Michelle Greene: Setting Sail on the Gordon Gunter, July 20, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Michelle Greene

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

July 20-August 3, 2018

Mission: Cetacean Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Coast

Date: July 20, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 41° 31.838′ N

Longitude: 71° 19.018′ W

Air Temperature:  26.7° C (80° F)

Conditions: Sunny

Science and Technology Log

Beaked whales are elusive creatures that roam all of the world’s oceans.  The purpose of this cetacean cruise is to find the occurrence and distribution of beaked whales in the northeast Atlantic off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The beaked whale is a toothed whale from the family Ziphiidae.  Several types of beaked whales have been spotted in this region including the True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) and the Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris).

To find the occurrence of beaked whales, the scientists are using several different methods.  The first method is a visual sighting of the animals.  High-powered binoculars, affectionately termed “big eyes” can see animals from several nautical miles away.  Then regular binoculars are used to scan the areas closer to the ship.  The second method scientists are using is by passive acoustics.  Acousticians are using two different types of listening devices to try to hear the whales.  The first device is called a linear array.  In this device, four hydrophones are attached to a tube in a linear pattern.  The array is then towed in the water behind the ship, and acousticians can hear the whales when they communicate.  The acousticians can then determine how far the whale(s) is(are) from the device.  However, with this type of array, it is difficult to calculate how deep the whale is in the water.

In an effort to improve detection of the depth of a beaked whale, a new array has been designed.  This tetrahedral array is designed so that the four hydrophones are placed in a way that is not linear two-dimensional space but in a more three dimensional space, so scientists can detect not only the distance of a whale but the depth.  We will be testing a new prototype of this array during this cruise.

Personal Log

Arriving the day before the Gordon Gunter sailed allowed me to see some pretty interesting things.  I got to help two of the scientists put up the “big eyes.”  These binoculars are really heavy but can see very far away.  On the day we sailed, we were able to zero the binoculars which means we set the heading on the binoculars to zero with the ship’s bow based on a landmark very far away.  We could not zero them the day before, because there was not a landmark far enough away to get an accurate reading.

The Gordon Gunter is one of the larger ships in the NOAA fleet according to several of the scientists who have been on many cruises.  It took me a while to figure out where all of the doors go and how they open.  I did not realize how hard it was to open some of the doors.  According to the XO, the doors are hard to open because of the pressure vacuum that exists in the house of the ship.  There is not really a reason for the vacuum to exist.  It is just the nature of the ship.

Life on board the Gordon Gunter has been very interesting for the first day.  Before leaving port, we had a fleet inspection.  We had to do all of our emergency drills.  Safety is very important on a ship.  We had to do a fire emergency drill where everyone had to meet at a muster station and be accounted for by one of the NOAA officers.  Then we had to do an abandon ship drill.  Then once we got sailing a short time, we had to do a man over board drill.

Donning the immersion suit in case of an abandon ship order was not a thrill for me but was comical in retrospect.  I am only 4’ll”, and the immersion suit I was given is made for someone who is over six feet tall.  When I tried on the suit, I had two feet of immersion suit left at the bottom.  When the NOAA officer came to inspect, he said I definitely needed a smaller suit.

One of the best features of my cruise so far has definitely got to be the galley.  The Gordon Gunter has the best cook in Miss Margaret.  She is the best and makes awesome food.  She has made cream cheese from scratch.  She makes the best smoothies.  I can only imagine what we are going to be getting for the rest of the cruise.

Did You Know?

All marine mammals, including the beaked whales, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Check out this website on what the law states and what it protects:

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/laws-policies#marine-mammal-protection-act

Staci DeSchryver: The First Rule of Mammal Club, July 24, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  Near the Maro Reef, Northwest Hawaiian Islands

Date:  July 24, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Location: 23 deg, 39.5 min N, 169 deg, 53.5 min W

Wind:  85 degrees at 12 kts

Pressure:  1017.0

Waves: 2-3 feet at 95 degrees

Swell: 3-4 feet

Temperature 27.5

Wet bulb temp: 26.2

 

Science Log

Most of us know the first rule of Fight Club – Don’t talk about Fight Club.  In previous blogs, we’ve established that if acoustics hears a vocalization from the lab, they do not inform the observers on the flying bridge – at least not until all members of the vocalizations are “past the beam”, or greater than 90 degrees from the front of the ship.  Once the vocalizations are past the beam, acoustics can elect to inform the observers based on the species and the specific protocols set for that particular species.  The purpose of this secrecy is to control for bias.  Imagine if you were a marine mammal observer, headed up for your last two hour shift on your ten hour day.  If you stopped by the acoustics lab to say hello and found the acoustician’s computer screens completely covered with localizations from a cetacean, you might change the way you observe for that animal, especially if you had a general idea of what angle or direction to look in. One experimental goal of the study is to eliminate as much bias as possible, and tamping the chatter between acousticians and the visual team helps to reduce some of this bias.  But what about the observers?  Could they bias one another in any way?  The answer to that question is yes, and marine mammal observers follow their own subset of Fight Club rules, as well.

Let’s say for example, a sighting of Melon-Headed Whales is occurring.  On the flying bridge, available observers come up to assist in an abundance estimate for that particular group (more on how these estimates are made later).  They also help with photographing and biopsy operations, when necessary.  Melon-Headed Whales are known to travel in fairly large groups, sometimes separated into sub groups of whales. After spending some time following the group of whales, the senior observer or chief scientist will ensure that everyone has had a good enough opportunity to get a best estimation of the number of Melon Headed Whales present.  At this point, it’s time for the observers to write their estimates.  Each observer has their own “green book,” a small journal that documents estimation numbers after each observation occurs.  Each observer will make an estimation for their lowest, best, and highest numbers.  The lowest estimate represents the number of cetaceans the observer knows for certain were present in the group – for example they might say, “There couldn’t possibly be fewer than 30”.  The highest estimate represents the number that says “there couldn’t possibly be any more than this value.”  The best estimate is the number that the observer feels totally confident with.  Sometimes these values can be the same.  The point is for each observer to take what he or she saw with their own eyes, factor in what they know about the behavior of the species, and make a solid personal hypothesis as to the quantitative value of that particular group.  In a sighting of something like our fictitious Melon Headed Whales, those numbers could be in the hundreds.

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Marine Mammal Observer Allan Ligon records his cetacean estimates in his “green book” after a sighting.

Once the documentation is complete in the green books, the observers direct the ship to return back to the trackline, and begin observing again.  They never discuss how many animals they saw.  This is such an important part of what marine mammal observers do as professionals.  At first glance, one would assume that it would be beneficial for all observers to meet following an observation to come to a consensus on the numbers sighted.  But there are a lot of ways that discussion on numbers can turn sideways and skew overall data for the study.  Let’s take an obvious example to highlight the point.

Imagine if you were a new scientist in the field, coming to observe with far more senior observers.  Let’s assume you’ve just spotted a small group of Pygmy Killer Whales and although you are new on the job, you know for an absolute fact that you counted six dorsal fins – repeatedly – through the course of the sighting.  If the sighting ends, and the more senior observers all agree that they saw five, the likelihood that you are going to “cave” and agree that there were only five could be higher.

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Scientist Paula Olson recording her numbers after a sighting, keeping her information separate from others.

If you never talk about your numbers, you never have to justify them to anyone else.  The question often comes up, “What if an observer consistently over or underestimates the number of cetaceans?”  It’s much better for the scientists to consistently over or underestimate their counts than to spend time trying to fine tune them against the rule of another’s estimate.  If counts skew high or low for a scientist each leg of the trip as the co-workers change, that can create a problem for those trying to analyze the abundances after the study is complete.  Further, not discussing numbers with anyone at all ever gives you a very reliable estimation bias over time.  In other words, if you consistently over estimate, the people who complete the data analysis will know that about you as an observer and can utilize correction factors to help better dial in cetacean counts.  It is because of this potential for estimation bias that all marine mammal observers must never talk numbers, even in casual conversation.  You’ll never hear a marine mammal observer over dinner saying, “I thought there were 20 of those spinner dolphins, how many did you think were there?”

Where do these data go after the study is over?  Data from each sighting gets aggregated by the chief scientist or other designee and the group size for each sighting is determined.  Then, via many maths, summations, geometries, and calculuses, population abundance estimates are determined.  This is a dialed-in process – taking the number of sightings, the average sighting group size, the length of the transect lines, the “effective strip width” (or general probability of finding a particular cetacean within a given distance – think smaller whales may not be as easy to see from three miles away, and therefore the correction factor must be taken into account), and finally the probability of detection – and combining those values to create a best estimate for population density within the Hawaiian EEZ.

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Scientist Kym Yano on the bow of the ship, trying to get an up-close ID photo.

The probability of detection is an interesting factor in that it used to always be considered as a value of 1 – meaning that if a cetacean shows his friendly (or ferocious) mug anywhere on the trackline (the predetermined path the ship is taking in the search) the value assumes that a mammal observer has a 100% chance of spotting it.  This is why there is a center observer in the rotation – he or she is responsible for “guarding the trackline,” providing the overlap between the port and starboard observers in their zero to ninety degree scans of the ocean.  Over time, this value has created statistical issues for abundance estimates because there are many situations when a 100% detection rate is just not a realistic assumption.  Between the HICEAS 2002 study and the HICEAS 2010 study, these detection factors were corrected for, leading to numbers that were reliable for the individual study itself, but not reliable to determine if populations were increasing or decreasing.

Other factors can play a role in skewing abundance estimates, as well.  For example, beaked whales often travel in smaller-sized groups and only remain at the surface for a few minutes before diving very deeply below the surface.  Sightings are rare because of their behavior, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are declining in population.  In HICEAS 2002, there was an unusual sighting of a large group of these whales.  When the statistical methods were applied for this group as a whole, the abundance numbers were very high.   In 2010, the sighting frequency was more “normal” than finding the anomalous group, and the values for the numbers of these whales dropped precipitously.  There wasn’t necessarily a decline in population, it just appeared that way because of the anomalous sighting from 2002. Marine mammal observer Adam Ü assists on a sighting by taking identification photos.

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Marine mammal observer Adam Ü assists on a sighting by taking identification photos.

Statistical analysis methods have also changed over the years once scientists took a harder look at some of the variables that the marine mammal observers must contend with in their day to day operations.  At the start of every rotation, mammal observers make general observations about the sea conditions – noting changes in visibility, presence of rain or haze, wind speed, and Beaufort Sea State.  Observers will go “off effort” if the Beaufort Sea State reaches a 7.  To give you an idea of how the sea state changes for increasing numbers, a sea state of Zero is glass-calm.  A sea state of 12, which is the highest level on the Beaufort scale, is something I’m glad I won’t see while I’m out here.  Come to think of it, we have gone “off effort” when reaching a sea state of 7, and I didn’t care for that much, either.    

Most of our days are spent in at least a Beaufort 3, but usually a 4 or 5.  Anything above a 3 means white caps are starting to form on the ocean, making it difficult to notice any animals splashing about at the surface, especially at great distances – mainly because everything looks like it’s splashing.  Many observers look for splashing or whale blows as changes against the surrounding ocean, and the presence of waves and sea spray makes that job a whole heck of a lot more difficult.  Beaufort Sea States are turning out to be a much bigger player in the abundance estimate game, changing the statistical probabilities of finding particular cetaceans significantly.  

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Everyone loves a cetacean sighting! Corps officers Maggied and Frederick on the bow looking at a dolphin sighting.

One species of beaked whale has a probability of sighting that drops off exponentially with increasing sea state.  As sea state goes up, the chances of seeing any cetacean at all decreases.  Other factors like sun glare play a role in decreased sightings, as well.  When a beaked whale “logs” at the surface in glass calm waters, chances are higher that it will be spotted by an observer. When the ocean comes up, the wind is screaming, and the waves are rolling, it’s not impossible to see a whale, but it sure does get tough.

The good news is that for most species, these abundance estimates account for these variables.  For the more stealthy whales, those estimates have some variation, but overall, this data collection yields estimate numbers that are reliable for population estimates.

 

Personal Log

It is darn near impossible to explain just how hard it is to spot mammals out in the open ocean.  But, being the wordy person I am, I will try anyway.

I had some abhorrently incorrect assumptions about the ease at which cetaceans are spotted.  These assumptions were immediately corrected the first time I put my forehead on the big eyes.  Even after reading the reports of the number of sightings in the Hawaiian EEZ and my knowledge of productivity levels in the tropical oceans,  I had delusions of grandeur that there would be whales jumping high out of the water at every turn of the ship, and I’d have to be a blind fool not to see and photograph them in all of their whale-y glory.

I was so wrong.

Imagine trying to find this:

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Try spotting this from two miles away. There is a Steno Dolphin under that splash!

In this:

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Sun Glare. It’s not easy to find mammals in these conditions.

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Beaufort 6 sea conditions: When you’re looking for splashes…and it’s all splashes…

Here’s the long and short of it – there were times when we were in pretty decent conditions, and marine mammal observers were “on” a sighting, and I trained the big eyes in exactly the direction and my eyes at the exact distance and I still couldn’t see them.  There were times when the mammals pretty much had to be launching themselves out of the water and onto the ship before I was like, “Oh, hey!  A whale!”  I can think of at least four sightings where this happened – whales were out there, everyone else could see them…and I couldn’t find them if they were pulled out of the water and handed to me in a paper bag.  Which is extra disappointing because a) a whale doesn’t fit in a paper bag, and 2) if it did, it would likely soak the bag so that it fell out of the bottom and now I’d have a whale that I couldn’t see anyway who now has a headache and is ornery because someone shoved him in a paper bag that he promptly fell face first out of.  And as I’ve learned over the time I’ve been on the ship and through many forays into the wilderness – don’t anger things with teeth.

I have had the good fortune of watching our six marine mammal observers as they do their work and I am continually floored at the ability and deftness in which they do their jobs.  I have done a few independent observation rotations – I try to get in at least three each day – and I have only once been able to complete a rotation in the same way the observers do.  Looking for forty minutes through the port side big eyes, sitting and guarding the trackline for 40 minutes, and looking for forty minutes through the starboard side big eyes is exhausting.   Weather conditions are constantly changing and sometimes unfavorable.  The sun could be shining directly in the path of observation, which turns the whole ocean into the carnage that could only be rivaled by an explosion at a glitter factory.  While the canopies protect the observers from a large majority of incoming sunlight, there’s usually a few hours in the day where the sun is below the canopy, which makes it blast-furnace hot.  Today the winds are blowing juuuuust below the borderline of going off effort due to sea state conditions.  Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow at all, or worse –  it blows at the exact speed the ship is traveling in – yielding a net vector of zero for wind speed and direction.  Out on the open ocean, Beaufort Sea States rarely fall below a 3, so observers are looking through piles of foam and jets of sea spray coming off the waves, searching for something to move a little differently.  Trying to look through the big eyes and keep the reticle lines (the distance measures on the big eyes) on the horizon during the observation while the ship moves up and down repeatedly over a five foot swell?  I can say from direct experience that it’s really, really hard.

The animals don’t always play nice, either.  It would be one thing if every animal moved broadside to the view of the observers, giving a nice wide view of dorsal fin and an arched back peeking out of the water.  A lot of cetaceans see ships and “run away.”  So, now as an observer, you have to be able to spot the skinny side of the dorsal fin attached to a dolphin butt.  From three miles away.   Some whales, like sperm whales, stay at the surface for about ten minutes and then dive deep into the ocean for close to an hour.  We’re lucky in that if we aren’t on the trackline and spot their telltale blows when they are at the surface, the acoustics team knows when they are below the surface and we can wait until they do surface, so that’s a benefit for everyone on the hunt for sperm whales.

But overall? These things are not easy to find.   We aren’t out here on a whale watching tour, where a ship takes us directly out to where we know all the whales are and we have endless selfie opportunities.  The scientific team couldn’t bias the study by only placing ourselves in a position to see cetaceans.  In fact, the tracklines were designed years ago to eliminate that sort of bias in sampling.  Because we cover the whole Hawaiian EEZ, and not just where we know we are going to see whales (looking at you, Kona) there could be times where we don’t see a single cetacean for the whole day.  As an observer, that can be emotionally taxing.

And yet, the marine mammal observers persevere and flourish in this environment.  Last week, an observer found a set of marine mammals under the surface of the water.  In fact, many observers can see mammals under the water, and it’s not as though these mammals are right on the bow of the ship – they are far far away.  Most sightings happen closer to the horizon than they do to the ship, at least initially.  The only reason why I even have pictures of cetaceans is because we turn the ship to cross their paths, and they actually agree to “play” with us for a bit.   

Over the last three weeks, I’ve tried to hone my non-skill of mammal observation in to something that might resemble actual functional marine mammal observation.  I have been thwarted thus far.  But I have gotten to a certain point in my non-skill – where at first, I was just in glorious cod-faced stupor of witnessing cetaceans, and trying to get as many photos as possible – now, a sighting for me yields a brief moment of awe followed by an attempt to find what the observers saw in order to find the animal.  In other words, I “ooh and ah” for a few moments at first, but once I can find them, I start asking myself, “Ok, what do the splashes look like?”  “How do the fins look as they come out of the water?”  “What does the light look like in front or behind the animal, and would I be able to see that patterning while I’m doing an observation?”  So far, I’ve been unsuccessful, but I certainly won’t stop trying.  I have to remember that the marine mammal observers who are getting these sightings have been doing this for years and I have been doing this for hours comparatively.  Besides, every sighting is still very exciting for me as an outsider to this highly specialized work, and the star-struck still hasn’t worn off.  I imagine it won’t for quite some time.  

 

Ship Fun!

Being at sea for 28 days has its advantages when it comes to building strong connections between scientists, crew, and the officers.  Everyone pitches in and helps to make life on this tiny city a lot more enjoyable.  After all, when you spend 24 hours a day on a ship, it can’t all be work.  Take a look at the photos below to see:

 

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Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana hosts a shave ice party (a traditional Hawaiian treat) on a Monday afternoon

 

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The scientific team gets fiercely competitive when it comes to cribbage!

 

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The Doc and I making apple pie after hours for an upcoming dessert!

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Chief Bos’n Chris Kaanaana fires up the smoker for a dinnertime pork shoulder. Yum!

 

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Husband and wife team Scientist Dr. Amanda Bradford and Crewmember Mills Dunlap put ice on a freshly caught Ono for an upcoming meal.

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Commanding officer CDR Koes makes a whale shaped ice cream cake to “call the whales over” and aid in our search effort.

Alex Miller, Heading for Home, June 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra (Alex) Miller, Chicago, IL
Onboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
May 27 – June 10, 2015

Mission: Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment
Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast
Date: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Front row from left: Paul Chittaro, Brittney Honisch, Tyler Jackson; Back row from left: Alexandra Miller, Will Fennie, Toby Auth

Front row from left: Paul Chittaro, Brittney Honisch, Tyler Jackson; Back row from left: Alexandra Miller, Will Fennie, Toby Auth

 

To conclude the discussion of the research on board the Shimada, I would like to profile the remaining scientists: the four fishermen of the night shift, and give a general report of the results of the cruise.

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Toby Auth, fisheries biologist with Pacific States Marine Fisheries Center (PSMFC), oversees most of the operations of the sorting, measuring and counting of the trawls. He works as a contractor to NOAA under the guidance of Ric Brodeur. Toby holds a BA in Fisheries and Wildlife from the University of Minnesota and he did both his MA and Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in Fisheries Management and he specialized in studying the early life of fish–egg, larval and juvenile stages, collectively called ichthyoplankton, basically anything fish-related that is small enough to sort of float along in the water.

As a researcher, he is most interested in understanding spawning success and food chain interactions of the Pacific coast species that come up in the trawls. Typically, Toby is at sea 30 – 40 days a year, but this year, due to the anomalous warm blob, he expects to be at sea about 50 – 60 days. The anomaly has implications for all fields of marine biology and oceanography.

In the far left of the image stands Dr. Paul Chittaro, of Ocean Associates in Seattle, WA. Paul is at sea on a research cruise for the first time in 10 years, and he’s very happy to be here. He was on board collecting fish in order to examine their otoliths, which are ear bones. Otoliths grow every day, laying down rings, almost like a tree. Analyzing these rings can give information about the fishes travels, diet and ocean conditions when they were alive.

The big guy in the back is Will Fennie, who will begin his Ph.D. at Oregon State University in the fall. The entire cruise he has been eagerly awaiting some juvenile rockfish to come up in the net and finally, in the last few nights, some did. Overall, we caught much less rockfish than in previous years. This could be for any number of reasons.

You can hear interviews with Paul and Will below.

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I have to give a HUGE thank you to Ric Brodeur, Chief Scientist of this mission, for supporting me as a Teacher at Sea and for reading each and every blog post!

Listen to my interview with Ric to learn more about the impacts of the research done on board the Shimada for these 13 DAS and possibilities for the future.

 

Thanks to XO Sarah Duncan as well, both she and Ric had to read and edit each one!

 

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Front row from left: Yours Truly, Emily Boring, Ric Brodeur; Back row from left: Jason Phillips, H.W. Fennie, Brittney Honisch, Toby Auth, Dr. Paul Chittaro, Amanda Gladics, Samantha Zeman, Curtis Roegner, Tyler Jackson

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It would take quite some time to tell all the stories of the marine wildlife we have seen on our 13 day cruise, but I would still like to share with you some of the photos and video I and others were lucky enough to capture. Enjoy!

All photos in these two galleries are courtesy of Amanda Gladics, Oregon State University, Seabird Oceanography Lab.

 

 

Personal Log

My experiences on board the Shimada have taught me a lot about myself and my abilities. I’ve done more writing, media processing and chatting with new people in the last two weeks than I have in the last two years. I have a greater understanding of how scientists work in the field and the importance of fisheries to the health of our oceans and the commercial fishing industry and I plan to apply that understanding in my classroom to increase students’ understanding of marine science and awareness of possible careers. To my students: “Get ready, dudes!”

Hopefully, you all have learned a lot about fisheries research, the process of science and the fascinating cast of characters who sailed with the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada. Maybe you’re even feeling a little inspired. Now, I know I’m an inland city kid, but I’ve loved the sea since I first saw Free Willy at the age of 7 and I’m not the only one who can trace their love of the sea to a starting point.

All the scientists on board have an origin story: one salient memory that they can credit with being the moment of inspiration for pursuing a life of study and research and a career in the field of science. If you’re curious about the world, you have the potential to be a great scientist. Science is for all people, no matter what age or situation, and these ones just happen to do theirs at sea. So, I want to know: Where will you do yours?

That’s all for now. Thank you for reading and listening and, maybe, sea you again soon!

Alex Miller, Teacher at Sea, signing off.

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Bye!

One last huge THANK YOU to the crew and officers of the Shimada for a wonderful cruise!!!

DJ Kast, Interview with the Marine Mammal Observers, May 21, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
May 19 – June 3, 2015

Mission: Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Geographical area of cruise: East Coast

Date: May 21, 2015, Day 3 of Voyage


Interview with the Marine Mammal Observers

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid Photo by: DJ Kast

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid
Photo by: DJ Kast

Marjorie and Brigid on the Flying Bridge.

Whale Observer Station on the Flying Bridge. Photo by: DJ Kast

Whale Observer Station on the Flying Bridge. Photo by: DJ Kast

These two marine mammal observers are on the Flying Bridge of the ship.

I asked them what they were looking for and they said blows. I thought I spotted one at 11 o’clock and asked if it was supposed to look like a puff of smoke. They turned their cameras and binoculars to that direction and there were two whales right there. Marjorie turned to me and said, “you make our job look very easy”.

I spent some time interviewing the two of them today on May 21st, 2015.

Tell me a little bit about your background:

Marjorie Foster:

“I went to Stetson University and majored in biological sciences and concurrently worked with aquariums and sea turtle and bird rehab. Started flying aerial surveys for right whales, and was pulled into the world of NOAA in 2010. I’ve worked on small boats for bottlenose dolphin surveys as well.”

Brigid McKenna:

“I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received my degree in biology, because I originally wanted to go into veterinary school, and worked in the aquarium medical center as an internship. Afterwards, I realized that veterinary school was not for me and I started an internship with the whale watch, and worked with spinner dolphins. Then I worked with scientists for Humpback Whales in Provincetown. Afterwards, I became a Right whale vessel observer and pursued my masters in Marine Mammal Science at St. Andrews. Afterwards, I became an aerial observer for right whales. This means I got to be in planes above the ocean looking for whales.”

Shoutout to Jen Jakush for keeping up with my blog in Florida.

What is your exact job on this research cruise?

Marine Mammal Observers are contracted by NOAA. We keep an eye out for whales and dolphins from the top of the ship and collect information about what we see.

How do you get trained to be Marine mammal observer?

Field experience is vital. The more you have seen, the more you can easily narrow down behavioral and visual cues to define a species. Also, conversations with other scientists in the field can really help expand your knowledge base.

For me:

Bridget- internship on a whale watch boat

Majorie- working with right whales

What do you enjoy about your job?

Marjorie: Being outside, and getting the opportunity to see things that people don’t normally get to see. Every day is exciting because there are endless possibilities of amazing things to witness. I feel very lucky to collect data that will be used in larger conversation efforts to help preserve these animals.

Brigid: Everything is dynamic, every project is new, I love being outside on the ocean. We can do aerial and vessel observations. We get to travel a lot. It’s a small world in the marine mammal community, so you get to know a lot of cool people.

What are the most common mammals you have seen on this cruise?

Common dolphins: white patch on sides and dark gray on top, and v shaped saddle.

Dolphin spotted by the observers on the side of the boat. Photo by: DJ Kast

Dolphin spotted by the observers on the side of the boat. Photo by: DJ Kast

Bottlenose dolphins: light gray and dark gray on top

Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Photo taken by DJ Kast from the Marine Mammals of the World book.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Photo taken by DJ Kast from the Marine Mammals of the World book.

Couple of mola mola – largest of the bony fish

Whales:

Fin whales

Pilot whales.

Sei Whale

Humpback in the distance.

Marjorie: On the ledge and on the shelf there should be much more life than we have been seeing. And that will be in about an hour or two.

Up North- in the Gulf of Maine.

Northern waters are more abundant with the small marine life large whales like to eat. We are expecting to see a lot of baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine later on in this project. Further south we will see more dolphins and other toothed whales. We expect to see bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, and possibly Risso’s dolphins.

Did you know?

Right Whale’s favorite copepod is Calanus finmarchicus, which bloom in Cape Cod waters. The Right whales know when the copepods are in a fatty stage and will only open their mouths if the calorie intake is worth it.

Did you know?

Different humpbacks have different hunting techniques.

The hunting technique specific to the Gulf of Maine is bubble-net feeding with lob-tailing. This means that they make bubbles around a school of fish and then hit the water with their tail to stun them.

Did you know?

Sad Fact: 72% of right whales have been entangled at least once, which we can tell from the scars that remain on their body.

What do you do when you site a marine mammal?

  1. One of us points
  2. Keep track of it. Both of our eyes on it
  3. Take pictures and look through binoculars for a positive identification of the species of marine mammal.
  4. How far they are, what direction they are swimming in, and what behaviors they are exhibiting.
  5. We have a system on our Toughbook computer called Vissurv. The data we input into this system includes:
    • Which side of the boat, and how many meters, and what direction are the animals are swimming to help us keep track of them
    • Our main objective is to ID them to species and count how many of them there are, which is called the pod size.
    • Some example behaviors include: swimming, breaching, porpoising, bow riding
    • Our computer is constantly recording GPS and environmental conditions. This information will ultimately be tied to the sightings. Environmental conditions include: swell, glare, wind, sea state etc.

Kainoa Higgins: Atop the Flying Bridge! June 20, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kainoa Higgins
Aboard R/V Ocean Starr
June 18 – July 3, 2014

Mission: Juvenile Rockfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Northern California Current
Date: Friday, June 20, 2014, 1500 hours

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Current Latitude: 42 ° 34.7’ N
Current Longitude: 124 ° 37.6’ W
Air Temperature: 12.8 Celsius
Wind Speed: 25-30 knots
Wind Direction: North
Surface Water Temperature: 11.3 Celsius
Weather conditions: Clear Skies

Find our location in real time HERE!

Science and Technology Log:

As we exit the harbor in Eureka, CA I join Amanda Gladics of Oregon State University perched at her post on the flying bridge, scanning the surrounding surface waters for signs of seabirds and marine mammals.

Amanda- Observations

On the flying bridge Amanda Gladics scans the water for signs of marine life

Amanda earned an undergraduate degree at OSU in natural resources. Soon after, she completed a Master’s program with a focus on marine resources, also through OSU. She now serves as a faculty research assistant for Oregon State University at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

On first hearing, her role aboard the RV Ocean Starr sounds relatively simple but is actually a critical contribution to a long term survey of seabird and mammal life observed in waters along the Northern California Current. The study is an example of collaboration between the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC), both NOAA entities, and Oregon State University. Amanda’s observation data, combined with the monitoring of the southern reaches of the current system, will add to the ongoing collection of information that will serve as a point of cross-reference for a host of other research initiatives including the principal mission of this cruise, the juvenile rockfish survey. In addition, the collected information furthers our understanding of the upper trophic predators of the region. The length of the time over which data has been collected by observers, 25+ years, makes for an exceptionally valuable time series.

I take a captain’s seat next to Amanda and help scan the horizon for signs of life. I quickly point out a small … black and white-ish bird … off the right side of the bow. My bird doesn’t count. Amanda tells me to imagine that our surrounding is broken into four quarters with sections I and II ahead of us on the left and right and III and IV behind us, respectively. Because the study assumes that the observer sees ALL seabirds and marine mammals possible it is important to narrow the range of scope to increase confidence. For the same reason, animals beyond 300 meters in distance do not count towards data collection either. I’m immediately critical wondering how one could possibly tell whether a bird or other was in range. Amanda reveals her trusted “rangefinder”. It’s not a fancy device – in fact, it more strongly resembles a glorified piece of kindling than anything else. Amanda explains that by taking into the account the height of her location on the ship in relation to true water level and the horizon, she can use basic trigonometry to calculate distance. When she holds the top of her rangefinder in line with the horizon she can estimate the animal’s distance away from the ship based on values she has marked on the stick. She records all observations both in writing and digitally. It goes to show that good science doesn’t always require expensive equipment. It’s not long before I begin to get the hang of it all. We soon see a small pod of harbor porpoises and not long after, a humpback whale spouts on the horizon.

Rangefinder

Amanda’s “Rangefinder” is used to estimate how far away from the boat a sea bird or marine mammal is.

While I help to point out black-footed albatrosses here and marbled murrelets there, Amanda explains more specifically her role with the Hatfield Marine Science Center at the Oregon State University. The focus of her current research revolves around an attempt to reduce, or stop altogether, the bycatch of albatross by commercial fisheries. The process is simple and sad:

Albatross hone in on fishing boats hoping for of an easy meal → Long line fishing vessels use a series of hooks on which they attach a piece of bait (generally squid) and send down said long line into the water in series → The birds attempt to steal the bait from the hook as it leaves the boat and occasionally snag themselves → If unable to get free, they are dragged underwater with the gear and drown. It is an unintentional and seemingly unavoidable process.

Streamer lines create visual barrier against scavenging seabirds

Streamer lines create visual barrier against scavenging seabirds (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Of the 22 species of albatross in the world, 19 are considered endangered. In the North Pacific there is special concern when it comes to the short-tailed albatross of which there are less than 4,000 world-wide. In many parts of the world, fishing vessels are required to use a simple device to scare the birds away from the baited hooks: a “streamer line”. If there is hope, it is in the “streamer line”, a device extended during the release of hook lines which creates a visual barrier to the relentless albatross — keeping them out of harm’s way. Amanda and her program are currently working on testing and modifying this preventative measure so as to continue to reduce the number of fatal encounters off the West Coast.

Streamer line

Albatross and others kept at bay (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Amanda has had many adventures in her field studies but most notably recalls spending time with albatross colonies on Midway Island in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as well as a leading a two-person expedition to monitor puffin colonies and other critters in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge on an uninhabited Aleutian island in Alaska.

Amanda encourages young scientists to pursue their passions and be enthusiastic. Volunteer a lot and be willing to take low-paying jobs. Look for opportunities to work close to home with local agencies and initiatives; it’s all about connecting with people in a field of study you are interested in.

Amanda Midway

Amanda in her front yard on Midway Island in the Northern Hawaiian Islands (photo courtesy of Amanda Gladics)

Personal Log:

I’m not even sure it has sunk in…I am sailing off the coast of Northern California with a field research team thanks to this once-in-a-teacher’s-career NOAA opportunity. Wow. When I arrive at the ship I am immediately greeted by various members of both the ship crew and research team, all incredibly welcoming. I meet Captain Bud right away and he warmly invites me to explore the Ocean Starr and “make myself at home”. I did so right away. The first thing I did was head straight for the highest point. The view will be unprecedented! I’ve never been that high over the water. I was immediately fantasizing about whales breaching

Collection of Intro Pictures

Top left: View of the cobb trawl net on open deck at the stern. Top right: Teacher at Sea Logo (NOAA). Bottom Left: RV Ocean Starr. Bottom right: CTD device at drop point on deck.

in the sunset and dolphins riding the wake of the bow. I would later learn this top observation deck is referred to as the flying bridge. Wandering the halls I meet Toby, the right hand man of Ric, the chief scientist on the mission. He shows me to my stateroom. It’s Cozy, especially for a guy at 6’2” and 225 lbs. This is home for the next two and a half weeks.

Ric arrives and I meet the rest of the team. Everyone I meet continues to be exceptionally friendly, talkative and happy to share their focus of research and role on this cruise. It’s exciting to hear about all the different things that will be happening while I am onboard: bongo nets, box cores, trawls, CTDs, manta tows – the list goes on…

Delvan, my cabinmate, has no preference on bunk and so we let a coin toss seal our fate. I get the top. I look forward to the top because my brother and I shared bunk beds as kids and I rocked the top then as well, though I do recall the ceiling being a bit taller. I hit the sack ready to greet the sunrise and the 5:00 am departure bright eyed and bushy tailed. I sleep hard and fast.

5:30 A.M. I awake to the blast of the ship horn calling all final passengers on board. Not realizing what the sound meant in the moment, I fear I had already missed the shove off the dock. I spring out of bed and throw on deck-worthy clothes as quick as possible. We are still tied up on dock. Adrenaline is pumping in anticipation of the adventure I snag a delicious and filling breakfast. Before I know it, we’re moving. It’s begun!

Things are a bit wobbly. I grew up fishing and working off my dad’s boat in Hawai’i. That boat was 17ft. The Ocean Starr is over ten times bigger both in length and width. Its pitch and roll are slower and relatively docile in comparison but unsettling all the same. I put one foot in front of the other as I make my way up to the flying bridge. From the best view in the house, I soak in the slow ride out of the harbor and am enamored by the striking terrain of the Eureka/Arcata region in the early sunlight. As we exit the entrance to the harbor the wind and waves pick up. A few swells break the bow of the boat. The pitch and roll of the boat continues to increase as do the winds. By the afternoon winds are reaching 25 knots, approximately 30 mph. It is a windy bumpy ride. I am glad I decided to take motion sickness medication after all.

After chatting with Amanda about her role on ship and contributions to the oceanographic world on a larger scale, I decided to perform my first “TAScast” from the flying bridge and nearly lost my prized Teacher at Sea hat in the high winds. The sound quality of the video is halfway decent thanks to the $3.00 lapel microphone attached to my GoPro.

Sorting catch from various tows.

Top: Sorting catch from a mid-water trawl.  Bottom left: Megalops stage of Dungeness crab caught in the manta tow.  Bottom right:  Sifting through copious amounts of krill to find the rock fish.

We enter a holding pattern on the first afternoon due to the high winds and are unable to begin operations of any kind until the evening when the weather calms down. Once lifted, we hit the ground running and over the next 24 hours, I participate in a variety of experiences: Ken gives me a tour of the dry lab computer station where all of the data relayed from field instruments is collected. I watch Jason and Curtis drop box core sampling devices to examine the contents of the seafloor. I help Sam spot and net sea nettle jellies for gut content analysis. I also evaluate resulting footage of Curtis’s attempt to mount a GoPro in cod end of a Neuston net. So far either the camera has refused to stay in position or debris has muddled the view. We’ve recently modified the mount and will see if that footage comes out any better after the next tow. The highlight of the evening is sorting the trawl catch. Each new station promises to bring a slightly different sample of critters on board and the suspense is invigorating.

Though some on board are struggling to adapt, I am just fine when it comes to motion sickness. That being said, I am slightly regretting not having a bit more of an opinion on the bunk situation because getting in and out of a top bunk on a rocking ship can be challenging. Those are the only moments where I feel a bit…uneasy; the moments when I have to engage physically and mentally when I am half asleep in tight quarters. Taking showers and standing still enough to use the bathroom are also incredibly taxing. Though the ocean was placid all of yesterday, the seas picked up overnight and I recall a bit of tossing and turning that was out of my control. I am also adjusting to my shift which has modified since the beginning of the cruise. Originally the thought was that I would work noon – midnight but because I want to catch more of the trawl catches, which only happen on the night shift, I’ve begun working from about noon – 2:00 am catching a nap here and there if necessary and we have the time.

I sit here finalizing my thoughts as my computer and chair slide back and forth across the table and floor and I see the horizon appear and disappear out the porthole across from me and I love every minute of it! I can’t wait to share more of my experience with you!

Sunset

Our first sunset at sea

Critter Spotting Report:

Seabirds: Common Murre, Sooty Shearwater, Western Gull, Black-Footed Albatross, Immature Gull, Northern Fulmar, California Gulls, Pink-Footed Shearwater, Heerman’s Gull, Buller’s Shearwater, Cassin’s Auklet, Caspian Tern, Marbled Murrelet.

Marine Mammals: Humpback Whale, Blue Whale, Stellar Sea Lion, Harbor Porpoise.

Specimens in Trawl Haul #166: Krill, Northern lampfish, Blue lanternfish, Sergestid Shrimp, California Headlight Fish, Pyrosome, Gonatid Squid, Pacific Sanddab, Rex Sole, Stoplight Loosejaw, Blacktip Squid, Various Rockfish, Speckled Sanddab, Chiroteuthis squid, Pacific black dragonfish, Longfin dragonfish

A Stoplight loosejaw complete with photophore spotlights and unhinged jaw

A Stoplight loosejaw complete with photophore spotlights, angler appendage and unhinged jaw

Something to think about:

Where 5,280 ft. is equivalent to 1 statute (standard) mile, 1 nautical mile is equivalent to 6,000 ft. Perhaps when one says, “Go the extra mile!” they might instead say, “Go the nautical mile!”

 

TAScast:  From the Flying Bridge

Christopher Faist: Limited Visibility, July, 21 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 21, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  21 ºC
Water Temp: 19 ºC
Wind Speed: 19 knots
Water Depth: 163 meters

Science and Technology Log
The purpose of cruise is to accurately count marine mammals and seabirds in the North Atlantic.  There are two separate groups of scientists: the marine mammal team and the seabird team.

Chris Faist using the "Big Eyes"

Chris Faist using the "Big Eyes"

Mammals
The first order of business on a trip to count marine mammals is to ensure that all observers (including myself) are familiar with the types of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) that may be seen during the survey.  Last night all of the marine mammal observers gathered in the conference room to review photographs and field guides depicting each of the species that might be seen on the trip.  Using high-resolution photographs, we reviewed length, coloration, body shape and behaviors that distinguish each dolphin and whale to the most specific level of classification, Genus and species.

To make sure that all (or as close to all as possible) animals in the study area are counted, observers will be using high power binoculars, or “Big Eyes”, to extend their ability to see and identify animals even at great distances (about 7 miles from the ship).

Observation Station

Observation Station

Two teams of four, highly experienced observers will work simultaneously during the survey time.  From two different locations on the ship, the flying bridge (top deck) and the roll tank deck (about 15 feet below the flying bridge) each team of observers will rotate stations every 30 minutes.  One observer will start on the port (left) “Big Eyes” to observe animals on that side.  The second observer will be at the computer to record what is seen and search for animals close to the boat without using binoculars.  The 3rd observer will start on the starboard (right) “Big Eyes”, while the 4th person is on break.

It is believed that this method, of two teams of 4 observers each, will allow observers to count all of the animals in the survey area.  After the cruise is over the scientists will use math equations to get estimates of animals within the North Atlantic.

Pencil Close Up

Pencil Close Up

Birds
Since the weather was windy today, the mammal team did not work but there is a team of seabird observers on-board as well.  Mike and Marie are here to count all of the seabirds that occur in the survey area.  They are able to spot seabirds in rougher conditions (higher wind speeds) allowing them to collect data during most daylight hours.  Today, Mike was showing me how to accurately judge the distance between the boat and birds.  While technology may help others Mike likes to use an old fashion “pencil method”.  If you look carefully at the picture you will see marks on the pencil.  When he holds the pencil at arm’s length and puts the top of the pencil at the horizon, each of the marks indicate a different distance.  The top mark is 300m from the ship, middle is 200m and the bottom mark indicates 100m.  This gives Mike and Marie a quick guide to accurately judge distance to record their seabird observations.

Personal Log

Due to foggy and windy conditions the marine mammal observers are waiting for better conditions to start surveying.  While this is bad for the scientists, it is great for me.  I have had some time to learn to navigate the ship, nap, get my “sea legs” and interview many of the scientists and crew.

What I am finding is a highly trained, experienced group of individuals that love the ocean.  Each person brings a unique set of talents and background forming a complete team with the same goal, accurately counting the numbers of protected species in the North Atlantic.  I am very excited to be a part of such a great team.

Jennifer Fry, July 28, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jennifer Fry
Onboard NOAA Ship Miller Freeman (tracker)
July 14 – 29, 2009 

Mission: 2009 United States/Canada Pacific Hake Acoustic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: North Pacific Ocean from Monterey, CA to British Columbia, CA.
Date: July 28, 2009

Map of the world showing longitude and latitude lines

Map of the world showing longitude and latitude lines

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Wind speed:  17 knots
Wind direction: 345° from the north
Visibility: 8 nautical miles /clear
Temperature: 16.8°C (dry bulb); 11.6°C (wet bulb)
Sea water temperature: 15.5°C
Wave height: 3-5 ft.
Air pressure: 1012.9 millibars
Weather note: Millibars is a metric unit used to measure the pressure of the air.

Science and Technology Log 

Weather Instruments and Predicting Weather 

Lt Oliver Brown, surrounded by navigational tools, and Fishery Scientist Steve DeBlois make observations on the bridge of the Miller Freeman.

Lt Oliver Brown, surrounded by navigational tools, and Fishery Scientist Steve DeBlois make observations on the bridge of the Miller Freeman.

Everything that happens out at sea is dependent upon the weather forecasts.  Throughout history man has used a variety of instruments to acquire accurate weather information.  The Miller Freeman is equipped with state of art weather reporting instruments. Every 3 hours weather data is sent to the National Weather Service to help predict the weather at sea.  Once again accuracy in reporting data is paramount.

Global Position: The Miller Freeman has several methods by which to determine longitude and latitude, which is our position in the ocean or on land.  There are 2 G.P.S. systems on the bridge, a magnetic compass, a gyro compass, and radar. These instruments help determine the ship’s position.

True north: The actual location of a point on the earth related to the north pole.

A Gyrocompass with cardinal headings including north, south, east, and west

A Gyrocompass with cardinal headings including north, south, east, and west

Magnetic north: Caused by the magnetic pull on the earth.  Magnetic north heading is different depending on where you are on the earth, for instance, Magnetic north in Oregon has a variation of 16.45°east from true north. Southern California has a variation of 13.3° east from true north.

Temperature: Measured by a thermometer, units used are Celsius. Dry bulb: Measures air temperature.  Wet bulb:  Uses a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth. The dry and wet temperatures together give the dew point and help to determine humidity.

Wind Speed: Measured in knots using an anemometer, or estimated by using the Beaufort scale. The Beaufort scale uses observations of the sea surface, and the effects of wind on people or objects aboard ship to estimate the wind speed.

Wind Direction: Is measured by what direction in which the wind is coming.

Cloud Height/Type: Is measured visually.

Cloud Type: Is measured visually using a variety of names of clouds depending on their patterning and altitude.

Magnetic compass

Magnetic compass

Visibility: Is measured by estimating how much of the horizon can be seen.

Wave Direction: measured visually from the direction the wave comes.

Wave Height: The vertical distance between trough (bottom of the wave) and crest (top of the wave) and is usually measured in feet.

Swell Direction/ Height: Measured visually usually in feet.

Personal Log 

I have enjoyed my time on the bridge of the Miller Freeman immensely.  I have a better understanding of the weather instruments used onboard and am getting better at spotting whales and identifying birds. I want to thank the entire NOAA Corps Officers who have taught me so much about how navigation and weather work aboard the Miller Freeman.

Crewmember John Adams uses on-board weather instruments to record hourly weather readings that are then sent to National Weather Service.

Crewmember John Adams uses on-board weather instruments
to record hourly weather readings that are then sent to National
Weather Service.

An anemometer, which measures wind speed

An anemometer, which measures wind speed