NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 29-May 11, 2013
Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole, MA
Date: May 5, 2013
Weather Data from the Bridge: Air temperature-8.4°C or 47°F, Sea temperature-8.4°C or 47°F, Wind Speed 14 knots, Winds are out of the northeast, Barometric Pressure- 1024.4 mb, wave height- 1-2 feet.
Science and Technology Log: To say the environment aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter changes when a right whale is spotted during a watch duty, would be a major understatement. The goal is to find a Northern Right Whale, and when we do, the frenzy begins.
A quick decision must be made as to whether the small boats will be launched. The small boats enable the scientists to get extremely close to the whales. This proximity allows them the chance to photograph whales from many angles for later identification. This distance may also provide an opportunity for scientists to use a crossbow to acquire a biopsy sample. The sample will provide genetic information needed to determine the gender, parents, and siblings of the whale. The biopsy also can give a toxicity level of the animal.
Being in the small boats also gives the team of four the opportunity to scoop a fecal sample from the ocean that a right whale may present. Poop samples can give diet information and hormone levels. Checking hormone levels enable scientists to determine the stress levels of the whale and whether or not the whale is pregnant.
Our team spotted a right whale, and the boats were launched. The small boat was able to get extremely close to what is called a SAG, or “surface active group”. This particular group of four Northern Right Whales was so close to the small boat that it looked as if the whales were performing a show for the scientists! It was one of the most incredible events I have ever witnessed!
During the SAG event, many photos were taken under a NOAA fisheries permit, which is necessary due to the endangered status of the species. It’s interesting to note here, that the public is not allowed to be within five hundred yards of a Northern Right Whale without a permit, making the opportunity to be in the small boat a momentous occasion.
A fecal sample was acquired, which is considered a rare opportunity, however a biopsy was not in the cards for this small boat launch.
Personal Log: This is difficult fieldwork, indeed! Two days of rough seas made our flying bridge observations come to a grinding halt. I woke up Friday morning knowing I had a 7:00 am watch duty, and was throwing up the nothingness in my stomach.
My roommate came back to our stateroom with the news that many others, including the crew, were also experiencing seasickness. I took an odd sense of comfort hearing that other people were also ill. We were in the middle of ten foot ocean swells that made the boat feel like the inside of Maytag washing machine. My roommate’s water bottle fell out of her top bunk and landed squarely on my forehead, and our desk chair toppled over on its side. Motion sickness medications work wonders, but make me incredibly sleepy. Seems like everyone was either sleeping or watching movies… basically just surviving until calmer waters.
This morning’s sunrise brought much happier seas, and the whale watch continues. It’s cold enough for me to finally don the “Mustang Suit” as everyone tells me I will feel more comfortable than my lined jeans and Tecumseh Arrows jacket. I am hoping for my chance to get to be in the small boat!
Animal Sightings Log:
Atlantic Whitesided Dolphin
Wilson’s Storm Petrel