NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
August 4, 2023 – September 1, 2023
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?
Noren, S.R., Biedenbach, G., Redfern, J.V. and Edwards, E.F. (2008), Hitching a ride: the formation locomotion strategy of dolphin calves. Functional Ecology, 22: 278-283. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2435.2007.01353.x