Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: September 1, 2023
When referring to sailing knots, the bitter end signifies the end of the line (i.e. rope to non-seafarers). I thought this fitting, considering the conclusion of my rich time at sea! From interacting with the different deck crew, I learned different ways to tie knots—sometimes the same type of knot. For example, though I knew the bowline before I set sail, I didn’t have a process that stuck in my memory. With the aid of the crew, I solidified a process for myself. Exposure to different ways to tie a knot (or in the case of the mathematics classroom, different ways to approach a problem) gives the learner autonomy to choose a method that suits their learning. I also learned how to splice. See pictures below!
Science and Technology Log
In the final week, all science teams (birders, marine mammal observers, acousticians, plankton team) wrapped up and prepared to disembark the ship. Traveling a total distance of 4,819.2 km, Leg 2 spanned 28 glorious days at sea. The cetacean team tallied 90 visual sightings (visually identified 15 species) and 122 acoustic detections. The seabird side saw 37 species and 4,124 individuals. The plankton team completed 39 net tows on Leg 2 and totals 44 tows overall. The images below from the HICEAS Map Tour page detail the specific cetaceans sighted and heard. I also include some cetacean photos taken by the marine mammal observers (MMOs).
It was an incredible experience to witness science in action. I often referred to my time at sea as “Science Camp!” Cruise leader-in-training, Yvonne Barkley (featured in this previous blog post), briefly interviewed me for the HICEAS 2023 Map Tour. Aside from the science, she asked me what I’ll bring back home with me from this experience. I had to incubate on this question and after some reflection, realized that what I’ve gained are all the connections I made with my ship mates.
Gigantic mahalo to Fionna Matheson (Commanding Officer). We had many conversations during the Conductivity Temperature Depth operations and over meals. We bonded over being women in leadership positions, as well as sharing family stories. Thank you for a smooth cruise!
My true purpose on the ship was to create crossword addicts. I love collaborating on crosswords, so I brought a book of Monday-Friday New York Times (NYT) crosswords on the ship. The book mostly stayed up on the flying bridge where someone “off effort” (someone not currently observing) would read clues for the marine mammal observers on effort. In many of our jobs, listening to music, audiobooks, podcasts, etc, help us focus on the work at hand; similarly, pondering crossword clues helped the MMOs concentrate on searching for mammals. By the end of the leg, Andrea Bendlin (MMO) printed out a clipboard full of more NYT crosswords, and both Suzanne Yin and Paul Nagelkirk (MMOs) made their own crosswords that incorporated both the science and the science team members. I’d say I left my legacy!
Alexa Gonzalez (Acoustician) was one of my roommates! A Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology at University of Hawaii, Manoa initially brought Alexa from sunny California (Santa Clarita! We’re practically neighbors.) to sunny Hawaii. During her time at school, she volunteered for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) doing data entry and some monk seal responses for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. She also participated in outreach and marine mammal response for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. After graduation in 2018, Alexa had a fun job working on a tour boat wearing many hats as a deckhand, snorkel guide, and bartender. In 2019, she worked on monk seal population assessment efforts at the Hawaiian monk seal field camp at Holoikauaua/Manawai (Pearl and Hermes Atoll). Right after, she was recruited by the Science Operations Division to fill the role she’s in now, Biological Science Technician. She participates on different research projects at PIFSC as a diver, small boat operator, acoustician and lab tech. Below, you can see a photo of Alexa as a small boat operator on Malia.
Pizza and Mexican food top Alexa’s favorite food list, so what’s better than the fusion of the two at one of her favorite restaurants Asada Pizza in Sylmar, California. She loves to get the nopales pizza, topped with jalapeños and cilantro. Yum!! In my time with Alexa, I’ve come to learn the meaning of a quiet sort of connection. We didn’t have to converse much to enjoy each other’s company whether we were decorating Styrofoam cups to crush, playing guessing games in the acoustics lab, or doing crosswords! The lengthy down times made me very thankful for Andrea’s nail polish. Alexa and I had a spa night in the forward mess with Jason Dlugos (3rd Assistant Engineer) and Paul Nagelkirk (MMO).
While most of us keep aurally busy while we work with our hands, the acousticians keep their hands busy while listening for cetaceans! Jennifer McCullough (Lead Acoustician) brought a never-ending supply of pipe cleaners to build objects. See some of the creations below!
Food and Career Blog
I will really miss the meals aboard the Sette as well as all the conversations shared. Mahalo to all the stewards and friends who made sure I was fed, especially during teaching hours!
As mentioned before, I tried to do one small thing that I did not do the day before to break up the routine. This week’s major routine-break involved Hawaiian shave ice, put on by Verne Murakami (1st Assistant Engineer)!! Though I recognize that sweets can taste good, I generally prefer savory, sour, or spicy foods. Regardless, I had a blast making shave ice for others. In particular, Zack High (General Vessel Assistant–GVA) and Paul Nagelkirk (MMO) allowed me to make their shave ices. First, a scoop of ice cream, then some ube. Shaved ice fills the cup, coming to a mound above the lip. Flavored syrups like mango or blueberry color the ice. Finally, a sprinkle of ling hing mui accents.
Zack went to maritime school at Mid-Atlantic School in Norfolk, Virginia. Afterwards, he completed an internship on a vessel with the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. He learned basic CPR, safety and training, completed his Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping. One of his professors sent his resume to NOAA and a year later, Zack started working in Nov 2021 on the Sette! Though he started in the deck department under Chris Kaanaana (Chief Boatswain/Bosun), two months later, he transferred to the engineering department for a different career opportunity. As part of his role as a GVA, he goes on watch, does rounds, goes down to the main control room to take readings, goes up to the main deck to record temperatures of freezers, look for leaks or other signs of disrepair. He hopes to become a licensed engineer with aspirations to go into private industry or another federal branch. Zack is a big fan of weight lifting and loves fishing with Verne, catching big tuna and mahi mahi. He calls himself a gearhead because he likes working on cars and going to car shows. He also enjoys going to see live music; his last show was an underground punk concert in Seattle. He would like to start hiking. Zack likes boxing and he even gave me a little lesson on the ship!
Paul went to Michigan State University and majored in environmental biology and zoology. He became a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea and then later worked in oil and gas mitigation in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce environmental impacts due to noise pollution. In 2013, he started both ship and aerial surveys with NOAA. In the aerial surveys, the plane follows transect lines 600ft over the water.
Paul has also conducted aerial surveys of the North Atlantic Right Whale through the New England Aquarium. The New England Aquarium is the pioneer and premier research institution for the Right Whale. They run the individual ID catalog for the North Atlantic Right Whales (see https://rwcatalog.neaq.org/#/). They know the whales’ relationships to each other since they perform year to year tracking for conservation efforts. Climate change alters the whales’ prey locations, causing them to move farther north towards Canada. Further, they are susceptible to entanglements from the lobster and crab industry as well as collisions from ship traffic because they tend towards the coast. The number of North Atlantic Right Whales left is disturbingly low, about 350, landing them on the endangered species list.
Paul and I became fast friends. I affectionately call him my “worstie”, but he really is a “bestie”. We shared his favorite food (Detroit-style pizza) at Pizza Mamo in Honolulu–I highly recommend! His other hobbies (some of which we share) include Wordle, biking, hiking, and disc golf.
A very special mahalo to Cruise Leader 💞Marie Hill💞. Marie’s charm brought much energy to the science team. Her vibrant character will be missed!
Regrettably, my career highlights lack comprehensiveness. Give me another month, Teacher at Sea Program 😉, and I could feature everyone. I include some visual shout-outs in the images below!
Did you know?
You may be familiar with the duality of the word “aloha”, embodying both a greeting and a farewell. My exposure to new meanings of “aloha” through Chef Chris’s Aloha Kitchen: Recipes from Hawai’i cookbook by Alana Kysar inspired me to learn more. According to the Hawai’i Law of the Aloha Spirit,
“‘Aloha’ is the essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence. ‘Aloha’ means to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable.”
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: Aug 25, 2023
Science and Technology Log
Visually surveying for marine mammals has its limitations because they spend so much time underwater. To account for these limitations, a number of acoustic techniques are used to study cetaceans (whales and dolphins). There are four main passive acoustic instruments used by the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center’s Cetacean Research Program during ship surveys: towed arrays, drifting acoustic spar buoy recorders (DASBR), high-frequency acoustic recording packages (HARP), and sonobouys. Each instrument has its pros and cons so the data from each instrument provide a fuller picture of what’s under the sea.
On board the ship, every morning just before sunrise the acousticians deploy the towed array of hydrophones, which streams 300 m behind the ship. The towed array provides real-time information on calls and clicks of the whales and dolphins. Each section of the towed array has three hydrophones and a depth sensor (see picture below). The design comes from the National Marine Fisheries Service and are all built by Lead Acoustician Jennifer McCullough (to read more about Jennifer, see my previous post). While the towed array can pick up sounds from the cetaceans around the ship in real-time, it also picks up the sounds of the ship, thus obfuscating other calls. As such, autonomous recorders (DASBRs, HARPs, and sonobouys) are used to collect more data, as well as match species data collected from the towed arrays.
The HARP is a long-term acoustic recorder that sits on the seafloor at depths of 650-900 m depending on the site. Developed by the Whale Acoustics Lab at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, they are site-specific and sit out for one to two years. The one we retrieved during Leg 2 was deployed August 2022. The HARPs provide 1) time-series data that help with understanding seasonal occurrence of cetaceans and other marine life, 2) periodic data on the presence of animals that pass through the site, and 3) ocean noise reference points. The latter is important in measuring the potential impact of ship and construction noise on marine mammal behavior. For example, slowly over time, blue whales are shifting their call types to a lower frequency to compensate for the rise of ocean noise in their natural call range (Rice at al., 2022).
DASBRs are floating acoustic recorders deployed from the ship and retrieved sometime between 1-30 days later depending on their location from the ship. The DASBR collects acoustic data away from the ship and at a depth deeper in the water column than the towed array (about 150 m from the surface). This means there’s no noise from the ship that may disturb the animals and no surface noise from crashing waves or rain. A clear advantage of the DASBR is its ability to record beaked whale vocalizations, super high-frequency echolocation clicks. Beaked whales are only vocal during the lower portions of their foraging dives, which last for about 60-90 mins. On the ship with the towed array, we don’t spend enough time to capture their vocalizations. The DASBR on the other hand has time to capture an entire dive cycle of a beaked whale. Depending on the frequency and amplitude of the animal, the distance at which the DASBR can detect animals (or detection range) varies by species. For example, Kogia (pygmy and dwarf sperm whales) need to be near the sensor and facing it to pick up their calls, while the baleen whales have a larger detection range. To give you an idea of the overall advantages of the DASBR, it can pick up about 10 times more cetaceans than the towed array and help us learn more about their vocalizations and study their habitat range.
There are many recorded calls for which there is no visual match, so sonobouys are deployed after the visual team identifies a particular baleen whale species. Because the ship masks the very low frequency sounds made by most baleen whales, sonobouys are deployed to evaluate their call types. The hydrophones in the sonobouys are set at 90 ft from the ocean’s surface and they collect data for up to 8 hours.
I like the idea that these four instruments work in concert towards a shared goal, each with its strengths and weaknesses.
The information above was provided by the acoustics team. I will focus on a couple in particular, Yvonne Barkley (Cruise Lead in Training) and Erik Norris (Acoustician), who met on NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette 13 years ago!
Yvonne Barkley first went to University of California, San Diego and then transferred to Santa Barbara City College for a pipeline into University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, she studied aquatic biology. A friend told her about a temporary job as an acoustic analyst for a local research firm invested in mitigating the impact of oil companies on the bowhead whale migration through the Beaufort Sea. It is at that job that she received her first acoustic training. On a path towards marine mammals, Yvonne’s cousin alerted her to an internship at the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in Pt. Loma, California prepping dolphin food, cleaning, etc. The program itself trained bottlenose dolphins to be swimmer detectors and California sea lions to be sea mine detectors! For example, bottlenose dolphins are used at different naval bases and combat zones to detect anomalous scuba divers. Yvonne was accepted into the internship where a seminar given by a NOAA Fisheries representative piqued her interest about marine mammal research. She found an acoustic analyst internship at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (one of NOAA’s six science centers). There, she learned about field projects to collect cetacean data at sea for months at a time. In contact with Erin Oleson (HICEAS 2023 Chief Scientist), she embarked on her first mission from Hawaii to Guam in 2010 on the very ship we are currently on! That cruise brought Yvonne and Erik together, but more on that later.
After collecting data that weren’t intended to be used in stock assessments, like a true scientist, Yvonne began to wonder, “How can we use these data?” This curiosity, the advancement of acoustic data collection methods, and the drive to uncover data gaps in the literature converged into a puzzle for Yvonne to solve. I listened in awe as Yvonne described the three main chapters of her doctoral thesis. The first one involved species classification for false killer whales (a priority species for HICEAS). Her research used whistle data to distinguish the whales acoustically at the population level. She found that the classification machine learning model yielded low accuracy rates. Access the paper here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00645/full
The next chapter focused on improving localizing methods for deep diving whales using sperm whale acoustic data. I was drawn to the research of this chapter because of the modeling components. Probabilistic models are used to estimate the location of cetaceans. An ambiguity volume is an example of such a probabilistic indicator. It is computed from source location estimates that are most accurate to the actual measured locations. As the number of different detections for the same whale at different positions from the ship increases, the ambiguity volume decreases, thereby narrowing down the possible location of the whale. The increased location accuracy is depicted in the figure below through the progression of subfigures a) – f); subfigure a) has fewer detections for the same whale than subfigure f). As we move to subfigure f), we can see that the margins of location estimates are much smaller, giving us a more accurate location estimate for the whale. https://pubs.aip.org/asa/jasa/article-pdf/150/2/1120/15349527/1120_1_online.pdf
The final chapter used the ambiguity volumes for location estimates from the previous chapter and available environmental data from remotely sensed satellite data sets that lined up with those locations to learn about the habitat preferences of sperm whales. Check out the paper: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frsen.2022.940186/full
Erik Norris got his Bachelor’s degree at James Madison University in integrated science and technology. He was initially working with energy production and city planning, dredging company shipping channels up and down the east coast. He left and traveled for a while. When I asked him to share one of his fondest memories, he mentioned his time in a small fishing village called Nomozaki, Japan. What struck him most about this village was the community-oriented nature of the villagers. At the end of the day, local fishermen took a portion of their catch of the day and shared it with the entire village. The whole community came out to have a big party together, enjoying the catch and the company. The expression of an economy focused on people rather than on profits really speaks to me. I am reminded of a couple of quotes from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer:
“A gift comes to you through no action of your own…the more something is shared, the greater its value becomes. This is hard to grasp for society is steeped in notions of private property, where others are by definition excluded from sharing.”
(Kimmerer, 2013, p. 23 and 27, respectively)
While Erik worked on a boatyard, he saw people working on the escort vessel for the Hōkūle’a, a wa’a (voyaging canoe) that uses traditional Polynesian wayfinding techniques (no technology, not even a watch) to navigate the ocean. (The Hōkūle’a is currently on its 15th voyage. Follow along here: https://hokulea.com/moananuiakea/). He approached the crew and volunteered to work on the escort vessel in-port. When the vessels were ready to commence their voyage, Erik had become so familiar with that vessel that they asked him to join, which turned into a 6-month journey. When I inquired about Erik’s attraction to the maritime industry, he quipped that he’s Moana from the Disney movie. For the sake of research, I had the ship’s movie DJ, Octavio De Menas (General Vessel Assistant), put on the movie. From what I gathered, this quote from Moana’s song “How Far I’ll Go” must represent his draw to the ocean:
“See the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me.”
Through conversations with others on the ship, it seems like the ocean has a similar allure for many. Having been out here for three weeks, I get it. We first saw land last week and it felt like an intrusion. Enough about me, back to Erik!
Later, while talking to his friend’s dad who was a NOAA Corps Officer about his passion for the ocean, he joined the NOAA Corps himself. He met Yvonne as an Ensign on the Sette. He went on to become Lieutenant Junior Grade, and then “retired” from NOAA Corps as a Lieutenant because he was about to rotate from his land billet at Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) to another land billet which would have taken him away from Hawaii. He found a civilian job in Hawaii with PIFSC as a vessel operations coordinator in charge of small boats, fabrication and design, field logistics, and HARPs. He attributes his entry into the world of acoustics to Yvonne and HARPs. His current interests include using autonomous vehicles (e.g. sea glider) for a range of oceanographic environment missions.
I asked Yvonne and Erik the same questions separately and we laughed about the different approaches they took in their answers. Erik first noticed Yvonne because she was moving equipment and he was in charge of the equipment on the ship. Yvonne first noticed Erik’s sense of humor juxtaposed with her expectations from someone in the uniformed services. On their time at sea, they shared conversations over meals. Erik was captivated by the way Yvonne talked about her oma’s (grandmother’s) Indo-Dutch cooking. For more on Erik and Yvonne’s food connection, visit the Food Log below. Once in Guam, Yvonne was struck by Erik’s thoughtfulness in preceding her on a hike in the jungle so he could clear off all the spider webs; his distaste for spiders elevated Yvonne’s appreciation for his sacrifice. This is not the only time Erik put Yvonne before himself. Yvonne was really sick in Bali and ended up in a hospital in Malaysia. Erik took leave from work and (according to him) flew to comfort her and accompany her home. According to others, he rescued her. With a ring attached to the keyring on his swimming trunks, under a rainbow and surrounded by sea turtles, Erik proposed to Yvonne while surfing. They have been married since 2016. They currently live in their house, Gertrude, with their dog Sweetpea.
Personal Log with Career Highlight
I started teaching this week. Classes are going well! Shout out to my Abstract Algebra students who never cease to amaze me with their curiosity and courage. Brave Space–IYKYK! I told them our picture below looks like the Brady Bunch, which they did not understand so they have additional homework to watch the opening credits.
Everyday, I try to do one thing I didn’t do the day before. I had two memorable events from this week. The first was during drills. We have weekly fire and abandon ship drills, so this week a few of us practiced the fire hose off the bow. Below you can see Yvonne assisting me as I cycled through the different spraying options.
The second non-routine thing I enjoyed was helping Joe Roessler (Electronic Technician–ET) install a cable to the outdoor wifi antenna. Our work is the reason I can compose this blog post on the boat deck in my outdoor office, wind whipping my hair to the sounds of the ships’ wake. We worked in the trawl house to solder connector pins to cable ends. Joe’s approach to teaching is familiar. In my classrooms, I provide the tools for students to solve problems with very little instruction. If they need some, I am there to help answer questions. Joe set up the soldering station, provided the leatherman, rubber tape, the connectors, the cable and we went to work. There were many parallels in his methods and mine. We first attempted a connection to the cable, but the pins were not sitting right. Joe evaluated the situation and quickly thought of a different approach to connect the cables. Trying a solution and then pivoting when it doesn’t work out is a skill we try to develop in my classes!
Joe got his amateur radio license at 13! At that time, kids were particularly into shortwave radio because of the US human moon landing. As a young adult he went to the Navy for naval aviation aircraft maintenance. After he was discharged from active duty, Joe continued working in the Naval Reserve and also at private sector companies where he tested robotic equipment. Later, he joined the Civil Service as an aircraft electrician at a naval air rework facility in San Diego. He then transferred to the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah where he returned to the position of an ET. Joe worked with a biological integrated detection system for weapons of mass destruction, in biological warfare defense, with instrumentation and testing equipment and research development. He took a short 4-year detour a businessman and realized it was not what he wanted to do. NOAA had openings in Seattle so he applied and was hired! His first season was on NOAA Ship Rainier in Alaska. Having had enough of the cold weather, he asked for a relocation to Hawaii. He worked on our very ship, the Sette, installing equipment before its very first mission! He met his wife in Samoa and has been working for NOAA 22 years!
This week Chef Chris Williams [see previous blog post for more about Chris] made some yummy meals, my favorite pictured below!
When Erik first mentioned Yvonne’s Oma’s Dutch-Indo cooking, I was intrigued because I haven’t had much of either, let alone their fusion. Though Erik insisted that all of Yvonne’s dishes are his favorite dish, after much encouragement he narrowed it down to Oma’s croquette recipe. It’s a fried potato dish with meat inside, best when served with Chinese or Dijon mustard. Yvonne’s favorite dish is her oma’s lemper ayam. The moment she mentioned that it’s sticky rice stuffed with chicken inside I asked if it’s wrapped in any type of leaf. After researching some recipes, I found that it’s traditionally wrapped with banana leaves.
I am going to search for lemper when I get home because I have a certain fondness for food wrapped in leaves. I am particularly tickled by the similarities in leaf-wrapped food across different cultures. For example, there’s law mai gai (wrapped in lotus leaf with Chinese origins), zong (wrapped in bamboo leaf also with Chinese origins), dolmas (wrapped in grape leaves with origins in the Levant), tamale (wrapped in corn husk with Aztec origins), and cochinita pibil (wrapped in banana leaves with Mayan origins). This may be a stretch, but I also like onigirazu/handrolls/onigiri (wrapped in seaweed with Japanese origins) and gimbap (wrapped in seaweed with Korean origins).
There is even a Hawaiian version of a leaf-wrapped food called lau lau! It was the second thing I tried when I landed in Honolulu. Usually lau lau consists of pork and salted butterfish first wrapped in kalo (taro) leaves, which are edible, and then in ki (ti) leaves, which are not edible. Finally, traditionally it is steamed in an imu pit (underground pit). It can be found in restaurants and served at luaus. Though it was new to me, it felt so wonderfully familiar.
While searching for the history of lau lau, I found a beautifully written memory that describes lau lau as an embodiment of the beach, the valleys, and the mountains through the ingredients of butterfish, kalo/ki, and pig. Not only does the final product connect these landscapes, but the preparation connects families and friends.
“Early Hawaiians lived in valleys that provided them protection and food. Villages were organized by families and by land divisions, which, in old Hawaii, were divided from the beach to the mountains. That meant that each village and family had complete accessibility to the beach and the mountains and all their offerings. Lau Lau represents these familial land divisions because its ingredients come from the beach, the valleys, and the mountains. The preparation was always my favorite part, because we’d be together for hours sharing stories, laughing, and having fun. Wrapping Lau Laus was where we all became familiar with who we were.”
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: Aug 21, 2023
It’s hard to capture the feeling of the ship with pictures or words, but alas, here is an attempt! The ship essentially has 5 levels. The lowest is mostly the engine room plus a small space for the gym and laundry. The next level (my favorite) is the Main Deck, which has some staterooms but more importantly, the Mess, the Galley (kitchen), and the Forward Mess. The next level is the 01 Deck which houses Acoustics, the E-lab, the survey technician’s office (where I teach), and many of the staterooms (including mine!). Above the 01 deck is the 02 deck where most of the NOAA Corps Officers and some engineers sleep. Then there’s the Bridge where the officers drive the ship in the company of a deck crew member on watch. Finally, the Flying Bridge is the cherry on top! The birders and marine mammal observers do all their sightings from up there.
Science and Technology Log with Career Highlights
Michael Force (birder) and Ernesto Vázquez (marine mammal observer – MMO) are two amazing photographers on board. They helped me with the settings on my camera to capture the wildlife (shutter priority, auto ISO, center focus, continuous shots, fine detail). The first photo is a photo of a tropicbird taken by Ernesto.
Ernesto started with one semester at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where he was an honors student in his math classes, but failed in other classes. Drawn by his love of diving and the sea, he left to go to La Paz, and started at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, located next to the waters of the Gulf of California. He majored in marine biology, and took ecology applied statistics, general physics, Calculus 1 and Calculus 2. By his 3rd semester, he started doing community engagement at the university at an AMNIOTS lab, where his interest in cetaceans began.
While he joined multiple projects, the humpback whale ecology was his favorite. It is there in Cabo San Lucas where he learned photography for species identification and how to use the crossbow for sampling. He also became acquainted with specialized software to interpret data, which became a very useful skill for his future.
After graduation, Ernesto went to Ensenada to start his Master’s program. However, the scholarship and program in which he was enrolled disappeared, so he started looking for jobs. His first NOAA project was focused on the vaquita (a porpoise on the brink of extinction). It was a binational expedition in the Gulf of California for 2 months. In 2000, he joined a 3-year project on the eastern tropical Pacific, which was basically surveying a water mass the size of the African continent. On board, he estimated dolphin group sizes associated with tuna fishing operations. Since then he’s been joining similar expeditions that take him to places like the Galapagos and Alaska as part of the biopsy team.
I have such fondness for Ernesto because we shared many meals and many conversations during our leg 1 in-port. He has a calming and reassuring nature to his leadership style. In a subsequent leg of the HICEAS, he’ll be moving to NOAA SHIP Reuben Lasker to be a senior observer! Well-deserved, Ernesto!
I sat with Michael Force to learn more about the Red-tailed Tropicbird. I found out that the mariner’s name for tropicbirds is bosun bird, because their whistle resembles the call of the bosun’s whistle, formerly used to muster the deck crew. The Red-tailed Tropicbird is the largest of the three tropicbird species and is most common in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It’s a ground nester, placing its nest under bushes to help shade them from the intense tropical sun. They love to eat flying fish and will travel far for food to bring back to their chicks. They dive from great heights with a spectacular vertical plunge. They are commonly attracted to ships and often fly around the highest point of the vessel; a goose-like croak will announce that one has snuck up behind us. Adult survival is very high because predation pressure at sea is very low. Rats, mice, and cats are predators ashore, especially for the young since they are unprotected in their ground nests.
Their two elongated red tail feathers were highly valued by native Hawaiians, especially in crafting kāhili. These intricate feather posts accompanied royalty during events like battles, or large ceremonies. Dawn Breese (birder) gave me an extensive tour of the different kāhili at the Bishop Museum while we were in-port awaiting Leg 1. To learn more, visit the links in the reference list below.
Michael’s interest in birding started at the young age of 7 or 8! Completely self-taught, he boarded his first commercial vessel at 16 for a pelagic seabird trip out of Westport, Washington, organized by the late Terry Wahl, a professor and esteemed seabird biologist at Western Washington University, Bellingham. The Westport pelagic trips were famous in the birding community. Using sport fishing charters to take landlubbers to Grays Canyon, an area rich in marine diversity, these trips were always well-attended. As a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, Westport, only five hours south, was a convenient location to reach the open sea and Michael was hooked.
Through Terry, he heard that Southwest Fisheries Science Center (one of six NOAA’s science centers) was looking for a volunteer observer for a 4-month voyage of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, thus began his NOAA journey. He interspersed seabird and NOAA trips with his studies at the University of British Columbia, where he majored in geography. The Snow Petrel is Michael’s favorite bird because it’s a unique Antarctic seabird, closely associated with ice, and is the world’s only pure white petrel.
I appreciate Michael’s quirkiness. I once told him that because of my eyesight, I only want to see the cetaceans if they are really close to the ship. He teased, “close enough you can poke them with a stick!” Thanks for the laughs, Michael!
The Red-footed Booby is the only polymorphic (having different color morphs) booby. The brown polymorph dominates the eastern Pacific. Their red feet are a breeding adaptation; the redder the feet, the more likely they’ll find a mate—ooo la la. Unlike other birds, Red-footed Boobies do not use their breasts to incubate their chicks; they use their webbed feet! They also have a secondary set of nostrils to keep water out when they’re fishing and a clear membrane over their eyes that act like goggles. I personally enjoy watching them attempt to land on the jackstaff on the ship because sometimes they put out their landing gear and can’t quite bring it to fruition, so their little red webbed feet just dangle around in the wind, splayed open.
Juan Carlos (marine mammal observer-MMO) likes to see Fraser’s dolphins because they are a rare sight. On the shy side, they tend to run from the boat. Though Juan Carlos has not often seen Fraser’s dolphins with other groups (he’s seen them with melon-headed whales), according to whalefacts.org, they are fairly social and will often hang with false killer whales (a HICEAS priority species), melon-headed whales, Risso’s dolphins and short-finned pilot whales. The other MMOs like to tease the Fraser’s dolphins for their T-rex-like pectoral fins.
Coincidentally, Juan Carlos (JC) went to the same college as Ernesto in La Paz! He started observing marine mammals while still in school at a tourist company running dolphin tours. His boats would take tourists out to see the sea lion colony at the north end of Isla Partida, and to snorkel in the Bay of La Paz where there is an abundance of sea life. He got involved with a US program that takes students to La Paz to learn about marine science, specifically marine mammals and sea lions.
JC first learned about NOAA through a UNAM professor and started working on the same Gulf project Ernesto would work on later. JC shared the process of calibrating the marine mammal observers’ counts. In the past, helicopters took photos from above and counted all the individuals in the pods. These actual counts were compared to each MMO’s estimated counts providing a margin of error for each MMO. For example, JC may be consistently 8% below the actual count. These margins of error are considered during abundance estimates. Since calibrations don’t happen with helicopters anymore, there are very few MMOs with their margins of error recorded, making JC a very valuable MMO.
JC has a quiet sense of care. At lunch recently, I put my mug of tea down at his table before grabbing lunch. When I returned, he put a napkin under my mug. When I lifted the mug to drink, I held down the napkin with my free hand to stop the fan from blowing it away. JC gently picked up the napkin and flipped it over so the open side did not catch the wind. I am going to miss my new family!
I’ve grown accustomed to ship life. I can now tell when there is a sighting without being informed because the ship’s movement feels different and the lighting/shadows often change. To break out of routine, I try to do something different everyday that I didn’t do the day before. This week’s excitement was crossing the international date line (aka 180°E/W) from east to west!
Apparently new crew members who cross the date line for the first time by way of sea are initiated into the domain of the golden dragon. I couldn’t find much on the inception of this sailor tradition, but it seems like it’s rooted in China’s reverence for dragons. As such, some of us got to crafting dragon-themed costumes for the occasion! The pipe cleaners Jennifer McCullough (Lead Acoustician) brought onboard have been crucial for not only keeping our hands busy, but also provided a means to make dragons, dragon wings, and dragon scales.
Well, it’s happening. The fresh vegetables are starting to diminish! When I talked with my mom, she reminded me to eat more fruit! Though there is no fruit featured in the images below, I have indeed increased my fruit consumption. Thanks, mom!
In the Forward Mess, there is an ice cream fridge! I’m more fascinated by the ice cream fridge conceptually rather than gastronomically. I usually sit in the Forward Mess on the counter just next to the fridge so I’ve become acquainted with the ice cream habits of those on board. Some like to just pay a visual visit to the fridge while others are daily indulgers. Fat Boys and Greek Yogurt popsicles (those went FAST) are the most popular. Ben and Jerry’s is also well-liked, but there usually is an abundance so everyone can have what they want. I personally only tried Octavio De Mena’s (General Vessel Assistant) Li Hing Miu popsicle. Though the li hing miu is what made the popsicle good, it was still too sweet for me.
Did you know?
During lunch with Fionna Matheson (Commanding Officer), I learned that the mother-calf pair swim in what’s called the echelon formation. As seen in the photo below, the calf is swimming in close proximity to the mother, between the dorsal fin and tail. This formation is crucial to infant survival as it provides the calf with hydrodynamic benefits and energy conservation during periods of travel (Noren et al., 2007). Now, isn’t that the sweetest?
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
Temperature: 27.06° C
Latitude: 29°53’0” N
Science and Technology Log with Career Highlights
Previously, I wrote about the day-time operations focused on surveying whales, dolphins, and birds. Through the 25-powered binoculars (big eyes), the large mammals in the distance look microscopic. Now, the sun has set and I take us underwater to learn about the tiny world of ichthyoplankton, magnified to reveal intricate details of their exquisite structures.
Weather permitting, Nich Sucher (Survey Technician) works with the deck crew to deploy the CTD, which measures conductivity, temperature, and depth. This information is used to help scientists understand the physical, chemical, and biological changes of the ocean to help inform them of environmental changes. For example, Nich explained that data from CTDs are used to better understand why tuna were migrating away from Hawaii and towards California. The data can help answer whether the tuna are moving north for access to more oxygen in the water or for cooler temperatures. On our project, we deploy the CTD down to 1000m because that is where some of our deep diving cetacean species feed. Also, the temperature & pressure affects how sound travels through the water. This information can be used to calculate the speed of sound at different depths.
Nich wanted to work for NOAA since he was in middle school! In high school he fell in love with fish. Initially he went to college in Iowa for soccer and then transferred to Carthage College, in Kenosha, Wisconsin to study environmental science, conservation and ecology. Nich did an independent study with his aquatic ecology professor on a coral reef project in Roatan, Hondurus. His senior thesis investigated the feasibility of releasing captive-bred axolotl (an adorable salamander that’s critically endangered and possibly extinct in nature) into the wild. After college, he had a job at an aquarium, and while he temped at US Fish and Wildlife studying chub and salmon, NOAA reached out about his job application. He started in January 2022 on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette!
Since the CTD is deployed to 1000m, a common extracurricular activity is to attach styrofoam objects to the instrument because they shrink as a result of the pressure! On a previous leg, Commanding Officer Fionna Matheson shrunk a styrofoam head, which can be seen in the picture of Nich above. A few of us shrunk decorated styrofoam cups.
The whole process of the CTD deployment and retrieval takes about an hour to an hour and a half. The Isaacs-Kidd Midwater Trawl (IKMT) net tow usually follows. Jessie Perelman and Dre Schmidt are the plankton researchers on board this leg of HICEAS. Most nights, we do 2-3 tows of the net. (They are affectionately called a “tow-yo” because the net gets towed in and out several times.) They use an inclinometer, a.k.a. angled angle, to measure the angle of the line (see picture below) and then confer with a chart to determine the length of the line needed to reach the desired depth. The chart is a good way to avoid on-the-spot trigonometric calculations. But it’s a good exercise to ask yourself anyway: if you know the desired depth and the angle, how would you calculate the length of the line needed?
After the tows, we bring the larvae into the wet lab and the fun begins. The goal is to sort out the fish larvae from the other larvae. Truthfully, I am not very good at sorting the fish and I just like to look at the organisms under the microscope. The most awe-inspiring creatures I saw under the scope were the shelled pteropods (sea butterflies) and a juvenile sea star that, according to Dre, may have recently morphed from the larval stage. With the naked eye, they look like marks made with a sharp pencil, but under the scope, the enormity of their existence is profoundly moving. While I could not capture these beauties in a photograph, I was able to capture other creatures.
Personal/Food Log with Career Highlights
As I fall into a daily routine, I periodically need small bits of irregularity for stimulation. This week, I was privileged enough to work with Chef Chris. Chef Chris is originally from north Philadelphia. In the absence of cable during childhood, he watched cooking shows like Yan Can Cook, Frugal Gourmet, and Julia Child on PBS. He started off cooking on NOAA Ship Rainier and now is the Chief Steward on NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. We collaborated to make some pork dumplings and vegetable spring rolls for everyone. I cook at home often, but not for so many people, so Chris was essential in helping me scale up the dishes. We bonded over not measuring out ingredients so here is approximately the two recipes we used.
Pork Dumpling Filling
5 lbs of ground pork (when my mom makes these, we use a mix of lean ground pork and fatty ground pork)
Mirin (I use Shaioxing wine, but mirin is a good substitute!)
Soy sauce (we used Kikkoman; I like to use Pearl River Bridge Light Soy)
Egg Roll Filling
Several of us worked together to help fold the dumplings and egg rolls. I delighted in the number of different hands that contributed to feeding our community. Chef Chris expertly cooked everything and it was all gobbled up!
At night, I assist Jessie Perelman and Dre Schimdt with their plankton research. They were the first to come by to help fold dumplings. Jessie did her undergraduate work in biological science at University of Southern California (USC) with a plan to go to veterinary school. She worked in a marine science lab at USC, and then studied abroad in Australia to take more marine biology classes not available at USC. After she graduated, she got a job as research assistant at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she solidified her passion for research. She applied for graduate school and ended up at the University of Hawaii studying biological oceanography. Her dissertation focused on oceanographic influences on mesopelagic communities across eastern Pacific Ocean using insights from active acoustics, nets, and other sampling techniques. An interesting interdisciplinary part of her background includes learning about international policy on issues like deep sea mining. The international meetings with delegates were very informative for her. She’s also worked on science communication writing, such as science blogging. In Fall 2022, Jessie started as a Marine Ecosystem Research Analyst at NOAA!
Dre Schmidt received her bachelors in biology at Florida State University. She took Calculus, Mathematical Modeling for Biology, Analysis and Statistical Design, and Physics to supplement her biology degree. She volunteered at a research lab on campus and after college, took a couple of years off to work in marine science education for 5th grade to college level students. She went for her master’s degree in Kiel, Germany to study physiological effects of low-level warming on coral and their larvae. She has been at NOAA for 2 years, first as a research associate and now as an essential fish habitat coordinator. What she loves about her job is the variety of responsibilities. She keeps busy by sorting plankton, doing genetics lab work, analyzing data in R, writing up results, and going to sea! Engaging in these different tasks help to activate different parts of the brain, which I can totally relate to! Her advice to students is to know your worth and ask for what you deserve. Her favorite fish larva is the very ugly Centrobranchus andreae simply because her name is found within the name of the organism. I can’t blame her because my favorite flower is the Gaillardia for the same reason.
Matt Benes (Able-bodied Seaman and Deck Boss) took a break in his duties to fold some dumplings with us. Though Matt declined to be interviewed, I can tell you we share a deep appreciation for food as a mechanism for cultural, historical, and political understanding.
Jamie Delgado (Medical Officer) joined in on the egg roll wrapping. Jamie received her bachelor’s in science and nursing at Rutgers University. She joined the Public Health Service (PHS), and worked at the Indian Health Service (IHS) in northern Arizona. Later, she worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a research nurse specialist. Jamie earned her Doctor of Nursing at University of Maryland before coming to NOAA as ship medical officer. Jamie has so much good financial advice about scholarships and loan repayments programs. Check out these links to learn more:
She also shared that you can retire in a total of 20 years with uniformed services, you get a pension, healthcare benefits, a housing allowance, a food allowance, 30 days paid leave, and unlimited sick leave. Jamie has been in service for 10 years, and with NOAA for 1 year and 5 months.
Jamie also helped me out during our in-port during Leg 1. Snorkeling had dislodged some ear wax and clogged my ear for a couple of days making daily life really uncomfortable. Jason Dlugos’s (3rd Assistant Engineer) “ear beer” helped, but I was still off balance. Jamie had to endure the task of flushing my ear out over the course of two days. Eventually, I did have to go to urgent care to get the rest out. Now I’m 100%!
Last but never least, Octavio De Mena, a.k.a OC, (General Vessel Assistant in the Deck Department) came by to roll some egg rolls. He is originally from the Republic of Panama and loves classic rock music. While we have no intersection in our movie tastes, we share some similarities in the food we ate growing up due to the large Chinese population in Panama. According to the Harvard Review of Latin America, the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Panama in 1854 to build the Trans-Isthmian Railroad. The inhumane treatment and disregard for the workers’ welfare is reminiscent of the situation a decade later with the Transcontinental Railway in the United States. This convergence of cultures led to haw flakes and dried plums in both our childhoods!
OC was an aircraft mechanic in the military reserves, and a security contractor in Latin America. He decided to come back to the U.S. to fulfill his dream job as a professional mariner. On his journey in pursuing his dream, he volunteered for the civil air patrol, and served as an auxiliary for search and rescue flying small Cessnas. He saw a NOAA ship at this job which prompted a search for a position within NOAA. He has been on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette since February 2023. On the ship, OC and I are regulars in the forward mess. Sometimes having opposite tastes works out in your f(l)avor, as I get to eat OC’s tomatoes and watermelon jolly ranchers.
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!
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.
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: July 14, 2023
We got notification that we have a Chief Engineer. However, we also got news that the ship needs some repair. The new sail date is now Friday July 21, which means I will not be able to sail on Leg 1 and that I will be returning home. Luckily, Chief Scientist Erin Oleson, the Teacher at Sea Program, and my university granted me permission to sail on Leg 2 of the HICEAS Survey! I will teach my classes on board NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, so I will truly be a Teacher at Sea!
In my previous post, I talked about the structure of the crew on the ship. We currently have four engineers on the ship: Jason Dlugos (3rd Assistant Engineer), Dylan Hepburn (3rd Assistant Engineer), Greg White (JUE), and Shannica (Neek) Matthews (General Vessel Assistant). I was fortunate to spend a good deal of time with each of the engineers. The engineers are responsible for a myriad of tasks on the ship, and the primary one is making sure the engines of the ship function properly. The engine room also holds generators, as well as the salt water filtration system that cools the ship and provides the ship with drinking and cleaning water. I am simplifying the engine room for this post, but it is very clear that the jobs of the engineers on the ship are absolutely crucial to mission success.
In this post, I will share some of my conversations with Neek. Neek’s homebase is in Virginia. After high school, she worked in the shipyard painting ships and installing insulation. She spent most of her time at dry dock, but then learned about opportunities working on traveling vessels. She started looking into jobs on vessels that explored the world. Now, she splits her time working on ships at the shipyard and ships out at sea. Through her job, she’s traveled nationally to Seattle and Hawaii, as well as internationally to Japan, Greece, Italy, and France. She said it’s the best decision she’s ever made! What she enjoys the most about her work is that she gets to solve problems and be creative.
In her current position, Neek is learning new things in the engine room so that she can work more within that department in the future. Her company is also sponsoring her to take classes to further her engineering career. As the Wiper, she performs her work in every space of the ship. She describes her responsibilities as keeping spaces clean (picking up trash and wiping down oil and water), and making sure everything is secure. Both cleanliness and security are very important for all of our safety aboard the ship. When I’ve run into Neek on the ship, she’s been working with Dylan on fixing plumbing on toilets, examining leaks, and using the technique of sounding to measure the height of fluids in tanks. Unfortunately, Neek is only on Leg 1 so we will miss sailing with each other on NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette! Regardless, it’s been a blast hanging out with her and the other engineers!
Science and Technology Log
The Marine Mammal Observers (MMO), Birders, and I continue to help the Monk Seal and Green Turtle groups prepare for their projects. Since everything is so new to me, I really enjoy learning about the science!
I helped Biologist Shawn Murakawa from the Marine Turtle Biology & Assessment Program sort green turtle humeri! In my conversations with Shawn and in my reading of the National Sea Turtle Aging Laboratory Protocol for Processing Sea Turtle Bones for Age Estimation (Goshe et al., 2020) she provided, I learned about the process and will provide a summary of it below.
Humeri bones are important in estimating the turtle’s age and growth since there are currently no known age estimating techniques using external structures. By looking at the cross-sections of these humerus bones, scientists can analyze growth marks to estimate the age of a turtle—similar to looking at the rings of a tree, but not quite. This age-estimation method is called skeletochronology. Before all this, scientists need to carefully clean the humerus bones and then dry them—a process that can take up to 30 days. Measurements of the bones such as diameter and length are taken, followed by cutting cross sections. Thin 2-3 cm cross-sections are decalcified and then stained with hematoxilyn. The stained thin section is now ready to be mounted on a slide for imaging. An example of the final result for a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) is shown below:
I helped to sort bones that were already dried. If the clearing and drying process is not sufficient, the bones begin to degrade and are no longer useful for skeletochronology. My job (then Suzanne Yin, Allan Ligon, and Dawn Breese joined me later) was to sort the bones into three categories: 1) moldy bones for discarding 2) good candidates for skeletochronology that came from turtles with no tumors from Fibropapillomatosis 3) good candidates for skeletochronology that came from turtles with tumors from Fibropapillomatosis.
According to the NOAA (2011), fibropapillomatosis is a tumor-causing disease that debilitates sea turtles and can cause death depending on the severity and size of the tumors. While the disease is most common in green sea turtles, it is now found in all seven sea turtle species. It is not yet known how this disease is spread or caused so there is not yet any treatment for it.
Later, Yin organized a group of us to go take a tour of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), a University of Hawaiʻi campus on Moku o Loʻe (Coconut Island). Lars Bejder, the director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the institute, was our host and gave us a tour of the labs on the islands. Some of the research conducted by the labs include testing out shark deterrents, creating structures to grow coral, and recording the body condition indices of female whales during gestation and after birth. For internship and volunteer opportunities, check out their webpage: https://www.himb.hawaii.edu/education/interns_volunteers/
After the tour, we listened to a talk by Jessica Kendall-Barr, a Scripps Postdoctoral Scholar at the Center for Marine Biotechnology & Biomedicine at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in UC San Diego, on the sleeping behavior of Elephant Seals. Jessica’s integrated art and science into her talk which made it very engaging. She did a really good job motivating the research and outlining the implications of the results. In a nutshell, wild animals have developed sleeping adaptations to balance feeding and sleeping while avoiding predation (Kendall-Barr et al., 2023). For example, “cows sleep-chew, horses sleep-stand, ostriches sleep-stare, and frigate birds sleep-fly” (Kendall-Barr et al., 2023, p.260). After developing a new submersible system to record brain activity, heart rate, depth of dive and elephant seal motion, Kendall-Barr et al. (2023) showed that elephant seals sleep-spiral at depths of approximately 300 m, where they are largely out of sight of predators, for a total of about 2 hours a day over the course of 7 months. The results have implications on conservation efforts as well as aid in understanding conditions for human free divers.
Goshe, L.R., L. Avens, M.L. Snover, and A.A. Hohn. 2020. National Sea Turtle Aging Laboratory Protocol for processing sea turtle bones for age estimation. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SEFSC-746, 49 p. https://doi.org/10.25923/gqva-9y22.
Kendall-Bar, J., Williams, T., Mukherji, R., Lozano, D., Pitman, J., Holser R., Keates, T., Beltran, R., Robinson, P., Crocker, D., Adachi, T., Lyamin, O., Vyssotski, A., & Costa, D. (2023). Brain activity of diving seals reveals short sleep cycles at depth. Science, 380, 260-265. DOI:10.1126/science.adf0566
I had been looking forward to sailing since 2019 and was thrilled to finally meet the scientists and crew; they are all so inspiring! Each task the Chief Sci had us work on was all so exciting and new. I truly enjoyed working with the MMOs and Birders to support the monk seal and green turtle research teams. When I first got the notification that the mission was delayed a second time, curtailing it to just one week at sea, I was devastated because it meant I would be probably going home. I am really grateful that Erin (Chief Sci) and Emily (Teacher at Sea) could arrange for me to join leg 2! I’ve been learning the visual surveying procedures and bonded with the MMOs and the birders so I’m overjoyed to be returning. Let’s just keep in mind that I’m not guaranteed to sail because anything can still happen.
Below are some group pictures with my team!
The food on board continues to be too good. On weekdays while in port, we get breakfast and lunch. The menu is displayed on a whiteboard. As you can see in the image, there is usually a little spark of joy written on them that bring a smile to my face. (I think Medical Officer Jamie Delgado writes them!)
Ichthyoplankton researcher, Justin Suca, invited us to a Fish Fry to enjoy the fish he and his friend, sailor Ateeba, speared. It was my first fish fry and it was incredible! They caught Tako (Octopus), Nenue (Sea Chub), A’awa (Table Boss), Uhu (Parrotfish), and Kumu (Goatfish). They prepared the Tako as ceviche, Nenue as poke, A’awa as fish nuggets, and very interestingly, the Uhu and Kumu were prepared Chinese-style. Chinese-style fish is first steamed (in this case Justin “steamed” in foil on the grill), usually with ginger, garlic, and green part of scallions. After steaming, heat up oil, pour it on the fish, and delight in the sizzling sounds. Add some shoyu (soy sauce), and maybe some Shaoxing cooking wine, if you wish. The Kumu was my absolute favorite. It was so silky and smooth.
Did You Know?
Since the toilet water is pumped from sea water, you can see the bioluminescent life if you turn off the lights while flushing! I found the best time to do it is early in the morning when no one has used the toilet in a while. MMO and roomie Andrea Bendlin shared this little special gem with me.
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: June 23, 2023
Introduction and Background
Hi Everyone! My name is Gail Tang and I am an Associate Professor of Mathematics at University of La Verne located in Southern California, about 35 miles east of East Los Angeles. I have been the Math program chair for 5 years. I teach mainly upper-level math classes for majors, but also really enjoy teaching the lower-level courses since it is in these classes where I can identify future math majors/minors. Shout out to those who added a math major/minor after one of these classes. You know who you are!
As I’ve been telling people about my summer plans, several questions have come up which I will answer below.
Where am I going?
In a few days, I am flying to Honolulu, Hawaii to start orientation for my Teacher at Sea (TAS) experience. TAS is a program of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for any educators at any level teaching any subject! This could be YOU! Check out more here: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/teacher-at-sea-program
What are the goals of Teacher at Sea with NOAA?
The TAS program has two main goals (TAS Online Training Documents, 2023):
To increase environmental literacy, outreach, and educational initiatives
To recruit and retain a highly adaptable technically competent and diverse workforce
Thus, during my time out at sea, I will be learning about NOAA research as related to ocean literacy principles, as well as education and training paths for NOAA-related careers. When I return home, I will work to create some math lessons using research methods, data collection, and data analysis learned aboard the ship. I will also create a lesson to highlight NOAA-related careers. I’m particularly excited about passing on career information to my students!
What kind of research do TAS participate in?
There are three types of cruises that TAS can get placed onto (TAS Online Training Documents, 2023):
Fisheries – conduct biological surveys and physical science studies “to protect, restore and manage use of living marine, coastal, and ocean resources through ecosystem-based management.”
Oceanographic – to increase the understanding of the world’s oceans and climate by measuring “ocean currents, ocean temperatures, atmospheric variables, surface salinity, carbon dioxide content, and sea-level atmospheric conditions.”
Hydrographic – chart the ocean floor using “multibeam sonar to collect depth measurements of the seafloor.”
Which type of cruise will I be joining?
I will partake in a fisheries cruise aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette for a marine mammal survey near the Hawaiian Archipelago. The ship was originally built for the U.S. Navy and was formerly known as U.S. Naval Ship Adventurous. It is 224 ft, can go up to a speed of 10 knots, and has a range of 17487 nautical miles. Visit the ship’s website for more information: https://www.omao.noaa.gov/mo/ships/oscar-elton-sette
What type of research is involved in HICEAS?
HICEAS (pronounced High Seas) “will survey the Hawaiian archipelago with a focus on studying whales, dolphins, seabirds, and their ecosystem (i.e., oceanography sampling).” (Email correspondence with Emily Susko, March 1, 2023). The last time the survey was conducted was in 2017 and the 2023 survey will be the fourth HICEAS survey.
Through reading the blog posts about the 2017 survey, I learned that there are two teams: the visual team and the acoustic team. The visual team is trained to use 25-powered binoculars (nicknamed “big eyes”) to spot marine mammals. I am hoping I’ll learn to spot the difference between a white cap and a splash from a dolphin! The acoustic team will also keep track of the cetaceans (order of marine mammals, whale, dolphin, porpoise) under the surface using hydrophones and sonobouys.
Each surveyor privately records their estimates of the number of cetaceans they observed as not to influence others. Later all the estimates are calibrated. This reminds me of the mathematical concept called the “wisdom of crowds”. Basically, it says that a crowd’s prediction (or in this case estimate) is more accurate that the predictions (estimates) of any one individual’s. Truly an example of a group-worthy task, as we say in mathematics education! Watch this ~4-minute video of Dr. Talithia Williams, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd, demonstrating the wisdom of crowds: https://ca.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nvpn-sci-crowds/understanding-a-crowds-predictive-ability-prediction-by-the-numbers/
How did I find out about TAS?
Dr. Emily Cilli-Turner, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at University of San Diego, is a TAS alumna. In 2018, Dr. Cilli-Turner participated on a Pollock Acoustic-Trawl Survey aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson for three weeks off the coast of Alaska. She told me about her experience and helped me apply. I actually applied twice, having been rejected the first time. Moral of the story: be persistent and use your failures as learning opportunities! To read about Dr. Cilli-Turner’s time at sea, visit her blog: https://noaateacheratsea.blog/category/2018/emily-cilli-turner/
How long will I be on board NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette and what will it be like?
Each HICEAS survey has been about 180 days across two ships. The 2023 survey has 5 legs aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette (I am on the first leg for 4 weeks!) and 2 legs on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker. TAS Staci DeSchryver joined the 2017 survey aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette and filled me in on some of the day-to-day life experiences. Staci shared some of the incredible learning experience and didn’t want to tell me everything in order to keep some things a surprise. Some interesting things I learned through Staci as well as the blogs/materials:
Unless we are going onto one of the Fast Rescue Boats aboard the ship, we do not disembark from the ship for the entire 4 weeks.
I will eat the best fish I’ve ever eaten.
Fresh fruit and veggies run out at about week 3.
There was one room on the ship that many of the staff would get seasick.
There’s a movie room and a gym. There have been stationary bikes on deck in the past.
I will be sharing a “stateroom” or “bunkroom” with others.
I will be among 14 scientists (Marine Mammal Observers, Birders, Acousticians, Oceanographers) and about 22 crewmembers.
I first applied to the TAS in 2018 and then applied again in 2019. I was accepted as a TAS for the 2020 field season and was anticipating sailing Summer 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the sail to 2021, and then to 2022. Now in 2023 (about 4.5 years later!), I am scheduled for the HICEAS survey. To say I’m excited is an understatement. However, there are a number of reasons a cruise does not set sail so I am holding onto the excitement until I am on the ship! One characteristic the program really stresses is flexibility because there are so many factors that impact these research expeditions.
I am most looking forward to the learning opportunities aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Though scary, uncertainty is thrilling, especially when it’s paired with prospects to view the world from a new and unimaginable perspective. As Michelle Obama says in her audiobook The Light We Carry:
“Go forth with a spoonful of fear, and return with a wagonful of competence.” (2:16:59)
Did You Know?
False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are a priority of the HICEAS survey. Despite their name, they are actually a member of the dolphin family (the delphinids). Their name comes from the similarity of skull shape to the killer whale rather than visual appearance. This population has been on the endangered species list since 2012. Their biggest threat are interactions with fisheries; fishermen see them as competitors and the species are prone to net entanglement. (International Whaling Commission, Marine Mammal Commission)
Geographic Area: French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands
Date: July 21, 2017
Weather Data from the Bridge:
Science and Personal Log
I’m putting both the science and personal log together this time around for a very special reason.
See, I have a confession to make. Many of my friends from home know this about me, but I have a secret I’ve kept under wraps for the vast majority of this trip, and it’s time to officially reveal it now, because it just seems to fit so well. Ready? True confessions from a Teacher At Sea:
I have an irrational fear of birds.
There. I said it. It stems from a wayward trip to London in the Study Abroad program and involves me, innocently consuming an over-priced deli sandwich on a bench outside of the Museum of Natural History when I was suddenly accosted by a one-footed pigeon who made away with my lunch – but not before attacking my face full-force with every wing, beak, and claw it had. My lunch then became a free sidewalk hoagie, available for all nearby pigeons (you know, like every pigeon from London to France) to feast upon as I sat helplessly watching the gnashing of beaks and flyings of feathers in a ruthless battle to the end for over-processed deli ham and havarti on rye. I was mortified. From that moment forth, I was certain every bird wanted a piece of my soul and I was darned if I was going to let them have it.
After many years of active bird-avoidance, my first Teacher At Sea experience allowed me to remove Puffin from the exhaustive list of these ruthless prehistoric killers. After all, Puffins are not much more than flying footballs, and generally only consume food of the underwater persuasion, so I felt relatively sheltered from their wrath. Plus they’re kind of cute. The following year, a Great Horned Owl met its demise by colliding face-first into one of our tall glass windows at the school. When the Biology teachers brought him inside, I felt oddly curious about this beast who hunts with stunning accuracy in the black of night, and yet couldn’t manage to drive himself around a window. I felt myself incongruously empathetic at the sight of him – he was such a majestic creature, his lifeless body frozen in time from the moment he met his untimely ending. I couldn’t help but wish him alive again; if not for his ability to hunt rodents, but simply because nothing that beautiful should have to meet its maker in such a ridiculous manner. And so, I cautiously removed Owls from the list, so long as I didn’t have to look much at their claws.
This has suited me well over the years – fear all birds except for Puffin and Owl, and as a side note Penguin, too, since they can’t do much damage without being able to fly and all. Plus, you know, Antarctica. But when I found out that the cetacean study also happened to have bird observers on the trip, I felt momentarily paralyzed by the whole ordeal. I had (incorrectly) assumed that we wouldn’t see birds on this trip. I mean, what kind of bird makes its way to the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Well, it turns out there are a lot that do, and it’s birders Dawn and Chris who are responsible for sighting and cataloging them alongside the efforts of the marine mammal observers. I promise I’ll come back to my story on bird fear, but for now, let’s take a look at how our birders do their job.
The birders follow a similar protocol to the marine mammal observers. Each birder takes a two-hour shift in a front seat on the flying bridge. While the marine mammal observers use big eyes to see out as far as they possibly can out onto the horizon, the birders only watch and catalog birds that come within 300m of the ship.
How do they know how far away the 300m mark is? Over the years they just become great visual judges of the distance, but they also have a handy “range finder” that they use. The range finder is just a plain, unsharpened pencil with marks ticked off at 100m intervals. By holding the pencil up to the horizon and looking past it, they can easily find the distance the bird is from the ship. They divide this 300m range into “zones” – the 200-300m zone, the 100-200m zone, and the less than 100m zone from the bow of the ship. Anything further than 300m or outside of the zero to 90 degree field of vision can still be catalogued if it is an uncommon species, or a flock of birds. (More on flocks in a moment.)
They choose which side of the ship has the best visibility, either the port or starboard side, and like the mammal observers, birders take only the directional space from zero (directly in front of the ship) to 90 degrees on the side of their choosing. If the visibility switches in quality from one side to the other during a shift, he or she can change sides without issue.
The bird team also records information such as wind speed and direction (with respect to the ship), the Beaufort Sea State, visibility, observation conditions, and the ship’s course. Observation conditions are a critical component of the birder’s tool bag. They mark the observation conditions on a five-point scale, with 1 being extremely bad conditions and 5 being very good conditions. What defines good conditions for a birder? The best way to make an observation about the conditions is to think about what size and species of smaller birds an observer might not be able to see in the outermost range. Therefore, the condition is based on species and distance from the ship. Some birds are larger than others, and could be easier to spot farther out from the ship. The smallest birds (like petrels) might not be observable in even slightly less than ideal conditions. Therefore, if a birder records that the conditions are not favorable for small birds at a distance of 200m (in other words, they wouldn’t be able to see a small bird 200m away), the data processing team can vary the density estimates for smaller birds when observers are in poor visibility.
If a bird flies into the designated “zone”, the species is identified and recorded on a computer program that will place a time stamp on the GPS location of the sighting. These data are stored on the ship for review at a later time. Ever wonder where the maps of migration patterns for birds originate? It is from this collected data. Up until this point, I had always taken most of these kinds of maps for granted, never thinking that in order to figure out where a particular animal lives let alone its migratory pattern must come from someone actually going out and observing those animals in those particular areas.
The birder will record other information about the bird sighting like age, sex (if able to identify by sight) and what the lil’ fella or gal is up to when observed. Birds on the open ocean do a lot more than just fly, and their behaviors are important to document for studies on bird behavior. There are 9 different codes for these behaviors, ranging from things like directional flight (think, it has a place to go and it’s trying to get there), sitting on the water, or “ship attracted.” There are certain species like juvenile Red-Footed and Brown boobies and Tropic Birds that are known to be “ship attracted.” In other words, it could be out flying along a particular path until it sees this super cool giant white thing floating on the water, and decides to go and check it out. This is how I wound up with that fun photo of the Booby on the bridge wing, and the other snapshot of the juvenile that hung out on the jackstaff for two full days. These birds would not normally have otherwise come into the range to be detected and recorded, so their density estimates can be skewed if they are counted the same way as all other birds.
Any groups of five or more birds within one “reticle” (a measuring tool on the glass of the big eyes seen when looking through them) can be flagged by the marine mammal observers for the birders. While many flocks are found miles away and might be difficult to see in the big eyes by species, the birders know the flight and feeding behaviors of the birds, and can usually identify the different species within the flock. They have a special designation in their computer program to catalog flocks and their behavior, as well.
I sat with Dawn on a few different occasions to learn how she quickly identifies and catalogs each bird species. At first, it seems like all the birds look fairly similar, but after a few hours of identification practice, I can’t imagine that any of them look the same. The first bird Dawn taught me to identify was a Wedge-Tailed White Shearwater, more affectionately known as a “Wedgie White.” To me, they were much more easily characterized by behavior than anything else. Shearwaters are called “Shearwaters” because they…you guessed it… shear the water! They are easy to spot as they glide effortlessly just above the water’s surface, almost dipping their wings in the cool blue Pacific.
I then continued my bird observation rotation learning all kinds of fun facts about common sea birds – how plumages change as different species grow, identifying characteristics (which I’m still trying to sort out because there are so many!), stories of how the birds got their names, migration patterns, population densities, breeding grounds, and what species we could expect to see as we approached different islands on the Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain. Dawn knows countless identifiers when it comes to birds, and if she can’t describe it exactly the way she wants to, she has multiple books with photos, drawings, and paragraphs of information cataloging the time the bird is born to every iteration of its markings and behaviors as it grows. To be a birder means having an astounding bank of knowledge to tap into as they have a limited time to spot and properly identify many species before they continue on their journey across the Pacific.
After two weeks of watching for birds with Dawn and Chris, I feel like I can properly identify a few different species – Wedgies, Frigate Birds (these are the klepto-parasite birds that steal other birds’ dinners), Tropic Birds, two types of Terns, and boobies, though I can only best ID boobies when they are not in flight. I find myself up on the flying bridge on independent observation rotations calling forward to the birder on rotation, “Was that a tern?” And now, my identifying skills have vastly improved over the last few days as I have engaged in the process of this very important data collection.
So, what has become of my irrational bird fear? Well, I have to be honest; much like Puffin and Owl, the Red-Footed Booby melted my heart. There he was, perched on the bridge’s shade railing, a lonely little fellow staring up at me with no reservation about my presence or expectation of a sandwich. There we were in the middle of a vast ocean, and he was all alone – simply looking for a place to rest his wings or search more earnestly for the hint of a delicious flying fish escaping the water. I spent a fair amount of time photographing the little guy, working with my new camera to find some fun angles and depth of field, and playing with the lighting. He was a willing and I daresay friendly participant in the whole process (in fact I wondered if he had seen a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model), and I felt myself softening my stance on placing the Red Footed Booby amongst the likes of attack pigeons. By the end of our encounter, I had mentally noted that the Booby should now be placed on the “safe bird” list.
As I’ve spent more time with Dawn and Chris and learned more about each species, seabirds have one by one slowly migrated over to the safe list – to the point now where there are just too many to recite and I feel it is time after fifteen years to do away with the whole of it entirely. As soon as I changed my perspective, the beauty of all of them have gradually emerged to the point where I can easily find something to appreciate (even admire) about each of the species we’ve seen. Terns fight fiercely into the wind as they fly, but when they can catch a thermal or pose for an on-land photograph for an ID book, look dainty and regal in their appearance – as if they should be a staple part of every holiday display. And baby Terns? Doc (our Medical Doctor on board) showed me a photo of a tern chick that followed him around Midway Island last year and the lil’ guy was so darn cute it could make you cry glitter tears. Today near French Frigate Shoals many of the species I’ve seen from afar came right up to the ship and glided effortlessly overhead, allowing me to observe them from a near perspective as they flew. (None of them pooped on me, so if they weren’t off the list by that point, that act of grace alone should have sealed their fate for the positive.) Frigate Birds can preen their feathers while they fly. Watching each species cast their wings once and glide on the air while looking all around themselves was oddly entertaining, certainly peculiar, but also impressive. I can’t walk on the ship looking anywhere besides exactly where I want to go and yet birds can fly five feet away from a mast and casually have a proper look about.
If this has taught me anything, it has shown me the truth in the statement that fear is just ignorance in disguise. When I accidentally gave my bird aversion away during our quick stop at French Frigate Shoals (more on this in an upcoming blog post) many of the scientists said, “I’d have never guessed you were scared of birds. How did you keep it secret?” The easy answer is “Teacher Game Face.” But, more deeply rooted in that is a respect and admiration for those who enjoy the things that I’m afraid of. Dawn and Chris have dedicated their entire careers to identifying and cataloging these creatures, and they are both so kind and respectable I find it hard to imagine that they would study anything unequal to the vast extent of their character. Thankfully I learned this early enough on in the trip that it was easy to trust their judgement when it comes to Procellariiformes. This experience is once-in-a-lifetime, and how short-sighted would I be to not want to explore every aspect of what goes on during this study because I’m a little (a lot) afraid?
In Colorado, before I ever left, I made a personal commitment to have a little chutzpah and learn what I can about the distant oceanic cousins of the sandwich thieves. And when it came to that commitment, it meant genuinely digging in to learn as much as I can, not just pretend digging in to learn at little. I figured if nothing else, simple repeated exposure in short bursts would be enough for me to neurolinguistically reprogram my way into bird world, and as it turns out, I didn’t even really need that. I just needed to open up my eyes a little and learn it in to appreciation. Learning from Dawn and Chris, who are both so emphatically enthusiastic about all things ornithology made me curious once again about these little beasts, who over the last two weeks have slowly transformed into beauties.
Sorry, pigeons. You’re still on the list.
What is to date the silliest question or statement Staci has asked/made during her TAS experience?
In response to a rainy morning, “Yeah, when I woke up it sounded a little more ‘splashy’ than usual outside.”
“So, if Killer Whales sound like this, then what whale talk was Dory trying to do in Finding Nemo?”
“So, there is no such thing as a brown-footed booby?”
After watching an endangered monk seal lounging on the sand, “I kind of wish I had that life.” (So…you want to be an endangered species? Facepalm.)
Today, we will be exploring all of the equipment we deliberately toss over the stern of the ship. There are a number of different audio recorders that the HICEAS and other teams use to detect various species while underway. Chief scientist Erin Oleson gives a great perspective when she says that, “We pass through this particular area for this study only one time. Just because we may not see or hear an animal, it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not there, or that it won’t come by this area at a later time.” In order to compensate for the temporal restrictiveness of the ship being in one spot at one time, the team will periodically launch buoys over the side to continue the listening process for us. Some buoys are designed to last a few hours, some report the information real-time back to the ship, some are anchored to the ocean floor, some drift around, and all serve different needs for the scientific team.
Thing we deliberately throw off the ship #1: Sonobuoys
Since arriving on the ship, I have been recruited to “Team Sonobuoy” by the acoustics team for deployments! It is my job to program and launch two sonobuoys on a set schedule created by the scientific team. Sonobuoys are designed to pick up low-frequency sounds from 0 – 2 KHz, most often made by baleen whales. The sonobuoy will send information back to the ship in real-time. Once launched over the side, the sonobuoy will drift in the ocean, listening for these low frequency noises. They are a temporary acoustic tool – lasting anywhere from 30 mins to 8 hours of time. Most of the buoys are set to record for 8 full hours. After the pre-set recording time is up, the float on the buoy pops, and the buoy is no longer active. It is my job to launch two sonobuoys, and then monitor the signal coming back to the ship via VHF until we are too far away to detect the frequency coming back to us. This usually happens between 2 and 3 miles after launch. The recordings are sent onshore for processing. Fun fact: sonobuoys were originally developed by the Navy to listen for enemy submarines! The scientists thought they would be a handy tool for baleen whales, and picked up the technology. We have deployed sonobuoys almost every evening of the cruise.
Thing we deliberately throw off the ship #2: DASBRs
DASBRs, or Digital Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders, are floating recorders launched at certain waypoints in the ocean. The word “spar” simply means that the buoy floats vertically in the water. There are two types of DASBRs, one records from 0 – 128 KHz, and one goes all the way from 0 – 144 KHz. Now, these particular buoys get launched, but they don’t get anchored.
Inside the DASBR is a transmitter that shows the location of the buoy so that the scientific team can recover them at a later time.
So, in effect, this is a buoy we deliberately throw off the ship only to bring it back on after a predetermined amount of time. These recorders do not transmit back to the ship. They store all of the data on the DASBR, which is why recovery of the DASBRs is so important. A DASBR that does not get recovered keeps all of its secrets as it floats along in the ocean. We can track DASBRs real time, and they follow interesting patterns as they float freely in the ocean – some track in a given direction along with the current, while others corkscrew around in the same area. So far, we have deployed 4 DASBRs in the first 8 days of the cruise.
Things we deliberately throw off the ship #3: HARPS
HARPS, or High Frequency Acoustic Recording Packages, are the third type of microphone deployed off the ship. HARPS record all sounds between 0 and 100 KHz. They last far longer than both sonobuoys and DASBRS in terms of time out on the water. They are limited not by data storage, but by battery power. HARPS are deployed at one location and are anchored to the ocean floor. Small yellow floats rise to the surface to alert ships and other traffic to their presence. They are a little easier to find when it comes to recovery, since they have a GPS known location and are secured to the ocean floor, but they are a little more difficult to wrangle on to the back deck of the ship when recovered and deployed, since there is an anchor associated with them.
On this cruise we have both recovered and deployed HARP systems. The HARPS also store information within the HARP, so recovery is important to the scientific team because the data does not get transmitted in real time back to any computers.
Things we deliberately throw off the ship #4: Ocean Noise Sensors
There are data recorders that record the level of noise in the ocean over time. We are currently on our way to pick one of these recorders up, complete some maintenance on it, and re-deploy it. This will be a full day commitment for the scientific team and the crew, so I’m going to keep you guessing on this one until we actually complete this part of the operation. We have many hands working together both on the ship and between organizations to make the ocean noise-monitoring program effective and cohesive, so this section of “Things we deliberately throw off the ship” will get its own blog post in the future as we complete the haul in, maintenance, and re-deployment. Stay tuned.
Team. You’ll never guess what I did. I. Drove. The Ship. Yes, you read that correctly. I drove the ship, and – AND – I didn’t hit anything while I did it! What’s better is that I didn’t tip anyone out of their chairs while I made turns, either! This is cause for much celebration and rejoicing among scientists and crew alike. The Commanding Officer, CDR Stephanie Koes invited me, “Spaz the TAS” up to the bridge for a little steering lesson two days ago, in which I happily obliged. ENS Fredrick gave me a little mini-lesson on the onboard radar systems, which were picking up rain just off our starboard side.
I also learned of the existence of the many GPS positioning systems and navigation systems onboard. The NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations, or OMAO, is not lost on system redundancies. From what I can surmise, there are two of everything on the bridge in order to ensure the NOAA OMAO’s number one priority – safety. Everything on the bridge has a backup, or in many instances, a preferential option for each officer responsible for the bridge at any given time. Some systems are fancy and new, while others maintain tradition on the bridge. For example, a bell will still chime every half hour to remind the watch stander to record weather data on the bridge and a navigational fix on a paper chart. ENS Fredrick says that the bell is an older maritime system, but is very handy when things get busy on the bridge – the bell ringing is a perfect audio cue for him to stop what he’s doing and get to the logbook to record the weather.
Turning a giant ship sounds difficult, but in reality, it’s really difficult. The actual act of turning doesn’t take much – a simple flip of a switch to take the ship off what I termed “cruise control” and a turn of the wheel (which by the way looks exactly like a smaller version of the ship wheels you see in all of the fabulous movies – I’m looking at you, Goonies) and an eye on the bearing angle (the compass direction in which the ship is headed). But here’s the real issue – this moving city technically has no brakes. So as the ship begins to turn, the driver has to pull the rudder back in the opposite direction before the bearing angle is reached, otherwise the bearing angle gets overshot. If you turn the wheel too far one way or the other too quickly, the ship responds by “leaning into” the turn at a steep angle.
This sounds like it might be fun until the chef downstairs rings the bridge and chews the driver out for making the cheesecake fall off the galley countertop. Then the driver must take the heat for ruining the cheesecake for everyone else on the ship waiting quite impatiently to eat it. Thankfully, I tipped no cheesecakes. That would make for a long month onboard being “that guy who turned the ship too hard and ruined dessert for everyone.” I’m pretty sure had I not had the direction of ENS Fredrick as to when and how far to turn the rudder, I’d be in the dessert doghouse.
Another fabulous part of turning the ship is that I got to use the radio to tell the flying bridge (and anyone else who was listening) that I had actually turned the ship and it was correctly on course. Luckily I had been listening to the radio communication for a few days and put on my best radio voice to make said announcements. I think my performance was middling to above average at least, and fully qualified to speak on the radio without sounding too unfortunate at best. However, there was one element of driving the ship that made me terrified enough to realize that I probably am not quite ready to hack the job – everything else that is going on up on the bridge while you are keeping the ship on-course.
Watch standers are notoriously good at keeping data. They record every move the ship makes. If the mammal and bird team go off effort due to weather or too high of a Beaufort state, the bridge records it. They also record when they go back on effort. They log every turn and adjustment the ship makes. They log every time we deploy a CTD or any kind of buoy. I watched the watch stander on the bridge take a phone call, make a turn, log the turn, put the mammal team off-effort, put the mammal team back on-effort, take a request on the radio and record weather data all in a span of about two minutes. It seemed like everything was happening all at once, and he managed it all like it was just another day in the office. For him, it was.
To be a member of the NOAA OMAO means that you must be willing to learn, willing to make mistakes, willing to follow orders, willing to be flexible, and willing to be one heck of a multi-tasker. I, for one, went quickly cross-eyed at all of the information processing that must happen up on the bridge during an officer’s shift. Thankfully, I didn’t go cross-eyed while I was trying to turn the ship. That would have been bad, especially for cheesecakes. I’m thinking that if I play my cards right, I can enlist as a “backup ship driver” for future shifts on Oscar Elton Sette. I figure you never know when you might need someone fully unqualified to steer a giant moving city in a general direction for any given amount of time. But I think I can do it if I do it like the NOAA Corps – taking everything one turn at a time.
Cetacean and Fish Species Seen:
Blainsville Beaked Whales
False Killer Whales
Kogia – unidentified (These are either pygmy Sperm Whales or Dwarf Sperm Whales)
Wahoo or Ono (Ono in Hawaiian means “tasty” – the name was confirmed as I enjoyed a few pieces of Ono sashimi last night at dinner)
Seabirds spotted as of July 14:
White Necked Petrel
Juan Fernandez Petrel
Band-rumped Storm Petrel
Red-Tailed Tropic Bird
White-Tailed Tropic Bird
A juvenile Red-Footed Booby who has taken up residence on the mast of the ship for two full days and pretends to fly from the mast – highly entertaining.
While the visual team is working hard on the flying bridge, scanning the waters for our elusive cetacean friends, acoustics is down in the lab listening for any clues that there might be “something” out there.
At any given time, two acousticians are listening to the sounds of the ocean via a hydrophone array. This array is a long microphone pulled behind the ship as she cuts through the water. When the acousticians hear a click or a whistle, a special computer program localizes (or determines the distance to) the whistle or the click.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s a lot of noise in the ocean. The array will pick up other ship noise, cavitation (or bubbles from the propeller) on our ship, or anything it “thinks” might be a cetacean. The acoustics team must determine which sounds are noise and which sounds belong to a mammal. What the acousticians are looking for is something called a “click train.” These are sound produced by dolphins when they are foraging or socializing and are a good indicator of a nearby cetacean. On the computer screen, any ambient noise shows up as a plotted point on an on-screen graph. When the plotted points show up in a fixed or predictable pattern, then it could be a nearby cetacean.
The acousticians are also listening to the sounds on headphones. When they hear a whistle or a click, they can find the sound they’ve heard on the plotted graph. On the graphical representation of the sounds coming in to the hydrophone, the x-axis of the graph is time, and the y-axis is a “bearing” angle. It will tell which angle off the ship from the front the noise is coming from. For example, if the animal is right in front of the bow of the ship, the reading would be 0 degrees. If it were directly behind the ship, then the plotted point would come in at 180 degrees. With these two pieces of information, acousticians can narrow the location of the animal in question down to two spots on either side of the ship. When they think they have a significant sound, the acousticians will use the information from the graph to localize the sound and plot it on a map. Often times they can identify the sound directly to the species, which is an extraordinary skill.
Here’s where things go a little “Fight Club.” (First rule of fight club? Don’t talk about fight club.) Once the acousticians localize an animal, they must determine if it is ahead of the ship or behind it. Let’s say for example an acoustician hears a Pilot Whale. He or she will draw a line on a computerized map to determine the distance the whale is to the ship using the data from the graph.
Because the hydrophones are in a line, the location provided from the array shows on the left and the right sides. So, the map plots both of those potential spots. The two straight lines from the ship to the animal make a “V” shape. As the ship passes the animal, the angle of the V opens up until it becomes a straight line, much like opening a book to lay it flat on the table and viewing how the pages change from the side. As long as the animal or animal group is ahead of the ship, the acousticians will alert no one except the lead scientist, and especially not the marine observers. If a crew member or another scientist who is not observing mammals just so happens to be in the acoustics lab when the localization happens, we are sworn to secrecy, as well. Sometimes an acoustician will send a runner to get the lead scientist to discreetly tell her that there is something out there.
This way, the lead scientist can begin the planning stages for a chase on the mammals to do a biopsy, or send the UAS out to get photos with the Hexacopter. (More on this later.)
As the mammals “pass the beam” (the signal is perfectly on either side of the ship, and starting to make an upside down V from the ship), the acousticians can alert the visual team of the sighting. As soon as everyone is aware the mammals are out there, either by sight or sound, the whole scientific group goes “off effort,” meaning we funnel our energy in to counting and sighting the mammals we have found. When this happens, communication is “open” between the acoustics team and the visual team. The visual team can direct the bridge to head in any direction, and as long as it’s safe to do so, the bridge will aid in the pursuit of the mammals to put us in the best position to get close enough to hopefully identify the species. Today, one mammal observer had a sighting almost 6 miles away from the ship, and she could identify the species from that distance, as well! Even cooler is that it was a beaked whale, which is an elusive whale that isn’t often sighted. They have the capability of diving to 1000m to forage for food!
When the visual team has a sighting, the three visual observers who are on shift have the responsibility to estimate the group size.
Here we go with Fight Club again – no one can talk to one another about the group sizes. Each mammal observer keeps their totals to themselves. This is so that no one can sway any other person’s opinion on group size and adds an extra element of control to the study. It is off limits to talk about group sizes among one another even after the sighting is over. We must always be vigilant of not reviewing counts with one another, even after the day is done. The scientific team really holds solid to this protocol.
Once the sighting is over, all parties resume “on effort” sightings, and the whole process starts all over again.
Now, you might be thinking, “Why don’t they just wait until acoustics has an animal localized before sending the mammal team up to look for it?
Surely if acoustics isn’t hearing anything, then there must not be anything out there.” As I am writing this post, the visual team is closing in on a spotted dolphin sighting about 6.5 miles away. The acoustics did not pick up any vocalizations from this group.
This also happened this morning with the beaked whale. Both teams really do need one another in this process of documenting cetaceans. Further, the acoustics team in some cases can’t determine group sizes from the vocals alone. They need the visual team to do that. Each group relies on and complements one another with their own talents and abilities to conduct a completely comprehensive search. When adding in the hexacopter drone to do aerial photography, we now have three components working in tandem – a group that uses their eyes to see the surface, a group that uses the ocean to “see” the sounds, and a group that uses the air to capture identifying photographs. It truly is an interconnected effort.
I haven’t gotten the chance to discuss just how beautiful Hawai’i is. I would think that it is generally understood that Hawai’i is beautiful – it’s a famed tourist destination in an exotic corner of the Pacific Ocean. But you have to see it to believe it.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the islands from a unique perspective as an observer from the outside looking inland, and I just can’t let the beauty of this place pass without mention and homage to its stunning features.
Hawai’i truly is her own artist. Her geologic features create the rain that builds her famed rainbows, which in turn gives her the full color palate she uses to create her own landscape. The ocean surrounding the shores of Hawai’i are not just blue – they are cerulean with notes of turquoise, royal, and sage. She will not forget to add her contrasting crimson and scarlet in the hibiscus and bromeliads that dot the landscape. At night when the moon shines on the waters, the ocean turns to gunmetal and ink, with wide swaths of brass and silver tracing the way back up to the moon that lights our path to the sea. With time, all of her colors come out to dance along the landscape – including the sharp titanium white foam that crashes against the black cliffs along Kona. And if a hue is errantly missed in her construction of the landscape, early morning showers sprout wide rainbows as a sign of good fortune, and as a reminder that she forgets no tones of color as she creates.
It is our responsibility to protect these waters, this landscape – this perfect artistry. It is critically important to protect the animals that live in the ocean’s depths and the ones that cling to the island surface in their own corner of paradise. I like to think that this study takes on this exact work. By giving each of these species a name and identifying them to each individual group, we share with the world that these cetaceans are a family of their own with a habitat and a purpose. When we “re-sight” whales that the team has seen in past studies, we further solidify that those animals have families and a home amongst themselves. The photo identification team counts every new scar, marking, and change in these animals to piece together the story of their lives since they last met with the scientists. Everyone on Oscar Elton Sette talks about the new calves as if we were at the hospital with them on the day of their birth, celebrating the new life they’ve brought forth to continue their generations. I like to think we all make a little room in the corner of our hearts for them as a part of our family, as well.
Did you know?
The Frigate bird has a Hawaiian name, “Iwa”, which means “thief.” They call this bird “thief” because they steal prey right from the mouths of other birds!
“Spyhopping” is the act of a whale poking his head out of the water and bobbing along the surface.
It is legal for research ships to fish off the ship, so long as we eat what we catch while underway. This led to the shared consumption of some delicious mahi mahi, fresh from the depths for lunch today. Yes. It was as good as it sounds.
Oscar Elton Sette knows how to celebrate! Yesterday was Adam’s birthday, a marine mammal observer. They decorated the mess in birthday theme, cranked up the dinnertime music, and the stewards made Adam his favorite – blueberry cheesecake for dessert!
Much of the crew likes to pitch in with food preparation. The on ship doctor, “Doc”, makes authentic eastern dishes, and the crew made barbeque for everyone a few nights ago at dinner.