Allison Irwin: Whales! July 16, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Allison Irwin

NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

07-25 July 2019


Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California

Date: July 16, 2019

Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 15 July 2019

We’re slowly coasting through a dense patch of fog. I can see about 20 meters off the deck before the horizon tapers to a misty, smoky haze. Then my eyes are affronted with a thick wall of white. It’s like we’re inside a room covered in white felt wallpaper – one of those rooms in a funhouse where the walls keep closing in on you as you walk through it.  For safety, the ship keeps sounding a loud horn at least once every 2 minutes to announce our position for other boats in the area. It’s been like this for an hour now. It’s a little spooky.


PERSONAL LOG


On a brighter note, we saw whales earlier this morning! We were one mile off the coast of southern Oregon, and ahead of us we saw the backs of a few whales peeking out of the surface. I was able to grab a pair of binoculars sitting next to me on the bridge, and with those I could clearly see their dark bodies in the water! Every once in a while one would gracefully lift its tail above the surface as it prepared to dive. They were so cute!

Eventually we got closer to them and we started to see more whales on either side of the ship. I spent probably 15 minutes moving from one side of the bridge to the other with my binoculars to get a better look. I’m lucky the NOAA Corps officers are so accommodating! Otherwise I think my constant fluttering from one area to another could’ve been construed as a pain.

The officers like to see whales too, so they were happy to share what they knew with me. It turns out we were most likely watching Humpback Whales. LT Dave Wang, Operations Officer on the ship and trained as an ichthyologist (fish biologist), said most whales have a distinctive blow pattern, tail shape, and dorsal fin size that makes it easier to identify which kind he’s looking at. I had no idea before today that there were so many different species of whales. I knew Orca – Free Willy, Humpback, and maybe something called a Blue Whale? But that would’ve been the extent of it. In the marine mammals identification guide housed on the ship, there are 45 types of whales in the table of contents! And that’s probably not a complete list of all whale species.

At one point today, eventually, once the fog lifted, we were 36 miles off shore and started seeing shoals of coastal pelagic species all around the ship. We could pick them out easily because each shoal looked like a dark, churning, rippled inkspot on the otherwise smooth-as-glass surface. While the low wind conditions are partly what left us in a thick layer of fog all afternoon, it is what also kept the water smooth enough to pick out the shoals. So I guess not all was lost. We saw even more whale activity around these shoals than we saw this morning, and they were a lot closer to the ship! 

One of the whales just off the starboard bow left a footprint. Larger whales like the Humpback produce larger footprints, and the calm sea state today allowed us to see them! It looked like a smooth patch of water in the center of concentric circles.

I’ve been trying to see whales and other marine mammals the whole trip. I saw a sea lion the other day, just one glimpse of it before it went under the water and we left the area, but now having seen the whales I feel pretty content.  The Commanding Officer of the ship also told me that seals or sea lions like to hang out on the pier that we’ll be docking at in San Francisco, so there’s still hope yet!


THE SCIENCE


If you’ve ever been whale watching on a boat, the type of whale you probably saw was a Humpback Whale. They can often be seen near the shore since they like to stay within the continental shelf, and they spend a lot of time near the surface compared to other whales. Not all whale species exhibit this same behavior.  If whales had a personality, I would call the Humpback Whales the Jersey Shore cast of the sea. They do things that come across as attention-seeking behaviors to the outside observer – slapping their unusually long flippers on the surface of the water, smacking their tails against the water in agitation, flipping their tails in the air before diving, and sometimes breaching the surface with their whole bodies. Of course, they’re not doing it to get our attention. But it makes for easy and exciting observation!

All Humpback Whales have unique patterns of coloration and texture on their flukes, so scientists can use photos to track specific animals as they migrate or go about their regular activities in a similar fashion to how we use fingerprints to uniquely identify people.

They also have the advantage of something called countershading. One of the whales I saw today had a silvery-shiny underside to its fluke that glistened in the sunlight and contrasted greatly with the dark, almost black color of its back. A lot of fish and marine mammals like whales and porpoises use countershading to help camouflage them by having naturally darker backs (dorsal side) and lighter stomachs (ventral side). This way when something is looking down at the creature, it blends in with the dark depths of the ocean, and when something is looking up at the creature, it blends in better with the lighter, sunlit layer of water near the surface.

Anything from krill to small fish are fair game for Humpback Whales when they’re hungry. Sometimes a group of Humpback Whales will work together as a team to catch fish. One way they do this is by bubble net feeding. It’s rare to witness, but a bubble net is a pretty sophisticated way to catch fish. It reminds me of the trawling we do each night from NOAA Ship Reuban Lasker except in this case the whales use a circular pattern of bubbles to corral a bunch of fish into one area… then they thrust forward aggressively, quickly, to scoop up the masses. We use a trawl net to corral the little critters into a codend instead of swallowing them whole.

bubble net
Photo of Humpback Whale Using Bubble Net to Catch Anchovies.
Photo by LT Dave Wang, taken earlier this year
krill in a jar
Quart Jar Filled with Krill Collected in a Bongo Tow

Baleen whales, like the Humpback, have a unique mouth that is hard to explain. If you can visualize a pelican’s beak, it looks a bit like that from the outside. These whales gulp a whole mouthful of water – including zooplankton, krill, and small fish – into their mouths, but they don’t swallow it down outright and they don’t exactly chew their food either. With all that saltwater and prey in their mouths, they use long rows of baleen attached to their upper jaw like a fine-toothed comb. And just like we would use a cheesecloth to strain the moisture off of runny yogurt, Humpback Whales filter the water out of their mouths through the baleen and keep the fishy goodness for themselves.


TEACHING CONNECTIONS


Watching the whales all day kept drumming up images in my mind from when I read Grayson by Lynne Cox. I wrote a review of Grayson in July 2014 on the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) blog. This book, by far, is one of my favorite recommendations to read aloud to students.

If you’re not an English teacher, you probably didn’t spend a lot of late nights in college reading novels to cram for a test. It wasn’t part of your major. But you’re missing out! There are so many ways to use novels and literary nonfiction across the content areas.  Grayson, for example, is artfully written. In the book review I wrote it tells Lynne’s “account of meeting a baby whale in the ocean during one of her early morning training swims. This lonely whale, separated from its mother, stays close to Lynne in the water while fishermen search for the mother.  This true yet almost unbelievable story is hauntingly beautiful.”

Taking 15 minutes of class time to read an excerpt from this book aloud could enrich any classroom. There are many instances when she writes about wanting to give up and swim back to shore. The baby whale is ultimately not her responsibility. It was very cold. She’d been out there in the ocean for hours with nothing but her own strength and experience to keep her afloat. She hadn’t eaten all day. But she stayed with the baby whale. She resolved to see it through to the very end. Any teacher can use her stick-with-it attitude as an example to encourage students to work through academic challenges.

One of my friends, blogger Allyn Bacchus, is a middle school social studies teacher. He uses historical fiction in his class every year. He writes, “My 8th grade U.S. History class covers a unit on Industry and Urban Growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  I have supplemented our unit with the historical fiction novel Uprising written by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  It covers the story of 3 teenage girls and their involvement in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911.  The author brings to life the living, working, and social conditions of the time period and allows my students to experience this unit through the eyes of girls who are living in it.”

Through the eyes of girls who are living in it.  This is something a textbook cannot do.

No one knows your discipline, your students, and your intended classroom environment better than you. Take an hour to fall down the Amazon rabbit hole! Search for a topic you find interesting and relevant to your curriculum, read the book review, click on the comparable book recommendations… you get the point.  Most of the time you can find a book preview to check out the text before purchasing – is the font too small? Too complicated? Too boring? Choose a short excerpt from a text you like for your first attempt at using literature in the classroom and build from there.


TEACHING RESOURCES


Since we’re talking about literature today, I’ll narrate the resource list.

  • We can search online for other educators who have already blazed the trail for us. Here is a blog post written by Terry McGlynn titled Assigning Literature in a Science Class.  The post itself is well written, and if you take the time to read through 54 comments below it, you will find lots of other text recommendations for a science classroom.  This article written by Kara Newhouse titled How Reading Novels in Math Class Can Strengthen Student Engagement shows why two math teachers read books in their high school classrooms. One of those teachers, Joel Bezaire, wrote a blog post with suggestions for other novel studies in math class. The other teacher, Sam Shah, shares a student example to explain how powerful it can be to use literature in a math class. It gets students to understand abstract and often elusive mathematical concepts.
  • I’ve written four nonfiction book reviews to accompany this NOAA Teacher at Sea experience and PCTELA is posting one review each week in July to the new media platform on their website. If not Grayson, then maybe you’ll find useful one of the books I read and reviewed to prepare for this trip. They include Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
  • And finally, I would be remiss to end this post without steering you toward The Perfect Storm written by Sebastian Junger about a small fishing vessel and crew caught in an Atlantic storm and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick – a captivating true story about the whaling industry which is thought to be the inspiration for Moby Dick.

Terry Maxwell: Scallop Pails and Humpback Whales, June 7, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Terry Maxwell

Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp

June 6 – 21, 2017

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: June 7, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 41 30.90 N
Longitude: 69 18.76 W
Air Temp 14.1° Celsius ( 57.3° Fahrenheit)
Wind speed 4.7 Knots (5.4 mph)

Science and Technology Log

Due to the poor weather delay on the 6th, June 7th was our first day out for the crew I am working with. Our ship is divided into two crews so we can work our operations around the clock.  The crew I am working with works from noon to midnight, while the other crew works midnight to noon.  On the 7th, were able to drop the dredge and attempt to collect scallops to assess the health, size, and population of those organisms.

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Sometimes the dredge brings up more than scallops!  This goosefish uses it’s illicium which act like fishing lures to attract fish close enough to be gulped by its large mouth.

We work those hours mainly using the collection process of dredging the ocean floor for scallops, but along the way, several other bottom dwelling ocean creatures are caught in the dredge.

A crane operator with the help of two deck workers lowers the dredge into the water.  Once the dredge is in place to go into the water the crane operator releases cable until the dredge reaches the ocean floor.  Depth readouts are calculated beforehand to determine how deep the dredge will need to drop.  With this information the dredge cable is let out at a 3.5:1 ratio, meaning for every meter of ocean depth we are in, 3.5 meter of cable is let out.  With this ratio the dredge is dropped with an angle that keeps it flat to the ocean floor.  The crane operator is also reading a line tension readout in the crane booth to determine when the dredge has hit the ocean floor.  We are typically in 200–350 ft of water when these dredges occur.  The dredge travels behind the boat for 15 minutes, and is then pulled in.

On the dredge is a sensor called the “Star-Oddi.” This sensor detects the pitch and roll to make sure it was lying flat on the bottom of the ocean.  The Star-Oddi also collects temperature and depth information as the dredge is traveling.  The sensor is taken out of the dredge once it is brought up so watch-chief can see if the dredge was functioning properly throughout the tow.

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University of Maine student Dylan Benoit is taking out the Star-Oddi after a dredge.

Once the dredge is hauled up, it is dumped onto a large metal table that the science crew stands around.  Two of the Hugh R Sharp’s vessel technicians then scoop the collected haul to an awaiting science crew.

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The dredge is unloaded with a good haul of scallops.

The science crew will then divide the haul into several different collection pails.  The main objective of this crew is to collect scallops.  Scallops collected are organized into different sizes.  Fish are also collected and organized by a NOAA scientist who can properly identify the fish.  At some of the dredge stations we collect numbers of crabs, waved whelks, and sea stars as well.

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This dredge was especially sandy.  In a typical day we reach around 6-8 dredge stations during our twelve hour shift.  Here I am sorting through the sand looking for scallops, fish, crabs, and wave whelks.

Once the haul is collected and sorted, our science team takes the haul into a lab station area.  In the lab, several pieces of data are collected.  If we are at a station where crabs and whelks are collected, then the number of those are recorded as well.  Fish taken from the dredge are sorted by species, some species are weighed and measured for length. Some of the species of fish are measured and some are counted by NOAA scientists.

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In the dry lab the midnight to noon science crew takes measurements and records data.

 

Also in this lab station, all of the collected scallops are measured for their shell height.  A small sample of scallops are shucked (opened) to expose the meat and gonads, which are individually weighed and recorded.  Once opened we also identify if a scallop is diseased, specifically looking for shell blisters, nematodes, Orange-nodules, or gray meats.

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Scallop disease guide posted in the dry lab.

Also at this station, the gender of the scallop is identified.  You can identify the gender by the color of the gonad.  Males have a white gonad, while a female’s looks red or pink. Finally at this station, commensal organisms are checked for.  A common relationship we have seen during this trip is that of the scallop and red hake.  The red hake is a small fish that is believed to use the scallop shell as shelter while it is young.  As they get older, red hake have been identified to be in the depression around the scallop, still trying to use the scallop for shelter, even though it can no longer fit inside.

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A shucked clam that had a red hake living inside of it when it was collected in the dredge.


After that has happened the shells are cleaned and given an ID number.  These scallop shells are bagged up, to be further examined in NOAA labs by a scientist that specializes in scallop aging.

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These scallops have been shucked, and now their shells will be researched by a scallop aging expert at NOAA.  My job is to be the recorder for the cutter.  I do the final cleaning on the scallop shells, tag them, and bag them.

If you’d like to know how this process works, watch the video below.   The watch-chief, Nicole Charriere, of the science crew members I work with, explains the process in this short clip.

 

Transcript:

(0:00) Nichole Charriere. I’m the watch chief on the day watch, so working with Terry. I’ve been working at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center for about 6 ½ years. When we’re out here on deck, basically, we put a small sensor on the dredge that helps monitor the pitch, the roll, and kind of whether the dredge is fishing right side up or upside down. And we offload that sensor after every tow, put a new one on, and that sensor will tell us basically how that dredge is fishing, because we always want the dredge to be in contact with the bottom, fishing for the entire 15 minutes if we can.

(0:45) The dredge is deployed 15 minutes for the bottom and then it comes back up and then the catch is dumped on the table. Then depending on how far away the next station is, sometimes we take out crabs and whelks, and we account for the amount of starfish that are in each tow because those are predators of scallops. So we want to make sure that we’re kind of tracking the amount of predation that’s in the area. And you usually find if you have sometimes a lot of starfish, a lot of crabs of certain sizes, you’ll find less starfish. I mean you’ll find less scallops. 

(1:22) After the entire catch is sorted, we’re bringing it to the lab. We have scallops, we have scallops “clappers,” which are dead scallops that still have the hinge attached, and that’s important for us because we can track mortality. Once the hinge kind of goes away, the shell halves separate. Can’t really tell how recently it’s died. But while that hinge is intact, you can tell it’s basically dead recently. So you kind of get a decent idea of scallop mortality in that area like that.

(1:52) Scallop, scallop clappers, we kind of count fish, we kind of measure usually commercially important ones as well. Then we take scallop meat weights, so we open up the scallop– Terry’s been doing a lot of that too– open up the scallop, we kind of blot the meat weight so it’s like a dry meat weight, and we measure, we weigh the gonad as well, and that kind of tracks the health of the scallop.

(2:21) And then the rest of us are doing lengths of the scallop, and that’s so that we get a length frequency of the scallops that are in the area. Usually we’re looking for about… if you look at the graph it’s like a bell curve, so you kind of get an average, and then you get a few smaller scallops and a few larger scallops. And that’s pretty much it. We’re taking length frequencies and we’re looking at the health of the scallops. 

 

Personal Log

From the time I woke up on Tuesday till about the time I went to bed that night, sea-sickness was getting the best of me.  I listened to the advice of the experienced sailors on board, and kept working through the sickness.  Even though I felt sick most of the day, and I just wanted the day to end at that point.  However, I was rewarded by sticking it out, and not going to my room to lay down, by one of the most incredible sites I’ve ever seen.  From about 4pm til about 8pm, many humpback whales were all around our boat.  We had a little down time waiting to get to the next dredge spot, so I was watching the horizon just trying to get my sea-sickness in check.  As I was sitting by the side of the boat, I saw a whale towards the bow of the ship.  I got out my camera and was in the right place at the right time to get a video of it.   It was one of the most amazing sites I’ve ever seen.

 

Video of a humpback whale diving near R/V Hugh R. Sharp

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Fluke of a humpback whale diving next to R/V Hugh R. Sharp

Did You Know?

The typical bleached white sand dollars that most people are accustomed to seeing as decorations are not the actual look of living sand dollars.  In one of our dredge catches, we collected thousands of sand dollars, and only a couple were bleach white in color.   Sand dollars are part of the echinoderm family.  They move around on the ocean floor, and bury themselves in the sand.  The sand dollars use the hairs (cillia) on their body to catch plankton and move it towards their mouth.  The bleached white sand dollars that most people think of when they think of a sand dollar is just their exoskeleton remains.

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Sand dollars brought up in the dredge

 

Kelly Dilliard: Day 1 and 2, May 17, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship
 Gordon Gunter
May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 17, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Pressure:  1018.34 millibars
Air Temperature: 11.3 degrees C
Wet Bulb Temperature: 11.0 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 97%
Wind Speed: 10.4 knots
Wind Direction: 33. 69 degrees

Science and Technology Log

The Right Whale cruise that I am on has several objectives.  The main objective is to collect photo identification and biopsy samples of baleen whales, specifically Right Whales and Sei Whales, and apply dermal tags to the whales via small boats (RHIB = Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) launched from the stern on the Gordon Gunter.

Once the targeted whales are tagged, a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) will conduct oceanography sampling around the tagged whales using a CTD (which measures conductivity, temperature, and depth).  The CTD will be deployed every 20 minutes for as long as the tag stays on the whale and will collect vertical profile data including conductivity, temperature, depth, and information about zooplankton using a video plankton recorder (VPR) and an optical plankton counter (OPC).

Zooplankton will also be sampled via ring nets off the ship or the small boats.  Another objective is to do visual scans and report observations from the observation deck via large binoculars referred to as “big eyes”.  These observations will be tied into acoustical data being collected by two autonomous vehicles, referred to as gliders, which are surveying the Great South Channel, and sonabouys that can be deployed from the ship or small boats.  The gliders can detect and classify the calls of various baleen whales almost in real time.  Today let’s talk about identification of various marine mammals that we have seen and might see on this cruise.  In future blogs we will look into the acoustics of marine mammals and zoo plankton.

Every day there is a watch schedule with three scientists on watch at once, unless there is fog, and then there is only one monitoring the weather.  These scientists stand above the bridge with two big eyes, one on the port side (left) and one on the starboard side (right).  The third scientist is stationed at the computer inputting sightings.

Via the big eyes, you can record the bearing of the sighting, somewhere between 270 and 90 degrees, and the distance of the sighting, in reticles.  The binoculars are at 25 power, that is an object looks 25 times larger than seen with the naked eye.  The scientists are on the half hour rotation between the three stations, starting with the port side, then the computer, then starboard side.  Watch starts at 6 am and ends at 8 pm (or until it gets dark).  Data collected for a sighting includes the type of animal (right whale, sei whale, minke whale, unidentified dolphin, unidentified whale, etc…), number seen, number of calves, swim direction, certainty of identification, and what was the indicator (blow, breach, body…).  So in order to help out with watch, one needs to learn how to recognize the different species that one might see.

Me standing at the big eyes scope on watch.  (photo taken by Divya )

Me standing at the big eyes scope on watch. (photo taken by Divya Panicker)

The target species of the cruise are North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), which are an endangered species and are protected under both the U.S Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Right whales are identified by: their “V” shaped blow, a large head with an arched jaw, black and white patterns on the head (callosities are the white), and no dorsal fin or hump.

North Atlantic Right Whale drawing. Note the curved jaw and the white callosities. (image from Duke University – OBIS Seamap)

Another targeted species are sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), which are another endangered species.  Sei whales are large whales reaching almost 19.5 meters (64 feet) long.  Sei whales are identified by: their pointed head with one ridge, a tall dorsal fin, and seeing the blow and the dorsal fin at the same time.

Sei whale drawing (from BBC news).

Other whales include humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales.  Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are identified by: knobs on their head, white or black undersides (ventral), a low dorsal fin with a broad base that can have distinct nicks or scarring, an S-shaped fluke with a distinct notch, and unique white or black coloring on the ventral side of their fluke.  Humpback whales also tend to breach (come up out of the water) and flap their tails and flippers.  Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are commonly mistaken for Sei Whales and vice versa.

Luckily the data collected usually groups the two whales, fin/sei.  Fin whales have a dorsal fin that sits far back, like a sei whale.  They have a lower, white right jaw and a chevron pattern behind their blowhole.  Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) have a pointed head with a ridge, they are small in size, and have a pointed fluke.  Their blow is not usually seen.  Other marine mammals that can be seen include dolphins (various species) and seals.

Humback whale

Drawing of a humpback whale courtesy of NOAA Fisheries: West Coast Region.

Fin whale drawing. (Image from University of California – San Diego)

Minke whale drawing. (image from NOAA PMEL Acoustics Program)

Personal Log

Today is day three on the ship.  We set sail from Newport, RI on Friday at 5 pm and headed towards the Great South Channel, which is located to the southeast of Cape Cod between the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank.  Both the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank are remnants of past glaciations and have been subsequently modified by marine transport.  The Great South Channel provides a link between the Gulf of Maine and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and is funnel-shaped with a wider and deeper end toward the north and the Gulf of Maine.  Water flowing in the channel results in the upwelling of nutrients and zooplankton that whales, especially right whales, like to feed on.  The autonomous acoustic gliders picked up signals of whales in the area so we headed towards those waypoints.

Map of Great South Channel

Bathymetric map showing the location of the Great South Channel with reference to the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank. The ship path is shown in red (map is from Saturday, May 16th).

We had a beautiful day on Saturday, May 16th.  We woke up to glassy water and blue skies.  The watch started around lunchtime and we had an active day of spotting whales and other marine animals.  We saw humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales and sei whales.  We also saw lots of dolphins playing, a seal or two and some basking sharks.  Towards the later afternoon/early evening we came across a group of sei whales and we stopped the ship to observe.  A sonabouy was deployed in the midst of the whales.  It was a fun experience watching these whales swim around the sonabouy for hours (marked by a small orange blow-up float).  Last light, three of the scientists saw two right whales, recognized by their distinct V-shaped blow.

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Sei whales swimming around the orange float of the deployed sonabuoy.  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number 17355.)

In the middle of the afternoon we performed the safety drills, including mustering on the correct deck with our life jacket and immersion suit, also known as the “gumby suit”.  We then went back to our rooms and had to put on our “gumby suit” in under a minute, without assistance.  This is not an easy feat and after doing it once with a large size (which was way to big for me), I had to do it again with a small size.

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Me in a “gumby suit”. (Photo taken by Suzanne Yin)

Sunday, May 17th, we woke to the ships’ foghorn.  We had fog for most of the morning and off and on during the day.  When fog occurs the person who would normally be on the computer (the center) is stationed up on the bridge observing the weather.  I was a bit intimidated about going on the bridge, but once there had some wonderful conversations with the Captain and several of the crew.  I ended up spending an hour and half up there (well past my shift).  Today was not as active with whales, but we saw several dolphins playing off the bow of the ship.

Whale #1

Whale #1  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Whale #2

Whale #2  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Whale #3

Whale #3 (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Britta Culbertson: The Beat of the Bongo (Part 2) – Catching Zooplankton, September 12, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Britta Culbertson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
September 4-19, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Walley Pollock and Forage Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Wednesday, September 12th, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge (for Sept 12th, 2013 at 9:57 PM UTC):
Wind Speed: 23.05 kts
Air Temperature: 11.10 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 93%
Barometric Pressure: 1012.30 mb
Latitude: 58.73 N              Longitude: 151.13 W

Science and Technology Log

Humpback Whale

A humpback whale. (Photo credit: NOAA)

We have been seeing a lot of humpback whales lately on the cruise.  Humpback whales can weigh anywhere from 25-40 tons, are up to 60 feet in length, and consume tiny crustaceans, plankton, and small fish.  They can consume up to 3,000 pounds of these tiny creatures per day (Source: NOAA Fisheries).  Humpback whales are filter feeders and they filter these small organisms through baleen.  Baleen is made out of hard, flexible material and is rooted in the whale’s upper jaw.  The baleen is like a comb and allows the whale to filter plankton and small fish out of the water.

Baleen

This whale baleen is used for filter feeding. It’s like a small comb and helps to filter zooplankton out of the water. (Photo credit: NOAA)

I’ve always wondered how whales can eat that much plankton! Three thousand pounds is a lot of plankton.  I guess I felt that way because I had never seen plankton in real-life and I didn’t have a concept of how abundant plankton is in the ocean. Now that I’m exposed to zooplankton every day, I’m beginning to get a sense of the diversity and abundance of zooplantkon.

In my last blog entry I explained how we use the bongo nets to capture zooplankton.  In this entry, I’ll describe some of the species that we find when clean out the codends of the net.  As you will see, there are a wide variety of zooplankton and though the actual abundance of zooplankton will not be measured until later, it is interesting to see how much we capture with nets that have 20 cm and 60 cm mouths and are towed for only 5-10 minutes at each location.  Whales have much larger mouths and feed for much longer than 10 minutes a day!

Cleaning the codends is fairly simple; we spray them down with a saltwater hose in the wet lab and dump the contents through a sieve with the same mesh size as the bongo net where the codend was attached.  The only time that this proves challenging is if there is a lot of algae, which clogs up the mesh and makes it hard to rinse the sample.  Also, the crab larvae that we find tend to hook their little legs into the sieve and resist being washed out.  Below are two images of 500 micrometer sieves with zooplankton in them.

Zooplankton

A mix of zooplankton that we emptied out of the codend from the bongo.

Crab larvae

Crab larvae (megalopae) that we emptied out of the codend.

Some of the species of zooplankton we are finding include different types of:

  • Megalopae (crab larvae)
  • Amphipods
  • Euphausiid (krill)
  • Chaetognaths
  • Pteropods (shelled: Limasina and shell-less: Clione)
  • Copepods (Calanus spp., Neocalanus spp., and Metridea spp.)
  • Larval fish
  • Jellyfish
  • Ctenophores

The other day we had a sieve full of ctenophores, which are sometimes known as comb jellies because they possess rows of cilia down their sides.  The cilia are used to propel the ctenophores through the water.  Some ctenophores are bioluminescent.  Ctenophores are voracious predators, but lack stinging cells like jellyfish and corals. Instead they possess sticky cells that they use to trap predators (Source:  UC Berkeley).  Below is a picture of our 500 micrometer sieve full of ctenophores and below that is a close-up photo of a ctenophore.

Ctenophores

A sieve full of ctenophores or comb jellies.

Ctenophore

A type of ctenophore found in arctic waters. (Photo credit: Kevin Raskoff, MBARI, NOAA/OER)

It’s fun to compare what we find in the bongo nets to the type of organisms we find in the trawl at the same station.  We were curious about what some of the fish we were eating, so we dissected two of the Silver Salmon that we had found and in one of them, the stomach contents were entirely crab larvae! In another salmon that we dissected from a later haul, the stomach contents included a whole capelin fish.

Juvenile pollock are indiscriminate zooplanktivores.  That means that they will eat anything, but they prefer copepods and euphausiids, which have a high lipid (fat) content. Once the pollock get to be about 100 mm or greater in size, they switch from being zooplanktivores to being piscivorous. Piscivorous means “fish eater.”  I was surprised to hear that pollock sometimes eat each other.  Older pollock still eat zooplankton, but they are cannibalistic as well. Age one pollock will eat age zero pollock (those that haven’t had a first birthday yet), but the bigger threat to age zero pollock is the 2 year old and older cohorts of pollock.  Age zeros will eat small pollock larvae if they can find them.  Age zero pollock are also food for adult Pacific Cod and adult Arrowtooth Flounder.  Older pollock, Pacific Cod, and Arrowtooth Flounder are the most voracious predators of age 0 pollock.  Recently, in the Gulf of Alaska, Arrowtooth Flounder have increased in biomass (amount of biological material) and this has put a lot of pressure on the pollock population. Scientists are not yet sure why the biomass of Arrowtooth Flounder is increasing. (Source: Janet Duffy-Anderson – Chief Scientist aboard the Dyson and Alaska Fisheries Science Center).

The magnified images below, which I found online, are the same or similar to some of the species of zooplankton we have been catching in our bongo nets.  Click on the images for more details.

Personal Log (morning of September 14, 2013)

I’m thankful that last night we had calm seas and I was able to get a full eight hours of sleep without feeling like I was going to be thrown from my bed.  This morning we are headed toward the Kenai Peninsula, so I’m excited that we might get to see some amazing views of the Alaskan landscape.  The weather looks like it will improve and the winds have died down to about 14 knots this morning.  Last night’s shift caught an octopus in their trawl net; so hopefully, we will find something more interesting than just kelp and jellyfish in our trawls today.

Did You Know?

I mentioned that we had found some different types of pteropods in our bongo nets.  Pteropods are a main food source for North Pacific juvenile salmon and are eaten by many marine organisms from krill to whales.  There are two main varieties of pteropods; there are those with shells and those without.  Pteropods are sometimes called sea butterflies.

Pteropod

A close-up of Limacina helicina, a shelled pteropod or sea butterfly. (Photo credit: Russ Hopcroft/University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

Unfortunately, shelled pteropods are very susceptible to ocean acidification.  Scientists conducted an experiment in which they placed shelled pteropods in seawater with pH and carbonate levels that are projected for the year 2100.  In the image below, you can see that the shell dissolved slowly after 45 days.  If pteropods are at the bottom of the food chain, think of the implications of the loss of pteropods for the organisms that eat them!

Pteropods

Shelled pteropods after being exposed to sea water that has the anticipated carbonate and pH levels for the year 2100. Notice the degradation of the shell after 45 days. (Photo credit: David Liittschwager/National Geographic Stock)

Read more about ocean acidification on the NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) website. Also, check out this press release from November 2012 by the British Antarctic Survey about the first evidence of ocean acidification affecting marine life in the Southern Ocean.

Teacher’s Corner

In my last blog entry on the bongo, I talked about using the “frying pan” or clinometer to measure wire angle.  If you’re interested in other applications of clinometers, there are instructions for making homemade clinometers here and there’s also a lesson plan from National Ocean Services Education about geographic positioning and the use of clinometers this website.

If you are interested in teaching your students about different types of plankton, here is a Plankton Wars lesson plan from NOAA and the Southeast Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, which helps students to understand how plankton stay afloat and how surface area plays a role in plankton survival.

If you would like to show your students time series visualizations of phytoplankton and zooplankton, go to NOAA’s COPEPODite website.

Zooplankton time series

Zooplankton time series visualization from the COPEPODite website.

For more plankton visualizations and data, check out NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service website.

If you are interested in having your students learn more about ocean acidification, there is a great ocean acidification module developed for the NOAA Ocean Data Education Project on the Data in the Classroom website.

Talia Romito: Second Day at Sea, July 25, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Talia Romito
Onboard R/V Fulmar
July 24– July 29, 2012

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries
Date: July 25, 2012

Location Data:
Latitude: 37 53.55 W
Longitude: 123 5.7 N

Weather Data From Bridge:
Air Temperature 12.2 C (54 F)
Wind Speed 15 knots/ 17 mph
Wind Direction: From the South West
Surface Water Temperature: 13 C (55.4 F)

Science and Technology Log

Wednesday July 25, 2012

Up Early!

I woke up at 6 AM to the sounds of the people scurrying around to get ready for departure.  The Captain, Erik, and Mate, Dave were preparing the boat while the rest of us were getting breakfast and loading gear.  We welcomed four people onto the boat to complete the team for the day.

Me on the left in my Rubber Fashion Statement

Me on the left in my Rubber Fashion Statement

Today we are completing both the Offshore and Nearshore Line 6 transects.  It is going to be a long day for me with eight stations along the transect for deploying different instruments for gathering data.  I’ll tell you more about that a little later.  The scientists and crew decided to start at the West end of Offshore Line 6.  It took about two hours to get out there so while the crew was in the Wheelhouse the rest of us were able to settle in for little cat naps.  It felt so good to be able to get a little more sleep before the work began.

Gear Up and Get to Work!

With ten minutes until “go” time, the team started to get ready for the long day ahead.  Everyone had on many layers of clothes with a protective waterproof outer layer.  I put on my black rubber boots, yellow rubber overalls, and bright orange float coat (jacket with built-in floatation).  I looked like a bumble bee who ran into an orange flower.  It was definitely one of my better fashion statements.  I think everyone should wear rubber clothes in bright colors, just kidding :P.

Conductivity - Temperature - Depth CTD

Conductivity – Temperature – Depth – CTD

The boat stopped and then Kaitlin and I got to work on the back deck.  At each station we deployed at least two pieces of equipment.  The first is the CTD which means Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth.  This machine is so cool. It gathers information about a bunch of different things.  It has four different types of sensors.  They include percentage of dissolved oxygen, turbidity (amount of particulates in the water), fluorometer for chlorophyll A (the intensity and wavelength of a certain spectrum of light), and a conductivity/ temperature meter in order to calculate salinity.

The second piece of equipment is the Hoop Net.  The name is pretty intuitive, but I’ll describe it to you anyway.  There is a large steel hoop that is 1 meter in diameter on one end.  The net connects to it and gradually gets smaller to the cod end at the collection bucket which is 4.5 centimeters in diameter.

Hoop Net on the winch

Hoop Net

The net is 3.5 meters long from hoop to where it connects to the collection bucket and the mesh is 333 microns.  The bucket has screens that allows water and phytoplankton to escape.  The purpose of the hoop is to collect zooplankton.  The samples we collect to go the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Canada to be processed after the cruise is over.

The third piece of equipment is the Tucker Trawl.  We deploy it once each day near the Shelf Break in order to collect krill.  This net is huge and heavy.  This net allows the scientists to get samples at different depths within the water column.  The Tucker Trawl has three separate nets; top, middle, and bottom.  They deploy it with the bottom net open and then close the bottom and open the middle and top nets in order as the net raises.  They let out  400 meters of cable in order to be at a depth of 200 meters below the surface to start and raise the net from there stopping twice to open the next two nets.  The scientists watch the eco-sounder (sophisticated fish finder) and determine at what depth they would like to open the next two nets.  Please watch the video to get a clear picture of what is going on and how awesome it is.

The Funny Part!

Blow out Pants

Blow out Pants

Ok so working on the back deck has a  lot of ups and downs literally.  When Kaitlin and I are deploying or recovering the CTD and Hoop Net we are bending, stretching, working on our knees and more.  The first time I bent over to rinse down the hoop net I accidentally dropped the spray nozzle and it locked in the open position; I was sprayed with a steady stream of seawater right in the face until Kaitlin was able to turn in off.  It was definitely a cold welcome to work on the boat.  Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you we use seawater on the back deck for rinsing nets, etc.  There is a freshwater hose, but that is mainly used to clean the boat after each cruise.  The second time I got on my knees to collect a specimen from the Hoop Net I had a blow out!  My rubber pants split right down the middle.  So much for being prepared.  The Mate Dave was nice enough to let me borrow his rubber pants for the remainder of the trip.  Thanks Dave – you’re a life saver.

Camaraderie and Practical Jokers!

In between the stations and observing we all like to have a good time.  We always snack in between.  If someone gets something out then we all help ourselves to some of theirs or our own concoction.  We’re eating pretzels, chips and salsa, carrots and humus, pea pods, dried apple chips and more.

Fishing Lure

Fishing Lure

Erik had been planning to punk the scientists during this trip.  He bought a blue glittery fishing lure that looks like a centipede and waited for the most opportune moment to pull his prank.  While the scientists were getting the Tucker Trawl ready he tossed the lure into one of the nets so that it would come up with the sample.  When we pulled up the net Kaitlin and I saw it in the collection bucket and were very curious about what it was.  We called Jamie over and after a few moments realized it was a lure and looked up to see Erik and Dave laughing hysterically at us.  It was a good time all around.  At the same time the observers where coming down from the Flybridge and Jamie was able to continue the prank for at least fifteen minutes.  We all had a good laugh when the second group realized it was a lure too.

View from the Boat!

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross

This is one of the best parts of the day!  I saw so many different animals from the boat during the day.  Here are just a few of the highlights.  A mother whale and calf pair were breaching multiple times.  Another Humpback Whale was tail slapping at least 12 times that I counted.  We saw Blue Whales too.  The seabirds were around as well.  The most common were Sooty Shearwaters, Common Murres, Pomarine Jaegers, and Black Footed Albatrosses.  All of these birds are amazing.  If you see a Common Murre adult and chick; the adult is the dad he’s the one that raises the chick.  The Jaeger has a special kind of scavenging style called Cleptoparasitism (stealing food from other birds).  I saw one chasing another bird till it dropped its food in mid-air and the Jaeger caught the fish before it hit the water.  Pretty cool right?!

On the way back to Sausalito we went right under the Golden Gate Bridge.  The weather was perfect.  The sun was setting with puffy clouds in a baby blue sky.  As my eyes drifted down towards San Francisco I was mesmerized by the view.  I could see the entire Bay.  The buildings reflected the golden glow of the sunset perfectly.  There wasn’t a whisper of fog on the water; I could see Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, and The Bay Bridge.

Alexandra Keenan: Singing Whales, June 23, 2012

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

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 23, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air temperature: 14.4° C
Sea temperature: 13.3° C
Wind speed: 10.5 knots
Wind direction: from the SW

Science and Technology Log:

Whales are social creatures with a remarkable ability to communicate with one another over long distances using sounds. Male humpback whales, for example, can sing for days on end over mating grounds to attract the ladies, or over feeding grounds such as the ones on Georges Bank (where we are!) The acoustic behavior of sperm whales may even provide for distinct cultures within the species.

Listen: Song of a humpback whale (courtesy Denise Risch)

Given these vocalizations, it is possible to monitor the distribution and behavior of acoustically active marine animals using special recording units called “marine autonomous recording units” (MARUs). For the past few days, we have been zig-zagging and loopty-looping around Georges Bank to retrieve several of these MARUs (track our ship’s course here).

MARUs are little buoys designed to sit on the ocean floor and record all sounds within a certain range of frequencies. The MARUs we retrieved during this cruise have been on Georges Bank since the March cruise on the Delaware II (see Chief Scientist Allison Henry’s blog post).

To retrieve a buoy:

1. An acoustic signal (a sound) is sent out from a speaker lowered into the water that basically says to the buoy, “Hello! Are you there?” Listen: Signal used to contact buoy

pop-up buoy retrieval

Bioacoustician Denise Risch sends a signal to the MARU.

2. The buoy can then respond with another acoustic signal, “Yup!”

listening for the pop-up buoy

Research analyst Genevieve Davis and intern Julia Luthringer listen for a response from the MARU.

3. Upon hearing confirmation that the buoy is indeed in the area, the bioacoustician can send another signal to the buoy telling it to burn the wire anchoring it to the sandbags on the ocean floor.

4. The buoy is free! It floats to the sea surface and is retrieved from the side of the ship.

Denise Risch, Genevieve Davis, and Julia Luthringer wait for the ship to approach the MARU (small yellow dot in ocean).

5. Data is retrieved from flash memory on the buoy for further analysis.

MARU

MARU ready for data retrieval.

What will these MARUs be able to tell bioacousticians (scientists that study sounds produced by living organisms)?

Lots!  Using passive acoustic monitoring (recording the sounds that marine mammals make), scientists can study the distribution of acoustically active mammals and can couple distribution data with environmental measurements of the area to identify relationships between conditions on the ocean and acoustic activity. Scientists can also distinguish whale species based on their sounds, so certain species of whale can be monitored.

Physics break: Why do you think whales have evolved to use sound rather than sight or smell to communicate underwater?

Personal Log:

I have been amazed by the amount of maintenance being done while we are underway. Even with a relatively new ship like the Bigelow, there is always something to be done, whether it be grinding away at the deck for subsequent repainting or fixing a malfunctioning pump.

Maintenance on the Bigelow

Deck crew member Tony repaints the deck after grinding off the old paint while we are underway.

We spend most of our days out on the fly bridge watching for whales, and mostly we see whales.

whale watching

Equipment used for watching for whales from the flybridge.

However, once in a while a shark, turtle, or mola mola floats by. I really get a kick out of the mola molas. They look like they could be the subject of a Pokemon trading card– a big flat fish head with fins sticking out. They eat jelly fish and have few natural predators. Adults weigh an average of 2200 lbs!

mola mola

The other-worldly mola mola.

A short video of one in action below:

Finally, I wanted to introduce everyone on the science team for this cruise:

aglow following a blue whale sighting

From left to right: Me, Scientist Pete Duley, Bioacoustician Denise Risch, Chief Scientist Allison Henry, Scientist Jen Gatzke, Research Analyst Genevieve Davis, and Intern Julia Luthringer (photo courtesy CO Zegowitz)

Alexandra Keenan: Watching for Whales, June 21, 2012

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

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 21, 2012

Weather data from the bridge:
Air temperature: 15.84° C
Wind speed: 7.42 knots
Wind direction: coming from N
Relative Humidity 94.9%

Science and Technology Log:

We departed from Naval Station Newport (NAVSTA) shortly after 2:00 pm on June 18th. During our first three full days at sea, we have been intermittently retrieving marine acoustic recording units (MARUs–more on this later) and recording whale sightings on Georges Bank.

Georges Bank is an elevated area of sea floor extending from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia. This special place is a feeding ground for cetaceans because the topography and position of the bank result in an upwelling of nutrient-rich water which supports a high level of productivity.

Our day begins at 7:30 am when we begin watch sessions.  Every hour and a half, we rotate through three stations. Scientists at two stations use high-power binoculars, dubbed “big eyes,” while a scientist at another station records sightings.

sighting data entry

Peter Duley enters data from a sighting on the fly bridge.

big eyes

Me on the “big eyes” scanning for whales.

The following information is recorded for each sighting:

  • species
  • position of animal relative to the ship
  • distance of animal from ship
  • number of animals in the group
  • calves (if present)
  • animal behavior (porpoising, swimming, breaching, etc.)
  • swim direction

Environmental conditions and ship position data are recorded concurrently. All of this data can then be used together to monitor certain species and to create statistical models of whale populations.

In this area, we expect to see humpback, sei, fin, pilot, and right whales. In order to distinguish species while on watch, we must take into account a few important characteristics:

Spout: The spout is a column of moist air emitted from the whale’s nostril (blowhole) on its back as it exhales. Right whales and humpbacks have short, bushy spouts, while fin and sei whales have tall, columnar spouts. If the wind is strong, it can be hard to distinguish them. Luckily, there are a couple of other ways to identify whales  from a distance.

Dorsal fin: This is the fin on the whale’s back behind the blowhole. Right whales do not have dorsal fins, and humpback whales have a bit of an extra “hump” on their dorsal fin. Fin and sei whales are slightly more tricky to distinguish. The best way to distinguish them is to recognize that the dorsal fin on a sei whale is taller than on a fin whale. There is also a white coloration pattern forward of the dorsal fin on a fin whale called a chevron. Sei whales do not have these. Fin whales also have white markings on their lower jaws, which sei whales do not have.

Fluke: The fluke is the whale’s “tail.” Humpbacks and right whales show their flukes more often than the others when they dive. Right whales have a very smooth black fluke, while humpback whales have more deeply notched flukes that can range in color from all white to all black.

So far on this cruise we have seen: humpback whales, pilot whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, sperm whales, common dolphins, white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, striped dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, mola-mola, and a Portuguese man o’ war.

No right whales yet, though tomorrow we plan to cross the Great South Channel in order to retrieve more MARUs, with a possibility of a sighting there. There was also an aerial survey over Georges Basin– the extreme northern edge of George’s Bank– today that reported 12 right whales. We hope to see plenty before the cruise is over, as right whales are the species targeted for biopsy and photo-identification on this mission.

Common Atlantic white sided dolphin

Dozens of common dolphins surrounded the ship on June 19th.

dolphins near ship

Dolphins playing around the ship.

Listening to dolphins

Genevieve Davis records dolphin whistles using the ship’s hydrophone as I listen on headphones.

From the starboard 01 weatherdecks (the decks on the right side of the boat when facing forward), I was able to hear the dolphins whistling to each other as they played around the ship on June 19th. Scientists Denise Risch and Genevieve Davis recorded their acoustics using a hydrophone mounted on the ship’s centerboard.

Personal Log:

Henry B. Bigelow

Galley stores are loaded on to Henry B. Bigelow just before departure.

Seeing the Bigelow from my cab as we drove onto the pier on June 17th was a bit of a shock for me. I didn’t realize quite how huge it was going to be. As I sauntered up the gangway with my backpack, I thought there was no way I could get seasick on a ship this big. My confidence grew as we left port on the 18th and I felt fine. By the end of the next day (our first full day at sea), though, I was looking for a rock to hide under. A stationary rock.

Happily, today felt great. I feel like my normal self again, have gotten into the swing of things aboard, and know my way around the ship. Everyone here has been exceptionally welcoming and nice which made the seasickness easy to forget. Tonight the ship had a summer solstice party on the flybridge. The weather was absolutely beautiful– complete with an orange sunset and glassy seas.

survival suit

Me in my survival suit during an abandon ship drill.

Overall, things are going great here. The ship is  comfortable, the food is delicious, and the whale sightings have been absolutely incredible. I could get used to this.

The video below is a short tour of my stateroom.

Happy sailing!