Channa Comer: If Sand Dollars Were Real Dollars, May 19, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Channa Comer

On Board Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 — 22, 2011

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science and Technology Log
I started this post at just before my shift started and from the portholes (windows) in the conference room it looks like a beautiful, sunny day. I’ve learned to enjoy the sun while its out since the weather can change very rapidly. We’ve had some rough weather over the last few days. It was rough enough on Tuesday that dredging was suspended from 11:30 in the evening until 5am Wednesday morning. Since then, the tows have been proceeding as scheduled and we are on track to complete the 155 scheduled tows by Saturday.

Sand Dollars
Sand Dollars

Yesterday was sand dollar day. We completed 12 tows during the day shift and each tow seemed to have more sand dollars than the last. In our final tow of the shift, there were 48 46-liter baskets of sand dollars and one basket of scallops. If only they were real dollars, everyone on the boat would be able to retire.

All the data that we collect is entered into the Fisheries Scientific Computer System (FSCS). The FSCS is the system that is used on the Sea Scallop survey to collect station and biological data for each tow. The SCS collects data during each tow via vessel sensors and manual data entry. At a random location the operator starts a program that logs the station location data into a series of files during the 15 minute tow. Examples of the data collected are, latitude, longitude, ocean depth, vessel speed, time, and various meteorological measures. The data is then compiled and additional values are calculated from the 1 second interval files, tow length, tow duration, average speed, etc. The additional data is important for monitoring and standardizing each tow to a set of default parameters. With a tow duration of 15 minutes, at a speed of 3.8 knots the dredge should cover about 1 nautical mile of distance on the bottom of the ocean. The raw files from the SCS are sent to the mobile sampling van and made available to users there.

After the dredge is brought up and the catch has been sorted, we break up into three teams of two and head to the van. Each work station has an electronic fish measuring board to measure each species, a touch sensitive monitor used to pick the species to work on, and a motion compensating digital scale to weigh individual fish. The main workstation has an additional large scale. The large scale is use to measure each species as a whole rather than an individual within one species. The three computers are interconnected and each workstation can observe the entire list of species being processed.

There are additional FSCS computers in a second, “dry” lab. The computers in the dry lab log data during the measuring process. Each workstation in the dry lab is wired through the ship to the van. All data is backed up immediately to the main FSCS server. Once all data is collected after a tow, the Watch Chief loads the data into a database and audits the data for accuracy. While it is a complex system, we are generally able to process a catch within 30 to 40 minutes.

New Animals Seen
Winter Skate
Witch Flounder
Conger Eel
Small Mouth Flounder
Winter Flounder
Snail Fish
Windowpane Flounder
Spotted Hake
Spider Crab
Yellow Tail Flounder
Silver Hake
Sea Grape
Sea Squirt

Personal Log
Day 9 – Thursday, May 19, 2011
Today Vic gave us a lesson in putting together the iron rings that are used in the construction of the scallop dredge. Two inch diameter iron rings are connected with small iron compression links. The rings are put together with a tool called a link squeezer which looks like a giant bolt cutter. I felt very strong after putting a few together and I may use them to make a nautical themed belt. We brought in the largest eel of the trip today, a 64 cm long Conger Eel. Steve who held the fish so that I could photograph it had a hard time since it was pretty strong, slippery and wiggling furiously.

As the cruise draws to a close, while I’ve had a great time, I am anxious to return to NY. I can’t wait to share my photos, experience and the samples that I’ve collected with my students and friends. I also can’t wait to sleep in my own bed, have a long shower in my own bathroom, and have a big bowl of broccoli — seriously. I’m sure that I’ve gained at least 10 lbs on this trip.

Methea Sapp-Cassanego, August 1, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Methea Sapp-Cassanego
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 19 – August 8, 2007

Mission: Marine Mammal Survey
Geographical Area: New England
Date: August 1, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility: 7nm lowering to less then 1 in fog
Wind Direction: Southerly
Wind Speed: 3-8 knt increasing to 8-13
Swell height: 3-5 feet

The flexible Jacob’s ladder rolled up for easy storage.
The flexible Jacob’s ladder rolled up for easy storage.

Science and Technology Log 

Fog has kept our sightings to a minimum over the past two days. In fact we’ve had only two sighting since my last log on July 27th. Yet despite today’s weather forecast, the fog horn has been silenced and everyone is outside enjoying the sunshine and stretching their eyes.  It is a wonder to see color other then a shade of grey!  The change in weather has also brought new sightings including 3 humpback whales, a pod of harbor porpoises, 4 right whales, a minke whale and a dozen or so pilot whales (spotted by your’s truly).  These sightings kept the observers busy as well as those involved in the launching of the zodiac (aka little grey boat) and the Tucker trawl. The morning sighting of the right whales prompted a Tucker trawl sampling in order to examine the copepod densities in the surrounding areas.

Dr. Richard Pace assists with deployment of the zodiac.
Dr. Richard Pace assists with deployment of the zodiac.

The trawl did yield a higher density of copepods then all of our previous trawls which where carried out in the absence of right whale sightings, however compared to their prior experiences most of the researchers thought that the copepod densities were still on the sparse side. The sighting of pilot whales brought the first launching of the zodiac boat.  The goal for this expedition is two fold:  1. To attain tissue samples from some of the pods larger whales so that genetic analysis and subsequent pedigrees may be chronicled and;  2. Acquire photographic images of individual dorsal fins in an effort to establish a method of identifying individuals based on their unique dorsal fin features. Such features may include nicks, scratches, unusual scars and or color patterns. Deployment of the zodiac requires numerous experienced hands and a wherewithal for safety. First the boat is loaded with all the supplies (photography equipment, biopsy tips and crossbows, and tissue specimen jars) that will be needed for the sampling and documentation of the pilot whales.  Then the crane on the back deck is used to hoist the zodiac up and over the side of the DELAWARE II.  Chief scientist, Dr. Richard Pace then climbs on board the zodiac while the crane slowly lowers the boat into the water.   Dr. Pace keeps the zodiac in position while a special flexible hanging ladder called a Jacob’s ladder is unrolled down the side of the DELAWARE II.  All other persons enter the zodiac from the DELAWARE’s back deck via the Jacob’s ladder. 

Once deployed, the researchers make final adjustments before pursuing the pilot whales.
Once deployed, the researchers make final adjustments before pursuing the pilot whales.

After the little grey boat is loaded it sets off in the direction of the whales as indicated by the observers on the fly bridge, who have all the while been communicating the whales’ position to the captain of the DELAWARE who then makes sure that the ship stays relatively close to the pod.   As one can imagine three-way communication between the fly bridge, the wheel house and the zodiac is critical for not only tracking the swiftly moving whales but also for the safety of all involved. Today was my day to be on the fly bridge as all of this was going on but if the weather holds and we keep seeing pilot whales then I too may get to ride on the zodiac.

Methea Sapp-Cassanego, July 27, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Methea Sapp-Cassanego
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 19 – August 8, 2007

Mission: Marine Mammal Survey
Geographical Area: New England
Date: July 27, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility: 7nm lowering to less then 2 in patchy fog
Wind Direction: Westerly
Wind Speed: 8-13 knots with gusts of 20
Swell height: 2-4 feet

From left to right; Melissa Warden, Kate Swails, and Methea Sapp staff their observatory stations on the flying bridge of the DELAWARE II
From left to right; Melissa Warden, Kate Swails, and Methea Sapp staff their observatory stations on the flying bridge

Science and Technology Log 

Today marks one of the most active sighting days yet!  The species list for today included the following; common Atlantic dolphin, fin whale, sei whale, sperm whale, humpback whale, white sided dolphin, minke whale, offshore bottlenose dolphin and pilot whale. The methodology for logging each sighting is fairly straight forward yet detail orientated.  There are nine of us scientists on board and we have been organized into shifts which begin at 7:00am and end at 18:00. In the absence of fog three of us are stationed on the fly bridge at any given time; one person uses big eyes on the starboard side, the second person serves as the sightings recorder and the third person uses the big eyes on the port side. Every thirty minutes we rotate stations with the port side station retiring from their shift, and a new person taking up watch on the starboard side.

Data is recorded in two electronic touch pad tablets called Pingles.  The first pingle is used to record effort and as such is updated each time a rotation is made. Other points of effort which are also recorded are weather conditions, beaufort scale (or degree of wave action), sun angle, glare, swell height, swell angle, etc.  The second pingle is used to record the sightings. When an observer calls out “sighting” the recorder will log the following information (as iterated by the observer):

  • Animal identification
  • Cue (or what the observer saw first ie. a splash, or the animal itself)
  • Behavior (swimming, milling, aerobatics etc)
  • Bearing relative to the ship
  • Swim direction relative to the ship
  • Distance from the horizon
  • Best head count followed by estimations of highest and lowest probable numbers



Flukes of two different humpbacks; Notice the variations in white and black patterning.  Such patterns are used by researchers to identify and track individual humpbacks.

On a day like today the recorder is certainly in the hot seat trying to log the sightings of two people! Based on today’s sighting list I’ve chosen two species to profile for you, the humpback whale and sperm whale.

Species Profile for Sightings of July 25th 2007 

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae  Identification:  Stocky body, black topside with white or mottled underside, flippers are exceedingly long and marked with white as is the fluke.  Flukes are often visible when animal begins dive. (see photo below)   Max length and weight: 56 ft and 40 tons Diet and Feeding: Krill and small schooling fish. Up to 20 individuals may cooperatively hunt and feed via bubble net fishing.  Humpbacks are a baleen whale Migration: Extensive migration between Antarctic feeding grounds to breeding grounds off the coast of Columbia.  Round trip = 11,000 miles Distribution: Ranges from the poles to the tropic.  Have made a good post-whaling recovery and are one of the best studied of all cetaceans.  Record breaker for the longest flippers:  Averages 15 feet but may be as long as 18 feet; humpback flippers are the longest of any whale species.

Sperm Whale, Physeter catodon Identification:   Huge square shaped head; no dorsal fin; blow is often angled forward; body is dark and wrinkled  Max length and weight: 36 ft and 24 tons (female), 59 ft and 57 tons (male)  Such sexual dimorphism is rare among whales.  Diet and Feeding: Mostly squid and some octopi, sharks and other fish.  Sperm whales are a toothed whale as opposed to a baleen whale.  Migration: Is not wide spread in females and young whales although adult males will travel long distances. Distribution:  Sperm whales are found in population clusters from the tropics to the extreme southern and northern latitudes.  They are most common offshore in deep water.  Record breaker:  The sperm whale holds three records in the cetacean world; One being that it is the largest of the tooth whales. This whale also holds the record for diving depth and longest dive. One particularly large male sperm whale has been recorded diving to 6,500 feet and on a separate dive stayed down for 52 min.  Famous Sperm Whale: Moby Dick; the great white whale from Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby Dick.

Sorry, no photos of the sperm whale sighting 


Collins Wild Guide: Whales and Dolphins. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York.  2006.

Kimberly Pratt, July 14, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kimberly Pratt
Onboard NOAA Ship McArthur II
July 2 – 24, 2005

Humpback fluke
Humpback fluke. Photo by Cornelia Oedekoven.

Mission: Ecosystem Wildlife Survey
Geographical Area: Pacific Northwest
Date: July 14, 2005

Weather Data from Bridge

Latitude:  3544.108 N
Longitude: 12151.852 W
Visibility: <1 mile
Wind Direction: 330
Wind Speed:  5 knots
Sea Wave Height: 1-2 feet
Sea Level Pressure: 1013.2
Cloud Cover: Foggy, Drizzle
Temperature:  15.0

Blow hole
Blow hole. Photo by Cornelia Oedekoven.

Scientific Log

Again, it’s been very foggy or windy, limiting our time out observing mammals and birds. We are however, seeing many Humpback Whales. During two of the sightings Humpbacks came up to the boat – 300 meters away.  Humpbacks are named because their dorsal fin is on a hump.  Also Humpbacks surface and blow for a couple of minutes, allowing the scientists to get a good look at them.  After surfacing and blowing, they then dive, showing off their impressive flukes. Scientist ID Humpbacks by their flukes, dorsal and bumps or knobs on their rostrum (or beak).  An interesting fact is that the underside of a humpback’s fluke is different for each animal, (like their fingerprint) so getting good photo ID is imperative. Along with the Humpbacks, we’ve seen Pacific Whiteside Dolphins who ride the bow of the Humpbacks.  As far as birds go, we’ve seen a migration, 15-20 Red necked Phalaropes, South Polar Skuas who breed in the Antarctica, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Albatrosses, Gulls, and many Sooty Shearwaters.

Personal Log

It’s quite impressive to actually hear the whale’s breath. In fact being on the “fantail” rear of the boat, we located them by their breathing.  Being so close to the Humpbacks was really a great experience. I was able to get video, so I look forward to sharing it with you all.  The cruise is still going well, when we’re slow, I’ve been e-mailing, reading and doing interviews.

Yesterday the swells were as high as 10-12 ft. with 5-6 foot wind waves, so unfortunately, my sea sickness flared up again.  After speaking with the Medical Officer and resting, I feel much better.  I didn’t know that your body has to acclimate to different sea states so my sea legs are still growing.  Maybe after the cruise I’ll be taller!  Hope all is well. Thanks for all of the e-mails.

Thanks to Cornelia Oedekoven for the photos.