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?