Ragupathy Kannan: Petrels to Pilot Whales, August 30, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 30, 2019


Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 40.72218
Longitude: -69.45301
Water temperature: 19.8 degrees Celsius
Wind Speed: 5.25 knots
Wind Direction: 87.06 degrees
Air temperature: 23.2 degrees Celsius
Atmospheric pressure: 1006.85 millibars
Sky: Cloudy


Science and Technology Log

We’ve had a flurry of whale sightings as we passed over the famous Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  It’s a small underwater plateau in Massachusetts Bay flanked by steep drop offs.  Nutrients from the depths rise up by upwelling along the sides, feeding phytoplankton in the shallow light-abundant waters, and this creates perfect feeding habitat for whales.

Much of my time aboard this ship has been on the flying bridge (the highest point of access for us on the ship) scanning the seas for marine vertebrates.  I have basically been an extra pair of eyes to assist my colleagues Chris Vogel and Allison Black, the seabird observers on board.  From nearly 50 feet high above the water, the flying bridge gives nearly unimpeded 360° views of the horizon all around.  I call out any vertebrate animal seen—fish, birds, reptiles, or mammals.  Chris and Allison enter all of our data in a specific format in a software program called SeaScribe. 

To calculate densities of each species, we need an estimate of how far the animal is from the ship for each sighting.  For that we use a rather low tech but effective piece of equipment.  The pencil! 

Pencil as observation tool
Pencil as observation tool

This is how it works. The observer holds the pencil (photo above) upright with arm outstretched, aligning the eyes and tip of the eraser to the horizon (see photo below), and simply reads the distance band (Beyond 300m, 300-200, 200-100, or 100-50m) in which the animal is seen.  Thanks to some fancy trigonometry, scientists found a way to estimate distance by using the height of the observer’s eyes from the water surface, the distance from the observer’s eyes to the eraser tip of the pencil when it’s held upright with arm outstretched, and the distance to the horizon from the height of observer’s eyes above water.  I’ll spare you the trigonometric details but those curious to learn more can find the paper that introduced the technique here.

Kannan and range finder
Here I am using the range finder

Seabirds are a challenge for a rain forest biologist like me.  They move fast and vanish by the time you focus the binoculars! And the fact that the deck heaves up and down unexpectedly adds to the challenge.  But slowly I got the hang of it, at least the very basics.  I’ve recorded hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, boobies, gannets, jaegers, and skuas.  Whales (sea mammals) seen include Finbacks, Humpbacks, Minkes, and Pilots.  I am hoping to see a Right Whale but I know that the odds are against me.  Time is running out, both for our voyage, and for them.  Unfortunately, only a few 100 are left and the ocean is huge—the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh tells me that this year so far, 8 Right Whales have died due to accidental collisions or net entanglements.  Sadly, the future looks bleak for this magnificent animal.  (More on Right Whales at the end of this blog).

Great Shearwater ebird
Great Shearwater is one of the most common seabirds we have recorded. This bird nests only in a few islands in the South Atlantic Ocean and wanders widely. Photo by Derek Rogers, from ebird.org

I note that marine vertebrate biologists are good at extrapolating what little they can see.  Much of their subjects are underwater and out of sight.  So they have become good at identifying species based on bits and pieces they see above water.  All they need often is a mere fleeting glimpse.  Sharks are told by the size, shape, and distance between the fins that stick out, sea turtles by the shape and pattern on their carapace (top shell–see photos below); whales based on their silhouette and shape of back; and Molas based simply on the fact that they lazily wave one large fin in and out of the water as they drift by.  (I thought it was the pectoral fin they waved, but it’s actually the massive dorsal fin.  I’ve noted that the pectoral is rather small and kept folded close to the body). 

leatherback sea turtle A. Black
A fleeting glimpse is all that is needed to identify a Leatherback Sea Turtle, thanks to its diagnostic longitudinal ridges (Photo by Allison Black).
shark fins
We’ve had several shark sightings such as this. The size, shape, and the relative locations of the fins indicate that this could be a whale shark (Photo by Allison Black)

Scientists can identify individual humpbacks based solely on the indentations and color patterns on their tail flukes.  In effect, each individual animal’s tail fluke is its unique fingerprint. Since the tail fluke is often seen when the animal dives from the surface, scientists have a huge photographic database of humpback tail flukes (see photo below).  And they track individuals based on this.  My ecology students should know that scientists also estimate populations based on a modification of the capture-recapture method because each time an individual’s fluke is photographed, it is in effect, “tagged”.  We do a nice lab exercise of this method by using marked lima beans masquerading as whales in my ecology lab.

humpback tail flukes
Researchers use variation on humpback whale flukes to identify and track whales (from Wildwhales.org)
Finback whale
Finback Whales are easily identified by the fin on the back (From aboutanimals.com)


Career Corner

I spoke with Allison Black, one of our seabird observers on board.

Q. Tell us something about yourself

A. I really love seabirds.  I’m fortunate to have been able to do my Master’s work on them and observe them in their natural habitat.  I have an undergrad degree in zoo and wildlife biology from Malone University in Canton, Ohio. 

Q. You’re a graduate student now in which university?

A. Central Connecticut State University

Q. What’s your research project?

A. I conducted a diet study of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls on Tuckernuck and Muskeget Islands, Massachusetts.

Q. You have done these NOAA seabirds surveys before?

A. Yes, this is my third.

Q. What happens next, now that you are close to finishing your Masters?

A. I’m looking for full time employment, and would like to work for a non-profit doing conservation work. But until the right opportunity arises you can find me on a ship, looking for seabirds and marine mammals!

Q. What’s your advice to anyone interested in marine science?

A. I had a major career change after I did my undergrad.  I thought I’d always be a zoo keeper, which I did for about two years until I decided that birds are really my passion, and I needed to explore the career possibilities with them.  To focus on that avenue I decided to return to graduate school.  So I would encourage undergrads to really find what drives them, what they’re really passionate about.  I know it’s hard at the undergraduate level since there are so many fields and avenues under the Biology umbrella.  And it’s OK if you haven’t figured that out for a while.  I had a real change in direction from captive wildlife to ornithology, and I’m here at sea in a very different environment.  I’m so glad I did though because following my passion has opened up some exciting avenues.  I’m lucky to be getting paid to do what I really love right now.  So grab any opportunity that comes by. It’s never too late to evaluate your career path.

Allison Black
Allison Black entering our observations in SeaScribe


Personal Log

My feelings are bitter-sweet as this wonderful 16-day voyage nears its end.  My big thanks to NOAA, the ship’s wonderful command officers and staff, our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh, and my colleagues and student volunteers aboard for making the past 2 weeks immensely absorbing.  Above all, kudos to the ship’s designers, who have clearly gone out of their way to make life aboard as easy as possible.  In addition to the unexpected luxuries covered in my previous blogs, there is even a movie lounge on board with an impressive DVD collection of over 700 movies! Yesterday I saw our student volunteers play bean bag toss on the winch deck. Yes, you can throw darts too.  The ship’s command even organized a fun sea animals-bingo game one evening, with winners getting goodies from the ship store (see below).

movie lounge
The movie lounge on board
The ship’s store
The ship’s store


The engine rooms tour

As part of our grand finale, we were given a tour of the engine rooms (which are usually off bounds for non-crew members) by our genial First Engineer, Kyle Fredricks.

engine room
A glimpse of the intricate innards of the ship. To the right is the massive shaft that ties the two rudders together.
sensors and monitors
Sensors and monitors keep tabs on engine function 24/7
1st E Kyle Fredricks
First Engineer Kyle Fredricks explains the desalination system on board. It works by reverse osmosis. All explanations are done by gestures or written notes because of noise in the background. Note ear plugs on all of us!


Did You Know?

NOAA has strict policies to avoid collision with whales, especially the highly endangered Right Whale.

right whale ship strick reduciton rule
This poster is prominently displayed on board. Vessels have to comply with rules to avoid accidental strikes with Right Whales

Interesting Animals Seen Lately

South Polar Skua

Great Skua

Pomarine Jaeger

Black Tern

Manx Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Leach’s Storm-petrel

Northern Gannet

Brown Booby

Great Black-backed Gull

Humpback Whale

Pilot Whale

Ocean Sunfish

Catherine Fuller: From Microplankton to Megafauna, July 13, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 13, 2019

Science and Technology Log:

Through the Microscope

Gwenn with microscope
Gwenn using one of the microscopes to look at phytoplankton.
Gwenn and labels
The Lady of a Thousand Labels, hard at work.

Dr. Gwenn Hennon will be starting as an Assistant Professor with the University of Alaska in the fall.  Her interest is in the types of microbes, especially phytoplankton, that are in the water and what they are doing. She is studying what limits them, whether it is nutrients, light or other factors.  She finds it interesting to try to find interactions between phytoplankton and other organisms, such as ciliates that are filled with chloroplasts that they steal, termed “kleptoplasts.”  She investigates what microbes they stole them from, how the ciliate steals the plastid and how they maintain it. While a lot of algae have photosynthetic genes and controls in the nucleus, ciliates wouldn’t be expected to have those controls, but they must have some in order to keep plastids alive, and these need to have specific genes in order to control specific plastids.  There is a trade-off between specificity of genes for certain plastids and being able to keep the plastids alive for a long time.  Ciliates can also live by just eating other organisms, so another field of investigation would be to look at which genetics are used when organisms are switching between strategies. One goal of this research would be that, when looking at samples from various stations, someone would be able to say what the ciliates are doing without having to do experiments. 

The NGA is a very complex ecosystem, and this cruise has shown me that any scientific investigation needs to have a very specific focus rather than a shotgun approach, in order to have productive results. There is so much to be studied that the potential amount of data that can be gathered is staggering.  

Because the LTER has been funded for many years, there are great sets of time series to look at for some studies, but molecular data is fairly new and adds a lot to the picture.  Gwenn’s work, and the work of others at the molecular level are just the beginning of an understanding of life at the microscopic end of the scale. 

observation deck
Dan and Gwenn on the observation deck. Dan’s always on the lookout!

Through the Binoculars:

Fin whale
Fin whales come fairly close to us out in the deeper Gulf waters.

Dan Cushing is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird and mammal specialist and is here to investigate organisms at the large end of the size spectrum, compared to everyone else on board. His workstation is primarily the bridge of the ship, where he is on the lookout for birds and mammals. He records the species and number spotted, and the time and the GPS location of each sighting. He also logs environmental conditions such as fog and wave height that can affect visibility.

Dan comes from a small fishing town with a population of 3000. He wasn’t necessarily interested in birds specifically when he was young, but developed a gradual interest in them. He likes that working with seabirds combines aspects of being a wildlife biologist with aspects of being a marine biologist. Dan has done both land-based projects at seabird breeding sites and ocean-based surveys on small boats and large research ships. One project that he worked on included attaching sensors to diving birds to record water temperature, depth, and location. This provided information about water conditions as well as about the behaviors of the birds and their feeding patterns in those conditions.

The variation in distribution and feeding strategies of bird species make them a good indicator of what is happening to the environment at different levels in the ecosystem. For example, Dan used small-boat surveys to look at changes in marine bird populations in Prince William Sound. He found that, over a period of two decades, declines had occurred in almost half of the species he looked at. In general, species that occurred farther from shore and fed on zooplankton and fish had greater declines than those that fed on prey along the shoreline and the nearby seafloor.

Studying the changes in a bird population leads to investigations that connect down the food chain through fish species to plankton (which, of course, is the focus of this cruise) and finally to climate change. Dan sees changes in the availability of fish species having a direct effect on the economic health of Alaskan communities that depend on fishing to survive. Coming from a fishing community, this hits home for him. As smaller species respond to climate change, a ripple effect works its way up the food web and so human populations must also alter their survival strategies as well.

coming in for a landing
One of Dan’s feathered friends coming in for a landing off the working deck.
albatross
An albatross follows along behind us.
Gulls
Gulls watch the working deck with interest in hopes of food (not going to happen).


Personal Log:

The longer I’m on board, the more the pieces of the puzzle seem to come together.  On thing that really strikes me about the teams on board is the intensity of their research and the drive they have.  Each person here is making the most of their opportunity for data gathering. Gwenn, for instance, I have nicknamed “the lady of a thousand labels” because her work ethic and preparedness are so impeccable.  She is just one example of the discipline and passion I see on board. 

There is enough potential data to be gathered here to provide for years of research.  Each of these researchers is not only singularly focused on their specialty but also well aware of the underlying premise of their research, i.e. that what they’re studying will serve to document climate change.  Already, this year has brought anomalous weather to the Gulf, which, in a sense, makes conclusions about how and why changes occur a bit difficult.  Another thing that is noteworthy on this cruise is that, because there are PIs (Principal Investigators) on board, there is a lot of discussion of ideas and plans for collaboration.  Already, Gwenn, Suzanne, Hana and Clay have been talking about a potential project where their ideas intersect.  The amount of time we’re out allows for more interaction between people and more room for ideas to develop. 

Finally, as I ask each person what they want kids or the public to know from their research, the answers I am getting all focus on the same thing: change is happening and every organism on the planet is affected by it.

map of the shelf
An image of the shelf; the data station lines cross over this to get a complete range of samples from shallow to deep in order to understand the complexity of the ecosystem and the changes happening within it.


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Gwenn: All things are related to each other.  All species on earth developed from the same ancestral single-celled organisms.

Dan: If you don’t pay attention to what’s around you, you won’t see how it changes.

Susan Dee: From the Bottom of the Food Chain to the Top, June 3, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Susan Dee

Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow 

May 23 – June 7, 2018

Mission:  Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeastern Coast of U.S.

Date:  June 3, 2018

Weather From Bridge

Latitude: 43°47.1′
Longitude: 068°40.41′
Sea Wave Height: 4-6 ft
Wind Speed:  20 knots
Wind Direction:  NE
Visibility:  10
Air Temperature:  10°C
Sky:  few clouds

 

Science and Technology Log

Birds on water

Sea Birds

As the Henry B. Bigelow traverses the Gulf of Maine sampling the microorganisms at stations, another pair of scientists are observing bird and marine mammal populations. Much of my time between sampling stations, I head up to the flying bridge and join  Nicholas Metheny and John Loch, Seabird Observers, on the lookout for the seabird and marine mammals. The seabirds most commonly observed in the Gulf of Maine are the Wilson Storm Petrel and the Sooty Shearwater.  These two species account for 60% of the birds seen.  These pelagic seabirds live offshore and only return to land to breed, often on remote islands.

birders on deck

Seabird Observers on Observation Deck

 

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua (photo by Nicolas Methany)

All the samplings taken with bongo nets are samplings of the producers and primary consumers, the small organisms in the food chain.  On the observation deck, the fish and marine mammals that rely on a healthy bottom food chain are observed.  Spotting  marine mammals adds much to the excitement of the day. The bridge will announce a sighting and if possible, one gets to the flying bridge to see the wildlife.   One of the first sightings was of humpback whales in the distance, followed by sperm whale and pilot whale sightings.

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale (Photo by Nicholas Methany)

 

Short Beaked Common Dolphin

Short beaked Common Dolphins (Photo by Nicholas Methany)

 

The most fascinating sightings were of Mola Mola- Ocean Sunfish.  They were spotted often and very close to the ship.

Mola Mola  - Ocean Sunfish

Mola Mola – Ocean Sunfish (Photo by Nicolas Methany)

 

Blue Shark

Blue Shark (Photo by Nicholas Methany)

 

Personal Log

The science crew is kept busy sampling at each station.  There is some down time steaming from station to station at 12 knots but it is enjoyable. I spend the down time talking to crew and scientists.  Chief Scientist Jerry Prezioso has been an awesome mentor and photographer! I am learning so much and am so excited to bring it back into my classroom next year. The seas have been relatively calm but the forecast for the end of the cruise is not favorable for sampling due to high winds. If winds are over 30 knots, the crew has difficulty deploying the nets so sampling is suspended.  The science crew has taken samples from 114 stations.  These samples will be sent off to be analyzed at different labs.

Filled jar samples

Samples collected, boxed and ready to be shipped to analyze

work deck

Science Lab Work Deck

Deck Crew

Andrew and AJ helping deploy instruments

The deck crew and scientist party have been a pleasure to work with. I have learned so much from each of them

Science Party

Science Party Day Crew: Jerry P, Mark, and Chris T

Route map shows path of cruise

Final Day of Cruise Route map shows path of cruise

The cruise was cut short by two days due to high winds.  The last sampling station was in Cape Cod Bay. Tomorrow the ship will  head back to port through the Cape Cod Canal, ending a fantastic cruise.  I am so excited to see the data from  all these samples.  Thanks Teacher at Sea program for a great adventure!

Teacher at Sea Susan Dee

Teacher at Sea Susan Dee

Kathryn Lanouette, July 22, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kathryn Lanouette
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 21-August 7, 2009 

Mission: Summer Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Alaska
Date: July 22, 2009

Looking back on Unalaska, AK

Looking back on Unalaska, AK

Weather Data from the Ship’s Bridge 
Visibility: 3 nautical miles
Wind direction: 288.27 degree (N, NW)
Wind speed: 20 knots
Sea wave height: 8-10 feet
Air temperature: 7.4 ˚C
Seawater temperature: 6.8 ˚C
Sea level pressure: 29.3 inches Hg and rising
Cloud cover: 8/ 8, stratus

Science and Technology Log 

It will take about 2 ½ days of non-stop sailing until we reach the fish survey starting area. Before that research gets underway, I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know my way around the ship and learning about life at sea. My favorite part of the ship to spend time has been the bridge, the navigation and operations base for the entire ship. From the bridge, I’ve been able to learn more about the weather and birds that live at sea. Every hour, the weather is recorded using the boat’s instruments. This weather is then relayed to NOAA’s National Weather Service. Using the Oscar Dyson’s data, the National Weather Service is better able to predict and model weather patterns, increasing their forecast’s accuracy for this remote region. As the waves kicked up a lot on Tuesday evening, I learned about the Beaufort Scale of Wind Force.

Using estimated wave speed and wave height, you can calculate the severity of the weather. On Tuesday evening, we were sailing through a Force 7 on the scale, a gale with wave heights of 13.5 to 19 feet and a wind speed of 28-33 knots (aprox. 35-37 mph) with gusts up to 45 knots (aprox. 50 mph) Luckily, the waves have calmed down a lot by Wednesday evening because the lower pressure system has passed us to the east.

A Northern Fulmar (Courtesy Aaron Lang, USFWS)

A Northern Fulmar (Courtesy Aaron Lang, USFWS)

In addition to fisheries research, there are two bird observers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). For almost 16 hours each day, they observe and record information about the seabirds that they see flying within 300 m of the boat. Seabirds spend most of their lives living out on the open seas, looking for food. A lot is known about their cliff nesting areas by the water because these locations are relatively easier to access. Much less is known about their time spent at sea. The information gathered here helps scientists learn more about the birds that inhabit the Bering Sea. By looking at their data from prior years, they can sea how different birds are affected by human caused events (like oil spills, global warming, and commercial fishing) and non-human caused events like volcanic eruptions. All their research is part a bigger research program called the Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program (BSIERP).  As one seabird was flying close to the boat, I noticed it had a slender tube on top of its bill. It turns out that this bird was a Northern Fulmar, part of a group of birds called “tube-noses.” This tube enables the birds to drink saltwater, a cool adaptation to life at sea.

Here I am practicing wearing my immersion suit.

Here I am practicing wearing my immersion suit.

Personal Log 

On Tuesday afternoon, as we left the protected bay of Dutch Harbor, we started sailing out towards the more open waters of the Bering Sea.  It was a strange feeling to see the Fox Islands, a smaller part of the Aleutian Island chain, slipping out of sight. Our next chance of seeing land will be as we get closer to Russia. Even then, it might be too cloudy. It is strange to think that I might not see land again for over two weeks. By 9pm on Tuesday night, I was sick as a dog, “hanging over the rails” if you will. But with some sleep and seasickness medicine, I am feeling a lot better today. Seems I have found my “sea legs” as food seems appealing once more and the boats rocking is becoming more of a lulling motion than a lurching one. Around noon on Wednesday, we had our first fire drill and abandon ship drill. As part of the drills, we had to practice putting on our immersion suits. In case we had to abandon ship for any reason, these suits would keep us warmer and more visible. I felt a bit like Gumby!

Animals Seen 
Northern Fulmar Black Legged Kittiwake Tufted Puffin Horned Puffin Black-Footed Albatross Laysan Albatross Murre

New Vocabulary 
Knots – units of speed, nautical miles per hour Nautical mile – 1.15 statute (regular) mile