Alexandra Keenan: Right Whales Everywhere! June 25, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 25, 2012

Science and Technology Log:

Greetings from Canadian waters!

Bigelow flying Canadian flag

Ships must fly the flag of the nation whose territorial water they are sailing in.

Thanks to a tip from an aerial survey, we are on Georges Basin– the northern edge of Georges Bank. Incredibly, we saw around 30 right whales yesterday! The science crew quickly got to work photo-identifying every right whale we could safely approach.

Photo-identification is the process of distinguishing individuals of a species from one another using markings and other cues in photographs of an individual. It is possible to identify individual right whales by markings called callosities on their heads, scars on their bodies, and notches in their flukes.

Photographing right whales

I use a telephoto lens to photograph right whale callosities to use in identifying individuals.

taking good notes

Research analyst Genevieve Davis takes good notes on each whale that is photographed, including frame numbers and identifying characteristics. These are essential when going through the photographs later.

the chief

Chief Scientist Allison Henry knows right whales. I was amazed by her ability to recognize individuals by name or number.

Callosities are patches of rough skin on right whales’ heads that appear white because of small organisms called cyamids that inhabit these areas (a sort of “whale lice”). Like human fingerprints, each right whale has a unique callosity pattern. In order to photo-ID a whale, photographs of the animal’s head and body are taken with a telephoto lens when the animal surfaces. These photographs can later be compared to a catalog of right whale individuals to determine who has been spotted (some whales have names, some have numbers).

Scientists use unique markings on the head called callosities to identify individual whales. (graphic/photo: New England Aquarium)

The team also has “cheat sheets,” or laminated cards containing information on certain whales that are of interest or need to be biopsied. These references can help scientists quickly identify whales in the field that need to be studied further.

cheat sheets

These sheets contain photographs and drawings of individual whales’ markings and callosities.

As one of the most endangered whale species, there are only about 450 individual right whales left. We were privileged to see a little less than 10% of the entire right whale population in one day. This is amazing, but also quite disturbing.  Even though right whaling has been illegal since 1937 , right whales still face entanglement from commercial fishing gear and getting hit by vessels. They are particularly vulnerable because they seasonally migrate through world shipping lanes, are relatively slow swimmers, and closely approach vessels.

One right whale we encountered, named Ruffian, had huge scars all over his back. I asked Allison the Chief Scientist what happened to him.

Below are two videos: the first a shot of the numerous spouts (note the characteristic v-pattern of the spouts) that gives an idea of how surrounded we were by right whales, the other is a short video of a right whale surfacing near our bow.

Janet Nelson: On Georges Bank, June 22, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janet Nelson Huewe
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 13 – 25, 2012

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographic Area: North Atlantic
Friday, June 22, 2012 

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Longitude: 068 24.69 West
Latitude: 41.40.50 North
Wind speed: 7.9 kt
Air temp: 18.5 C
Depth: 194.7 feet (32.2 fathoms)

Science and Technology Log:

Our route in George’s Bank

Our route in George’s Bank

Yesterday was a 12 hour shift of towing the HabCam. The strangely unique thing about that was the terrain. We are on the western edge of Georges Bank and the sand waves on the ocean floor are incredible! There are waves as high as 10 meters that come upon you in a blink of an eye. By observing the side scan sonar it looks very similar to being in a desert, or on the surface of Mars. We refer to driving the HabCam through these areas as piloting the “White knuckle express”.

side scan sonar/sand waves

side scan sonar/sand waves

To get through these areas Scott was able to use geographic images collected by the United States Geological Survey and created an overlay of the pictures onto our tow path, alerting us to any possible hazards in navigation. This data allowed us to anticipate any potential dangers before they arose.

Irritated sea scallop

Irritated sea scallop

We continue to see skates, various fishes, lobsters and sand dollars, and in places, huge amounts of scallops. The images will be reviewed back at the lab in Woods Hole, MA. I have been able to see some of them and the clarity is amazing.

Today, we are continuing to tow the HabCam. When finished, we will have taken images from hundreds of nautical miles with over 4 million images taken on Leg II! We will put in the scallop dredge toward the end of my shift. We will then conduct back to back dredge tows on the way back to Woods Hole totaling over 100 nautical miles for this portion of the trip.

Me, heading in to get my foul weather gear on

Me, heading in to get my foul weather gear on

Personal Log:

Yesterday was a beautiful day at sea. It was, however, strange. The sea was really calm and the sun was shining in a big beautiful sky. The strange thing was that about 300 yards out was fog. There were many commercial fishing vessels all around us. It felt like being in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or some creepy Steven King novel. I am thankful, however, for smooth sailing.

Commercial fishing vessel

Commercial fishing vessel


a day at sea

A day at sea

The crew continues to be awesome. We had flank steak and baked potatoes for supper last night. Lee, our chef, is amazing. Everything she makes is from scratch and there is always plenty. The only reason someone would go hungry on this ship is if it was by choice. Lee takes very good care of us! I have had ample opportunity to get to know others who share my shift. Mike, Jessica and I are science volunteers. Jon and Nicole are the NOAA staff along with Scott an associate scientist at WHOI( Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) on the science team. We get along “swimmingly” and have fun banter to break up any monotony.

I am sleeping very well at night. I think it’s the rocking of the ship that lulls me to sleep. I think I will miss that when I get home. Funny, how at the beginning of this journey I was cursing the very waves that now rock me to sleep. The way the body adjusts is amazing.

I will be home in four days. This week has swiftly gone by. Although I miss home, I feel I will miss people from this ship and the experience of being at sea (minus the sickness!) My mind is already putting together science lessons for my biology classes this fall. I do, however, have three full days left on this ship and I plan to make the most of it. Keep checking the blog to find out what happens next on the great adventure in the North Atlantic Ocean!

Sunset, 6/21/12

Sunset, 6/21/12

Janet Nelson: Sand Dollars and Sea Stars! June 20, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janet Nelson Huewe
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 13 – 25, 2012

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographic Area: North Atlantic
Wednesday, June 20, 2012 

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Latitude: 41.03.21 North
Longitude: 071 32.79 West
Air temp: 21 C
Wind Speed: 15.6 kt
Depth: 135.2 feet

Science and Technology Log:

I came on shift yesterday at noon with three back to back dredge tows (we have done 30 dredges thus far on Leg II). We are off the coast of Long Island. Most of the dredges around here have been filled with sand dollars and sea stars. In total, we have processed and counted on this leg of the survey 5, 366 scallops, 453 skates, and 58 Goosefish, a very interesting fish that  buries itself in the sand and uses a filamentous lure to attract prey and engulf them. In addition, we have counted 132, 056 sea stars (wow!) and 590 crabs. The HabCam had some glitches yesterday but we began running the vehicle on our shift at approximately 1245 hrs. It made a run for approximately three hours and 57 minutes, with approximately 22.387 nautical miles of pictures before we dredged again.

While looking at the images of the HabCam, it astounds me at seeing prior dredge track marks from commercial scallopers and clamers. By looking at the side scan sonar, some of the dredges are very deep and very invasive. It reminds me of strip mining and clear cutting in terrestrial ecosystems. It is also evident, by observing the images, that little is left in those areas but shell hash. With that said, there are still some interesting species that get photographed, such as jelly fish and sea stars in patterns you would think they orchestrated.

We are working our way toward Georges Bank and will be there, from what I’m told, sometime late this afternoon or evening. All equipment is running well and what time we lost with the late departure has mostly been made up. It’s amazing what technology can do!

Personal Log:

As of yesterday, I have been away from home with little to no contact for six days, so when I was told yesterday morning prior to coming on shift that we had cell phone signal, I immediately went up on deck and called my husband! Although I only got an answering machine, it was good, and familiar, to hear his voice.

We then had a fire drill at noon and after that, set to work. It was nice to be outside working for the next 4 hours. I think I finally have my sea legs. However, the seas have also been cooperating with only 1-3 foot swells, at best. When they are higher, I sometimes feel like the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”. It’s a good thing I can laugh at myself when I look completely ridiculous while tripping through a door or, with no warning whatsoever, bump into a wall!  From what I understand, this ship has a flatter bottom than most so every wave and swell catches it and tosses it in whatever direction that wave is going, despite having just gone in the opposite direction! I am hoping the sea remains calm when we get to Georges Bank.

I am learning a great deal about the critters that live in the ocean around here. It is so strange to have at times hundreds upon hundreds of sand dollars being pulled up in the dredge at one location and then to have mostly sea stars pulled up at another location. My favorite, however, are the hermit crabs! They are so cool! They will begin to crawl out of their shells, see you coming to pick them up and immediately crawl way back inside and stare at you. I actually think I saw one blink at me. Not really, but my imagination does run away at times.

Those are also the times someone, usually me or the watch chief (chief scientist is guilty of this too!), bursts into song or starts quoting a movie line, and then half the crew is joining in. I have gotten more proficient at using the technology equipment on board that does the recording of the measurements of the specimens, and also at cutting/shucking the scallops. Never thought I would know how to do that! I have a feeling there are a few things I never thought I would do before this cruise is over. I have five more days at sea. Anything is possible!

Side note: Today is beautiful for being at sea! Clear sky, moderate winds, and sea legs that are working!!


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Ellen O’Donnell: Whales, Whales and More Whales May 15, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical are of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole. MA
Date: May 15, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Winds out of the south about 10-15 knots. Partly cloudy with mid-level clouds.

Science and Technology Log

We left Woods Hole, MA, yesterday afternoon around 2:00PM. All night we traveled until we reached Georges Bank this morning. George’s Bank is a rich feeding area that many cetaceans utilize especially those that eat small crustaceans called copepods. On May 12th a previous right whale survey located a group of 15 right whales. We headed out to that point. We started our watch sessions at 7AM and rotated through three stations.

Me on the “Big Eye”

One person used a mounted binocular which has 25X125 magnification. It is called “Big Eye.” Big Eye is used to scan the horizon from the bow to the port side. It is also used to help identify a whale when it is seen by someone else. The second person has binoculars and looks on the starboard side and the third person records information when any whale is seen and watches for the whales closest to the ship.

I learned a lot today about identifying whales. First off, if helps if you know what species you might be dealing with. In this location, the main species one might see are right whales, fin whales, sei whales and humpback whales.

So, here is the scoop on whale identification. Typically the first thing you see that indicates a whale is present is the spout. Whales are mammals and have lungs. Therefore, they need to inhale and exhale air. Whales have evolved to have their nostrils on their back, called “blowholes.” Baleen whales have two blowholes. The spout that you see is exhaled moist air.

Right Whale Spout (photo Beth Josephson 5/15/2012)

Anyway, back to identifying whales. Whales have somewhat different spray patterns giving an indication of the type of whale. Right whales and humpbacks have v-shaped blows, if you see them head on, or they look like puffy clouds from the side. Sei whales and fin whales have tall columnar spouts.

The second indication is to look for a dorsal fin, a fin on the whale’s backside. Right whales don’t have dorsal fins, but the other three whales do. You can also tell the difference between a sei and a fin whale by how close the spout and the dorsal fin appear. If you see the fin about the same time as the spout, you have a sei whale and if you don’t see the dorsal fin for a while you have a fin whale. (slow to the finish – fin whale, seys I’m here – sei whale. Method of memorizing – compliments of me!)

A third thing to look for is the fluke. Some whales, such as the right and humpback whales, raise their flukes when they dive down into the water. The humpbacks fluke is very broad and more horizontal, whereas the right whales fluke is more upright. In addition, the right whale fluke is more smooth on the inner portion of the fluke and the humpbacks is jagged.  Humpbacks also have white patterns on the back of their fluke, which is used to identify them whereas, right whales are just dark. So when you are looking for right whales it is exciting when you see a more rigid, dark colored fluke go down.

Right whale fluke before diving (photo Jennifer Gatzke 5/15/2012)

Right whale fluke (Jennifer Gatzke 5/15/2012)

Now there is one more thing to look for in a right whale. Right whales often skim along the surface. They open their mouths and let the water run through hoping to catch small crustaceans with their baleen. This gives them a characteristic sloping shape where their head is up higher in the water.

Right Whale Head (photo Allison Henry)

They also have callosities which are used to identify individuals. Callosities are rough patches of skin and each right whale has a different pattern of this skin.

At the location of the previous 15 whales we found 5 right whales. A small boat was lowered into the water in order to get closer to the whales. While whales are identified up in the flying tower of the Delaware II, the mission of this research cruise, however, is not just to identify whales. It is important to individually identify each right whale. Therefore, when right whales are seen, the biologists need to determine if it is one that has already been identified. To this purpose they take pictures of the whales head, remember that’s where the callosities are located. If it turns out to be a whale that scientists haven’t identified, or a new calf, a biopsy is taken of the whale (more to come on this). The biologists took pictures of the right whales, but it was very difficult to get close, as they were feeding below the surface and staying down for long periods of time. Right whales may remain below the surface for up to twenty minutes.

The gray boat heading out to get closer to right whales

After the time it took chasing the 5 whales, we made our way to a previous sighting of nine right whales. We saw 6 whales on the way and tagged the locations, but did not lower the boat. Our time was cut short because the weather is supposed to turn for the worse this evening and we need to get back near land. Therefore, we are heading back to the cape tonight, near Provincetown, as the weather forecast calls for rain, high winds and rough seas. We may be staying closer to land the next day or so.

5/15/2012 species identification: right, fin, sei and humpback whales, basking shark

Personal Log

I arrived in Woods Hole, MA, Sunday evening and made my way to the Delaware II. When I came on board I was told that this may be the Delaware’s last NOAA research trip. It was first deployed in 1968 by the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. The Bureau was reorganized when NOAA was formed in 1972.  The Delaware II is the smallest ship in the NOAA fleet. Doesn’t seem to small to me. In June, the Delaware II will be taken down to the Marine Operations Center – Atlantic in Norfolk for layup. Hopefully it will end up with some other organization, such as a university, and sail the seas again.

I know many of you are probably curious as to where I am staying on board the ship. Check this out!

Me with my emergency suit on!

Safety is very important aboard a ship. When the Delaware took off from port we had two important drills to go through. The first was in case of a fire and the second was in case we would need to abandon ship. We all bring survival suits to the back of the ship and need to try them on to make sure we can get them on ourselves. This could be the difference between life and death.

I also have had to learn a new language while aboard the Delaware. Some words I knew and some I didn’t. Lucky for me my Dad drilled me on many nautical words back in the time when we had a small family sailboat. I can remember sitting around the kitchen table being asked to give the definitions. So lets see how you do. How many do you know? Write me back and let me know how many of the words you knew. Be honest! Also let me know if you have any other questions.


Mrs. OD

Nautical words:












Can you think of others?

Jessie Soder: Geology on Georges, August 17, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jessie Soder
Aboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
August 8 – 19, 2011 

Mission: Atlantic Surfclam and Ocean Quahog Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise:  Northern Atlantic
Date: Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Weather Data
Time: 12:00
Location:  41°19.095 N, 71°03.261
Air Temp:  22°C (°F)
Water Temp:  21°C (°F)
Wind Direction: South
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Sea Wave height:  0
Sea Swell:  0

Science and Technology Log

Gulf of Maine: Including Georges Bank

So far, we have spent this entire trip on Georges Bank.  This famous geographical location off the east coast of the United States is something that I had only heard about before this trip.  After several tows over the past week I have been able to see a variety of materials brought up from the ocean floor of Georges Bank.  I have seen loads of clams, empty shells, sand, mud and clay, and smooth polished rocks.  We have even pulled up a few boulders that must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds.  It was the smooth polished rocks that caught my attention. How would a rock from the bottom of the ocean become smooth and rounded?  It probably meant that Georges Bank must not have always been the bottom of the ocean.

During the Wisconsin Glaciation the ice reached its maximum around 18,000 years ago.  The Laurentide ice sheet paused in the area of Georges Bank and Cape Cod and left behind a recessional moraine that created these landforms.  This ice also had several meltwater streams flowing from it and these streams were responsible for the polishing the rocks and cutting some of the canyons found on the seafloor today.  The Northeast Channel off the northeast side of Georges Bank was the principle water gap for most of the meltwater.

Smooth Polished Rocks From the Ocean Floor

Georges Bank is a huge oval-shaped shoal bigger than Massachusetts that starts about 62 miles offshore.  It is part of the continental shelf and its shallowest areas are approximately 13 feet deep and its deepest areas 200 feet.  In fact, thousands of years ago Georges Bank used to be above water and an extension of Cape Cod.  About 14,000 years ago the sea rose enough to isolate this area and it was home to many prehistoric animals such as mastodons and giant sloths.  Today, traces of these animals are sometimes found in fishing nets!  These animals died out about 11,500 years ago when the sea level rose further and submerged the area.

Georges Bank is a very productive fishing area in the North Atlantic.  (The Grand Banks is more productive, but not as geographically accessible as Georges Banks.)  Why is Georges Bank a prime feeding and breeding area for cod, haddock, herring, flounder, lobsters, and clams?  It has to do with ocean currents.  Cold, nutrient rich water from the Labrador Current sweeps over the bank and mixes with warmer water from the Gulf Stream on the eastern edges of Georges Bank.  The mingling of these two currents, plus sunlight, creates an ideal environment for phytoplankton, which is food for the zooplankton.  In fact, the phytoplankton grow three times faster here than on any other continental shelf.  All of this plankton feeds the ecosystem of fish, birds, marine mammals, and shellfish that flourish on Georges Banks.

Personal Log

Yesterday we left Georges Bank for stations off the coast of Rhode Island.  After dark, I stepped out on the back deck and Jimmy pointed out the lights of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.  We were in sight of land for the first time in a week.  It wasn’t long before people had their cell phones out and were making calls.

A few times during this trip I have thought about sailors in the past and how they would leave for months, and even years, at a time and not have contact with their families and loved ones until they returned.  I have had email contact this entire time, yet I am really excited to go home to see those that I miss.  I can hardly imagine what it would be like to be gone for a year with no contact at all.

Throughout this trip I have been getting to know others on this cruise.  I have learned that several of them have families and young children at home.  Many of them are at sea for many weeks, or months, a year.  After being on this cruise, I have gained a lot of respect for people who choose to work on the ocean for a living.  It takes a certain type of person who can work hard, maintain a positive attitude, and live away from their home and loved ones for extended periods of time.  It has been an honor to work with these people.

Anne Artz: August 2, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Anne Artz
Aboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 25 — August 5, 2011

Mission: Clam and Quahog Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 30, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Location:  Georges Bank off the New England coast
Latitude: 42.634N
Longitude: 68 00.801 W
Conditions: Cloudy today, somewhat cooler but with sun most of the day

Science and Technology Log

This being the beginning of a new month we all did our safety drills on August 1 – that means everyone, including all the crew.  First we did the fire drill then the “Abandon ship” drill where we had to put on our “gumby” suits in one minute.  I did much better this time!  We’ve moved away from the New York-New Jersey coast and are now on the Southern Georges Bank.  We ran into a problem this morning when the cable that runs the pump for the dredge got tangled around the dredge during one of the drops.

A damaged power cable on the dredge

It necessitated cutting the cable that was twisted around the dredge then reconnecting it.  The cable itself is a series of copper wires twisted into 6 coils, surrounded by a neoprene “skin”, then surrounded by a Kevlar sleeve, and finally a synthetic woven casing.  It will take somewhere of 6-8 hours to repair the cable during which time we cannot do any dredging.  I’m going to use the down time to introduce you to some of the crew here on the Delaware II.

LCDR Richard Hester and ENS Carl Noblitt

There are three groups of workers: the NOAA Commissioned Corps which run the ship, the crew members who perform day-to-day work on board, and the science crew who are responsible for performing the scientific experiments for each expedition.  The NOAA Commissioned Corps on the Delaware II consists of the Commanding Officer (CO), LCDR Richard Hester, Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Sean Cimilluca, LT Fiona Matheson in charge of operations, ENS Shannon Hefferan, the Navigations Officer, and ENS Carl Noblitt, Junior Officer.

LCDR Sean Cimilluca

I interviewed Ensign Hefferan and asked her how she got into the NOAA  Commissioned Corps and what her job was like.  I’ll be posting that interview once we are back in Woods Hole since internet connections are not that good out at sea.

Personal Log

I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to our outstanding cooks on the Delaware II.  Both of the men who work in the galley do an amazing job.  Other than the first day I haven’t made it for breakfast but lunch and dinner have been wonderful.

Top chefs Jonathan Rockwell and James White on the Delaware II

We’ve had everything from BBQ chicken, lasagna, a full turkey dinner, scallops, shrimp, and lots of different kinds of fish.  Besides all that, they cook vegetables that even my husband might eat and he won’t eat anything but a baked potato!  They feed all 30 of us every day and it’s a good thing we work so hard otherwise I’d definitely have to be dieting when I get home!

Kathleen Brown: Sea Science, June 11, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kathleen Brown
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 7 – 18, 2011

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: June 11, 2011

June 11, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 12:50 PM
Winds 12.9 KTs
Air Temperature: 11.94 C
Latitude 41 05.84N
Longitude 067 25.88 W

Science and Technology Log

Lowering the CTD

Lowering the CTD

Every third station along the journey, the crew takes a CTD reading. CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth. Using a submersible set of probes, the characteristics of the ocean water are measured at set intervals, from the surface to the sea bottom, and then again from the sea bottom to the surface. Wynn, the marine technician, takes the time to explain to me that on this cruise the equipment is set to measure temperature, salinity, oxygen and phosphorescence. The probe is extremely heavy and must be lowered with a winch. The capability of the equipment is quite sophisticated and can take a water sample at any depth. A canister can be programmed to shut quickly, capturing approximately ten liters of water. The timing of the data collection process depends upon the depth of the water, but today it takes about five minutes. The data is collected for the NOAA team back on land.

Our journey will circle the outer edges of George’s Bank. We are on the eastern leg of the trip, somewhere between 80 and 100 miles from land. As far as the eye can see, it is ocean. Once in a while, we can see a fishing vessel off in the distance and we have seen dolphins and sunfish swimming near the ship. This afternoon I heard Mary, the First Mate, announce over the radio that she spotted a whale. I ran up to the bridge to see if I could get a look, but I was too late!

I have been eager to learn the stories of the scientists and crew, and to find out what has drawn them to the work at sea. The backgrounds of the people on the ship are varied, and they are both men and women of all ages. One person reports, “ I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist since fifth grade.” Another says, “I grew up around boats.” Yet another speaks about wanting a hands-on career that could last a lifetime. There are several students on this leg of the cruise. I have learned there are many paths to the career at sea: experience in the military, technical school, college and university, and hands on experience over the years It seems that if you are attracted to the sea, you have a place on a scientific research vessel.

Personal Log
Toward the end of the day, the boat starts to roll a bit more than it has. We have been informed that the wave heights tomorrow may increase to 5 to 8 feet. Taking a shower while the boat rocks from side to side is challenging. I grip my flip flops to the floor of the shower and hang on!

Question of the Day
What do you think the level of salt in the water can tell scientists?