a diver, small boat operator, acoustician and lab tech. Below, you can see a photo of Alexa as a small boat operator on Malia.
Pizza and Mexican food top Alexa’s favorite food list, so what’s better than the fusion of the two at one of her favorite restaurants Asada Pizza in Sylmar, California. She loves to get the nopales pizza, topped with jalapeños and cilantro. Yum!! In my time with Alexa, I’ve come to learn the meaning of a quiet sort of connection. We didn’t have to converse much to enjoy each other’s company whether we were decorating Styrofoam cups to crush, playing guessing games in the acoustics lab, or doing crosswords! The lengthy down times made me very thankful for Andrea’s nail polish. Alexa and I had a spa night in the forward mess with Jason Dlugos (3rd Assistant Engineer) and Paul Nagelkirk (MMO).
While most of us keep aurally busy while we work with our hands, the acousticians keep their hands busy while listening for cetaceans! Jennifer McCullough (Lead Acoustician) brought a never-ending supply of pipe cleaners to build objects. See some of the creations below!
Food and Career Blog
I will really miss the meals aboard the Sette as well as all the conversations shared. Mahalo to all the stewards and friends who made sure I was fed, especially during teaching hours!
As mentioned before, I tried to do one small thing that I did not do the day before to break up the routine. This week’s major routine-break involved Hawaiian shave ice, put on by Verne Murakami (1st Assistant Engineer)!! Though I recognize that sweets can taste good, I generally prefer savory, sour, or spicy foods. Regardless, I had a blast making shave ice for others. In particular, Zack High (General Vessel Assistant–GVA) and Paul Nagelkirk (MMO) allowed me to make their shave ices. First, a scoop of ice cream, then some ube. Shaved ice fills the cup, coming to a mound above the lip. Flavored syrups like mango or blueberry color the ice. Finally, a sprinkle of ling hing mui accents.
Zack went to maritime school at Mid-Atlantic School in Norfolk, Virginia. Afterwards, he completed an internship on a vessel with the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. He learned basic CPR, safety and training, completed his Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping. One of his professors sent his resume to NOAA and a year later, Zack started working in Nov 2021 on the Sette! Though he started in the deck department under Chris Kaanaana (Chief Boatswain/Bosun), two months later, he transferred to the engineering department for a different career opportunity. As part of his role as a GVA, he goes on watch, does rounds, goes down to the main control room to take readings, goes up to the main deck to record temperatures of freezers, look for leaks or other signs of disrepair. He hopes to become a licensed engineer with aspirations to go into private industry or another federal branch. Zack is a big fan of weight lifting and loves fishing with Verne, catching big tuna and mahi mahi. He calls himself a gearhead because he likes working on cars and going to car shows. He also enjoys going to see live music; his last show was an underground punk concert in Seattle. He would like to start hiking. Zack likes boxing and he even gave me a little lesson on the ship!
Paul went to Michigan State University and majored in environmental biology and zoology. He became a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea and then later worked in oil and gas mitigation in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce environmental impacts due to noise pollution. In 2013, he started both ship and aerial surveys with NOAA. In the aerial surveys, the plane follows transect lines 600ft over the water.
Paul has also conducted aerial surveys of the North Atlantic Right Whale through the New England Aquarium. The New England Aquarium is the pioneer and premier research institution for the Right Whale. They run the individual ID catalog for the North Atlantic Right Whales (see https://rwcatalog.neaq.org/#/). They know the whales’ relationships to each other since they perform year to year tracking for conservation efforts. Climate change alters the whales’ prey locations, causing them to move farther north towards Canada. Further, they are susceptible to entanglements from the lobster and crab industry as well as collisions from ship traffic because they tend towards the coast. The number of North Atlantic Right Whales left is disturbingly low, about 350, landing them on the endangered species list.
Paul and I became fast friends. I affectionately call him my “worstie”, but he really is a “bestie”. We shared his favorite food (Detroit-style pizza) at Pizza Mamo in Honolulu–I highly recommend! His other hobbies (some of which we share) include Wordle, biking, hiking, and disc golf.
A very special mahalo to Cruise Leader 💞Marie Hill💞. Marie’s charm brought much energy to the science team. Her vibrant character will be missed!
Regrettably, my career highlights lack comprehensiveness. Give me another month, Teacher at Sea Program 😉, and I could feature everyone. I include some visual shout-outs in the images below!
Did you know?
You may be familiar with the duality of the word “aloha”, embodying both a greeting and a farewell. My exposure to new meanings of “aloha” through Chef Chris’s Aloha Kitchen: Recipes from Hawai’i cookbook by Alana Kysar inspired me to learn more. According to the Hawai’i Law of the Aloha Spirit,
“‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. ‘Aloha’ means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: Aug 25, 2023
Science and Technology Log
Visually surveying for marine mammals has its limitations because they spend so much time underwater. To account for these limitations, a number of acoustic techniques are used to study cetaceans (whales and dolphins). There are four main passive acoustic instruments used by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Cetacean Research Program during ship surveys: towed arrays, drifting acoustic spar buoy recorders (DASBR), high-frequency acoustic recording packages (HARP), and sonobouys. Each instrument has its pros and cons so the data from each instrument provide a fuller picture of what’s under the sea.
On board the ship, every morning just before sunrise the acousticians deploy the towed array of hydrophones, which streams 300 m behind the ship. The towed array provides real-time information on calls and clicks of the whales and dolphins. Each section of the towed array has three hydrophones and a depth sensor (see picture below). The design comes from the National Marine Fisheries Service and are all built by Lead Acoustician Jennifer McCullough (to read more about Jennifer, see my previous post). While the towed array can pick up sounds from the cetaceans around the ship in real-time, it also picks up the sounds of the ship, thus obfuscating other calls. As such, autonomous recorders (DASBRs, HARPs, and sonobouys) are used to collect more data, as well as match species data collected from the towed arrays.
The HARP is a long-term acoustic recorder that sits on the seafloor at depths of 650-900 m depending on the site. Developed by the Whale Acoustics Lab at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, they are site-specific and sit out for one to two years. The one we retrieved during Leg 2 was deployed August 2022. The HARPs provide 1) time-series data that help with understanding seasonal occurrence of cetaceans and other marine life, 2) periodic data on the presence of animals that pass through the site, and 3) ocean noise reference points. The latter is important in measuring the potential impact of ship and construction noise on marine mammal behavior. For example, slowly over time, blue whales are shifting their call types to a lower frequency to compensate for the rise of ocean noise in their natural call range (Rice at al., 2022).
DASBRs are floating acoustic recorders deployed from the ship and retrieved sometime between 1-30 days later depending on their location from the ship. The DASBR collects acoustic data away from the ship and at a depth deeper in the water column than the towed array (about 150 m from the surface). This means there’s no noise from the ship that may disturb the animals and no surface noise from crashing waves or rain. A clear advantage of the DASBR is its ability to record beaked whale vocalizations, super high-frequency echolocation clicks. Beaked whales are only vocal during the lower portions of their foraging dives, which last for about 60-90 mins. On the ship with the towed array, we don’t spend enough time to capture their vocalizations. The DASBR on the other hand has time to capture an entire dive cycle of a beaked whale. Depending on the frequency and amplitude of the animal, the distance at which the DASBR can detect animals (or detection range) varies by species. For example, Kogia (pygmy and dwarf sperm whales) need to be near the sensor and facing it to pick up their calls, while the baleen whales have a larger detection range. To give you an idea of the overall advantages of the DASBR, it can pick up about 10 times more cetaceans than the towed array and help us learn more about their vocalizations and study their habitat range.
There are many recorded calls for which there is no visual match, so sonobouys are deployed after the visual team identifies a particular baleen whale species. Because the ship masks the very low frequency sounds made by most baleen whales, sonobouys are deployed to evaluate their call types. The hydrophones in the sonobouys are set at 90 ft from the ocean’s surface and they collect data for up to 8 hours.
I like the idea that these four instruments work in concert towards a shared goal, each with its strengths and weaknesses.
The information above was provided by the acoustics team. I will focus on a couple in particular, Yvonne Barkley (Cruise Lead in Training) and Erik Norris (Acoustician), who met on NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette 13 years ago!
Yvonne Barkley first went to University of California, San Diego and then transferred to Santa Barbara City College for a pipeline into University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, she studied aquatic biology. A friend told her about a temporary job as an acoustic analyst for a local research firm invested in mitigating the impact of oil companies on the bowhead whale migration through the Beaufort Sea. It is at that job that she received her first acoustic training. On a path towards marine mammals, Yvonne’s cousin alerted her to an internship at the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in Pt. Loma, California prepping dolphin food, cleaning, etc. The program itself trained bottlenose dolphins to be swimmer detectors and California sea lions to be sea mine detectors! For example, bottlenose dolphins are used at different naval bases and combat zones to detect anomalous scuba divers. Yvonne was accepted into the internship where a seminar given by a NOAA Fisheries representative piqued her interest about marine mammal research. She found an acoustic analyst internship at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (one of NOAA’s six science centers). There, she learned about field projects to collect cetacean data at sea for months at a time. In contact with Erin Oleson (HICEAS 2023 Chief Scientist), she embarked on her first mission from Hawaii to Guam in 2010 on the very ship we are currently on! That cruise brought Yvonne and Erik together, but more on that later.
After collecting data that weren’t intended to be used in stock assessments, like a true scientist, Yvonne began to wonder, “How can we use these data?” This curiosity, the advancement of acoustic data collection methods, and the drive to uncover data gaps in the literature converged into a puzzle for Yvonne to solve. I listened in awe as Yvonne described the three main chapters of her doctoral thesis. The first one involved species classification for false killer whales (a priority species for HICEAS). Her research used whistle data to distinguish the whales acoustically at the population level. She found that the classification machine learning model yielded low accuracy rates. Access the paper here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00645/full
The next chapter focused on improving localizing methods for deep diving whales using sperm whale acoustic data. I was drawn to the research of this chapter because of the modeling components. Probabilistic models are used to estimate the location of cetaceans. An ambiguity volume is an example of such a probabilistic indicator. It is computed from source location estimates that are most accurate to the actual measured locations. As the number of different detections for the same whale at different positions from the ship increases, the ambiguity volume decreases, thereby narrowing down the possible location of the whale. The increased location accuracy is depicted in the figure below through the progression of subfigures a) – f); subfigure a) has fewer detections for the same whale than subfigure f). As we move to subfigure f), we can see that the margins of location estimates are much smaller, giving us a more accurate location estimate for the whale. https://pubs.aip.org/asa/jasa/article-pdf/150/2/1120/15349527/1120_1_online.pdf
The final chapter used the ambiguity volumes for location estimates from the previous chapter and available environmental data from remotely sensed satellite data sets that lined up with those locations to learn about the habitat preferences of sperm whales. Check out the paper: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsen.2022.940186/full
Erik Norris got his Bachelor’s degree at James Madison University in integrated science and technology. He was initially working with energy production and city planning, dredging company shipping channels up and down the east coast. He left and traveled for a while. When I asked him to share one of his fondest memories, he mentioned his time in a small fishing village called Nomozaki, Japan. What struck him most about this village was the community-oriented nature of the villagers. At the end of the day, local fishermen took a portion of their catch of the day and shared it with the entire village. The whole community came out to have a big party together, enjoying the catch and the company. The expression of an economy focused on people rather than on profits really speaks to me. I am reminded of a couple of quotes from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer:
“A gift comes to you through no action of your own…the more something is shared, the greater its value becomes. This is hard to grasp for society is steeped in notions of private property, where others are by definition excluded from sharing.”
(Kimmerer, 2013, p. 23 and 27, respectively)
While Erik worked on a boatyard, he saw people working on the escort vessel for the Hōkūle’a, a wa’a (voyaging canoe) that uses traditional Polynesian wayfinding techniques (no technology, not even a watch) to navigate the ocean. (The Hōkūle’a is currently on its 15th voyage. Follow along here: https://hokulea.com/moananuiakea/). He approached the crew and volunteered to work on the escort vessel in-port. When the vessels were ready to commence their voyage, Erik had become so familiar with that vessel that they asked him to join, which turned into a 6-month journey. When I inquired about Erik’s attraction to the maritime industry, he quipped that he’s Moana from the Disney movie. For the sake of research, I had the ship’s movie DJ, Octavio De Menas (General Vessel Assistant), put on the movie. From what I gathered, this quote from Moana’s song “How Far I’ll Go” must represent his draw to the ocean:
“See the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me.”
Through conversations with others on the ship, it seems like the ocean has a similar allure for many. Having been out here for three weeks, I get it. We first saw land last week and it felt like an intrusion. Enough about me, back to Erik!
Later, while talking to his friend’s dad who was a NOAA Corps Officer about his passion for the ocean, he joined the NOAA Corps himself. He met Yvonne as an Ensign on the Sette. He went on to become Lieutenant Junior Grade, and then “retired” from NOAA Corps as a Lieutenant because he was about to rotate from his land billet at Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) to another land billet which would have taken him away from Hawaii. He found a civilian job in Hawaii with PIFSC as a vessel operations coordinator in charge of small boats, fabrication and design, field logistics, and HARPs. He attributes his entry into the world of acoustics to Yvonne and HARPs. His current interests include using autonomous vehicles (e.g. sea glider) for a range of oceanographic environment missions.
I asked Yvonne and Erik the same questions separately and we laughed about the different approaches they took in their answers. Erik first noticed Yvonne because she was moving equipment and he was in charge of the equipment on the ship. Yvonne first noticed Erik’s sense of humor juxtaposed with her expectations from someone in the uniformed services. On their time at sea, they shared conversations over meals. Erik was captivated by the way Yvonne talked about her oma’s (grandmother’s) Indo-Dutch cooking. For more on Erik and Yvonne’s food connection, visit the Food Log below. Once in Guam, Yvonne was struck by Erik’s thoughtfulness in preceding her on a hike in the jungle so he could clear off all the spider webs; his distaste for spiders elevated Yvonne’s appreciation for his sacrifice. This is not the only time Erik put Yvonne before himself. Yvonne was really sick in Bali and ended up in a hospital in Malaysia. Erik took leave from work and (according to him) flew to comfort her and accompany her home. According to others, he rescued her. With a ring attached to the keyring on his swimming trunks, under a rainbow and surrounded by sea turtles, Erik proposed to Yvonne while surfing. They have been married since 2016. They currently live in their house, Gertrude, with their dog Sweetpea.
Personal Log with Career Highlight
I started teaching this week. Classes are going well! Shout out to my Abstract Algebra students who never cease to amaze me with their curiosity and courage. Brave Space–IYKYK! I told them our picture below looks like the Brady Bunch, which they did not understand so they have additional homework to watch the opening credits.
Everyday, I try to do one thing I didn’t do the day before. I had two memorable events from this week. The first was during drills. We have weekly fire and abandon ship drills, so this week a few of us practiced the fire hose off the bow. Below you can see Yvonne assisting me as I cycled through the different spraying options.
The second non-routine thing I enjoyed was helping Joe Roessler (Electronic Technician–ET) install a cable to the outdoor wifi antenna. Our work is the reason I can compose this blog post on the boat deck in my outdoor office, wind whipping my hair to the sounds of the ships’ wake. We worked in the trawl house to solder connector pins to cable ends. Joe’s approach to teaching is familiar. In my classrooms, I provide the tools for students to solve problems with very little instruction. If they need some, I am there to help answer questions. Joe set up the soldering station, provided the leatherman, rubber tape, the connectors, the cable and we went to work. There were many parallels in his methods and mine. We first attempted a connection to the cable, but the pins were not sitting right. Joe evaluated the situation and quickly thought of a different approach to connect the cables. Trying a solution and then pivoting when it doesn’t work out is a skill we try to develop in my classes!
Joe got his amateur radio license at 13! At that time, kids were particularly into shortwave radio because of the US human moon landing. As a young adult he went to the Navy for naval aviation aircraft maintenance. After he was discharged from active duty, Joe continued working in the Naval Reserve and also at private sector companies where he tested robotic equipment. Later, he joined the Civil Service as an aircraft electrician at a naval air rework facility in San Diego. He then transferred to the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah where he returned to the position of an ET. Joe worked with a biological integrated detection system for weapons of mass destruction, in biological warfare defense, with instrumentation and testing equipment and research development. He took a short 4-year detour a businessman and realized it was not what he wanted to do. NOAA had openings in Seattle so he applied and was hired! His first season was on NOAA Ship Rainier in Alaska. Having had enough of the cold weather, he asked for a relocation to Hawaii. He worked on our very ship, the Sette, installing equipment before its very first mission! He met his wife in Samoa and has been working for NOAA 22 years!
This week Chef Chris Williams [see previous blog post for more about Chris] made some yummy meals, my favorite pictured below!
When Erik first mentioned Yvonne’s Oma’s Dutch-Indo cooking, I was intrigued because I haven’t had much of either, let alone their fusion. Though Erik insisted that all of Yvonne’s dishes are his favorite dish, after much encouragement he narrowed it down to Oma’s croquette recipe. It’s a fried potato dish with meat inside, best when served with Chinese or Dijon mustard. Yvonne’s favorite dish is her oma’s lemper ayam. The moment she mentioned that it’s sticky rice stuffed with chicken inside I asked if it’s wrapped in any type of leaf. After researching some recipes, I found that it’s traditionally wrapped with banana leaves.
I am going to search for lemper when I get home because I have a certain fondness for food wrapped in leaves. I am particularly tickled by the similarities in leaf-wrapped food across different cultures. For example, there’s law mai gai (wrapped in lotus leaf with Chinese origins), zong (wrapped in bamboo leaf also with Chinese origins), dolmas (wrapped in grape leaves with origins in the Levant), tamale (wrapped in corn husk with Aztec origins), and cochinita pibil (wrapped in banana leaves with Mayan origins). This may be a stretch, but I also like onigirazu/handrolls/onigiri (wrapped in seaweed with Japanese origins) and gimbap (wrapped in seaweed with Korean origins).
There is even a Hawaiian version of a leaf-wrapped food called lau lau! It was the second thing I tried when I landed in Honolulu. Usually lau lau consists of pork and salted butterfish first wrapped in kalo (taro) leaves, which are edible, and then in ki (ti) leaves, which are not edible. Finally, traditionally it is steamed in an imu pit (underground pit). It can be found in restaurants and served at luaus. Though it was new to me, it felt so wonderfully familiar.
While searching for the history of lau lau, I found a beautifully written memory that describes lau lau as an embodiment of the beach, the valleys, and the mountains through the ingredients of butterfish, kalo/ki, and pig. Not only does the final product connect these landscapes, but the preparation connects families and friends.
“Early Hawaiians lived in valleys that provided them protection and food. Villages were organized by families and by land divisions, which, in old Hawaii, were divided from the beach to the mountains. That meant that each village and family had complete accessibility to the beach and the mountains and all their offerings. Lau Lau represents these familial land divisions because its ingredients come from the beach, the valleys, and the mountains. The preparation was always my favorite part, because we’d be together for hours sharing stories, laughing, and having fun. Wrapping Lau Laus was where we all became familiar with who we were.”
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: Aug 21, 2023
It’s hard to capture the feeling of the ship with pictures or words, but alas, here is an attempt! The ship essentially has 5 levels. The lowest is mostly the engine room plus a small space for the gym and laundry. The next level (my favorite) is the Main Deck, which has some staterooms but more importantly, the Mess, the Galley (kitchen), and the Forward Mess. The next level is the 01 Deck which houses Acoustics, the E-lab, the survey technician’s office (where I teach), and many of the staterooms (including mine!). Above the 01 deck is the 02 deck where most of the NOAA Corps Officers and some engineers sleep. Then there’s the Bridge where the officers drive the ship in the company of a deck crew member on watch. Finally, the Flying Bridge is the cherry on top! The birders and marine mammal observers do all their sightings from up there.
Science and Technology Log with Career Highlights
Michael Force (birder) and Ernesto Vázquez (marine mammal observer – MMO) are two amazing photographers on board. They helped me with the settings on my camera to capture the wildlife (shutter priority, auto ISO, center focus, continuous shots, fine detail). The first photo is a photo of a tropicbird taken by Ernesto.
Ernesto started with one semester at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where he was an honors student in his math classes, but failed in other classes. Drawn by his love of diving and the sea, he left to go to La Paz, and started at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, located next to the waters of the Gulf of California. He majored in marine biology, and took ecology applied statistics, general physics, Calculus 1 and Calculus 2. By his 3rd semester, he started doing community engagement at the university at an AMNIOTS lab, where his interest in cetaceans began.
While he joined multiple projects, the humpback whale ecology was his favorite. It is there in Cabo San Lucas where he learned photography for species identification and how to use the crossbow for sampling. He also became acquainted with specialized software to interpret data, which became a very useful skill for his future.
After graduation, Ernesto went to Ensenada to start his Master’s program. However, the scholarship and program in which he was enrolled disappeared, so he started looking for jobs. His first NOAA project was focused on the vaquita (a porpoise on the brink of extinction). It was a binational expedition in the Gulf of California for 2 months. In 2000, he joined a 3-year project on the eastern tropical Pacific, which was basically surveying a water mass the size of the African continent. On board, he estimated dolphin group sizes associated with tuna fishing operations. Since then he’s been joining similar expeditions that take him to places like the Galapagos and Alaska as part of the biopsy team.
I have such fondness for Ernesto because we shared many meals and many conversations during our leg 1 in-port. He has a calming and reassuring nature to his leadership style. In a subsequent leg of the HICEAS, he’ll be moving to NOAA SHIP Reuben Lasker to be a senior observer! Well-deserved, Ernesto!
I sat with Michael Force to learn more about the Red-tailed Tropicbird. I found out that the mariner’s name for tropicbirds is bosun bird, because their whistle resembles the call of the bosun’s whistle, formerly used to muster the deck crew. The Red-tailed Tropicbird is the largest of the three tropicbird species and is most common in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It’s a ground nester, placing its nest under bushes to help shade them from the intense tropical sun. They love to eat flying fish and will travel far for food to bring back to their chicks. They dive from great heights with a spectacular vertical plunge. They are commonly attracted to ships and often fly around the highest point of the vessel; a goose-like croak will announce that one has snuck up behind us. Adult survival is very high because predation pressure at sea is very low. Rats, mice, and cats are predators ashore, especially for the young since they are unprotected in their ground nests.
Their two elongated red tail feathers were highly valued by native Hawaiians, especially in crafting kāhili. These intricate feather posts accompanied royalty during events like battles, or large ceremonies. Dawn Breese (birder) gave me an extensive tour of the different kāhili at the Bishop Museum while we were in-port awaiting Leg 1. To learn more, visit the links in the reference list below.
Michael’s interest in birding started at the young age of 7 or 8! Completely self-taught, he boarded his first commercial vessel at 16 for a pelagic seabird trip out of Westport, Washington, organized by the late Terry Wahl, a professor and esteemed seabird biologist at Western Washington University, Bellingham. The Westport pelagic trips were famous in the birding community. Using sport fishing charters to take landlubbers to Grays Canyon, an area rich in marine diversity, these trips were always well-attended. As a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Westport, only five hours south, was a convenient location to reach the open sea and Michael was hooked.
Through Terry, he heard that Southwest Fisheries Science Center (one of six NOAA’s science centers) was looking for a volunteer observer for a 4-month voyage of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, thus began his NOAA journey. He interspersed seabird and NOAA trips with his studies at the University of British Columbia, where he majored in geography. The Snow Petrel is Michael’s favorite bird because it’s a unique Antarctic seabird, closely associated with ice, and is the world’s only pure white petrel.
I appreciate Michael’s quirkiness. I once told him that because of my eyesight, I only want to see the cetaceans if they are really close to the ship. He teased, “close enough you can poke them with a stick!” Thanks for the laughs, Michael!
The Red-footed Booby is the only polymorphic (having different color morphs) booby. The brown polymorph dominates the eastern Pacific. Their red feet are a breeding adaptation; the redder the feet, the more likely they’ll find a mate—ooo la la. Unlike other birds, Red-footed Boobies do not use their breasts to incubate their chicks; they use their webbed feet! They also have a secondary set of nostrils to keep water out when they’re fishing and a clear membrane over their eyes that act like goggles. I personally enjoy watching them attempt to land on the jackstaff on the ship because sometimes they put out their landing gear and can’t quite bring it to fruition, so their little red webbed feet just dangle around in the wind, splayed open.
Juan Carlos (marine mammal observer-MMO) likes to see Fraser’s dolphins because they are a rare sight. On the shy side, they tend to run from the boat. Though Juan Carlos has not often seen Fraser’s dolphins with other groups (he’s seen them with melon-headed whales), according to whalefacts.org, they are fairly social and will often hang with false killer whales (a HICEAS priority species), melon-headed whales, Risso’s dolphins and short-finned pilot whales. The other MMOs like to tease the Fraser’s dolphins for their T-rex-like pectoral fins.
Coincidentally, Juan Carlos (JC) went to the same college as Ernesto in La Paz! He started observing marine mammals while still in school at a tourist company running dolphin tours. His boats would take tourists out to see the sea lion colony at the north end of Isla Partida, and to snorkel in the Bay of La Paz where there is an abundance of sea life. He got involved with a US program that takes students to La Paz to learn about marine science, specifically marine mammals and sea lions.
JC first learned about NOAA through a UNAM professor and started working on the same Gulf project Ernesto would work on later. JC shared the process of calibrating the marine mammal observers’ counts. In the past, helicopters took photos from above and counted all the individuals in the pods. These actual counts were compared to each MMO’s estimated counts providing a margin of error for each MMO. For example, JC may be consistently 8% below the actual count. These margins of error are considered during abundance estimates. Since calibrations don’t happen with helicopters anymore, there are very few MMOs with their margins of error recorded, making JC a very valuable MMO.
JC has a quiet sense of care. At lunch recently, I put my mug of tea down at his table before grabbing lunch. When I returned, he put a napkin under my mug. When I lifted the mug to drink, I held down the napkin with my free hand to stop the fan from blowing it away. JC gently picked up the napkin and flipped it over so the open side did not catch the wind. I am going to miss my new family!
I’ve grown accustomed to ship life. I can now tell when there is a sighting without being informed because the ship’s movement feels different and the lighting/shadows often change. To break out of routine, I try to do something different everyday that I didn’t do the day before. This week’s excitement was crossing the international date line (aka 180°E/W) from east to west!
Apparently new crew members who cross the date line for the first time by way of sea are initiated into the domain of the golden dragon. I couldn’t find much on the inception of this sailor tradition, but it seems like it’s rooted in China’s reverence for dragons. As such, some of us got to crafting dragon-themed costumes for the occasion! The pipe cleaners Jennifer McCullough (Lead Acoustician) brought onboard have been crucial for not only keeping our hands busy, but also provided a means to make dragons, dragon wings, and dragon scales.
Well, it’s happening. The fresh vegetables are starting to diminish! When I talked with my mom, she reminded me to eat more fruit! Though there is no fruit featured in the images below, I have indeed increased my fruit consumption. Thanks, mom!
In the Forward Mess, there is an ice cream fridge! I’m more fascinated by the ice cream fridge conceptually rather than gastronomically. I usually sit in the Forward Mess on the counter just next to the fridge so I’ve become acquainted with the ice cream habits of those on board. Some like to just pay a visual visit to the fridge while others are daily indulgers. Fat Boys and Greek Yogurt popsicles (those went FAST) are the most popular. Ben and Jerry’s is also well-liked, but there usually is an abundance so everyone can have what they want. I personally only tried Octavio De Mena’s (General Vessel Assistant) Li Hing Miu popsicle. Though the li hing miu is what made the popsicle good, it was still too sweet for me.
Did you know?
During lunch with Fionna Matheson (Commanding Officer), I learned that the mother-calf pair swim in what’s called the echelon formation. As seen in the photo below, the calf is swimming in close proximity to the mother, between the dorsal fin and tail. This formation is crucial to infant survival as it provides the calf with hydrodynamic benefits and energy conservation during periods of travel (Noren et al., 2007). Now, isn’t that the sweetest?
Premier marine ecologist Dr. Robert Pitman is a member of our cruise. He works at the NOAA Fisheries at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division. He has traveled the world in search of cetaceans, turtles, flying fish, and seabirds. Currently he is doing extensive work with killer whales. Dr. Pitman has viewed almost all of the 80 plus species of whales known to man; however, seeing some of the Mesoplodon beaked whales in person has been elusive… until now. Dr. Pitman gave an excellent presentation on the different species of beaked whales that we might to see in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Blainville’s beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Henri de Blainville in 1817 from a piece of a jaw. The average length of a Blainville’s beaked whale is 4.4 meters. The most prominent feature of the whale is a high arching jaw. Blainville’s beaked whales have scars from raking which heal white. Males are very aggressive and proud. Dr. Pitman stated, “They want a pair of horns but only have a pair of teeth.” They leave deep scars with their pairs of teeth, because they will savagely charge each other. Sometimes barnacles will settle on their teeth. The head of a Blainville’s beaked whale is flat to expose the teeth.
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale (Ziphius cavirostris)
The Cuvier’s beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Georges Cuvier from a skull in 1823. The skull had a large cavern in the head which was the reason for the name cavirostris (cavi means hollow or cavernous in Latin). Cuvier’s beaked whales also go by the name of goose beaked whale. The whale can grow to a length of seven meters. Cuvier’s beaked whales have the most variable coloration. Some Cuvier’s will be grey in color while others may be reddish brown in color. They have white sloping melons.
Gervais’ Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon europaeus)
The Gervais’ beaked whale was first identified by Frenchman Paul Gervais in 1855. The average size of a Gervais’ beaked whale is 4.8 meters. The prominent feature of the Gervais’ beaked whale is the vertical striping along its back along with a dark band just behind the melon. A white circular spot is located just below the melon. The dorsal fin is dark. The male Gervais’ beaked whale has one set of teeth located about one-third of the way back from the tip of the beak. Males turn dark and lose their striping with age. Males also rake each other; however, scars from the encounters re-pigment a darker color.
Sowerby’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon bidens)
The Sowerby’s beaked whale was first identified by Englishman James Sowerby in 2804. The average size of a Sowerby’s beaked whale is 5.5 meters. They are one of the few whales that have a long beak. Males have one pair of teeth that are located about two-thirds of the way back from the tip of the beak (or rostrum). Males have make scratch marks along their backs; however, since the teeth are positioned so far back, scratch marks are from just one tooth and not a pair which would create parallel tracks. Scientists believe the scarring is due to male competition. The dorsal fin is located approximately two-thirds of the way along the back. These whales are not very aggressive and more than one male will be seen in a group. These animals do not usually travel alone unless it is a male.
True’s Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon mirus)
The True’s beaked whale is the dominant subject of study of this cruise. The True’s beaked whale was first identified by American Frederick True in 1913. Due to his excitement over his discovery of the marine mammal, he named it mirus, which means wonderful in Latin. A True’s beaked whale can grow to be about 5.4 meters. The identifying features of a True’s beaked whale include: a dark band behind the melon, a large light spot behind the dark band, a pale melon, two tiny flippers, dorsal fin that is small and triangular, and for males two tiny teeth at the front of the rostrum. These whales will have paired parallel scarring because their teeth are so close together.
First and foremost, I am in awe every day at the different things I see in nature on this cruise. I have seen so many birds that I cannot remember one from the other… not to mention the dolphins. I did not know there were so many kinds of dolphins. I watched the television series “Flipper” when I was a little girl, and now I can say I have seen a bottlenose dolphin in person. I think the scientists get almost as excited as I do about seeing an animal even though they have probably seen them hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Nature is always amazing no matter how many times you see it.
During Dr. Pitman’s presentation, I was captivated by the way he spoke about the whales like they were his best friends he had known forever. I found out why. He has spent most of his life studying them. Dr. Pitman is an amazing resource for me on this cruise. Being a marine mammal observer newbie, Dr. Pitman took the time to answer all of my questions about whales. I really value the conversations I have had with a famous whale lover.
The weather has not been ideal for marine mammal observation for several days. If the swell is too high, it makes it hard to see the animals, because they can breach in the waves where we cannot see them. The fog also makes it difficult to see the animals, and it is not safe on the flying bridge if it is raining. During times of foul weather, the scientists are busily working on projects except for the seabirder. The seabirder sees several birds during foul weather. The chief scientist, Dr. Danielle Cholewiak, has assembled an international crew of scientists who are as passionate as she is about beaked whales.
During the foul weather when people are not working on other projects, the galley is place to be. The scientists have taught me how to play a card game called Peanut. It is a wild version of a multiplayer solitaire. I am usually pretty good at catching on how to play card games, so learning another game was fun. It gets fast and furious, and you cannot be faint of heart. The first person to 100 wins, but the person with the lowest score which can be negative also gets to be the winner of the lowest score. Sometimes even a NOAA Corps officer will join in on the excitement. All kinds of fun happens on board the Gordon Gunter!
One of the best experiences I have had so far on this cruise is talking with the crew. They are from all over the country and take their work very seriously. As different NOAA Corps officers on board get promoted, they may not stay with the Gordon Gunter and may move to other ships. Most of the crew, however, sticks with the Gordon Gunter. I thought when we went on the cruise that we were basically going on a “fishing” trip to watch whales and dolphins and no machinery would be on board. Oh how I was wrong! There are several pieces of heavy machinery on board including a crane and a wench. The boatswain is in charge of the anchors, rigging, and other maintenance including the heavy machinery. Boatswain is not a term I was familiar with before this cruise. The word is pronounced like “Bosun” not “Boat Swain.” Boatswain Taylor is the first one I see in the mornings and last one I see at night. He works tremendously hard to make sure the “work” of the ship is done.
Did You Know?
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Marine Mammal Program created a beaked whale identification guide. Check out the website: http://vertebrates.si.edu/mammals/beaked_whales/pages/main_menu.htm
The visual sighting team started early this morning at 6:00 am and had rotating shifts of 30 minutes each until 7:00 pm. The different shifts included watching with regular binoculars on the port and starboard sides, watching with the big eyes on the port and starboard sides, and being the data recorder for sightings. I had the opportunity to shadow scientists in each of these positions throughout the first day and actually performed the duties on the second day.
One of the important jobs the data recorder has is to input the environmental conditions at a certain point in time. The first measurement to input is the percent of cloud cover which is just a number from 0 to 100. Then the glare magnitude is determined on an ordinal scale from 0 to 4 with a value of zero meaning none and a value of four meaning severe. After determining the glare magnitude, the percent of glare cover is determined. Since the two sets of big eyes cover from 90 degrees left of the bow to 90 degrees right of the bow, the glare covering this spaced is what is determined. The data recorder also has to determine the degree angle and height of the ocean swell. Swell is not the wind waves generated by local weather. It is the wind waves that are generated by distant weather systems. Then the Beaufort scale is used to determine the amount of wind on the ocean. The scale was developed by Sir Francis Beaufort of the United Kingdom Royal Navy in 1805. The scale ranges from 0-12. A zero score means the surface is smooth and mirror like, while a score of 12 means there are hurricane force winds. Rain or fog is also determined by the data recorder. Finally, the data recorder has to determine a subjective condition of the weather overall. This is on an ordinal scale from 1 to 4 with 1 being poor and 4 being excellent.
When a marine animal is sighted by one of the observers, the data recorder has to input several measurements about the event. The bearing of the location of the animal has to be determined using the big eyes. Also, the big eyes have a scale in the lens called reticles that determines distance from the ship to the animal. A conversion scale can then be used to determine how far away the animal is in meters or nautical miles. The number of animals sighted, including any calves that are in the group, has to be given. The group’s swim direction has to be determined based on bearing from the ship. If possible, the species of the group has to be given. Since the objective of this survey is to find the occurrence of Mesoplodons in the North Atlantic Ocean, determining the species is very important. Also the observer has to give the initial cue as to what determined the identification of the species. Several different cues are available such as the body of the animal, the blow of a whale or dolphin, or the splash.
The software used to input the occurrence of a marine mammal automatically inputs the GPS of a sighting. The initial route for this survey is a zig zag pattern out of Rhode Island towards Georges Bank. There are several canyons with very deep waters (over 1,000 meters) which is where the Mesoplodons make foraging dives to get food. Instead of making a straight line through the canyons and only making one pass through the area, using zig zag routes gives the survey a better chance of locating Mesoplodons. The chief scientist uses the information from sightings to track a path for the ship to take the next day. Sometimes the acoustics team hears possible Mesoplodons. If the acoustics team can find a convergence of the area of an animal, they will tell the ship to go at a slower rate or turn.
The map here shows the sightings of Mesoplodons from the beginning of our journey and the zig zag pattern taken by the chief scientist. The first day of our journey, a storm was coming up the East Coast. The Gordon Gunter‘s Commanding Officer (CO) determined that we could run from the storm by going east in a straight line direction instead of doing the zig zag motion. The CO was correct, because we did not have bad weather. The ocean had a lot of high swells which made the boat rock tremendously at times but no rain.
I have found my favorite place to be on the visual sighting team…being the data recorder. Statistics is my passion, and being the data recorder puts me in the middle of the action getting mass amounts of data. It also helps that the data recorder sits in a high chair and can see a wide area of the ocean. The scientists have been very helpful in finding me a milk crate, because that chair is so high I cannot get onto it without the milk crate. Being the data recorder can be intense sometimes, because multiple sightings can be made at the same time. In any free time I have, I will fill in as the data recorder. It is lots of fun!
One thing that was a little intimidating to me at first was the intercom system. I would hear things like, “Fly Bridge Bridge.” Then the data recorder would say “Bridge Fly Bridge.” I had no clue of what they were talking about. Then all of a sudden it made sense to me. In “Fly Bridge Bridge,” someone from the Bridge is calling up to us on the Fly Bridge. The Bridge has a question or wants to tell the people on the Fly Bridge something. Since I figured it out, I am ready to go.
I have learned so much on this cruise in the short time I have been aboard the Gordon Gunter. My head is exploding with the numbers of lessons that I can incorporate into my statistics classes. I have also talked with the acousticians, Jenny, Joy, Emily, and Anna Maria, and have come up with lessons that I can use with my algebra and calculus classes as well. The scientists have been very generous in sharing their knowledge with a science newbie. Being a math teacher, I want to be able to expose my students to all kinds of content that do not deal with just the boring math class. Being a Teacher at Sea has opened up a whole new experience for me and my students.
We have an interesting participant in our cruise that I was not expecting but was happy to meet…a seabird observer. Before this cruise I did not know there were birds that pretty much lived on the surface of the ocean. These birds have been flying around the ship which is about 100 nautical miles from shore. The seabird observer documents all sightings of seabirds and takes pictures to include in his documentation.
Did You Know?
Reticles are the way a pair of binoculars helps observers to determine the distance to an animal; however, the conversion from reticles to distance is not an instantaneous solution. Based on the height of a pair of binoculars on the ship, reticles can mean different distances. A conversion chart must be used to determine actual distance.
Check out this article on how to estimate distance to an object with reticles in a pair of binoculars:
acoustician – someone whose work deals with the properties of sound
bearing – the direction from your location to an object in the distance starting at 0° which is located at absolute north. For example, if an animal is spotted at 90°, then it is due east of your location.
blow of a whale – the exhalation of the breath of a whale that usually looks like a spray of water and is an identifying feature of different species of whales
bow of a ship – the point of the ship that is most forward as the ship is sailing (also known as the front of the ship)
cloud cover – the portion of the sky that is covered with clouds
foraging dive – a type of deep dive where a whale searches for food on the ocean floor
glare – the light reflected from the sun off of the ocean
nautical mile – a measurement for determining distance on the ocean which is approximately 2025 yards (or 1.15 miles) or 1852 meters
port side of a ship – when looking forward toward the bow of the ship, the left side of the ship is port
starboard side of a ship – when looking forward toward the bow of the ship, the right side is starboard
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Coast
Date: July 20, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 41° 31.838′ N
Longitude: 71° 19.018′ W
Air Temperature: 26.7° C (80° F)
Science and Technology Log
Beaked whales are elusive creatures that roam all of the world’s oceans. The purpose of this cetacean cruise is to find the occurrence and distribution of beaked whales in the northeast Atlantic off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The beaked whale is a toothed whale from the family Ziphiidae. Several types of beaked whales have been spotted in this region including the True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) and the Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris).
To find the occurrence of beaked whales, the scientists are using several different methods. The first method is a visual sighting of the animals. High-powered binoculars, affectionately termed “big eyes” can see animals from several nautical miles away. Then regular binoculars are used to scan the areas closer to the ship. The second method scientists are using is by passive acoustics. Acousticians are using two different types of listening devices to try to hear the whales. The first device is called a linear array. In this device, four hydrophones are attached to a tube in a linear pattern. The array is then towed in the water behind the ship, and acousticians can hear the whales when they communicate. The acousticians can then determine how far the whale(s) is(are) from the device. However, with this type of array, it is difficult to calculate how deep the whale is in the water.
In an effort to improve detection of the depth of a beaked whale, a new array has been designed. This tetrahedral array is designed so that the four hydrophones are placed in a way that is not linear two-dimensional space but in a more three dimensional space, so scientists can detect not only the distance of a whale but the depth. We will be testing a new prototype of this array during this cruise.
Arriving the day before the Gordon Gunter sailed allowed me to see some pretty interesting things. I got to help two of the scientists put up the “big eyes.” These binoculars are really heavy but can see very far away. On the day we sailed, we were able to zero the binoculars which means we set the heading on the binoculars to zero with the ship’s bow based on a landmark very far away. We could not zero them the day before, because there was not a landmark far enough away to get an accurate reading.
The Gordon Gunter is one of the larger ships in the NOAA fleet according to several of the scientists who have been on many cruises. It took me a while to figure out where all of the doors go and how they open. I did not realize how hard it was to open some of the doors. According to the XO, the doors are hard to open because of the pressure vacuum that exists in the house of the ship. There is not really a reason for the vacuum to exist. It is just the nature of the ship.
Life on board the Gordon Gunter has been very interesting for the first day. Before leaving port, we had a fleet inspection. We had to do all of our emergency drills. Safety is very important on a ship. We had to do a fire emergency drill where everyone had to meet at a muster station and be accounted for by one of the NOAA officers. Then we had to do an abandon ship drill. Then once we got sailing a short time, we had to do a man over board drill.
Donning the immersion suit in case of an abandon ship order was not a thrill for me but was comical in retrospect. I am only 4’ll”, and the immersion suit I was given is made for someone who is over six feet tall. When I tried on the suit, I had two feet of immersion suit left at the bottom. When the NOAA officer came to inspect, he said I definitely needed a smaller suit.
One of the best features of my cruise so far has definitely got to be the galley. The Gordon Gunter has the best cook in Miss Margaret. She is the best and makes awesome food. She has made cream cheese from scratch. She makes the best smoothies. I can only imagine what we are going to be getting for the rest of the cruise.
Did You Know?
All marine mammals, including the beaked whales, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Check out this website on what the law states and what it protects:
Tomorrow is the big day! I am getting ready to board the plane from Florence, SC to Charlotte, NC to Providence, RI. I have never been to Rhode Island, so this is going to be a bucket list activity to keep adding states to my history. Rhode Island will make state number 24…almost half way!
I teach in a very rural high school in Lamar, South Carolina which is approximately 90 miles from Myrtle Beach. Lamar High School has about 280 students. This year we had a graduating class of 52 students. I teach Calculus, Statistics, and Algebra 2 Honors.
Teaching statistics is the main reason I applied to the Teacher at Sea program. I wanted to give my students some real world experience with statistics. I try to create my own data for students, but I end up using the same data from the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Major League Baseball, etc. I had one student a couple of years ago in Algebra 2 Honors who is a weather lover. His favorite website is NOAA, and he would give me the daily weather or hurricane updates. Any time we had a baseball game, he would be able to tell me if we were going to be able to play the game. Being able to provide him and his classmates projects using data from something he loves will help me to reach that one student. Hopefully, I might even spark interest in other students.
Helping my students to become statisticians is the main reason I applied; however, I also applied to challenge myself. Throughout my life, I have not been the kind of person who deals well with creepy crawly things. Being on a ship on the ocean will definitely force me to deal with that. I want to do my very best to get involved in all kinds of neat activities. I hope “Cool Beans!” will be my daily saying.
I am really looking forward to working with the scientists on the Gordon Gunter. Having read as much as I can about the Passive Acoustic Research Group has helped me to understand a little of what we will be doing on our 15-day journey. I hope that I can help them to further their research to learn the patterns that cetaceans use to communicate with each other!
Technology definitely finds its way into every corner of life, and cetacean studies are certainly no exception. One of the most recent additions to the Cetacean team’s repertoire of technology is a fleet of UAS, or unmanned aerial systems. (UAS is a fancy term for a drone, in this case a hexacopter. Yes, we are definitely using drones on this mission. This seriously cannot get much cooler.) HICEAS 2017 is utilizing these UAS systems to capture overhead photos of cetaceans in the water as they surface. And the best part of all of this? I was selected to be a part of team UAS!
The UAS can only fly under certain atmospheric conditions. It can’t be too windy and the seas can’t be too rough. We had the chance to practice flying the hexacopters on one of the few days we were off the Kona coast of the Big Island, where the wind and seas are typically calmer. Dr. Amanda Bradford is leading the HICEAS 2017 drone operations. She is involved in securing air clearance that might be required for a hexacopter flight, as well as all of the operations that take place in preparation for deployment – of which there are many. The UAS is launched preferentially from a small boat, although it can be launched from the ship. So, in order to do boat-based UAS operations, we must first launch a boat off of the side of the ship. There are four people involved in the small boat UAS operations – the UAS pilot, the UAS ground station operator (Dr. Bradford and scientist Kym Yano alternate these positions), a coxswain to drive the small boat (NOAA crewmember Mills Dunlap) and a visual observer/data keeper (me!) for each flight the hexacopter makes.
We all load up our gear and equipment onto the small boat, along with the coxswain and one team member, from the side of the ship. The ship then lowers the boat to the water, the remaining teams members embark, and we are released to move toward the animals we are trying to photograph. I don’t have any photographs of us loading on to the ship because the operation is technical and requires focus, so taking photos during that time isn’t the best idea. I will say that the whole process is really exciting, and once I got the hang of getting on and off the ship, pretty seamless.
Our first trip out was just to practice the procedure of getting into the small boat, flying the UAS on some test flights, and returning back to the ship. The goal was to eventually fly the hexacopter over a group of cetaceans and use the camera docked on the hexacopter to take photogrammetric measurements of the size and condition of the animals.
Launching a hexacopter from a boat is quite different from launching one on land. Imagine what would happen if the battery died before you brought it back to the boat! This is why numerous ground tests and calibrations took place before ever bringing this equipment out over water. The batteries on the hexacopter are good, but as a security measure, the hexacopter must be brought back well before the batteries die out, otherwise we have a hexacopter in the water, and probably a lot emails from higher ups to answer as a result. Each time the hexacopter flies and returns back to the small boat, the battery is changed out as a precaution. Each battery is noted and an initial voltage is taken on the battery before liftoff. The flights we made lasted around10 minutes. As soon as the battery voltage hits a certain low level, the pilot brings the hexacopter back toward the boat to be caught. My job as the note taker was to watch the battery voltage as the hexacopter comes back to the small boat and record the lowest voltage to keep track of battery performance.
The UAS has two parts, one for each scientist – the pilot (who directs the hexacopter over the animals), and a ground station operator. This person watches a computer-like screen from the boat that has two parts – a dashboard with information like altitude, time spent in flight, battery voltage, distance, and GPS coverage. The bottom portion of the ground station shows a monitor that is linked to the camera on the hexacopter in real time.
The pilot has remote control of the hexacopter and the camera, and the ground station operator is responsible for telling the pilot when to snap a photo (only she can see from the monitor when the animals are in view), watching the battery voltage, and the hand launching and landing of the drone. As the hexacopter is in flight, it is the coxswain’s and my responsibility to watch for obstacles like other boats, animals, or other obstructions that might interfere with the work or our safety.
To start a flight, the hexacopter is hooked up to a battery and the camera settings (things like shutter speed, ISO, and F-stop for the photographers out there) are selected.
The ground station operator stands up while holding the hexacopter over her head. The pilot then begins the takeoff procedures. Once the drone is ready to fly, the ground station operator lets go of the drone and begins monitoring the ground station. One important criterion that must be met is that the animals must never come within 75 overhead feet of the drone. This is so that the drone doesn’t interfere with the animals or cause them to change their behavior. Just imagine how difficult it is to find an animal in a camera frame being held by a drone and flown by someone else while looking on a monitor to take a photo from a minimum of 75 feet from sea level! But Amanda and Kym accomplished this task multiple times during the course of our flights, and got some great snapshots to show for it.
On the first day of UAS testing, we took two trips out – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. On our morning trip, Kym and Amanda took 5 practice flights, launching and catching the hexacopter and changing between piloting and ground station monitoring. In the afternoon, we were just getting ready to pack up and head back to the ship when out of the corner of my eye I saw a series of splashes at the ocean surface. Team.I had a sighting of spinner dolphins! I barely stuttered out the words, “Oh my God, guys! There are dolphin friends right over there!!!!” (Side note: this is probably not how you announce a sighting in a professional marine mammal observer scenario, but I was just too excited to spit anything else out. I mean, they were Right. There. And right when we needed some mammals to practice on, too!) They were headed right past the boat, and we were in a prime position to capture some photos of them. We launched the hexacopter and had our first trial run of aerial cetacean photography.
On the second day, we had a pilot whale sighting, and the call came over the radio to launch the small boat. Things move really fast on a sighting when there is a small boat launch. One minute I was up on the flying bridge trying to get some snapshots, and the next I was grabbing my camera and my hard hat and making a speedy break for the boat launch. We spent a good portion of the morning working the pilot whale group, taking photos of the whales using the hexacopter system. We were lucky in that these whales were very cooperative with us. Many species of whales are not good candidates for hexacopter operations because they tend to be skittish and will move away from the noise of a small boat (or a large one for that matter). These little fellas seemed to be willing participants, as if they knew what we were trying to accomplish would be good for them as a species. They put on quite a show of logging (just hanging out at the surface), spyhopping, and swimming in tight subgroups for us to get some pretty incredible overhead photographs. I also had the chance to take some great snapshots of dorsal fins up close, as well.
These side-long photos of dorsal fins help the scientific team to identify individuals. There were times when the whales were less than twenty yards from the boat, not because we went to them, but because they were interested in us. Or they were interested in swimming in our general direction because they were following a delicious fish, and I’d be happy with either, but I’d like to think they wanted to know what exactly we were up to.
While photographing the whales a couple of interesting “other” things happened. I had a brief reminder that I was definitely not at the top of the food chain when Mills pointed out the presence of two whitetip sharks skimming beneath the surface of the water. Apparently these sharks know that pilot whales can find delicious fish and sort of hang out around pilot whale groups hoping to capitalize. I wondered if this was maybe my spirit animal as I am following a group of scientists and capitalizing on their great adventures in the Pacific Ocean, as well.
Another “other” thing that happened was some impromptu outreach. While working on the small boat, other boats approached the whales hoping to get some up close snapshots and hang out with them for a bit, as well. Two were commercial operations that appeared to be taking tour groups either snorkeling or whale watching, and one was just a boat of vacationers out enjoying the day. The scientific team took the opportunity to approach these boats, introduce us, and explain what we were doing over the whale groups. They also took the opportunity to answer questions and mention the HICEAS 2017 mission to spread the word about our study. It was a unique opportunity in that fieldwork, apart from internet connections, is done in relative isolation in this particular setting. Real-time outreach is difficult to accomplish in a face-to-face environment. In this case, the team made friendly contacts with approximately 45 people right out on the water. Congenial smiles and waves were passed between the passengers on the boats and the scientific team, and I even saw a few cell phones taking pictures of us. Imagine the potential impact of one school-aged child seeing us working with the whales on the small boats and thinking, “I want to do that for a career someday.” What a cool thing to be a part of.
Over the last couple of days, the ship was near the coast of the Big Island, Hawai’i. One morning, we approached on the Hilo side, which is where Mauna Loa is spewing forth her new basaltic earth. It treks down the side of the volcano, red-hot and caustic, only to be tempered immediately as soon as it strikes the anesthetic waters of the Pacific. Having never seen real lava before, I was hoping to capitalize on the big eyes and catch a glimpse of it as it splashed into the ocean’s cool recesses, forming solid rock and real estate on the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, I failed to account for the laws of thermodynamics – forgetting that hot things make water evaporate and re-condense into steam. I suppose I was just romanticizing the idea that I could possibly see this phenomenon from an angle that not many get to see it from – miles out on the Pacific Ocean. And the truth is, I did, just not in the way I had imagined. I did get to see large plumes of steam extending up from the shoreline as the lava met its inevitable demise. While I didn’t get to see actual real lava, there was definitely hard evidence that it was there, hidden underneath the plumes of white-hot condensation. I took a few photos that turned out horribly, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I almost sort of saw lava. (I know, I know. Cool story, bro.) If you can’t believe that fish tale, surely you won’t believe what I’m about to tell you next – I didn’t see the lava – but I heard it.
Starting in the wee hours of the morning, the acoustics team deployed the array only to find an unidentified noise – a loud, sharp, almost cracking or popping noise. They tried to localize the noise only to find out that it was coming from the shores of the big island. Sure enough, when they figured it out, the acoustics lab was a popular place to be wearing headphones. The snapping and cracking they were hearing was the lava cooling and cracking just beneath the ocean surface on the lava bench. So, I didn’t see the lava, but I heard it solidifying and contracting on the acoustics system. How cool is that?
Why do the head stalls (AKA bathroom stalls) lock on both sides of the door?
So that you can lock your friends in the bathroom as a mean prank
Extra protection from pirates
To give yourself one extra step to complete to get to the toilet when you really gotta go
To keep the doors from slamming with the natural movement of the ship
If you said “D”, you are correct! The bathrooms lock on both sides because if left to their own devices, they would swing and bang open and shut with the constant motions of the ship. So, when you use the bathroom, you have to lock it back when you finish. Now you know!
While the visual team is working hard on the flying bridge, scanning the waters for our elusive cetacean friends, acoustics is down in the lab listening for any clues that there might be “something” out there.
At any given time, two acousticians are listening to the sounds of the ocean via a hydrophone array. This array is a long microphone pulled behind the ship as she cuts through the water. When the acousticians hear a click or a whistle, a special computer program localizes (or determines the distance to) the whistle or the click.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s a lot of noise in the ocean. The array will pick up other ship noise, cavitation (or bubbles from the propeller) on our ship, or anything it “thinks” might be a cetacean. The acoustics team must determine which sounds are noise and which sounds belong to a mammal. What the acousticians are looking for is something called a “click train.” These are sound produced by dolphins when they are foraging or socializing and are a good indicator of a nearby cetacean. On the computer screen, any ambient noise shows up as a plotted point on an on-screen graph. When the plotted points show up in a fixed or predictable pattern, then it could be a nearby cetacean.
The acousticians are also listening to the sounds on headphones. When they hear a whistle or a click, they can find the sound they’ve heard on the plotted graph. On the graphical representation of the sounds coming in to the hydrophone, the x-axis of the graph is time, and the y-axis is a “bearing” angle. It will tell which angle off the ship from the front the noise is coming from. For example, if the animal is right in front of the bow of the ship, the reading would be 0 degrees. If it were directly behind the ship, then the plotted point would come in at 180 degrees. With these two pieces of information, acousticians can narrow the location of the animal in question down to two spots on either side of the ship. When they think they have a significant sound, the acousticians will use the information from the graph to localize the sound and plot it on a map. Often times they can identify the sound directly to the species, which is an extraordinary skill.
Here’s where things go a little “Fight Club.” (First rule of fight club? Don’t talk about fight club.) Once the acousticians localize an animal, they must determine if it is ahead of the ship or behind it. Let’s say for example an acoustician hears a Pilot Whale. He or she will draw a line on a computerized map to determine the distance the whale is to the ship using the data from the graph.
Because the hydrophones are in a line, the location provided from the array shows on the left and the right sides. So, the map plots both of those potential spots. The two straight lines from the ship to the animal make a “V” shape. As the ship passes the animal, the angle of the V opens up until it becomes a straight line, much like opening a book to lay it flat on the table and viewing how the pages change from the side. As long as the animal or animal group is ahead of the ship, the acousticians will alert no one except the lead scientist, and especially not the marine observers. If a crew member or another scientist who is not observing mammals just so happens to be in the acoustics lab when the localization happens, we are sworn to secrecy, as well. Sometimes an acoustician will send a runner to get the lead scientist to discreetly tell her that there is something out there.
This way, the lead scientist can begin the planning stages for a chase on the mammals to do a biopsy, or send the UAS out to get photos with the Hexacopter. (More on this later.)
As the mammals “pass the beam” (the signal is perfectly on either side of the ship, and starting to make an upside down V from the ship), the acousticians can alert the visual team of the sighting. As soon as everyone is aware the mammals are out there, either by sight or sound, the whole scientific group goes “off effort,” meaning we funnel our energy in to counting and sighting the mammals we have found. When this happens, communication is “open” between the acoustics team and the visual team. The visual team can direct the bridge to head in any direction, and as long as it’s safe to do so, the bridge will aid in the pursuit of the mammals to put us in the best position to get close enough to hopefully identify the species. Today, one mammal observer had a sighting almost 6 miles away from the ship, and she could identify the species from that distance, as well! Even cooler is that it was a beaked whale, which is an elusive whale that isn’t often sighted. They have the capability of diving to 1000m to forage for food!
When the visual team has a sighting, the three visual observers who are on shift have the responsibility to estimate the group size.
Here we go with Fight Club again – no one can talk to one another about the group sizes. Each mammal observer keeps their totals to themselves. This is so that no one can sway any other person’s opinion on group size and adds an extra element of control to the study. It is off limits to talk about group sizes among one another even after the sighting is over. We must always be vigilant of not reviewing counts with one another, even after the day is done. The scientific team really holds solid to this protocol.
Once the sighting is over, all parties resume “on effort” sightings, and the whole process starts all over again.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why don’t they just wait until acoustics has an animal localized before sending the mammal team up to look for it?
Surely if acoustics isn’t hearing anything, then there must not be anything out there.” As I am writing this post, the visual team is closing in on a spotted dolphin sighting about 6.5 miles away. The acoustics did not pick up any vocalizations from this group.
This also happened this morning with the beaked whale. Both teams really do need one another in this process of documenting cetaceans. Further, the acoustics team in some cases can’t determine group sizes from the vocals alone. They need the visual team to do that. Each group relies on and complements one another with their own talents and abilities to conduct a completely comprehensive search. When adding in the hexacopter drone to do aerial photography, we now have three components working in tandem – a group that uses their eyes to see the surface, a group that uses the ocean to “see” the sounds, and a group that uses the air to capture identifying photographs. It truly is an interconnected effort.
I haven’t gotten the chance to discuss just how beautiful Hawai’i is. I would think that it is generally understood that Hawai’i is beautiful – it’s a famed tourist destination in an exotic corner of the Pacific Ocean. But you have to see it to believe it.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the islands from a unique perspective as an observer from the outside looking inland, and I just can’t let the beauty of this place pass without mention and homage to its stunning features.
Hawai’i truly is her own artist. Her geologic features create the rain that builds her famed rainbows, which in turn gives her the full color palate she uses to create her own landscape. The ocean surrounding the shores of Hawai’i are not just blue – they are cerulean with notes of turquoise, royal, and sage. She will not forget to add her contrasting crimson and scarlet in the hibiscus and bromeliads that dot the landscape. At night when the moon shines on the waters, the ocean turns to gunmetal and ink, with wide swaths of brass and silver tracing the way back up to the moon that lights our path to the sea. With time, all of her colors come out to dance along the landscape – including the sharp titanium white foam that crashes against the black cliffs along Kona. And if a hue is errantly missed in her construction of the landscape, early morning showers sprout wide rainbows as a sign of good fortune, and as a reminder that she forgets no tones of color as she creates.
It is our responsibility to protect these waters, this landscape – this perfect artistry. It is critically important to protect the animals that live in the ocean’s depths and the ones that cling to the island surface in their own corner of paradise. I like to think that this study takes on this exact work. By giving each of these species a name and identifying them to each individual group, we share with the world that these cetaceans are a family of their own with a habitat and a purpose. When we “re-sight” whales that the team has seen in past studies, we further solidify that those animals have families and a home amongst themselves. The photo identification team counts every new scar, marking, and change in these animals to piece together the story of their lives since they last met with the scientists. Everyone on Oscar Elton Sette talks about the new calves as if we were at the hospital with them on the day of their birth, celebrating the new life they’ve brought forth to continue their generations. I like to think we all make a little room in the corner of our hearts for them as a part of our family, as well.
Did you know?
The Frigate bird has a Hawaiian name, “Iwa”, which means “thief.” They call this bird “thief” because they steal prey right from the mouths of other birds!
“Spyhopping” is the act of a whale poking his head out of the water and bobbing along the surface.
It is legal for research ships to fish off the ship, so long as we eat what we catch while underway. This led to the shared consumption of some delicious mahi mahi, fresh from the depths for lunch today. Yes. It was as good as it sounds.
Oscar Elton Sette knows how to celebrate! Yesterday was Adam’s birthday, a marine mammal observer. They decorated the mess in birthday theme, cranked up the dinnertime music, and the stewards made Adam his favorite – blueberry cheesecake for dessert!
Much of the crew likes to pitch in with food preparation. The on ship doctor, “Doc”, makes authentic eastern dishes, and the crew made barbeque for everyone a few nights ago at dinner.
Current Location: Impatiently waiting to sail in Centennial, Colorado
Date: June 20
Weather Data from the “Bridge” (AKA My Sun Porch):
Personal Log – An Introduction
Hello! My name is Staci DeSchryver and I will be traveling this upcoming July on the Oscar Elton Sette as part of the HICEAS program!
I am an Oceanography, Meteorology, and Earth Science teacher at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, CO. This August will kick off my 14th (yikes!) year teaching. I know you might be thinking, “Why Oceanography in a landlocked state?” Well, the reason why I can and do teach Oceanography is because of Teacher At Sea. I am an alumna, so this is my second official voyage through the Teacher At Sea program. It was all of the wonderful people I met, lessons I learned, and science that I participated in on the
Oscar Dyson in 2011 that led me to encourage my school to put an Oceanography course in place for seniors as a capstone course. This past year was the first year for the Oceanography and Meteorology courses, and they were very well received! I have three sections of each class next year, as well! (Shout out to all my recent senior grads reading this post! You were awesome!) We study our World’s Ocean from the top of the water column all the way to the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench, and from the tiniest atom all the way up to the largest whale. I believe it is one of the most comprehensive courses offered to our students – incorporating geology, chemistry, physics, and biology, but then again, I’m a bit biased.
Apart from being a teacher, I am a wife to my husband of 8 years, Stephen. We don’t have children, but we do have two hedgehogs, Tank and Willa, who keep us reasonably busy. Willa only has one eye, and Tank is named Tank because he’s abnormally large for a hedgie. They are the best lil’ hedgies we know. We enjoy camping, rock climbing, and hiking – the typical Coloradans, though we are both originally from Michigan. When we aren’t spending time together, I like to dance ballet, read, write, and I recently picked up a new weightlifting habit, which has led me to an entire new lifestyle of health and wellness with an occasional interjection of things like Ice Cream topped with caramel and Nachos when in the “off” season (hey, nobody’s perfect).
I will be leaving for Honolulu, Hawaii on July 4th to meet up with the fine scientists that make up the HICEAS team. What is HICEAS? Read below to find out more about HICEAS and the research we will be doing onboard!
The HICEAS (Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey) is a study of Cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises) and their habitats. Cetaceans live in the ocean, and are characterized by being carnivorous (we will get along just fine at the dinner table) and having fins (since I am a poor swimmer, I will humbly yield to what I can only assume is their instinctive expertise). This means that the study will cover all manners of these majestic creatures – from whales that are definitely easily identifiable as whales to whales that look like dolphins but are actually whales to porpoises that really look like whales but are actually dolphins and dolphins that look like dolphins that are dolphins and… are you exhausted yet? Here’s some good news – porpoises aren’t very common in Hawaiian waters, so that takes some of the stress out of identifying one of those groups, though we will still be on the lookout. Here’s where it gets tricky – it won’t be enough to just sight a whale, for example and say, “Hey! We have a whale!” The observers will be identifying the actual species of the whale (or dolphin or possible-porpoise). The observers who tackle this task are sharp and quick at what is truly a difficult and impressive skill. I’m sure this will be immediately confirmed when they spot, identify, and carry on before I say, “Wait! Where do you see it?”
There are 25 cetacean species native to Hawaiian waters, so that’s a big order to fill for the observers. And we will be out on the water until we locate every last one. Just kidding. But we will be looking to spot all of these species, and once found, we will do our best to estimate how many there are overall as a stock estimate. Ideally, these cetacean species will be classified into three categories – delphinids (dolphins and a few dolphin-like whales), deep diving whales (whales with teeth), and baleen whales (of the “swim away!” variety). Once identified in this broad sense, they will then be identified by species. However, I do have a feeling these two categorizations happen all at once.
Once the data is collected, there is an equation that is used to project stock estimates for the whole of the Pacific. More on this later, but I will just start by saying for all you math folk out there, it’s some seriously sophisticated data extrapolation. It involves maths that I have yet to master, but I have a month to figure it out, so it’s not looking too bleak for me just yet. In the meantime, I’m spending my time trying to figure out which cetaceans that look like dolphins are actually possible-porpoises, and which dolphins that look like dolphins are actually whales.
Goals and Objectives of the HICEAS
The HICEAS study operates as a part of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SFSC), both under the NOAA umbrella. Our chief scientist is Dr. Erin Oleson, who will be the lead on this leg of the cruise. HICEAS last collected data in 2010, and is now ready for the next round of stock assessments. HICEAS is a 187-day study, of which we will be participating in approximately 30 of those days for this particular leg. Our research area is 2.5 million square kilometers, and covers the whole of the Hawaiian Archipelago and it’s Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ! The HICEAS study has three primary goals:
Estimate the number of cetaceans in Hawaii.
Examine their population structure.
Understand their habitat.
Studies like the HICEAS are pretty rare (2002, 2010, and now 2017), so the scientists are doing their best to work together to collect as much information as they possibly can during the study. From what I can gather in lead-up chats with on board scientist Kym Yano, we will be traveling along lines called “transects” in the Pacific Ocean, looking for all the popular Cetacean hangouts. When a cetacean is sighted, we move toward the lil’ guy (or gal) and all his friends to take an estimate, and if it permits, a biopsy. There is a second team of scientists working below deck listening for Cetacean gossip (whale calls) as well. Acoustic scientists will record the whale or dolphin calls for later review and confirmation of identification of species, and, of course, general awesomeness.
But that’s not all!
We will also be dropping CTD’s twice per day, which is pretty standard ocean scientific practice. Recall that the CTD will give us an idea of temperature, salinity, and pressure variations with depth, alerting us to the presence and locations of any of the “clines” – thermocline, halocline, and pycnocline. Recall that in areas near the equator, rapid changes of temperature, salinity, and density with depth are pretty common year-round, but at the middle latitudes, these form and dissipate through the course of the solar year. These density changes with depth can block nutrients from moving to the surface, which can act as a cutoff to primary production. Further, the CTD readings will help the acoustic scientists to do their work, as salinity and temperature variations will change the speed of sound in water.
There will also be a team working to sight sea birds and other marine life that doesn’t fall under the cetacean study (think sea turtles and other fun marine life). This study is enormous in scope. And I’m so excited to be a part of it!
What is the difference between a porpoise and a dolphin?
It has to do with 3 identifiers: Faces, Fins, and Figures.
Bradford, A. L., Forney, K. A., Oleson, E. M., & Barlow, J. (2017). Abundance estimates of cetaceans from a line-transect survey within the U.S. Hawaiian Islands Exclusive Economic Zone. Fishery Bulletin,115(2), 129-142. doi:10.7755/fb.115.2.1