Staci DeSchryver: Boobies, Wedgies, and the Neurolinguistic Re-Programming of a TAS, July 21, 2017

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

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.

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NOAA bird observer Dawn scans the horizon from her seat on the flying bridge

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.

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You can find the distance a bird is from the ship using a basic pencil with lines marked on the side. Each line is mathematically calculated using your height, the ship’s height, and the distance to the horizon.

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.

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A sooty tern soars high above the ship. We’ve seen many sooty terns this trip!

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.

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White terns look like they belong on holiday cards! A new favorite of mine.

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.

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An albatross glides behind the ship, looking for fish.

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.

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This Brown Booby wants in on the food action near the ship. Boobies are ship attracted, and we’ve had a few hang out with us while they take a rest on the mast. This is not the exact booby that made me change my bird ways, but he’s a close cousin (at least genetically speaking) of the one who did.

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.

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This Great Frigate Bird was flying about fifteen feet overhead, with a mast directly in front of him as he flew. He’s looking around for birds to steal food from. The Hawaiian term for Frigate Bird is ‘Iwa, meaning “thief.”

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.

Pop Quiz

What is to date the silliest question or statement Staci has asked/made during her TAS experience?

  1.       In response to a rainy morning, “Yeah, when I woke up it sounded a little more ‘splashy’ than usual outside.”
  2.      “So, if Killer Whales sound like this, then what whale talk was Dory trying to do in Finding Nemo?”
  3.       “So, there is no such thing as a brown-footed booby?”
  4.      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.)
  5.       All of the above

If you guessed e, we’re probably related.

 

DJ Kast, Interview Marine Bird Watcher, May 23, 2014

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

Mission: Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Geographical area of cruise:
East Coast
Date: May 23, 2015, Day 6 of Voyage

Brad Toms at his station at the bridge. Documenting a bird sighting with his voice activated computer system that records through his head set. Photo by: DJ Kast

Brad Toms at his station at the bridge. He is documenting a bird sighting with his voice activated computer system that records through his head set. Photo by: DJ Kast

Interview with Brad Toms, Wildlife Biologist contracted through Environment Canada (guests of NOAA) as bird observer from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Tell me a little bit about your background:
I started working with seabirds in 2005 – terns and gulls specifically, counting the breeding colonies – and helped recover an endangered tern called a Roseate Tern. Then I started doing shipboard surveys in 2011 in Canada, and these two experiences brought me here.

What is your exact job on this research cruise?
Seabird Observer

How do you get trained to be a marine bird observer?
Trained by experienced observers; they make sure you have the skills to identify things properly and meticulously document them.

What are the most common birds you have seen on this cruise?
The most common type of birds on this trip are two types of Storm Petrels which are the Wilsons and Leach’s. These are very small birds, and have approximately a 1.5 ft wingspan.

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Bookmarked page of the most common birds seen so far on this trip. Photo by DJ Kast

Did you know?

The petrels are a taxonomic order of birds called tube noses or Procellariiformes. Procellariiformes drink seawater, so they have to have an adaptation to get rid of the excess salt.  The salt gland at the base of their beak removes salt from the circulatory system and forms a 5 percent saline solution that either drips from or is forcibly ejected from their nostrils.

Sooty Shearwaters

Sooty shearwaters are 40–51 cm in length with a 94–110 cm wingspan. Most seabirds have a large wingspan according to their body size so they can glide and not waste energy.

Photo of the head and wingspan of the Sooty Shearwater. Photo by: DJ Kast

Photo of the head and wingspan of the Sooty Shearwater. Photo by: DJ Kast

Herring Gulls: Adults have light-gray backs, black wingtips, and white heads. They have a Red spot near tip of lower bill of their beak.

Did you know?

Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen studied nesting Herring Gulls and he noticed that newly hatched gull chicks were fed by their parents only after they pecked at the red spot at the adults’ bills (beaks).

Herring Gull. Photo by: Brad Toms

Herring Gull. Photo by: Brad Toms

What are some unusual birds you have seen on this trip?

  • White faced storm petrel
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Barn Swallow
  • Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager sighted on the NOAA Henry B. Bigelow. Photo by Brad Toms

Summer Tanager sighted on the NOAA Henry B. Bigelow. Photo by Brad Toms

What do you enjoy about your job?
The variety and challenges of each survey and transect make my job very interesting.

What do you do when you site a bird?

I have to keep my eyes on it, until I have all of the features of the bird for identification. These features include general color, distinctive plumage, and size.

Photo of the distinctive tail identifiers of petrels.  Photo by DJ Kast

Photo of the distinctive tail identifiers of petrels. Wilsons and Leach’s are the most common.
Photo by DJ Kast

I then enter into the system that is voice activated and try to make sure that it is in my transect. I really have to keep track of it to make sure it doesn’t re-enter the transect.

Photo by: DJ Kast

Method measuring the transect of the side of the bridge. Photo by: DJ Kast

The reason I need to keep track of it is because it has been shown that certain species of birds exhibit this weird behavior where they will circle the ship in a radius of about a half a mile and/ or they will follow the ship.

My transect is on the port (left) side of the boat, and from the time that I start it’s 300 meters out and the length is however far the boat travels in 5 minutes. So if the boat is going slow then the transect is short, and is the boat is going fast then it is a longer transect and this is called a standardized unit of effort, which enables me to compare data and protocols to other studies.

How does your voice activated system work? What does it record?

The voice activated system records what I say to it, but it has to be in code. The basic five things that have to be in for it to be considered a recording are: species, number of birds, location (on the water or flying), inside or outside of the transect, and how far away from the boat it is. I speak in codes, short acronyms for the five basic things above, and I have to make sure to say the five things in a row, in the same order, same thing every time.

Optional things that I can add to the recording include: behavior, age, sex, molt patterns.

What is the greatest number of birds recorded at once on a vessel?

Within one watch, 80 birds.

Brad Toms on watch. Photo by: DJ Kast

Brad Toms on watch. Photo by: DJ Kast

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

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

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

Date: May 21, 2015, Day 3 of Voyage


Interview with the Marine Mammal Observers

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid Photo by: DJ Kast

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid
Photo by: DJ Kast

Marjorie and Brigid on the Flying Bridge.

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me a little bit about your background:

Marjorie Foster:

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

Brigid McKenna:

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

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

What is your exact job on this research cruise?

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

How do you get trained to be Marine mammal observer?

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

For me:

Bridget- internship on a whale watch boat

Majorie- working with right whales

What do you enjoy about your job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottlenose dolphins: light gray and dark gray on top

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

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

Couple of mola mola – largest of the bony fish

Whales:

Fin whales

Pilot whales.

Sei Whale

Humpback in the distance.

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

Up North- in the Gulf of Maine.

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

Did you know?

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

Did you know?

Different humpbacks have different hunting techniques.

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

Did you know?

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

What do you do when you site a marine mammal?

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

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

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

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

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

Find our location in real time HERE!

Science and Technology Log:

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

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

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

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

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

Rangefinder

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

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

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

Streamer lines create visual barrier against scavenging seabirds

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

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

Streamer line

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

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

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

Amanda Midway

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

Personal Log:

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

Collection of Intro Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorting catch from various tows.

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

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

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

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

Sunset

Our first sunset at sea

Critter Spotting Report:

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

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

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

A Stoplight loosejaw complete with photophore spotlights and unhinged jaw

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

Something to think about:

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

 

TAScast:  From the Flying Bridge