Kelly Dilliard: Plankton Nets and a Right Whale Calf, June 2, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: June 2, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Pressure: 1017.02 mb
Air Temperature: 12.5 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 96%
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Wind Direction: 355 degrees

Science and Technology Log:

Sarah Fortune
Sarah Fortune with a full cod end.

Sarah Fortune, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) was testing her plankton net a few days ago and I thought that it would be fun to describe the process.  A plankton net is hoisted overboard on a similar winch and winch cable as the CTD and is used to collect samples of plankton from the ocean.  A single plankton net has a large hoop at the opening, about 50 cm in diameter that then tapers down to a collection container, called a cod end, at the other end.  The plankton net is a little over 3 meters long.  Many plankton nets are actually paired side by side and commonly referred to as “bongo” nets for due to the two hoops looking like bongo drums.  The mesh of the net is made of nylon and can vary in mesh size.  This particular net has a mesh of 330 microns or a third of a millimeter.  This allows researchers to capture very small plankton (millimeter sized).

Plankton net fully extended after being down at about a depth of 150 meters.
Plankton net fully extended after being down at about a depth of 150 meters.
trip mechanism
Trip mechanism used to open and close the plankton net.

The plankton net that Sarah will be using for her research on bowhead whales is designed to open and close at specific depths using a special clasp, called a double trip mechanism.  A rolled up net is lowered to the target depth, a weight is sent down the winch cable and opens the double trip mechansim and the net.  As the boat moves, ever so slightly, organisms are collected in the net.  The net is then brought back to the surface using the winch and then closed again with a weight at another target depth.  I gathered that the double trip mechanism was a bit finicky, so Sarah was practicing the technique.

Plankton net
Washing down the plankton net.

Once the net was out of the water, it was washed down with a hose to make sure that all of the organisms were in the cod end.  Further washing occurred on deck.  The cod end also contains mesh in spots, so the excess water flushes out and the organisms are left in the container (the cod end).  If there is a lot of excess water and organisms these are dumped into a bucket and then brought up to the wet lab to be processed.  A subset of the sample was poured into a test tube, via a funnel, and put in a freezer for further examination off the ship.  If there is excess water, the sample is poured through a mesh sieve to remove the excess water.  Other samples were also saved in beakers.

cod end
Cod end with lots of Calinus finmarchicus.
Sieve
Collection being sieved. The red coloring of the sample comes from Calinus finmarchicus.  There are also some clear jellyfish in there, but they are difficult to see.

Sarah also had a stereoscopic microscope along to examine the catch, though this is a somewhat difficult task as the specimens move around a lot with the ship’s motion.  The target specimen was Calanus finmarchicus, the primary food of the North Atlantic Right Whale.  These are incredibly tiny organisms, typically ranging in size from 2-4 millimeters.  At one point Dr. Baumgartner had one on his finger and even that was difficult to see except for the red pigment.  He also related to us onlookers an interesting analogy of how much an individual right whale would need to consume in one day.  Basically, every right whale needs to eat the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle of Calanus finmarchicus every day.  That is a lot of very small organisms.  Some other interesting organisms that were captured in the plankton net over the day included microscopic starfish, jellyfish, krill, and a fish (which was thrown back into the ocean).

Sample
View of sample using the light of the microscope.  The red organisms with out black eyes are Calinus finmarchicus.  The organisms with two black eyes are krill.

Personal Log:

In past few days we have encountered patches of thick fog that in some cases have lasted for hours.  This has hampered our whale observations, one because we cannot see them in the fog, and two we cannot stand up on the fly bridge (above the bridge) when the fog horn is on (very loud).  So, our sighting numbers are significantly down, with a whole day in which we did not see a single whale of any kind.  One evening, though, we had a really good show from a mother and calf North Atlantic right whale.  We have seen these two before on two occasions.  The mother is 1950.  Her calf was up near the surface for nearly an hour shaking its fluke and flippers, breaching, and rolling onto its back.  The calf also rolled all over the mom when she was at the surface.  This all occurred very close to the ship so everyone on the fly bridge and the bridge was able to watch and see the action pretty clearly.  I was able to capture several photographs and tried a few videos with my camera.  It is not very easy to shoot videos on a boat that is rocking up and down, but I think they turned out okay.

Right whale calf
Various images of right whale calf: “V” shaped blow, characteristics of right whales (upper left), fluke (upper right), calf swimming on its back with flippers flapping (middle row), and a head shot (bottom row). Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. These photos are cropped images of photographs taken with a telephoto lens.
Breaching right whale
Right whale calf breaching. Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. These photos are cropped images of photographs taken with a telephoto lens.
Right whale
Right whale calf rolling over the back of its mom, 1950. Notice the callosities pattern on the mom and the two blow holes. Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. These photos are cropped images of photographs taken with a telephoto lens.

Only a few more days on the ship.  Unfortunately with the fog and the lack of right whale sightings the scientists have not necessarily accomplished all of their objectives, including testing out a new tag that could be used to track a whale for several days.  We come into port early Friday, June 5th.

Group shot
Group shot of the scientists on board (minus Eric Matzen who was only on for the first leg).  Back row from left to right: Mark Baumgartner, Lisa (Grace) Conger, Corey Accardo, Sarah Fortune, and Hansen Johnson.  Front row from left to right: Kelly Dilliard (me), Sabena Siddiqui, Jenn Gatzke, Suzanne Yin, Peter Duley (chief scientist), Divya Panicker, and Chris Tremblay.
Whale poop (strangely colored area) from a fin whale.   Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. These photos are cropped images of photographs taken with a telephoto lens.
Whale poop (strangely colored area) from a fin whale. Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355. These photos are cropped images of photographs taken with a telephoto lens.

Kelly Dilliard: Individual Right Whale Identification, May 19, 2105

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship 
Gordon Gunter
May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 19, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air pressure: 1010.60 mb
Air Temperature: 11.3 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 96%
Wind Speed: 16 knots
Wind Direction: 182 degrees

Science and Technology Log:

Today will look at how to identify individual right whales.  Right whales, as many other whale species, have several physical characteristics that are specific to unique individuals.  Scientists use photo-identification to distinguish individuals, taking photographs of the unique characteristics and then comparing them to past photographs in a catalog.  This allows the scientist to know if the individual has been seen before and the where and when of those sightings.  Scientists can then monitor populations of whales through time and space.

Right whales are identified by their distinct pattern of callosities on the upper part of their heads.  Callosities consist of rough, calcified patches of skin, are grey in color, but often contain colonies of whale lice, barnacles, and parasitic worms that all give the callosities a white color.  Callosities form a unique pattern along the top of the rostrum, behind the blow holes, on the lips, along the jawline and above the eyes of every right whale making this pattern extremely useful to scientists trying to photo-identify specific whales.  Even newborn calves contain a unique callosity pattern.  Another interesting fact is that male right whales have a higher density than females.

Right whale callosities (image from WHOI).

How does this work?  Scientists out on a research ship or on aerial surveys take high-resolution photographs with large telescopic lenses.  These photographs are time stamped and the location is noted.  They then making drawings of the callosities pattern and determines a series of codes that describes the callosity pattern and other identifying marks.  They then try to match the pattern to known individuals within a computer database (The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog – rwcatalog.neaq.org).

Right whales taken from an aerial survey. (Image from NE Aquarium).

Callosity patterns typically occur on the top of the head and can be characterized as “continuous” or “broken”.  A continuous pattern means that the callosities exist between the blowhole all the way to the tip of the head.  Broken callosities look patchy.  According to the New England Aquarium website on Right Whale Callosity Pattern Identification, 60 percent of right whales have a broken pattern.  Callosities can also occur around the lip, around the eye, and behind the blowhole.

Right whale callosities pattern, looks continuous with 2 symmetrical peninsulas. (photo of right whale in Florida from Flagerlive.com)

Categories of callosity patterns have been established and they are given codes, such as B6 – broken, two islands with the left island forward.  These categories describe the spatial relationships of the callosities, specifically the number of “islands” and their relationship to each other in whales with a “broken” pattern and the number and relative position of “peninsulas” or bulges on a “continuous” pattern.  Unfortunately, whale lice, or cyamid, can move around giving the appearance of callosity in places it does not exist and making these animals difficult to individually identify.

Sketch of callosities pattern
Sketch of callosities patterns from continuous with peninsulas to broken with islands.
Callosities pattern on a right whale with a composite code of C11 which indicates that there are four asymmetrical peninsulas.  (Image from NE Aquarium website, photo taken under NOAA permit 775-1600)

Other identifying marks are also used.  These can include: ridges along the lower lip, white patches on the belly and chin, a dip in the head seen in profile, erosion of the callosity at the front of the head or bonnet known as “tooth decay”, white blow holes, white fluke tips, and gray lines behind blow holes.  Other important identifying marks are scars.  These scars come from anthropogenic causes (entanglements in fishing gear, being hit by ships, etc…) and from other animals (bite marks from cookiecutter sharks or lamprey which leave behind a circular scar to attacks by killer whales).

Right whale fluke and if you look closely you can see a round mark made by a cookiecutter shark.
Right whale fluke and if you look closely you can see a round, light-colored mark made by a cookiecutter shark.

The New England Aquarium has a wonderful website about right whale photo-identification as well as pages on identification codes (see link NE Aquarium).  They also have a right whale photo-identification game (see link NE Aquarium Online Games).

Yesterday (Monday, May 18th) was the first day that we saw right whales up close and were able to photograph them from the ship.  Corey Accardo was behind the camera and captured many good photographs.  Four individual right whales were seen.

Corey taking photographs for photo-identification of right whales.
Corey taking photographs for photo-identification of right whales.
Corey taking more photographs and Hansen taking notes and helping her see.
Corey taking more photographs and Hansen taking notes and helping her see.

Personal Log:

I was surprised with how easy it was to acclimate to life on the ship.  Of course the main reason it was pain free was that everyone, crew and scientists, are so friendly.  It has been wonderful getting to know the scientists and some of the crew that I have met so far.  I am intrigued with how everyone came to be on this ship, the Gordon Gunter.

I was a bit nervous about sea-sickness since I am prone to getting car sick.  Luckily I have fared pretty well.  I have taken to heart the suggestions for combating sea-sickness by drinking plenty of fluids and munching on dry foods.  I have occasionally taken BONiNE for motion sickness and they seem to help when I look through the binoculars.  The boat does rock and roll a bit and sometimes in bed you are being rocked side-to-side or back to forward.  It can be occasionally soothing, like a being a baby rocked to sleep.

One thing that will never happen on this ship is starving.  The food is amazing.  We have at least four or five entry choices at both lunch and dinner as well a full salad bar.  We have had lasagna, pizza, all sorts of fish, chicken parmigiana, Brazilian steak, chicken cordon bleu, vegetable curry, and vegetable lo mein to name a few.  As well as made to order hamburgers, gyros, and Philly cheese steaks.  There are always two different desserts from cookies, to pies, to banana fritters, to homemade custard.  I did not even mention the assorted condiments, including jellies from the Philippines.  There is a very large selection of hot teas, cereals, and breads.  I think I am going to gain weight.  Margaret, the head steward, is a wonder.

A portion of the mess.  you can see all of the selections of cereals in the background.
A portion of the mess. you can see all of the selections of cereals in the background.

Kelly Dilliard: Introduction, May 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
(Almost) Onboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

May 14 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 3, 2015

Personal Log

Hello from South Dakota! My name is Kelly Dilliard and I am a college professor at Wayne State College (WSC) in Wayne, NE. Wayne State College is one of three schools with the Nebraska State College System and it is located in northeast Nebraska. I actually live in Vermillion, South Dakota, due north of Wayne and commute to school every day. My husband, Mark Sweeney, is an Earth Science Professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. We are located about 45 minutes northwest from Sioux City, Iowa and about an hour south of South Falls, South Dakota.

Map of locations.
Map of eastern Nebraska and parts of Iowa and South Dakota showing locations of where I am coming from.
Photo of me at Malibu Beach.
Me at a cove beach near Malibu, California in July of 2014. Taking lots of photographs and videos to use in my teaching.

I teach all sorts of Earth Science courses at WSC including Introduction to Geology, Environmental Geology, Historical Geology, Rocks and Minerals, Oceanography, and Introduction to Meteorology. I try to create a hands-on experience for my students, but teaching in Nebraska has its drawbacks. We are far from some of the best geology sites and from the ocean, so instead of taking my students to the rocks or the ocean, I try to bring the rocks to my students in the form of specimens, photographs, and videos.  I believe that my students benefit from exposure to these samples and from the experiences that I bring into the classroom.  I hope this experience out at sea will help me bring more of the ocean to them.  As I teach mostly to future science teachers, I also hope this experience will open them up to taking similar opportunities to gain useful experiences to use in their own classroom.

Family at Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
My husband, Mark, myself, and our puggle, Penny Lane, at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado, July of 2014.

As a youngster I had an interest in two sciences… geology and oceanography. I spent time in Hawaii when I was in fourth grade and fell in love with volcanoes and humpback whales. When it came to deciding on a major in college, I decided on geology and I have been actively engaged in researching and teaching about the Earth for the past 20 years. I am originally from eastern Pennsylvania, but through my graduate and professional career have lived in various states across the United States. I have three degrees in Geology, including a PhD from Washington State University.

Me and my brother in front of sign
My brother and I in April of 1986 standing by the map of the “Save the Whales” walk we took part in.

While I have an interest in oceanography and teach an oceanography class, I have never actually taken a formal oceanography course. I applied to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Teacher at Sea (TAS) program to gain some ocean research experience and to bring that experience back into my classroom. The Teacher at Sea program is celebrating it’s 25th Anniversary this year and is, as I am finding out, a wonderful program (link to TAS program)! I was selected to take part in a Right Whale Survey off the Northeast Coast on board the NOAA ship the Gordon Gunter (see the ship’s website for information and photographs). I never dreamed that I would also be getting exposed to a “what could have been” experience, that is, if I had decided to study oceanography and whales 20 years ago as an undergraduate.

So let me tell you a little about what I have learned so far about the North Atlantic Right Whale.  The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is an endangered species and is protected under both the U.S Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Right whales were heavily targeted by whale hunters, being prized for their high blubber content, the fact that they float when killed, and their relative sluggishness. They were the “right” whale to hunt. Right whales are baleen whales like the humpback whale, but feed mainly by skimming through prey at or near the surface of the ocean. Right whales are recognized by their callosities, or rough skin (white in color due to whale lice!), on their heads. For more information on Right Whales check out the NOAA Fisheries article on them.

Right Whales
North Atlantic Right Whales. You can see their callosities. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Next week I will be flying to Boston, Massachusetts and meeting up with the Gordon Gunter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But before then, I have to finish off the semester, participate at the WSC graduation, put in my garden (hopefully), and pack for my trip. The next time you should hear from me, I should be aboard the Gordon Gunter.

Map of home and WHOI
Map indicating where I live/work and where I will be leaving from for the Right Whale Survey.

Melanie Lyte: May 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic 
Date: May 29, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air temperature: 12.8 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit)
Surface water temperature: 11.8 degrees Celsius (53 degrees Fahrenheit)
Wind speed: 21 knots (25 miles per hour)
Relative humidity: 100%
Barometric pressure: 1023.5

Science and Technology Log

Right whale I saw on 5/28
Photo Credit: NOAA/NEFSC/Peter Duley under Permit #775-1875

We finally had a right whale sighting today! It was a juvenile and was quite close to the ship. It was exciting to see it frolicking.  

Allison Henry, chief scientist, recently told me that over 70% of the right whales they see have entanglement scars. The scars are due to entanglement in fishing lines.

Right whale with entanglement scars.
Photo Credit:; Mavynne under Permit # EGNO 1151
Right whale with entanglement scars.

Sometimes teams of scientists with special training attempt to disentangle a whale. It can be dangerous work. The video below shows a team working to remove fishing lines from a whale in 2011. The scientists first need to attach the small boat to the whale with lines so they can stay with it while it swims until it exhausts itself.  Only when the whale is tired, can the team work to cut away the entanglement.

Watch  this video of a whale disentanglement.

The other hazard is that whales tend to rest and feed near the surface of the water in the shipping lanes, and can be hit by ships.

During the day, from 7am-7pm, the scientists take turns on watch. This means we watch for whales using “big eyes” which are giant binoculars. We spend 30 minutes on left watch, 30 minutes in the center, and 30 minutes on the right watch.  At the center station we record sightings and update the environment using a computer program designed for this purpose.

The big eyes
photo credit: Barbara Beblowski
Recording data
phot credit: Peter Duley

I visited the Wheel House on the ship today. This is also called the bridge, and is the control center of the ship (similar to the cockpit of an airplane). The wheel house has many controls that the crew needs to know how to use, and it takes years of training to be able to command a ship. I spoke with Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Taylor and Executive Officer Lieutenant Commander Michael Levine about the workings of the Gunter.

Wheel or helm of the ship
Wheel or helm of the ship
Auto Pilot
Auto Pilot

This is the wheel or helm of the ship. The Gunter is one of the last NOAA ships with this type of helm. The newer ships have a helm that looks more similar to that which you find in a race car. Although the helm is still used to steer the ship at times, especially when docking, the steering is left to the auto pilot  the majority of the time.

ARPA radar
ARPA radar

I know some of you were concerned about how the officers could see to steer the boat in the fog. The ship has an ARPA radar system that shows where other boats in the area are in relation to our ship. The radar also shows the course our ship is taking and alerts the crew to anything that may be in the path of the ship.

Throttles
Throttles

The throttles control the speed of the ship. The maximum speed of ship is 10 knots which is about 12 miles per hour. The ship uses diesel fuel and it takes about 1,200 gallons of fuel to run the ship for a 24 hour period. At night they will sometimes shut down one engine which makes the ship go slower, but which saves about 400 gallons or $1,600 a day. This is one reason why we anchored for 3 days during the bad weather. The weather made surveying whales impossible so it didn’t make sense to run the ship during that time. The cost of running the Gunter is $11,000/day on average. This includes everything to do with sailing including salaries, food, etc.

Personal Log

I know that some of my first graders have been asking about where I sleep and eat on the ship. Below are pictures of my stateroom and the galley of the ship. Two very important places!

Stateroom (sleeping quarters)
Stateroom (sleeping quarters)
Galley on the Gordon Gunter
Galley on the Gordon Gunter

Melanie Lyte: May 26, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic
Date: May 26, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: 

Air temperature: 15.5 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit)
Surface water temperature: 12.01 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit);
Wind speed: 10 knots (12 miles per hour);
Relative humidity: 85%;
Barometric pressure: 1005.5

Science and Technology Log

Here we are on Sunday afternoon and we’ve been anchored off Provincetown since Thursday evening to wait out bad weather and unworkable conditions. When the fog cleared, the view of Provincetown was quite pretty from the ship, but I have seen enough of it, and am ready for some adventure . Luckily, we set sail this evening and will begin our watch for right whales again tomorrow morning. While Monday looks to be quite windy, Tuesday shows promise as a good day for whale sightings. All the scientists aboard are anxious to get back to work!

During our down time I was able to interview two people aboard with very different jobs – Peter Duley, one of the NOAA scientists, and Margaret Coyle, the ship steward.

Peter Duley NOAA scientist
Peter Duley NOAA scientist

Peter has worked for NOAA for 10 years, and has also worked for The National Science Foundation. He has literally been to the ends of the earth doing research. He did his under graduate work at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor Maine . Upon graduation  Peter did field work in Belize banding birds. While his first love was birds, he became interested in marine mammals and has done research work studying harbor porpoises in the Gulf of Maine, pilot whales in the mid Atlantic to the Gulf of Maine, bowhead whales in Alaska, right whales along the East Coast, and even spent time in Antarctica studying leopard seals. He now spends his summers on right whale survey cruises, and his winters doing aerial surveys of right whales.

While interviewing Peter I was struck by the passion and excitement he has for his work. It is obvious that he loves what he does and is very dedicated to saving the “giants of the sea”. All of the whales Peter studies are endangered and it is imperative  that scientists have a handle on the populations of these endangered whales so they can determine if the number of whales is rising or falling over a period of time, and what factors are influencing their survival. These scientists are so familiar with some of the right whales that they can identify the whales that have already been cataloged when they see them. They are cataloging all the whales using a number system that includes the year the whale was first seen, and another number that matches their mother if she is a whale that has previously been cataloged.

Peter’s favorite marine mammal is  the leopard seal.  He told me a story about the most dangerous situation he has been in while doing field work. He was in Antarctica in a small inflatable boat called a Zodiac and a leopard seal swam right up to the boat. He and his colleagues were excited and started taking pictures when the seal jumped out of the water and came down with its mouth on the side of the boat. The seal put a large hole in the boat. Fortunately, the boat had several different air compartments so the entire boat didn’t deflate in the frigid Antarctic waters, but Peter and his colleagues got back to shore as quickly as possible. My next question was, “What was your best research experience?” Peter said smiling, “The time the leopard seal put a hole in the boat!”

The other person I interviewed is Margaret Coyne, the ship steward. She  probably is one of the most important people on the ship because she keeps us all fed! Not only does she make three meals a day for everyone on board, we actually eat like we are at a 4 star resort. There is always an amazing variety of delicious food at every meal.

Margaret Coyle Ship's Chief Steward
Margaret Coyle
Ship’s Chief Steward

Margaret and her 2nd cook Tyrone  Baker, work 12 hour days from 5:30-6:30 with an hour break during the day. The galley is always buzzing with crew and scientists enjoying meals, snacks, leftovers, or anxiously awaiting for the homemade soup of the day to be brought out. There are always plenty of choices for all types of eaters – Margaret makes vegetarian options for each meal. She also makes her own yogurt, soy milk,  fresh salad, ice cream,  and a delicious dessert daily.

Lunch menu
Lunch menu
Spinach lasagna roll, squash and onions, black eye peas, and roasted potatoes
Spinach lasagna roll, squash and onions, black eye peas, and roasted potatoes
Spaghetti with meat sauce, pesto grilled chicken breast , squash and onions, and  a garlic bread stick
Spaghetti with meat sauce, pesto grilled chicken breast, squash and onions, and a garlic bread stick
Blueberry cobbler with whip cream
Blueberry cobbler with whip cream

Personal Log

I will be happy when we start moving again and get back to the mission of surveying right whales. It has been difficult to be stationary for such a long time, but luckily, the scientists and crew are all so friendly that there is always someone to talk to. It is really interesting to learn about other people’s lives, and what brought them to where they are today. Hopefully I will remember this experience because of all the amazing whales I will get to see, but if not, I know I will carry fond memories of all the people I met.

Melanie Lyte: May 24, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic
Date: May 24, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air temperature 15.5 degrees celsius (60 degrees fahrenheit)
Surface water temperature 12.01 degrees celsius (54 degrees fahrenheit)
Wind speed 10 knots (12 miles per hour)
Relative humidity 85%
Barometric pressure 1005.5

Science and Technology Log

We are on the fifth day of our cruise and the weather is being very uncooperative! It has been foggy everyday which makes sighting whales very difficult. Before we started the cruise (it sounds strange to call it a cruise. It seems more like a mission),  an aerial survey team did a fly over and spotted some right whales in the area we’ve been combing, but we have been unable to find them. Now we have set anchor off Provincetown, Cape Cod to sit out some bad weather that has moved in. We will stay here in this protected area until Sunday. This morning the wind was blowing at 54 knots or 60 miles per hour. Did you know that a knot is about 1.2 miles per hour? We set anchor last night and the wind was so strong it dragged the  ship and anchor 300 yards!

While this is disappointing for me and for all aboard, I am amazed at the positive attitude and optimism shown by the scientists here. They take it all in stride, and are used to things not turning out as they had planned. I guess that’s the nature of field work. They are all extremely dedicated and passionate about their research.

The Gordon Gunter
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
Photo credit: NOAA

You can track the course of the Gordon Gunter by going to the NOAA ship tracker website: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov/shiptracker.html . The ship is always in pursuit of whales so the track will sometimes look like a zigzag with lines crossing back and forth over each other. You can keep checking back to see our progress once we set sail again.

Although I have not seen many marine mammals, I have seen some sea birds that are new to me. The first is the gannet. The gannet is known for its diving ability. It can plunge into the ocean head first and go down 30 ft. It is a sea-bird so it never rests on land other than when it goes to its breeding colony.

Northern gannet photo
Northern gannet
Photo credit: Marie C. Martin

Next, I saw a greater shearwater. This bird is also a sea-bird which means it doesn’t go to land unless it is breeding. They congregate on Nightingale Island to breed. Nightingale Island is located between the tips of Africa and South America. They have a very long flight during breeding season!

Great shearwater
Great shearwater
Photo credit: birdfroum.net

I also saw a Northern Fulmar. They are also sea birds and they nest in Scotland. These birds look much like sea gulls.

Northern Fulmar
Northern Fulmar
Photo credit: Andreas Trepte

Personal Log

Today is day 5 of our cruise. While it is disappointing that the weather has not cooperated, it is such a learning experience to be on a ship like this one. I am learning so much everyday about what it’s like to be a scientist in the field. Besides being patient and optimistic, scientists need to be careful and precise in recording their field work. It is a good lesson for me and for you (my first graders) to always work carefully, and give close attention to detail in your work because that is what being a scientist is all about. Start practicing doing your best and most careful work now so you will be ready to be scientists when you grow up.

At this point I can see Provincetown from the ship, but for 2 days there was no land in sight. I really got a sense of just how big the ocean is. When we’re not sailing there is not much to do on the ship. I am fortunate that there are many new people to befriend, books to read and listen to, and delicious food at every meal. I also enjoy all your comments so keep them coming!

Did You Know?

Did you know that some of the scientists on this cruise have dedicated their entire working lives to surveying and cataloging right whales? They migrate with the whales down south in the winter, and come back up north in the spring.

Did you know that the sea depth is measured in fathoms? 1 fathom equals 6 feet

Question of the day:

Here is a line from a famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge,

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”

What do think that means? Why can’t they drink the water? Hint: The poem is written about sailors who are shipwrecked in a big storm out at sea

New  Vocabulary: Draw a ship and label all the parts below
Bow- front of the ship
Stern- rear of the ship
Starboard- right side of the ship
Port- left side of the ship
Aft- toward the back of the ship
Forward- toward the front of the ship

Melanie Lyte: May 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic 
Date:
May 22, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 12.01 degrees Celsius or 54 degrees fahrenheit
Wind Speed: 8.88kts
Relative Humidity: 97%
Barometric Pressure: 1,012.42mb

Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter
Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter
Photo credit: Mark Weekely

Science and Technology Log

FOG
(by Carl Sandburg)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

And that’s just what we awoke to this morning – heavily clouded skies and fog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t moved on yet, and actually looks like it’s here to stay. This made visibility very poor. The fog horn had been blasting every few minutes all night so the fog didn’t come as a surprise, but was a disappointment. My first shift on watch was moved to the wheel house and we watched with the “naked eye” instead of the “big eye” (giant binoculars that are outside on the bridge).  Our primary mission is to search for right whales, but any sea life observed is recorded. I was lucky enough to see 6 white sided dolphins on my first watch after Allison Henry (chief scientist) pointed them out to me.  By mid-morning, the fog had lifted and the visibility improved. I am on 90 minute shifts from 7am-7pm with 90 minute breaks between shifts. While working we either watch for whales or record data as others watch for whales.

The scientists want to identify each whale they see. They do this by examining the unique patches of callosities the whales have on their  heads and backs. The whales’ callosities are categorized as either broken or continuous.

Callosity comparison
Diagram from New England Aquarium

They have cataloged 669 right whales using this method since they began the identification process in the late 70’s. The callosities are the same color as the whale’s skin, but appear white or yellow due to the presence of thousands of tiny crustaceans called cyamids, or “whale lice”.

Learning about dermal tags
Photo credit: Allison Henry

If we spot a right whales and the conditions are good (no fog and the seas are not too choppy) some of us will go in the “small boats” to photograph the whales, and to do a biopsy sample on the whale if it has not already been sampled.

Biopsy tag in right whale
Biopsy tag in right whale
Photo Credit: NOAA/NEFSC/Lisa Conger under Permit #775-1875

Another small boat will try to tag the whale. Tagging the whale is a sophisticated process and uses high tech equipment. Mark  Baumgartner from Woods Hole Oceanic Institute (WHOI) showed us the dermal tag he will be using on whales. He also showed us how the tagging equipment has evolved over the last few years. The tag is shot into the whale where it goes into the skin about 3 inches. It has a GPS attached to it so it can be recovered from the whale when it falls off (usually in 24 hours). The scientists can set it to come off the whale in a certain amount of time. The implantable dart stays in the whale’s skin until it eventually works its way out which they estimate to be in 3-4 weeks. This process startles the whale, but is not thought to cause them pain.

Personal Log

We have been out on the water for 24 hours at this point, and I feel like I am adjusting well to life at sea. No seasickness yet (knock on wood), and I slept very comfortably last night (I know that comes as no surprise to any of you who know the ease with which I sleep in any situation). Everyone on the ship has been very friendly and willing to share information with me. The food is excellent, with lots of vegetarian choices, great mixed greens salad, and even a pineapple upside down cake for dessert last night.

Did You Know?

Did you know that right whales are identified by the callosities on their heads and bodies?

Did you know that the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales? It is estimated that there are only about 470 right whales alive today.

Question of the day: What is the smallest whale in the world?

Angela Greene: “The Tale of My Whale” May 9, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Angela Greene
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 29-May 11, 2013

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole, MA
Date: May 9, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Air Temperature- 12°C, Sea Temperature- 8.96°C, Wind Speed- 11.61 knots, Relative Humidity- 95%, Barometric Pressure- 1014.79mb.

Science and Technology Log:
Wednesday was beautiful.  The air was cold, the skies were blue, and the sea was calm.  Most importantly:  no fog.  Sei whales seemed to be popping up everywhere.  Then I saw it.  The classic “V” shaped blow, a North Atlantic Right Whale.  Not our first one of the trip, but the first in a few days.

blow
The classic “V” shaped blow of the North Atlantic Right Whale. Photo: NOAA/NEFSC Peter Duley,
collected under MMPA research permit number 775-1875

I sighted the blow at about 345° off the bow of the ship, and she was swimming toward us.  The frenzy began.  Our chief scientist, Allison Henry, grabbed the Canon Digital Camera with the 500 mm fixed zoom lens, and began capturing images of the right whale.  Remarkably, yet unofficially, she could identify the whale through the lens of the camera.  It was a female named Columbine.  She was not alone.  Columbine had a calf with her!

Side Blow
Side view of blow shot by me! Under NOAA Fisheries Permit # 775-1875

The calf swam very close to its mother and seemed to be rolling over on its back, flapping its flippers in the air.  The whales don’t seem to be bothered by our large ship being near them.

The small boats were not launched in pursuit of Columbine for two reasons.  Allison knew that both animals had already been biopsy sampled, so no need to repeat that process.  Also, it is not wise to tag and follow a whale that is raising a calf.

North Atlantic Right Whale (Columbine’s calf) Photo Credit- Allison Henry taken under NOAA fisheries permit # 775-1875
North Atlantic Right Whale (Columbine’s calf) Photo Credit- Allison Henry taken under NOAA fisheries permit # 775-1875

Allison contributes photos collected in the field to the North Atlantic Right Catalogue that is maintained by The New England Aquarium.  The aquarium maintains a searchable public database of right whale photos, sightings, and body descriptions.  There is also a quick whale identification activity to practice photo identification of right whales.

I was dazzled by the flips and turns of Columbine’s calf.  Giving a whale an official name is a complicated process that is the responsibility of The New England Aquarium and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.  However, I would like to unofficially name this baby “Arrow”.

Calf
North Atlantic Right Whale calf Photo Credit- Allison Henry taken under NOAA fisheries permit # 775-1875

Personal Log:  This is my final blog post as a 2013 NOAA Teacher at Sea.  I have learned a tremendous amount about marine mammals, but probably my most valuable lesson I have gained from this trip, a lesson I want to take back to my students, is about the nature of biological fieldwork.

I have learned that no two jobs are the same.  Biological fieldwork is as different as the organisms being studied or sampled.  I have put in some time looking at the way field biologist work, and each job has its own set of unique challenges and protocols.  The process of sampling North Atlantic Right Whales in a vast ocean couldn’t be further from the process of surveying Lake Erie Water Snakes, identifying tree species in an upland forest, trudging through fast moving rivers for Hellbender salamanders, rummaging through scat to identify elk, moose, and pronghorn, or scaling walls at night for arachnids.  I find it fascinating to look at the many faces of fieldwork.

Me and Allison
Me and my chief scientist, Allison Henry Photo Credit- Sarah Fortune

There is, however, one common characteristic among my collection of field biologists that I have noticed.  It’s an unusual sense of drive about the work.  You can see it in their eyes when they’re on the job.  No matter what the conditions, the fieldwork must get done, the sample must get collected, the photo must be shot, and the data must be recorded.  It’s a maniacal quest for answers.  It’s passion.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank so many people!  Thank you Allison Henry, my chief scientist, for all the lessons, the laughs, and the whales!  Thank you to all the NOAA scientists on board, Dave, Jen, Beth, Samara and Eric.  Thank you to all the WHOI scientists on board, Mark, Nadine, Lauren, Sarah, and Chris.  Thank you to the NOAA Corps officers, the Captain and Crew aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.  Thank you to everyone in the NOAA Teacher at Sea office.  Also I would like to thank all my blog followers, especially my Tecumseh Middle School 8th graders, and my family!  I will be home soon with another adventure under my belt!

Me
The end of my time on the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, Teacher at Sea 2013- Photo Credit Dave Morin

Angela Greene: “I’ll have 3000 Big Macs, please.” May 7, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Angela Greene
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 29-May 11, 2013

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole, MA
Date: May 7, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Air Temperature – 12.20°C or 54°F, Sea Temperature 10.16°C or 50°F, Wind Speed- 9.24 kts, Relative Humidity 94%, Barometric Pressure- 1021.05 mb.

Science and Technology Log: Whale work can be intense and exciting, or slow and frustrating. A good day at work is when the weather cooperates the same time the whales cooperate. So far no one is playing nice. Fog has been the enemy for the last two days, making flying-bridge operations nearly impossible. Unless a whale swims up to our ship and jumps in for lunch, we aren’t going to be able to see it. Our watch efforts get moved to the bridge where the ship is controlled, and while it’s a good time chatting with the NOAA Corps officers, I’d rather be sighting whales.

Fog
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Carl Sandburg

For me however, this ship is like a small university on the sea with free tuition.  Everyone here knows much more than I do about science, so days like these are spent asking questions.  I wanted to focus this blog post on a question that came from my Tecumseh Middle School eighth grade students.  They have been following my blog and following the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter using the NOAA Ship Tracker.  The ship tracker can be used to locate any ship in the NOAA fleet on its current cruise or in the last twelve months.  Current weather data from the ship can also be displayed.

Ship Tracker
The current cruise of the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. Screen shot courtesy of NOAA Ship Tracker

My students noticed that our ship was staying near the continental shelf, or Georges Bank, and wanted to know if it would be a better idea to look for whales in deeper ocean.  I turned to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist onboard, Dr. Mark Baumgartner (yet another superhero), for answers.  He basically told me, the whales go where the food is most abundant.

Georges Bank
Georges Bank is a shallow off shore plateau. During the ice age it was above water. Image credit- NOAA

North Atlantic Right Whales eat a zooplankton named Calanus finmarchicus or just Calanus.  This tiny crustacean is packed with lots of calories in an internal structure called a lipid sac.  In order to grow and develop a hearty lipid sac, the Calanus require lots of phytoplankton.  In order to be a yummy and nutritious treat for the Calanus, the phytoplankton need nutrients in the form of nitrogen and phosphorous, water, and sunlight.  Nutrients and water are abundant for the phytoplankton, but in order to get the needed sunlight for photosynthesis, the phytoplankton must be as close to sunlight as possible.

Calanus
Northern Right Whale food- Calanus finmarchicus The lipid sac is clearly visible. Photo credit- C.B. Miller/K. Tande NOAA

Simply put the food chain links together like this:  sunlight (source of energy), phytoplankton (producer), Calanus (primary consumer), and right whale (secondary consumer).  The topography of the ocean near Georges Bank and the weather over the North Atlantic provide two things for this simple food chain: upwelling and wind.

Upwelling is a phenomenon that occurs in ocean waters when wind and a continental structure circulate water, allowing the cold nutrient rich water on the bottom to replace water on the top.  The phytoplankton at the bottom essentially get a free ride to the top of the ocean where they are able perform photosynthesis.  The Calanus can feed on the nutrient rich phytoplankton, and the whales can feed on the Calanus.  This cycling allows the whales to feed close to the surface, where they need to be in order to breathe.  If a whale has to dive deep for food, energy is wasted on the dive.  It is more efficient to be able to get a good meal as close to the surface as possible.

big mac
Right Whales need the caloric equivalent of 3000 Big Macs per day. I’m lovin it! Image credit- MacDonalds

According to Dr. Baumgartner, a Northern Right Whale needs to eat 1-2 billion Calanus per day.  This amount of zooplankton has the same weight as a wet Volkswagen beetle, and is the caloric equivalent of eating 3000 Big Macs per day.  So there you have it, TMS 8th graders.  The whales go where the food is…

Dr. Mark
Me with Dr. Mark Baumgartner
Photo Credit-Eric Matzen

Personal Log:  Still holding out for “The Big Day”, the day we can take the small boats out again.  If it doesn’t happen, I will be happy for the experience I had on the Gordon Gunter.  Sure would be awesome, though…

Melanie Lyte: On the Brink of an Adventure at Sea! May 7, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic 
Date: May 14, 2013

Personal Log

Hello, from Castleton, New York. My name is Melanie Lyte and I am a first grade teacher at Bell Top Elementary School . I am very fortunate to teach in a school of dedicated staff where creativity and innovation is fostered, and embraced. My principal, Jim McHugh, was the one who urged me to apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program, and I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement. Although Bell Top is a public school, many of the yearly activities our students are involved in are unique, especially in a public school setting. With funds from a NSTA administered Toyota Tapestry Grant we built a Learning Barn on our school grounds. The barn, built uniquely using both Dutch and English architectural styles so students can compare the two ways, houses an evaporator for a school wide maple sugaring project, as well as cider press for making apple cider in the fall.  We also have amazing parental support at our school, a very active PTO, and of course the best kids in the world walk through our doors each day!

Bell Top Elementary School,Troy, NY
Bell Top Elementary School, Troy NY

I originally applied to be a teacher at sea because I love science and adventure, and I love to bring my experiences outside the classroom back to enrich my students. In the last few years I have camped in the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia, hiked and kayaked in Alaska,  visited the rain forests of Brazil, and traveled to China. I believe we must expose our children to the the broader world, and the natural world around them in order to foster a curiosity about far away places, and  love and appreciation for our earth. We need to feed every student’s innate sense of wonder and excitement for the world around them.

My friend Harold and I on top of a volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia.
My friend Harold and I on top of a volcano in Sumatra, Indonesia.

I think the opportunity to work with real scientists doing research will be a life changing event for me, and I am even more enthused because the mission of this voyage, conducting a right whale survey in the North Atlantic, is perfect for my first graders! What child doesn’t get excited about whales?!?! I am also very fortunate to teach with my partner in first grade, Sarah Lussier. She and I truly have a the best teaching partnership imaginable, and we, and our students, are enriched by it.  To prepare our students for my upcoming voyage, we have been learning all we can about right whales, and whales in general. We painted a  right whale and whale calf on the parking lot at school (that was an adventure in itself – think 42 first graders  with paint brushes and black concrete paint). The students also researched right whales, created diagrams of the whale, and developed informational posters of what they learned. I think the consensus of the students is that right whales are “really cool, but a little lazy, and kind of ugly.” (as one of my first graders so  eloquently put it). They are fascinated by the callosities on the whales and are saddened that the whales sit on top of the water so often and are in danger of being hit by boats. While I’m at sea the students in both our classrooms will be working on many other whale related activities, as well as following my blog.

Right whale calf created by first graders at BellTop Elementary School.
Right whale calf created by first graders at BellTop Elementary School.
Categorizing toothed and baleen whales by the first graders at Bell Top School
Categorizing toothed and baleen whales by the first graders at Bell Top School
Whale Facts by first graders at Bell Top School.
Whale Facts by first graders at Bell Top School.
Whale Sizes by the first graders at Bell Top School.
Whale Sizes by the first graders at Bell Top School.
Right whale (1980) Massachusetts Secretary of ...
The right whale became the official state marine mammal of Massachusetts in 1980. Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA

So in less than two weeks my adventure at sea will begin! I will be joining head scientist Allison Henry and the crew of the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Gordon Gunter out of Boston MA. We will be conducting a North Atlantic Right whale survey, but I have been told we will see other whales as well such as humpback, sei, and minke. I can’t wait to explore the ocean with scientists, and learn all I can about the creatures who live there. I hope you will join me on my adventure by reading my blogs while I’m at sea.

Gordon Gunter
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter (photo credit NOAA)

Angela Greene: “Surface Active Groups and Good Medicine” May 5, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Angela Greene
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 29-May 11, 2013

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole, MA
Date: May 5, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Air temperature-8.4°C or 47°F, Sea temperature-8.4°C or 47°F, Wind Speed 14 knots, Winds are out of the northeast, Barometric Pressure- 1024.4 mb, wave height- 1-2 feet.

Science and Technology Log:  To say the environment aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter changes when a right whale is spotted during a watch duty, would be a major understatement.  The goal is to find a Northern Right Whale, and when we do, the frenzy begins.

Me with Whale
Believe it or not, that white splash is a Northern Right Whale. Photo credit Mark Baumgartner

A quick decision must be made as to whether the small boats will be launched.  The small boats enable the scientists to get extremely close to the whales.  This proximity allows them the chance to photograph whales from many angles for later identification.  This distance may also provide an opportunity for scientists to use a crossbow to acquire a biopsy sample.  The sample will provide genetic information needed to determine the gender, parents, and siblings of the whale.  The biopsy also can give a toxicity level of the animal.

Crossbow
Holding the crossbow used to collect whale biopsy sample. Photo credit Eric Matzen

Being in the small boats also gives the team of four the opportunity to scoop a fecal sample from the ocean that a right whale may present.  Poop samples can give diet information and hormone levels.  Checking hormone levels enable scientists to determine the stress levels of the whale and whether or not the whale is pregnant.

Whale Poop
Whale Poop in a baggie.

Our team spotted a right whale, and the boats were launched.  The small boat was able to get extremely close to what is called a SAG, or “surface active group”.  This particular group of four Northern Right Whales was so close to the small boat that it looked as if the whales were performing a show for the scientists!  It was one of the most incredible events I have ever witnessed!

small boat blow
Small boat and a right whale blow. Photo taken under NOAA fisheries permit number 775-1875
good fluke
Small boat and a right whale fluke. Photo taken under NOAA fisheries permit number 775-1875

During the SAG event, many photos were taken under a NOAA fisheries permit, which is necessary due to the endangered status of the species.  It’s interesting to note here, that the public is not allowed to be within five hundred yards of a Northern Right Whale without a permit, making the opportunity to be in the small boat a momentous occasion.

A fecal sample was acquired, which is considered a rare opportunity, however a biopsy was not in the cards for this small boat launch.

Biopsied Last year
Northern Right Whale photo taken from small boat- a biopsy was acquired from this whale on last year’s trip. Photo Credit Jennifer Gatzke. Photo taken under NOAA fisheries permit number 775-1875
Stateroom
My stateroom. You may notice the trash can right next to my bunk.

Personal Log:  This is difficult fieldwork, indeed!  Two days of rough seas made our flying bridge observations come to a grinding halt.  I woke up Friday morning knowing I had a 7:00 am watch duty, and was throwing up the nothingness in my stomach.

My roommate came back to our stateroom with the news that many others, including the crew, were also experiencing seasickness.  I took an odd sense of comfort hearing that other people were also ill.  We were in the middle of ten foot ocean swells that made the boat feel like the inside of Maytag washing machine.  My roommate’s water bottle fell out of her top bunk and landed squarely on my forehead, and our desk chair toppled over on its side. Motion sickness medications work wonders, but make me incredibly sleepy.  Seems like everyone was either sleeping or watching movies… basically just surviving until calmer waters.

This morning’s sunrise brought much happier seas, and the whale watch continues.  It’s cold enough for me to finally don the “Mustang Suit” as everyone tells me I will feel more comfortable than my lined jeans and Tecumseh Arrows jacket.  I am hoping for my chance to get to be in the small boat!

Animal Sightings Log: 

Aquatic-

Right Whale

Sei Whale

Fin Whale

Minke Whale

Humpback Whale

Atlantic Whitesided Dolphin

Harbor Porpoises

Birds-

Herring Gull

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

Northern Gannet

Sooty Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Atlantic Puffin

Ellen O’Donnell: The Right Place, May 21, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Georges Basin
Date: May 21 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:  Wind at 4 knots, fog with relative humidity around 97%

Science and Technology Log:

Yesterday we started out the day in Canadian Waters. We were about 50-60 miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Remember to track me using the NOAA Ship Tracker. The day started off very quickly. I was on the first shift at 7 AM and we started seeing right whales within 30 minutes. I stayed on watch while the first group went out in the little gray boat. From the flybridge, we were seeing right whale blows from west to east across our bow. It was a calm day so you could really see the indicative v-shaped blow.  The first group collected data from 11 whales and biopsied one of them. At one point we radioed the group on the boat because we had around 8 right whales within sight. They radioed back that they were working one whale and had four more close by!  Around lunchtime we switched out the crews and I got to go out again on the little boat.

It is so hard to describe my experience on that boat, but I will give it my best shot. We had right whales all around us. One swam right toward our boat and then veered off at the last minute. At one point we were trying to collect data on around 8 whales who were close to us. The majority were echelon feeding on the surface so it was easy to take pictures. It was not easy, however, to keep individuals separate as they kept swapping places or moving off to join another group close by. Allison Henry, is the biologist in charge of identifying the right whales, and she is amazing. We would come up on a whale and she would say, “Nope, already got him, he was letter H!” (We identify the whales by the alphabet as you go along. In other words, the first is A, then B, etc). So not only could she keep track of the whales we identified, but she often knew which letter we had given it! So to give you an idea of the number of whales we saw that day, our last whale was UU. Some of these whales are most likely duplicates, but that’s still a pile of whales. Peter Duley, our chief scientist dubbed this spot, “the honey pot.” Another really interesting thing was that the ocean was just full of whales where we were, but they were almost all right whales. We just saw the occasional sei whale here and there.

As I mentioned before right whales are identified by large patches of rough tissue called callosities. Calves begin to show these patches shortly after birth, and are usually well established by 7-10 months. These patches are unique to individual whales, and therefore, are used to identify them. The patches themselves are dark, but they become infected by cyamids, otherwise known as “whale lice,” which make them look lighter. I hope all you school nurses are getting a good look at this. You think you have an epidemic!

Right whale showing callosities and cyamids up close

Look at these pairs of  right whales and tell me how you would describe each in a way that you would know them if you saw them again. There is a pair of two right heads and two pictures showing left heads. They are from 4 different individuals. I have a prize for the person from DCS that gives the best description! (I think we can probably come up with another prize for those of you at Hall Memorial school in CT. Right Mrs. Rodriguez?)

To help you with this challenge you might want to play this whale identification game by the New England Aquarium

http://www.neaq.org/education_and_activities/games_and_activities/online_games/right_whale_identification_games.php

Right whale in Georges Basin (right head)
Right whale in Georges Basin (right head)
Right whale in Georges Basin (left head)
Right whale in Georges Basin (left head)

Personal Log:

Chris O’Keefe, Chief Engineer, and Grady Abney, 1st Engineer, explain to me how the ship is powered

A ship isn’t going to go anywhere if you don’t power it. I spoke with Chief Engineer Chris O’Keefe and 1st Engineer Grady Abney about how the Delaware II operates. Chris has been with NOAA for 35 years and Grady has been with NOAA for 25 years. Grady took me into the bowels of the ship and gave me a tour of the systems. It’s like another world down there, full of equipment, and loud noise with a small walkway running through. The Delaware II is run by a 125 HP engine. It uses diesel fuel and the ship carries about 28,000 gallons which will last between one or two months. On a day when we are stopped most of the time, like yesterday when we were surveying whales from the little boat it will use about 500 gallons. When we are going at a steady pace we will burn around 1200 gallons. Grady tells me that this is great fuel efficiency compared to some of the newer ships that may burn as much as 5000 gallons a day.

Chris explained one of the really cool things that the Delaware II has: a desalination unit. This is a process where filtered saltwater is brought in and boiled in an evaporator. The water is under high pressure so that it boils at 160 degrees F. The steam is collected in a condenser where it is cooled and turns back into water, but without the salt. Remember how we separated salt from water in our labs? The ship needs to be moving in order to generate the fresh water and at a steady pace the Delaware makes about 1500 gallons a day. The generation of fresh water is something that the engineers log through-out the day.

Engine control room on the Delaware II

Another interesting thing that Grady explained to me is how the ship can be run from the engine room instead of the bridge. This is a back-up in case there are problems with the ship. I had a lot of fun talking to Chris and Grady. You can see they enjoy their jobs and are very capable in what they do. Good thing for all of us!

Ellen O’Donnell: There’s a Lot of Food in the Ocean and One More Whale to Feed! May 20, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: North Atlantic Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean; Franklin Basin
Date: May 20, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge: Light winds, slightly overcast, ocean swells between 3 to 5 feet.

Science and Technology Log:

We spent the night out at sea and today and we worked the Franklin Basin. It is about 120 miles from Cape Cod. At first we didn’t see many whales, but things started picking up by lunchtime. We launched the little gray boat shortly after to get close to the right whales we were seeing. While I didn’t go on the gray boat today, many of the whales came right up to the ship. It was another amazing day and we were quite successful.

Copepod (photo: at-sea.org)

I have seen so many different ways that the whales catch their prey. I asked the question last time, “Why do sei and right whales often appear together?” This is because they like the same food. Both whales eat copepods. Copepods are tiny crustaceans that range from microscopic to a quarter of an inch. Crustaceans are invertebrates which are related to lobster, shrimp and crabs. They eat diatoms and plankton, which are even smaller! They are the most abundant species on earth and are important in many ocean food webs.

Cool Fact from the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A single copepod may eat from 11,000 to 373,000 diatoms in 24 hours!

So sei and right whales feed on these tiny abundant organisms, which is amazing given their size. Humpbacks and fin whales also filter feed, but they eat krill (another tiny crustacean), plankton and small fish. Humpbacks can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food a day.

Sei and right whale feeding in same area (photo: Genevive Davis)

All of these whales are called baleen whales because they filter their prey out of the water as they move through it. Right whales and sei whales surface feed a lot. They are close to the surface slowly moving through the water filtering out copepods. Often they are seen feeding side by side.

Sometimes right whales do what is called echelon feeding. One whale is up front and then whales along each side create a V-shape. The whales to the side of the one in front pick up prey that didn’t make it into the forward whale’s mouth. We saw a great example of echelon feeding right from the ship. There were six right whales slowly swimming in this V-shape. Every once in a while, if one got out of formation, they would swim back toward the V and turn and get back in formation.

Right Whales Echelon Feeding

Humpback whales also use a method for catching prey. When we got close to the humpback, Slumber, the other day, we noticed large bubbles rising to the surface. This is called bubble feeding. Humpbacks create large bubbles to trap and herd fish. Often they do this in groups.

Mother and new calf (photo: Jenn Gatzke)

So while watching the different whales, and how they feed was very interesting, this was not the most exciting thing. These surveys are important because they keep track of vital information needed to develop good conservation plans. Therefore, information such as where the individual whales are, which females breed, where they breed, and how many calves are born is important.

We identified around 17 whales yesterday and found one that one had not been biopsied. This whale was then biopsied so its information can go into the database. We also saw two mothers and their calves. Right whales typically give birth to their calves after a 12 month gestation period, off the coast of Georgia or North Florida.

This year only six calves were born and one died. This number is not good as biologists hope to have the number of calves born in the double digits. So you can imagine how happy everyone was when we identified a female who hadn’t been seen since 2010 with a new calf! We were able to get a biopsy from the calf as well, which will not only give genetic information from the skin, but also information on contaminants from the mother since it is still nursing. But I’m not finished yet! The icing on the cake was that the baby whale also released some fecal matter. Yes that’s right…whale poop! This may not seem important to you, but the whale biologists were ecstatic. The collected whale poop, yes it was collected in a bucket, gives a wealth of information, such as what it has been eating and the level of contaminants in the calves body.  Adult whale poop also gives hormonal information.  All in all it was a very successful day of collecting important data on right whales.

Relaxing after a hard day’s work
NOAA Scientists Peter Duley and Allison Henry scoop whale poop into a collection bag to be later analyzed

Personal Log 

NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Their reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as they work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them. Obviously the ocean is a big part of our environment. NOAA vessels have differing focuses on the data they collect from the ocean.  The Delaware II is a fisheries vessel. It goes out on various research cruises, which collect data on different organisms within our oceans. As you know they perform right whale cruises, like the one I am on now, but they also perform other studies as well. Midwater trawling is done for studies on herring. Large nets are pulled along the boat at mid-water level, and the data collected gives information on the distribution and abundance of herring. Deep water trawls with nets are done to collect scallops and clams, and determine their relative abundance and distribution. Shark cruises collect sharks by sending out a line with baited hooks. The sharks collected are tagged and released. Lastly, the Delaware II performs ichthyoplanktic studies, which collect eggs and larvae from various species of fish.

Jim Pontz (left) and Todd Wilson (right) getting the trawl net ready (photo: Delaware II)
Herring catch (photo: Delaware II)
Clam and Scallop Survey (photo: Delaware II)
Shark Tag and Release Survey (photo: Delaware II)

It is the deck crew that helps make this possible. Acting Chief Boatswain and Head Fisherman, Todd Wilson heads up a 5-man crew, who not only take care of all ship maintenance, with the exception of the engine, but serve as night-time lookouts, and operators of the fisheries equipment. We rely on them to get the little gray boat in and out of the water, which takes a lot of coordination, and they are always there to help you if you need it.

Launching the little gray boat

Ellen O’Donnell: Where Am I? May 17, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical are of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Provincetown. MA
Date: May 17, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Winds out of the Northwest, 5 to 10 knots. Mid-level clouds.Ocean swells 1 to 3 meters

Science and Technology Log:

We pulled up anchor and set sail out of Provincetown, Cape Cod at 6AM. We followed the Cape Coastline for several miles and then headed out to Georges Bank again. Unfortunately, today was windy so the ocean had a lot of whitecaps. In addition, the swells were between 1 to 3 meters throughout the day. This made it hard to spot whales. The wind also disperses their spout very quickly so they are hard to see. Around 3PM the wind lessened such that there were far fewer whitecaps. We started to see more whales but not a lot.

Atlantic White Sided Dolphin (Photo: Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation)

One right whale came close to the ship and we were able to slow the boat down and get several pictures. Other than that we saw fin and sei whales and one minke whale. A bit of excitement for me, though, is that several pods of common Atlantic white sided dolphins swam past the ship. One pod had about 15 dolphins!

Humpback entanglement (photo Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies)

The last time we were out at sea we took the little gray boat out to get closer to the right whales. One of the whales was entangled. Entanglement is when a gillnet, lobster trap or crab pot or any other marine debris gets caught on a whales fin, head or flippers. It is the second leading cause of human-related right whale deaths. In fact, nearly three out of four whales bear scars from these types of interactions.

NOAA created a central response network on the East Coast through its National Marine Fisheries Service, developed by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. When a whale that is entangled is spotted, they send out a crew to remove the fishing gear from the whale. Now this is no easy task. Remember  whales can weigh up to 70 tons and won’t just sit still for you to remove the nets. Responders will typically try and slow the whale down and keep it on the surface. In order to do this they attach buoys to a trailing line in order to cause drag on the animal. Fin, sei and humpbacks react well to this because they are lunge feeders so they actively chase after their prey, and because of this they experience this periodic drag. Once this happens and the whale has slowed down, the responders get close in a small inflatable boat and try to remove the nets with strategically placed cuts, working to remove the net as quickly as possible. They use tools that are on the end of long poles to do this.

However, this method does not work well with right whales. They are grazers and therefore oftentimes don’t react to additional drag. Jamison Smith, biologist for NOAA, said that they even attached a large boat to the drag line but the whale just kept swimming and eventually broke the line! So they have been trying something new with them. Recently they have administered tranquilizers to the whales to slow them down. They found that this changed the right whales behavior, and they were able to get closer. They have even administered antibiotics to those whales that had severe damage from the fishing gear. View this video to see a whale getting darted. NOAA Biologist Darts Right Whale (courtesy NOAA)

Researchers continue to work on more efficient and better ways to deal with this threat to our whale populations. One method that has worked well is to work with fisherman to design fishing gear, which have weak links so that they break easier when whales swim through them. It is a controversial issue between many parties, but hopefully we will see a decline in whale entanglements in the future.

Personal Log:

You might think it’s easy to navigate a ship. Just point and drive, right? No. Navigation of a ship is a complex endeavor which requires skill and the use of many different technologies. Think about it. You need to consider wind, tides, currents, depth of water and other ships in the area. Luckily the Delaware II has a great deal of equipment and skilled operators to get our ship from point A to B.

So let’s dive into the art of navigation. First off you need to know where you are.

Lieutenant Claire Surry-Marsden and Ensign Jason Wilson showing me how the instruments work

The Delaware II has a global positioning system, which is a satellite-based navigation system. It works something like this. The US government launched satellites up into orbit around our Earth. They constantly send out light wave signals with a time the message was sent, and the location of the signal at that time. A receiver on the ground needs to receive at least 4 of these signals, sometimes three will work, to get an accurate reading on where that receiver (you)  is located. But you just don’t want to rely on one system, so the Delaware II has 2 back-up systems. The crew also utilizes a magnetic compass, and a Gyrocompass. As you know the magnetic compass points toward magnetic north (considering the declination of your area). However the Gyrocompass is an instrument that is mounted in a device so that it spins freely. When the device is moved in a different direction, such as ocean swells or turns, the gyroscope will always point to true North. A gyroscope  spins about three axes of angular freedom due to its inherent properties  and its being acted upon by the earth’s rotation and gravity. Control devices are applied to balance the forces so that the gyro seeks and continually aligns itself with the meridian and points to true north.

You also need to know what is going on down in the water. If the ocean floor gets shallow or the currents change this is going to affect the ship’s safety and or progress. The Delaware II gets this information through two navigation depth sounders. They emit sound waves out of the bottom of the boat and time how long it takes for the waves to get back. Remember our formulas during our energy units? Speed equals distance divided by time. Well we know the speed of sound in water at various temperatures (remember the speed changes with different mediums and the temperature), so you multiply the time (divided by 2)  by the speed and you get the distance. Luckily the navigation depth sounder does all this math for you automatically and you get a picture on the screen showing the depth of the water below the ship.

Computer with chart of the area

The Delaware II has a large computer which uses software called Nobeltec. This displays the most recent charts, or as we call them maps, on the screen. These charts indicate all land and the depths of the water. Before leaving the navigators plot the course on the chart and this is what they use to steer the ship. Of course, safety is incredibly important so this course is also drawn out on paper charts in case the on-line computer goes down. I watched Ensign Junie Casson transferring this information and it isn’t easy. Knowing latitude and longitude are key as well as determining the degrees in which you want to travel. See that! Math and social studies really do come in handy! Junie is also responsible for keeping the ships charts up to date as information is constantly being acquired on the topography of the ocean floor.

Ensign Junie Casson shows me how to plot a course on the chart

You also need to know how the currents are moving in the water you are traveling through. Especially should the ship release equipment, such as nets or instruments. This is done with the Doppler speed log. It emits 3 sonic beams and the information is used to determine the speed and direction of the water in three different layers. Speed and direction of the water is affected by winds, rotation of the Earth (remember the Coriolis Effect – it affects the direction of the water as well as the air) and tides. Deeper layers tend to move more slowly because there is less energy transfer between layers as you go down.

Lastly we want to make sure that no other ships are getting too close, that we aren’t getting too close to certain objects or to fix ourselves upon a certain point. For this the ship has two different kinds of radar. One radar called x-band, has  a higher frequency and shorter wavelength. The second radar is called s-band, and has a lower frequency and longer wavelength. Both are used to get the best accuracy with identifying objects.To avoid collision, The Delaware II  uses an integrated ARPA (Automated Radar Plotting Aid) to quickly analyze trial maneuvers.  Different courses and/or speeds are assessed and the calculated outcome in terms of a CPA (closest point of approach) is determined. Whenever possible at sea, one nautical mile CPA from all other traffic should be kept.

Poll Update:

On my first blog I asked which of the following whales is the longest; sei, fin, humpback, right and minke. While most of you picked the humpback the fin whale is actually the longest.

Questions of the Day:

When you determine the time in our equation to determine the water’s depth you would need to divide it by two. Why?

In ancient times, ships didn’t have the equipment I just described to you. How did they navigate the ship?

Ellen O’Donnell: Whales, Whales and More Whales May 15, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical are of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole. MA
Date: May 15, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Winds out of the south about 10-15 knots. Partly cloudy with mid-level clouds.

Science and Technology Log

We left Woods Hole, MA, yesterday afternoon around 2:00PM. All night we traveled until we reached Georges Bank this morning. George’s Bank is a rich feeding area that many cetaceans utilize especially those that eat small crustaceans called copepods. On May 12th a previous right whale survey located a group of 15 right whales. We headed out to that point. We started our watch sessions at 7AM and rotated through three stations.

Me on the “Big Eye”

One person used a mounted binocular which has 25X125 magnification. It is called “Big Eye.” Big Eye is used to scan the horizon from the bow to the port side. It is also used to help identify a whale when it is seen by someone else. The second person has binoculars and looks on the starboard side and the third person records information when any whale is seen and watches for the whales closest to the ship.

I learned a lot today about identifying whales. First off, if helps if you know what species you might be dealing with. In this location, the main species one might see are right whales, fin whales, sei whales and humpback whales.

So, here is the scoop on whale identification. Typically the first thing you see that indicates a whale is present is the spout. Whales are mammals and have lungs. Therefore, they need to inhale and exhale air. Whales have evolved to have their nostrils on their back, called “blowholes.” Baleen whales have two blowholes. The spout that you see is exhaled moist air.

Right Whale Spout (photo Beth Josephson 5/15/2012)

Anyway, back to identifying whales. Whales have somewhat different spray patterns giving an indication of the type of whale. Right whales and humpbacks have v-shaped blows, if you see them head on, or they look like puffy clouds from the side. Sei whales and fin whales have tall columnar spouts.

The second indication is to look for a dorsal fin, a fin on the whale’s backside. Right whales don’t have dorsal fins, but the other three whales do. You can also tell the difference between a sei and a fin whale by how close the spout and the dorsal fin appear. If you see the fin about the same time as the spout, you have a sei whale and if you don’t see the dorsal fin for a while you have a fin whale. (slow to the finish – fin whale, seys I’m here – sei whale. Method of memorizing – compliments of me!)

A third thing to look for is the fluke. Some whales, such as the right and humpback whales, raise their flukes when they dive down into the water. The humpbacks fluke is very broad and more horizontal, whereas the right whales fluke is more upright. In addition, the right whale fluke is more smooth on the inner portion of the fluke and the humpbacks is jagged.  Humpbacks also have white patterns on the back of their fluke, which is used to identify them whereas, right whales are just dark. So when you are looking for right whales it is exciting when you see a more rigid, dark colored fluke go down.

Right whale fluke before diving (photo Jennifer Gatzke 5/15/2012)
Right whale fluke (Jennifer Gatzke 5/15/2012)

Now there is one more thing to look for in a right whale. Right whales often skim along the surface. They open their mouths and let the water run through hoping to catch small crustaceans with their baleen. This gives them a characteristic sloping shape where their head is up higher in the water.

Right Whale Head (photo Allison Henry)

They also have callosities which are used to identify individuals. Callosities are rough patches of skin and each right whale has a different pattern of this skin.

At the location of the previous 15 whales we found 5 right whales. A small boat was lowered into the water in order to get closer to the whales. While whales are identified up in the flying tower of the Delaware II, the mission of this research cruise, however, is not just to identify whales. It is important to individually identify each right whale. Therefore, when right whales are seen, the biologists need to determine if it is one that has already been identified. To this purpose they take pictures of the whales head, remember that’s where the callosities are located. If it turns out to be a whale that scientists haven’t identified, or a new calf, a biopsy is taken of the whale (more to come on this). The biologists took pictures of the right whales, but it was very difficult to get close, as they were feeding below the surface and staying down for long periods of time. Right whales may remain below the surface for up to twenty minutes.

The gray boat heading out to get closer to right whales

After the time it took chasing the 5 whales, we made our way to a previous sighting of nine right whales. We saw 6 whales on the way and tagged the locations, but did not lower the boat. Our time was cut short because the weather is supposed to turn for the worse this evening and we need to get back near land. Therefore, we are heading back to the cape tonight, near Provincetown, as the weather forecast calls for rain, high winds and rough seas. We may be staying closer to land the next day or so.

5/15/2012 species identification: right, fin, sei and humpback whales, basking shark

Personal Log

I arrived in Woods Hole, MA, Sunday evening and made my way to the Delaware II. When I came on board I was told that this may be the Delaware’s last NOAA research trip. It was first deployed in 1968 by the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. The Bureau was reorganized when NOAA was formed in 1972.  The Delaware II is the smallest ship in the NOAA fleet. Doesn’t seem to small to me. In June, the Delaware II will be taken down to the Marine Operations Center – Atlantic in Norfolk for layup. Hopefully it will end up with some other organization, such as a university, and sail the seas again.

I know many of you are probably curious as to where I am staying on board the ship. Check this out!

Me with my emergency suit on!

Safety is very important aboard a ship. When the Delaware took off from port we had two important drills to go through. The first was in case of a fire and the second was in case we would need to abandon ship. We all bring survival suits to the back of the ship and need to try them on to make sure we can get them on ourselves. This could be the difference between life and death.

I also have had to learn a new language while aboard the Delaware. Some words I knew and some I didn’t. Lucky for me my Dad drilled me on many nautical words back in the time when we had a small family sailboat. I can remember sitting around the kitchen table being asked to give the definitions. So lets see how you do. How many do you know? Write me back and let me know how many of the words you knew. Be honest! Also let me know if you have any other questions.

Cheers!

Mrs. OD

Nautical words:

Fore

Head

Aft

 Galley

Starboard

Stateroom

Port

Chart

Muster

Bow

Stern

Can you think of others?

Methea Sapp-Cassanego, July 24, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Methea Sapp-Cassanego
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 19 – August 8, 2007

Mission: Marine Mammal Survey
Geographical Area: New England
Date: July 24, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility: less then 0.5 nm
Wind Direction: Easterly
Wind Speed: 5-10 mph increasing to 20
Swell height: 3 to 5 feet

A photograph of a C. finmarchicus C5 with a large oil sac, taken with a VPR (Video Plankton Recorder).
A photograph of a C. finmarchicus C5 with a large oil sac, taken with a VPR (Video Plankton Recorder).

Science and Technology Log 

Dense fog has given us little to see or do but listen to the fog horn for the past two days.  Therefore today’s entry will be less of an activities report and more of an informative piece that will hopefully elucidate just one of the many ecological relationships which we aim to study…once the fog lifts of course.  

Got Copepods? 

Mammalian foraging strategies are as diverse as mammal themselves, from coordinated packs of prowling wolves to a solitary grazing rhinoceros. Yet regardless of the critter, the energy (or calories) spent pursuing a meal must be less then the energy gained from eating the meal. This simple equation of energy expenditures to energy gains must be kept in the positive for proper growth, development, and reproduction.  All of this may seem fairly intuitive and straight forward until you stop to consider the right whale Eubalaena glacialis. This whale is one of the largest predatory animals on the planet measuring up to 17 meters and weighing 40-50 tons, yet feeds almost exclusively on a small ephemeral looking copepod which measures 1-2 mm long.

The copepod preferred by right whales is called Calanus finmarchicus but is often referred to simply as Calanus. Calanus, like most copepods feed on phytoplankton, transition through a number of growth stages, and aggregate in large concentrations of up to ~ 4,000 copepods per cubic liter of water.  As far as right whale feeding goes the copepod of choice is most calorically valuable during stage 5 of its life cycle.  By this stage (C5) the copepod has sequestered a significant amount of lipid (specifically wax esters) in a part of its body called an oil sack.

Right whales feed on copepods by either skimming the waters surface or diving; sometimes reaching feeding depths of 175 meters.  Regardless of depth, the whale pushes its open mouth through the water and then shuts it while forcing the big gulp through its baleen plates which boarder the upper mandible.  All filter feeding whales possess baleen, although the baleen of right whales is very fine and hair-like in texture, therefore enabling it to filter out the miniscule copepods.  In contrast, a humpback’s baleen is thick and bristle-like and more adept to filtering larger krill and small fish.

In order to maintain proper growth a right whale must consume copious amounts of copepods. Melissa Patrician, an Oceanographic Technician for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, reports that scientists estimate that a right whale consumes on average of 2-4,000 pounds (wet weight) of copepods per day.  This is the equivalent weight of 1 Volkswagen beetle and calorically equal to 3,000 Big Macs.  In general right whales can be found feeding in four main locations within the North Atlantic.  These feeding grounds are centered around the Bay of Fundy, Roseway Basin, Cap Cod Bay, and the Great South Channel which runs E. of Nantucket.

Understanding the intricacies of copepod life and right whale feeding are just part of a greater body of knowledge which is aimed at saving the right whale from extinction.  Researchers estimate that only 390 right whales are left following the extensive whaling practices of the 19th century.  Scientists from multiple disciplines including but not limited to, pathologists, reproductive endocrinologists, geneticists, veterinarians, behavioral ecologists, and toxicologists are all working to protect the species from disease, entanglement, ship-strike and to better understand recent declines in reproductive success.

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This diving sequence depicts right whale foraging for nutrient rich Calanus finmarchicus.
This diving sequence depicts a right whale foraging for nutrient rich Calanus finmarchicus.