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: Tuesday August 8, 2023
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 27.428517 N
Longitude: -167.325400 W
Science and Technology Log
Scientific results reach the general public as a nice package of carefully curated nuggets designed to attract the average reader. It’s not unlike watching a production (movie, play, etc) in its final form. The audience is glamoured by the show or results; we aren’t usually privy to the behind-the-scenes efforts in putting together these massive operations. With this view, there is an illusion of perfection that can hide the true nature of knowledge production. This is often the case in a traditional mathematics classroom that utilizes lecture-based teaching; the instructor works out a problem beforehand and presents the solution to the students. The students do not witness the creative process of trial and error, idea generation, incubation, evaluation of each step, decision-making, or any possible collaboration involved. In brief, the beauty of doing science or math is largely hidden for the general public. I believe that the opportunity for growth lies in the process of discovery just as much as the discovery itself. My access to the data collection process of this project is one of the main reasons I am so thoroughly enjoying myself on this HICEAS (Hawaiian Islands Cetacean Ecosystem Assessment Survey) mission.
Today is our fifth day at sea. Every moment is invigorating. During our first two days underway, we searched for the elusive Cross Seamount beaked whales (BWC). These whales have been identified acoustically, but not visually or genetically. The acoustics team heard them throughout the night on our first night, and the visual team had a sighting of a suspicious unidentified beaked whale during the third day but we didn’t get close enough for any species or individual identification. There was a lot of excitement on the ship. To learn more about beaked whales check out my roommate and lead acoustician, Jennifer McCullough’s, newest paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/mms.13061
Though I missed it, there was an important bird sighting of the Hawaiian bird, the nēnē. This is a notable sighting because it was formerly endangered (now listed as threatened). After conservation efforts, the population increased from 30 in 1950 to 3,862 in 2022. To read more about the nēnē, visit: https://www.fws.gov/story/2022-12/plight-nene
The most exciting sightings for me were the rough-toothed dolphins and the bottlenose dolphins. They came by to ride the ship’s bow waves. It was utterly magical. In a conversation with Marine Mammal Observers Andrea Bendlin and Suzanne Yin, I learned a little bit about these two species that I’ll share here.
You might recognize the bottlenose dolphin from Flipper, a popular TV show from the 60s or the movie version in the 90s. You may have also seen these dolphins at the aquarium as they can survive in captivity better than other dolphin species. They are described as the golden retrievers of the ocean. In the wild, they are regularly observed hanging out with other species.
An interesting observation of an interaction between a mother humpback whale and a bottlenose dolphin was captured by scientists and written up in a paper. They hypothesize three reasons for this interaction 1) aggressive whale response towards the dolphin 2) epimeletic (altruistic behavior towards a sick or injured individual) whale response towards the dolphin 3) they were playing!
To read the paper check out: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228684912_Two_Unusual_Interactions_Between_a_Bottlenose_Dolphin_Tursiops_truncatus_and_a_Humpback_Whale_Megaptera_novaeangliae_in_Hawaiian_Waters
Rough-toothed dolphins are named for their rough teeth. They have a more reptilian sloped head. These animals communicate via whistles and clicks. Echolocation clicks are primarily used for sensing surroundings and searching for prey vs. communication. According to roomie and Lead Acoustician Jennifer McCullough, usually whistles look like a smooth increasing and then decreasing function, however, their whistles look like “steps” and are named stair step whistles (see the pictures below).
Rough-toothed dolphins can take a while to identify because their echolocation signals (clicks) are outside the general frequencies for dolphins (e.g. bottlenose, striped, spinner, spotted) and “blackfish” (e.g. killer whale, false killer whales, pygmy whales, melon-headed whales). Blackfish signals go from 15-25kHz, dolphins go from 30-50kHz, while rough-toothed dolphins bridge these two ranges at 20-35kHz. For reference, the frequency range of adult humans is 0.500 kHz and 2 kHz.
Rankin, S., Oswald, J., Simonis, A., & Barlow, J. (2015) Vocalizations of the rough-toothed dolphin, Steno bredanensis, in the Pacific Ocean. Marine Mammal Science. 31 (4), p. 1538-1648. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12226
As I mentioned earlier, the information I’m receiving about the animals are from the scientists on board. In this particular post, Marine Mammal Observers Andrea Bendlin and Suzanne Yin (who goes by Yin), and Lead Acoustician Jennifer McCullough gave me insight to the dolphins. I’d like to share some of their background to give students an idea of their career trajectories.
Andrea Bendlin double majored in zoology and psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a focus on animal behavior. For the first 4 years after college, she worked on several different field projects including, 4 winters of humpback whale research, one summer study on bottlenose dolphins, and several summers in Quebec studying large whales. Then she started working on boats doing snorkel trips and whale watches. I can attest to Andrea’s snorkeling expertise as I had my favorite snorkeling experience in Hawaii when I was following her around. She pointed out my favorite snorkeling sighting which was an egg sack of a Spanish dancer nudibranch! As you can see in the picture below, it looks like a ribbon wound around itself. For math folks, it is a hyperbolic surface! Since then, Andrea has collected data for many cruises with cetacean research programs.
Yin studied biology at Brown University. After school, she worked at Earth Watch, and also did field work on humpback whales, spinner dolphins, and bowhead whales. These projects were conducted on what they call “small boats” (less than 50 ft long) as opposed to a ship like the one we’re currently on, which is is 224 ft long. On these small boats, Yin drove, took photos for species and individual identification, collected acoustic data, and used theodolites to measure angles. Later, she attended graduate school at Texas A & M University for her Masters degree. She studied wildlife and fisheries science with a focus on acoustics of dusky dolphins and tourist impact on them.
Jennifer McCullough is the Lead Acoustician on HICEAS 2023. She first started at Hubbs Sea World Research on killer whales where she learned acoustics. She participated in a joint polar bear project with the San Diego Zoo. She then completed a Master’s thesis on the giant panda breeding vocalizations through the San Diego Zoo and China Wolong Panda Reserve. She spent 6 months over 2 years in the Sichuan region. We talked about the Sichuan peppercorn for a bit since I love them so much. She prefers them whole, while I prefer them ground up. After that she worked at Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California and later moved to the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and was the Acoustics Lead during HICEAS 2017. With the exception of a HICEAS project year, she is at sea for 30-60 days a year and the rest of the time she is ashore analyzing data from previous missions and constructing equipment for future ones! She loves the balance between the equipment work (technical side), field work (data collection), and lab work (data analysis). As a side note: she makes amazing quilts!
Life at sea reminds me a bit of my college dorming-days; you’re sharing a room and you leave your door open to invite others in! I share my room with really great roommates. Dawn Breese is a seabird observer and creates a nice vibe in the room with flowers she picked ashore and some sweet feathers taped to the wall. Alexa Gonzalez is an acoustician with whom I do crosswords and play “road-trip”-type games. Jennifer McCullough, highlighted above, is going to teach me how to watercolor!
All in all, I am fairly comfortable on the ship. I spend time bouncing between the acoustics lab, the flying bridge (where the visual team observes), the local coffeeshop—The Forward Mess—(where I do most of my work), and the grated deck, stern, and wet lab (where the plankton team works). The acousticians and visual observers work from dawn to dusk, while the plankton team works from dusk until a few hours before dawn. This means I have very long days and have succumbed to the napping culture aboard the ship!
When not checking in on the scientists, I have been spending my free time getting know the people on board, learning knots, riding the stationary bike on the boat deck, and attempting pull ups. It’s a wonderful life!
Oh and please enjoy this photo of me in my “gumby” suit (a protective suit in case of abandon ship).
To be honest, due to limited physical activity on board, I stopped eating breakfast or even going down to the mess at that time because I have no self-control when it comes to food! The oxtail udon is the highlight so far. It was incredible! Third assistant engineer, Jason Dlugos, requested it and even brought his own rice cooker with his own rice down to dinner.
Catch of the Day!
Ichthyoplankton researchers Jessie Perelman and Andrea Schmidt caught two squaretail fish (Tetragonuridae), one live fish and one in its larval stage. Not much is known about this fish. One thing we do know is that these fish live inside (!) the body of an invertebrate called salp. Below is a picture of some fish living in a salp.