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?