Rita Larson, August 12, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Rita Larson
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
August 10 – 27, 2009 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of the Cruise: Kasitsna Bay, AK
Date: August 12, 2009

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Latitude: 59° 28.515′N Longitude: 151° 33.54′W
Sea Water Temperature: 9.4°C
Air Temperature: Dry Bulb: 14.4°C (58°F); Wet Bulb: 12.2°C (55°F)
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind: 06

The skiff RA-8 being launched from NOAA Ship Rainier.

The skiff RA-8 being launched from NOAA Ship Rainier.

Science and Technology Log 

Last night (Aug 11, 2009) the P.O.D (Plan of the Day) was posted and I found out that I was assigned to work with the Survey Team. We would go out on the skiff identified as RA-8.  We had a special guest that came with us today, Mr. Randall, from the NOAA Headquarters located in Silver Spring, Maryland was in Homer Alaska, so we drove RA-8 to Homer, Alaska to pick him up. Then we proceeded to Bear Cove to complete our main mission, which was to observe the tides and complete the leveling of the remote tide gauge. NOAA uses tide gauges to verify long-term assessment of sea level changes and establishes the vertical datum, or frame of reference, for their nautical charts. Mr. Randall was retrieving a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit that was planted in Bear Cove the previous day to collect data.

Our crew consisted of Matt Abraham, our coxswain, was responsible for driving the open skiff (RA-8). Our hydrographer in charge was ENS Schultz; she surveyed Bear Cove and retrieved the data from the tide gauge. Manuel Cruz and Tony Lukach were responsible for holding the leveling rods to help complete the survey. My responsibility was to write the data given to me and record it on the leveling sheets and find the difference between each measurement. Mr. Randall also worked with us throughout the day. While surveying we used a three-wired level that sits on a tripod, level rods, measuring tape, turtles, pencil, and a calculator.

Personal Log 

Looking through a three wire level.

Looking through a three wire level.

I was so excited about this mission since it was my first one. I was very cold in the morning since we were a little bit wet from the spray of the ocean, even though I was dressed very warmly. By the afternoon I was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans. The scientists were telling me the last time they were at Bear Cove they actually saw a bear. So, I was looking around constantly to keep an eye out for them. At one point of the day I went with ENS Schultz to collect the initial tide measurements from the tide gauge and check the flow of the nitrogen gas to make sure it was operating smoothly. Little did I know that I had to climb a wooded hill to help collect this data. One has to be in great physical shape to perform these types of tasks. It was unbelievable to see such sophisticated equipment in such a remote area.

After observing these remarkable scientists doing their jobs in the middle of a mosquito-infested area, I applaud everything they do. I felt comfortable and I felt safe in their care. They are all so knowledgeable in their fields. One can really sense the teamwork that is needed for all the missions NOAA  expects from them. I am proud and honored to be a part of the project called Hydropalooza, which provides a deeper understanding of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay.

New Term/Phrase/Word:  Turtles in surveying are not animals. They are used as half way marks from the benchmark item to the surveyor. The ones we used were round and heavy with a silver handle on them. They are heavy for a reason, so they do not move once they are placed on the ground. Surveying is very important to this mission since the measurements must be within 2.5mm.

Animals Seen Today 
Puffins and Sea Otters

Collecting data from the tide gauge in Bear Cove

Collecting data from the tide gauge in Bear Cove

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As we were bringing Mr. Randall back to Homer we saw this glacier in the distance.

As we were bringing Mr. Randall back to Homer we saw this glacier in the distance.

John Schneider, July 4, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
John Schneider
Onboard NOAA Ship Fairweather 
July 7 – August 8, 2009 

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Kodiak, AK to Dutch Harbor, AK
Date: July 4, 2009

Midnight – no flash!  The moon is rising off to the left.

Midnight – no flash! The moon is rising off to the left.

Personal Log 

Left home at ~0900 EDT and was driven to Philadelphia Int’l by my old son. First leg was PHL to Atlanta in order to connect to a 767 for the nonstop leg to Anchorage. On the first leg, I was in a middle seat, but that was OK as it was only a 1.5 hour flight. After a :45 layover I connected to Delta flight 1475 to Anchorage for a 7 hour nonstop flight. On that flight I chose a window seat which meant I would be boxed in. I usually like an aisle seat so I can get up and walk around, but figured that having never been to Alaska I’d like to be able to look out the window.  After about 5 hours being stuck in that little seat, I was tired, cramped and uncomfortable.

But then I started to see mountains covered with snow on their North slopes – the southern slopes being sunlit and having melted.  A bit further on, the mountains were high enough and far enough North to be snow covered on all exposures. Then, for the last hour or so of the flight, the view was non-stop input of glaciers, fords, icebergs, islands, tidal flats and a sun still high in the sky, even though it was almost 7 pm local time.  It amazes me that folks take so for granted the wonders of where they live – there was a couple in front of me who just chatted through the last couple hours as if it was “business as usual.” Still, living in the Northeast, I know people who take the NYC skyline for granted, too, and having lived in the US Virgin Islands we used to say “Just another day in Paradise” as if it was nothing special.  When I get home I will look at my home state with a different and less cynical perspective. 

Glacier and runoff into the sea

Glacier and runoff into the sea

The descent into Anchorage brought us closer to the ground and I could discern the tree growth and recognized that we were flying over the coniferous forests that characterize the landscape in Northern ecosystems like the Taiga biome.  Once on the ground, the cool crisp air and generally quiet tranquil atmosphere immediately let me know I wasn’t in the lower 48!

After a brief layover in Anchorage I went to the gate for the flight to Kodiak.  Era Airlines is one of the local carriers that services Alaska’s interior and the aircraft are relatively small.  I was on a twin engine turboprop that carries about 25 people. Seating is not assigned and I was fortunate enough to have a window again. The flight to Kodiak is only about an hour so the plane never reaches the altitudes of longer flights and I was treated to multiple glaciers, islands and near the end of the flight even caught a glimpse of the Fairweather at the pier in the harbor! 

In front of Kodiak Airport

In front of Kodiak Airport

Once on the ground, I called the ship and Ensign Matt Forney said he’d be over in a few minutes to pick me up.  While I waited, I got to sit and appreciate the day.  It was 2030 hours (8:30 pm) and not even close to dark. Ensign Forney arrived and we were off. It’s just a five minute drive to the Coast Guard pier but I was given a ten-minute diversionary drive to the public harbor area (very few private “yachts,”) many commercial fishing vessels; also stores, clubs, restaurants, etc. but not too many.

I’m tempted to say “quaint,” but I think that would diminish the true nature of the area . . . this is a remote area and the people live lives adapted to the area just as everywhere else.  Being from New Jersey and its crowds, it seems a life less encumbered. Because the ship is in port, I’ll have time tomorrow to meet some crew members and get acquainted with the layout.  I hope to also get a chance to get to town. 

Susan Smith, June 11, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Smith
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 1-12, 2009 

Mission: Hydrographic survey
Geographical area of cruise: Trocadero Bay, Alaska; 55°20.990’ N, 33°00.677’ W
Date: June 11, 2009

Weather at 9:45 AM 
Temperature: Dry Bulb:  7.8°C (46°F);  Wet Bulb: 6.7° (44°F)
Cloudcover: OVC
Visibility:  10+ nautical miles
Wind direction: 285, 7 kts.
Sea Wave Height: -0
Sea water temperature: 8.3°C (41°F)

Margerie Glacier

Margerie Glacier

Science and Technology Log 

Today’s log is an accounting of our voyage up Glacier Bay to the Margerie Glacier. Along the way we received information about Glacier Bay from Lewis, the National Parks Service employee whose assistance we enlisted. At approximately 5:30 AM Lewis came on board. He was delivered by boat in the Sitakaday Narrows, near Bartlett Cove. We actually entered Glacier Bay a few hours later. Our destination- Margerie Glacier,at the border of the United States and Canada.

 

Reid Glacier, south of Tarr Inlet

Reid Glacier, south of Tarr Inlet

Margerie Glacier’s height is 250 feet. The glacier also extends another 100 feet below the water line. The Statue of Liberty is 307 feet tall by comparison. The Reid Glacier, south of the Tarr Inlet, is 150 above the waterline and is ••• mile across. It is the fastest moving Tidewater glacier, moving at approximately 8 feet per day. A Tidewater glacier is defined as “a glacier that terminates in the sea, where it usually ends in an ice cliff from which icebergs are discharged”.

Questions of the Day:

  1.  Why does the ice look blue? The ice in the glacier absorbs shorter red and green wavelengths.
  2.  Why is part of the glacier black? Rocky debris mixes in with the ice.
  3.  Why are the edges jagged? Because glaciers advance and recede constantly they leave jagged patterns on the ice edges.

I took several photographs through the Flying Bridge’s high powered binoculars, or “Bug Eyes”. As you can see the crevices are very deep and unstable, causing the ice to break off and drop into the water. Ice breaking away from a glacier is called calving.  

Interesting patterns as seen through the high powered binoculars

Interesting patterns as seen through the high powered binoculars

Top of the glacier

Top of the glacier

Black debris covers part of the glacier

Black debris covers part of the glacier

Lewis explained several interesting historical things to us.

  • John Muir traveled this area in 1879, by canoe, giving vivid descriptions of what he had encountered. This opened up tourism like never before.
  • In 1925 President Coolidge, by presidential order, declared this area as Glacier Bay National Monument. It wasn’t until 1980 that it became Glacier Bay National Park.
  • In the 1990’s it was officially recognized as a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. Each World Heritage Site is the property of the state on whose territory the site is located, but it is considered in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.
  • Glacier Bay was covered with glaciers 100 years ago. When the glaciers receded they carved out the bay as we know it today.
Margerie Glacier with calving splash

Margerie Glacier with calving splash

Glacier Bay National Park has 3.3 million acres of land, with a park shoreline of 1,000 miles in the bay proper. Outside of the official boundary the waters three miles out cover another 300 miles. (When the Grand Pacific Glacier receded into Canada’s land area the Canadians jokingly stated they should build a deep water port because now the water was on their side of the border) 

Park Regulations: No more than two cruise ships may enter the park per day. This provides less disturbance on the wildlife and environment. The park director may mandate a speed limit of 10 knots, depending on whale proximity.

Recreation 

  • There are no trails in the backcountry.
  • Geikie Inlet is a kayaker’s haven
  • There are five areas of wilderness waters, four of which are closed to motorized traffic and sea planes during the summer, and one area with two sections, each closed half of the summer.

1. Beardslee Islands- forested with 200 year old trees

2. Adam’s Inlet- young, flat area with moose, wolves, bears

3. Rendu Inlet- raw and exposed area, not protected

4. Hugh Miller complex- including Scidmore Bay and Charpentier Inlet, west of                the wilderness boundary at the mouth of the Hugh Miller Inlet.

5. Upper Muir and Wachusett Inlets- a. Muir, a large and exposed area, is closed from June 1-15; and b. Wachusett is closed July 16-August 31

Grand Pacific Glacier, brown area

Launch up close with the glacier

Research Projects-There are many research projects going on in Glacier Bay National Park. Academic research is continually being done by universities. There are long term weather stations set up within the park and 24 CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) stations to check. Three specific populations being studied are the brown bears, whales, and birds. These populations are being monitored to determine the extent they are affected by motor vessels, tourism, and land management. There is also huge research (approximately 40 projects each summer) on plant succession. Simply by the multitude of research projects occurring you can easily see why Glacier Bay National Park is known as a research park.  For more photographs and information, go here.

Grand Pacific Glacier- The mountains are Canadian.

Grand Pacific Glacier- The mountains are Canadian.

Teacher at Sea Experience Summary 

This trip has given me such insight on all the work done to insure the safety of all who utilize Alaska’s waterways. Before coming on board I had no idea of the volume of intricate data which must be collected and processed to make navigational charts. I had no knowledge of how a NOAA ship as large as Rainier operates and the myriad of jobs necessary to make it all run smoothly. After 11 days on the Rainier I can honestly say there is no other ship I would have enjoyed being on more- the hospitality shown me from day one was remarkable, the patience required to answer the same questions over and over was stellar, I got to take the helm, and I learned more science and nautical vocabulary than even I anticipated.  Thank you, NOAA, for this opportunity and thank you, the people of Rainier S-221, who allowed me to spend part of my summer vacation living and working with you. Bravo Zulu!

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Clare Wagstaff, June 9, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 9, 2008

CO of the COBB and a NOAA diver heading down to explore the hull of the  COBB. They took knifes with them expecting to find netting caught, but no such luck.

Divers heading down to explore the hull of the COBB. They took knifes with them expecting to find netting caught, but no such luck.

Final Log 

I write this last log sat at the dinning table in the galley of the JOHN N. COBB. The last few days have been difficult here on the ship. Unfortunately the mechanical difficulties that the vessel suffered on June 3, have proven to be a little more serious than was originally hoped. The initial diagnosis was of some sort of obstruction, probably fishing line from a trawler, caught in the propeller. After the final leg of our journey, being towed by a much larger NOAA ship, the Rainier, and then finally the last mile by a tug boat, the COBB limped into port in Juneau. Here, the CO and two experienced NOAA divers explored the hull of the ship but unfortunately found nothing obviously wrong to report. With external problems to the ship ruled out, the crew looked internally into the ship’s engine. The engine on the COBB is 59 years old. Similar types where used in the past in trains and submarines. This engine is massive, about 20ft long by 4ft wide. In fact the ship was actually built around the engine, meaning any serious problems with it are extremely difficult to get to and fix. After closer inspection by Sam and Joe, the COBB’s engineers, they discovered that the crankshaft had a large fracture in it. With only two engines of this type known to still be in use, the COBB being one of them, finding a spare crankshaft to replace it is likely to be difficult. It seems as if the COBB may have sailed for the last time under her own power.

A huge crack in the crankshaft, which is essential as it connects all the cylinders of the engine together and makes them rotate.

A huge crack in the crankshaft, which connects all the cylinders of the engine and makes them rotate.

One of the biggest aspects of our cruise was meant to be the last week: studying the haulout sites in two large glacial areas in Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. With the COBB out of action, I decided to jump onboard a tourist cruise that took a small group of us to the Tracy Arm fjord. It has two picturesque tidewater glaciers are set at the end of this long fjord. Along the journey down the fjord, the step cliff face rises vertically out of the water.  The captain maneuvers the small boat around massive icebergs, with the thought of the Titanic always in the back of my head, I am pleased he goes so slowly. These massive chunks of ice that have broken off a glacier and can float for many miles down stream and out to open water. They can be made of ice, possibly a thousand years old, and are very impressive floating ice blocks with an intense, bright blue color. Light is made up of many colors, all blended together. When light hits an object, some of its colors are absorbed, while others pass through it. Which colors are absorbed depends on the composition of the object: what it is made up of. In this case, the densely packed ice is thick and absorbs red and yellow light, leaving only blue light to be seen. Thinner ice appears white as all light passes through it.

A massive floating iceberg located in Tracy Arm fjord.

A massive iceberg located in Tracy Arm fjord.

As we got closer to the North Sawyer glacier: seal pups galore! It seemed every direction I looked there was a mother and her pup! Dave had spoken about this area to me and pointed out things to look for. Some distance off from our boat, I could see two juvenile bald eagles sat on the ice in very close proximately to a larger seal. Apparently the afterbirth leaves pinkish / red stains visible on the ice, is a tasty meal for these birds, and they were sat there waiting for the opportune moment to enjoy it! There was though one seal that stood out for all the hundred of others. This seal had a transmitter attached to the top of his head and what I later found out to be, a heart rate monitor around its chest! The seal did look a very strange sight and was easily spooked back into the safety of the water. Earlier this season, Dave had been helping the Alaskan Fish and Game department tag seals in the Endicott Arm area, some 40 miles from here so this seal had traveled some distance. The transmitter attached to its head relays information of its location and details from its heart rate monitor. Measuring the heart rate of the seal is used to study the stress placed on the animal in regards to cruise boats and their close proximity. A seal under stress will expel more energy as it swims away from the danger. Being in the water also means that more energy is expelled in thermoregulation to maintain its body temperature. From this sighting Dave was able to report back to the Fish and Game department that this seal had been spotted, alive and well!

Just one group of many of the seals present in Tracy Arm.

Just one of many of the seals in Tracy Arm.

Although this seal did look quite funny to the human observers, it should think it lucky that it was just a little bigger; otherwise a video camera would have been attached too! Not to worry though. As the seal molts, as they do each year, the transmitter and heart rate monitor, which is glued onto the seal’s fur, will come off! While the boat was sat stationary in the water near the South Sawyer glacier, there was a loud cracking sound. This signaled a carving of the ice from the face of the glacier. It sent ice crashing into the water with some force and in turn a wave was created that sent our boat rocking. Over the 45 minutes we were there, this braking up of the glacial ice happened four times. Looking out to the seals on the ice in this area, I wondered why they would stay on the ice so close to where this was happening, as it couldn’t be a pleasant ride with all the rocking. As it happens, these seals love this area, for exactly that reason. As the ice hits the water, it mixes the water below, sending the seal’s food source such as shrimp, closer to the surface. Basically the carving action brings dinner just one step closer to them – buffet service with a great view!

A tagged harbor seal with a transmitter attached to its head and a heart rate monitor to its chest.

A tagged harbor seal with a transmitter on its head and a heart rate monitor on its chest.

I have had just the best time onboard the JOHN N. COBB. Although my cruise was much shorter than I had expected, I saw many wonderful things that I had never done so before. I think that if you have to be stranded anywhere for a week, Alaska seems like a pretty good option to me!

Teacher at Sea, Clare Wagstaff in front of South Sawyer glacier.

Teacher at Sea, Clare Wagstaff in front of South Sawyer glacier.

Clare Wagstaff, June 5, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 5, 2008

NOAA Teacher At Sea Clare Wagstaff, Jon and Dave getting ready to depart the COBB in the JC-1.

NOAA TAS Clare Wagstaff, Jon and Dave getting ready to depart the COBB

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 6
Wave Height (feet): 0
Sea Water Temp (0C): 8.8
Air Temp (0C): 11

Science and Technology Log 

We are still anchored just outside of the native Alaskan village of Kake. Apparently another NOAA ship, the Rainier, is on its way to tug us back to Juneau late tonight. There was good news though! Dave knew of some haulout sites that he had observed and recorded data from in 2004. They were within approximately seven miles of where John N. COBB was located. So once again, we boarded the JC-1 and off we went!

Equipment on the Skiff 
The skiff is only a small-motorized boat but it can safely carry seven people and is essential in getting scientists to places unreachable by the COBB. The JC-1 is equipped with GPS, which also includes a Fathometer and depth gauge. Other basic equipment includes a magnetic compass and tachometer. Essential to any mission in the skiff is a console mounted and handheld radio so that we can stay in communication with the COBB. The operator of the skiff is required to have radio contact with the ship every hour and state our location for safety reasons. Flares, line bags and a first aid kit, all mean that our expeditions out on the JC-1 should be safe and enjoyable!

Seal Observations    
Although we saw lots of seals today, none of them from a distance of less than 200 meters. It seems these seals where much more skittish than at other areas we had previously visited and for good reason. Today’s haulout sites were within a few miles of a local village. Here, native Alaskan’s are still allowed to hunt seals. The seals we observed today seemed fully aware of their possible fate if they allowed us to get to close. On a more positive note, I am getting better at making estimates of numbers from a distance and spotting the pups in a large group. When they retreat to the water it is quite easy to spot mother and pup, as they tend to be very close together, with one head much larger than the other!

Harbor seals near Kake.

Harbor seals near Kake.

Recording the Data 

Dave Withrow uses the GPS to record new sites as well as plot routes to old sites.

Dave Withrow uses the GPS to record new sites as well as plot routes to old sites.

So what happens to all the data that we collect out at sea? Dave processes all the results we collect into a spreadsheet. Here the data is organized by ‘waypoint’ (name of location and/or latitude and longitude); it also displays the number of adult seals and pups, a long with environmental data such as tide height. Through some fancy GPS work, Dave can also record and download the route we took in the skiff, our speed and time. Plotting all this information together, gives a clear picture of patterns in the results collected. With his digital camera, Dave can also download the photos he has taken of the seals and through the wonders of modern technology synchronized them with the GPS information. This then links pictures taken at a specific site electronically to the recorded data.

In the past five years of this study, the proportion of adult seals present with a pup has remained approximately the same: 25% on rock substrate and approximately 70% on ice. Unfortunately because we have been unable to study many sites this season, the data we collected is inconclusive. However, with the effects of global climate change it seems unlikely that these percentages, particularly of pups on ice haulout sites, will continue to be as high. Adding to this data over the preceding years seems an absolute necessity for scientists to get a greater picture of the harbor seal population and its relating habitat.

A sea squirt? I will have to look it up when I get home.

A sea squirt? I will have to look it up when I get home.

Personal Log 

For the first time on the COBB, I slept through the night and well past my usual 04:00! I think I am starting to get used to this way of life. The crew on board the ship are light hearted, yet committed to their jobs: a good combination to be around onboard a ship like the COBB. Yet being stuck in Kake is really frustrating. Breaking down out at sea is not quite the same as doing it in a car: things take a lot longer to happen out here! Knowing that I will probably not get to see the glaciers, being so close is pretty heartbreaking. I’m keeping my fingers, toes and anything else crossed that the COBB gets fixed and ASAP!

“Animals Seen Today” 

While Dave and I were exploring the tidal pools on one of the small islands around Kake, we found this interesting creature. Partially buried in water, Dave dug it out to expose a rather funny shaped animal that ejected water from one end!

The bald eagle, majestic and beautiful!

The bald eagle, majestic and beautiful! 

Clare Wagstaff, June 4, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 4, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 1200) 
Weather: Overcast and light rain
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 16
Wave Height (feet): 1 – 2
Sea Water Temp (0C): 8.2
Air Temp (0C): 12

Day 4 

Oh what a rough night! Our anchor site was in a rather exposed channel just east of Warren Island and the ship was definitely rolling. So much so, I found the best way to secure myself in bed was to wedge my body in between the mattress and the woodened bed frame! At approximately 02:00 this morning the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) cutter, the Anacapa, arrived from Juneau to tow us part of the way back to port. The USCG boarded the 250-ton COBB around sunrise and secured a towing line for the long return journey.

USCG Cutter Anacapa. It towed us from Warren Channel (55054’N 133049’W) to Kake (56057’N 133056’), 90 nautical miles to Juneau!

USCG Cutter Anacapa. It towed us from Warren Channel to Kake, 90 nm to Juneau!

Disappointed that this might signal the end of the cruise, Dave and I were left with little to do but read, listen to music and partake in a few hours of whale watching as the Anacapa pulled us along at approximately seven knots. At around 18:00 the USCG left us for another mission and the COBB was once again anchored down for the night near the small town of Kake. From the ship this native Alaskan town appears very small and quite rundown, although I did see a very new looking building that said ‘High School’ on it. Now once again stranded, the responsibility falls on the CO and XO to find us another tow the last 90 nautical miles back to Juneau. But with tugboats in the area all already with a full schedule and being astonishingly expensive, it seems unlikely that the journey home will be a quick or cheap one! However, the crew and I do get cell phone reception here, so all is not lost. A quick phone call back to our loved ones helps us all feel a little better about the day’s events.

Science and Technology Log – Whale Identification 

Although Dave and I were not able to venture out in the skiff today, I was able to observe, at a great distance, a number of humpback whales. But identification of these marine mammals is not as easy as it seems. Whales are mammals in the order Cetacea, along with dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans spend their entire life in water: feeding, mating, giving birth and raising their young in this aquatic environment. They have adapted to breathe through a blowhole on the top of the head. The species we will most commonly observe during our cruise fall into two suborders: toothed whales (Odontoceti) and baleen whales (Mysticeti).

For the huge mass that a whale occupies, rarely do you see the majority of its body for identification. To accurately identify the correct species you need to make a number of observations regarding three main areas. Identification starts with observations of the whale’s blow (expelled air), in regards to the shape, height and angle. Baleen whales have two nostrils and toothed whales have one, which influence the pattern created by the blow. If observed head on, this is a simple way to distinguish between the two suborders. So far on this cruise though our observations have been from such a great distance away (minimum of half a mile away) that it has been difficult for me, a beginner, to make any accurate observations.

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The next observation to make is of a whale’s dorsal fin that is located on its back and displayed, if present, when it surfaces and/or dives. If present, its size, shape and location should be recorded. The last basic observation is of a whale’s fluke and its shape. The most common whale seen in the southeast Alaska is the humpback. Protected from commercial harvest since 1966, it is still endangered and so seeing it is a very special occurrence. A humpback whale’s general characteristics are a two-nostril blow that is generally broad and bushy. It normally blows between four and ten times before diving. The dorsal fin is exposed as it blows but it is small in comparison to the rest of its body mass and located two thirds of the way along its back. Finally, its broad flukes tend to exhibit an irregular trailing edge and are displayed as it dives. The markings displayed on the whale’s fluke are unique to the individual, like that of a fingerprint, and allow scientists to track individual whale through sightings. Of course this is over simplifying things, but it gives me as a beginner a place to start!

“Did You Know” 

The Northern Right whale was named the ‘right’ whale by commercial whalers because it was easily approached, floats when killed, and is rich in oil. Today it is endangered and protected since 1935. Estimates suggest the population in the Alaska region could be as low as 100-200 individuals.

Clare Wagstaff, June 3, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 3, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 1200) 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 12
Wave Height (feet): 3
Sea Water Temp (0C): 8
Air Temp (0C): 10.5

Setting off in the JC-1 skiff for a morning of harbor seal observations.

Setting off for a morning of seal observations.

Science and Technology Log 

This morning Skilled Fisherman (Mills), Dave and I headed out at low tide to explore an area called Big Port Walter. This is located in the next bay over from Little Port Walter where the COBB had docked for the night. Dave had not explored this area before and so he was keen to see if there were any new locations he could record. Sure enough, not long into the ride in the skiff, we came across a rocky reef and a group of harbor seals. Carefully, Mills brought the skiff around to the opposite side of the small island for us to disembark and walk gingerly over the slippery rocks covered with kelp and algae to get a closer look at these beautiful mammals. We were careful to keep a low profile and not make any large silhouettes that could alert them to our presence.

Identifying a Harbor Seal 

The question is, who is watching whom? Seals are mammals and so have hair covering their bodies. The underbelly of the seals pictured appears still wet, but their backs have dried in the sun and so appear more fur like

The question is, who is watching whom? Seals are mammals and so have hair covering their bodies. The underbelly of the seals pictured appears still wet, but their backs have dried in the sun and so appear more fur like

The similarities between the Alaskan Pinniped species can make the initial positive identification of a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) challenging to the untrained eye. In the locations we are studying on this cruise the only seal species likely to be encountered is the harbor seal. However, these seals still have relatives that look very similar to them. Harbor seals, sea otters, California sea lion and Steller (Northern) sea lion are all carnivorous mammals in the suborder Pinnipedia. These animals have developed adaptations for deep diving, swimming, thermoregulation, water conservation and great sensory adaptations and can be easily misjudged in the water for one another.

So how can we tell them apart? Sea lions have external ear flaps (these are absent in seals) and use their long front flippers for propulsion. Otters are generally smaller and spend a large proportion of their time floating on their backs. A seal though does not do this, has shorter front flippers and is not as agile on land. Their appearance reminds me of an over inflated sausage-shaped balloon! Graceful underwater, they struggle and look awkward on land. Dave informed me that both the male and female harbor seals appear the same size and shape, making it difficult to tell them apart. Today I observed a variety of different colors of fur, ranging from nearly all white through to nearly all black. The fur markings also vary. Spots, rings, and blotches are common variations. These colorations and fur patterns of a seal are believed to be quite random. A mother lighter and more spotted in pattern does not guarantee an offspring of the same appearance. To date, I have only observed one pup, although Dave, with his keen eyes and experience, has recorded quite a few. Pups have no obvious markings to identify them by. However, they are smaller and will be generally located next to its larger mother, possibly even suckling. Although seals tend to haul out in large groups for safety, the mothers of particular young pups may be located towards the edge of the crowd.

The disused factory in Large Port Walter.

The disused factory in Large Port Walter.

Further Exploring 

We recorded a total of 17 seals and three possible pups this morning but our exploration didn’t end there! Further down into the bay we came across an old abandoned salting or canning factory probably for Herring, estimated to be from around the 1950’s. Broken down and severely rusting from the extreme elements and the effects of saltwater, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie! Its location here was probably due to the ready supply of fresh water from the impressive waterfalls and fast running stream close by. Its sheltered location probably protected it from the bigger storms and the deep water of the bay would have meant larger ships could have transported goods easily to and from it. 

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, in her survival suit on the beach at Lovers Cove, Big Port Walter.

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, in her survival suit on the beach at Lovers Cove, Big Port Walter.

Personal Log 

Today has been full of highs and lows. Seeing my first group of seals up close was something magical! Although we only observed them for approximately ten minutes, to see them so close and in the wild was amazing. Each seal seemed to have a personality. One scratching its face, another making grunting noises at another seal that appeared to be too close. As Dave and I sat there, it became obvious that a few of the seals were aware of our presence, their heads poking up looking at us. It made me wonder, who was really studying whom?!

Disaster on the COBB! 

Unfortunately, the rest of the COBB’s day was not so successful. Around 17:00 hours the crew heard a loud gratering sound coming from the ship as we were making our way to San Fernando Island. According to CO Chad Cary, a propulsion casualty has left us now anchored near Warren Island (550 54’N 1330 49’W) and the US Coast Guard is in transit to tow us part of the way back to Juneau. Hopefully, there a dive team will be able to assess the damage to the ship. If the damage is minor and easily repairable, then we will resume the mission focusing on last leg of the planned trip, the glacier area. But things aren’t looking too hopeful and we will probably be docked back in Juneau for sometime. Selfishly I don’t want to go home yet. There is so much to see here that three days is not enough! Looks like tomorrow will be a long day.