Shelley Gordon: The Serengeti of the Sea, July 26, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Shelley Gordon

Aboard R/V Fulmar

July 19-26, 2019

Mission:  Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Survey (ACCESS)

Geographic Area of Cruise:  Pacific Ocean, Northern and Central California Coast

Date:  July 26, 2019

My NOAA Teacher at Sea experience wrapped up yesterday with our 7th, and final, day of the cruise.  Our last day was another observation-only day where we travelled along two transects (lines 5 and 7) and recorded what could be seen from above the water.  I want to wrap up my experience by sharing some information about this observation technique and what I’ve learned about some of the living things we were able to observe on this trip. 

The Serengeti ecosystem in Eastern Africa is well known for its diversity of life and massive annual migrations.  On the wall of R/V Fulmar there is a large map of the three National Marine Sanctuaries (Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones, and Monterey Bay) off the coast of central California with the words “the Serengeti of the Sea” written at the bottom.  Like the Serengeti, the marine ecosystem in this area of the world supports a high diversity of life and intricate food webs.  Many of the species that thrive in these waters migrate from great distances, far greater than the well documented wildebeest migrations in Africa. 

A map of the protected areas off the central California coast.
Image from farallones.noaa.gov

The three National Marine Sanctuaries and adjacent state and federal parks protect a total of 10,676 square miles of habitat, helping to create a thriving ecosystem.  One thing that became clear to me on this cruise is that this is a massive amount of space!  To collect observation data, scientists sit on the flying bridge (or upper deck) and systematically record what they can see as the boat moves at a constant speed of ~10 knots along the transect.  Depending on the weather (we had days that were pretty foggy and other days that were overcast, but pretty clear), you can see several kilometers in any direction.  To complete an offshore observation line, it takes about 2.5 hours.  So, it is a full day to complete 2 observation lines, especially when you include the travel time to and from each line.  During that time, there are times when you can see very little other than wind-blown whitecaps on the surface of the water.  There are other times when there is a frenzy of activity.

(From left to right) Dani Lipski, Dru Delvin, Rachel Pound, Jaime Jahncke, Kirsten Lindquist, and Jan Roletto recording observation data from the flying bridge.

There are four roles is the observation data collection.  Sitting on the starboard side of the boat, Kirsten Lindquist’s job is to identify and describe all of the birds she observes within 200 meters of the side of the boat.  Some examples of “calls” she made include: “Common Murre, 3, zone 2, water” or “Western Gull, 1, zone 1, flying, 270°.”  To explain, she calls out the name of the bird, the number that she sees in the group, the relative distance they are from the boat (zone 1 or zone 2), and what they are doing (sitting on the water, flying, feeding, etc…).  This data is all recorded in the computer by Jaime Jahncke.  Dru Devlin and Jan Roletto (one on each side of the boat) are responsible for observing other things on the surface, including animals, boats, fishing gear, trash, kelp, etc…  An example of a call they relay to Jaime to record is:  “First cue blow, by eye, bearing 270°, reticle 5, observer 9, side 1, traveling, humpback whale, 2, 3, 2.”  There is a lot going on in this data, but it basically explains the observer has seen a group of humpback whales in the distance off the front of the boat (bearing 0°).  The group is swimming along the surface and the size of the group is between 2-3 individuals.  The observers use reticle markings, fine lines in the eyepiece of binoculars, to estimate how far the object is from the boat (reticle 14 is at the boat, reticle 0 is on the horizon).  Using the bearing and reticle numbers, the computer then can use the GPS location of the boat to estimate where that animal was at the time of the recorded observation.  Using all of this data collected over the course of time, scientists are able to put together a picture of where animals, birds, and other objects are frequently seen within the sanctuaries.  This can also help them identify changes in animal numbers or behavior, and/or the need for a change in management strategies.

An example of a map showing humpback whale observation data on ACCESS in 2018.
Image: Point Blue/ONMS/ACCESS

One of the seabird species we saw relatively frequently were Sooty Shearwaters.  These birds are interesting to me because the migrate to the sanctuaries from their breeding grounds in New Zealand, an amazing 6500 miles away!  What’s even more impressive is that their migration is not just from New Zealand to California; they actually complete a circular migration route, first traveling up the western Pacific toward Japan and the Artic, and then they drop down to the pacific coast of North America before returning to their breeding grounds in New Zealand.  We also observed Pink-Footed Shearwaters, which nest off the coast of Chile. 

Sooty Shearwaters taking off from the surface of the water.  Photo:  Dru Devlin

When we were out on the offshore transects beyond the continental shelf break, we were frequently able to observe Black-Footed Albatrosses.  These large seabirds are well known for their long migrations as well.  The population we observed in the sanctuaries nest in the Hawaiian Islands and visit the California coast to feed.  From dissecting Albatross boluses (regurgitated food) with students at Roosevelt, I had previously learned that their diet consists of a lot of squid.  Since squid are actively feeding at night, albatross also do a lot of their hunting at night.  I was curious how they could find their prey and I learned that they have an incredible sense of smell that they can use to detect food.  They are known to follow ships and feed on refuse in the wake, and this seemed to be apparent because when we were collecting samples at stations beyond the shelf break we were often joined by multiple albatrosses.  At one station, I counted 19 Black-Footed Albatrosses floating in a group near the boat.

Two Black-Footed Albatrosses near the boat. Photo: Dru Devlin
A Black-Footed Albatross in flight.
Photo: Dru Devlin

I was also very interested to learn about the way that albatrosses and other large seabirds (including shearwaters) conserve energy during their long flights.  Dynamic soaring allows them to gain energy from the wind above the ocean waves without flapping their wings.  We often observed these birds flapping their wings a few times and then soaring very close to the surface of the water before flapping again.  Apparently, in favorable wind conditions, these birds can us this method to fly great distances without flapping their wings at all, thus conserving energy.

Three humpback whales surfacing. Photo: Dru Devlin

Another animal that I was on the constant lookout for were whales.  These gigantic mammals have always captured my imagination.  On this cruise we were lucky enough to see quite a few humpback whales.  These large baleen whales are known for their acrobatic displays, occasionally launching their body out of the water in an action called breaching.  I was able to observe a few whales breaching, and also several instances of whales rolling on the surface of the water slapping their long flippers or tail at the surface.  One of the highlights was seeing humpbacks lunge feeding at the surface.  Lunge feeding is when the whale opens its mouth widely, engulfing a large amount to water and prey.  The whale then pushes the water out of its throat pouch, leaving the prey behind to consume.  One of the favorite foods of humpback whales is krill.  Using the Tucker trawl net at very deep depths, we were able to collect some large krill samples that will be analyzed back at the lab. 

There are several other species of whales that can be present in the sanctuaries at different times throughout the year, including blue whales, gray whales, fin whales, and minke whales, but we did not positively identify any of those species on this trip.  The scientists on board were specifically surprised that we did not see any blue whales, as they usually observe a few on cruises at this time of year.

Gallery

Here are a few other images of animals that we saw and were able to capture in the camera lens.

Did You Know?

Scientists can use robots to explore the undersea environment?  From October 3rd-11th, scientists from the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries will be partnering with the Ocean Exploration Trust to learn more about life beneath the waves.  Working aboard the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilius, the team will use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore deep-sea coral reef and sponge habitats.  And, we will be able to follow along live

Katie Gavenus: Thinking Like A Hungry Bird, April 28, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26-May 9, 2019

 

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently on the ‘Middleton [Island] Line’

Date: April 28, 2019

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1715
Latitude: 59o 39.0964’ N
Longitude: 146o05.9254’ W
Wind: Southeast, 15 knots
Air Temperature: 10oC (49oF)
Air pressure: 1034 millibars
Cloudy, no precipitation

 

Science and Technology Log

Yesterday was my first full day at sea, and it was a special one! Because each station needs to be sampled both at night and during the day, coordinating the schedule in the most efficient way requires a lot of adjustments. We arrived on the Middleton Line early yesterday afternoon, but in order to best synchronize the sampling, the decision was made that we would wait until that night to begin sampling on the line. We anchored near Middleton Island and the crew of R/V Tiglax ferried some of us to shore on the zodiac (rubber skiff).

This R&R trip turned out to be incredibly interesting and relevant to the research taking place in the LTER. An old radio tower on the island has been slowly taken over by seabirds… and seabird scientists. The bird biologists from the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation have made modifications to the tower so that they can easily observe, study, and band the black-legged kittiwakes and cormorants that choose to nest on the shelfboards they’ve augmented the tower with. We were allowed to climb up into the tower, where removable plexi-glass windows look out onto each individual pair’s nesting area. This early in the season, the black-legged kittiwakes are making claims on nesting areas but have not yet built nests. Notes written above each window identified the birds that nested there last season, and we were keen to discern that many of the pairs had returned to their spot.

Gavenus1Birds

Black-legged kittiwakes are visible through the observation windows in the nesting tower on Middleton Island.

Gavenus2Birds

Nesting tower on Middleton Island.

The lead researcher on the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC) project was curious about what the LTER researchers were finding along the Middleton Line stations. He explained that the birds “aren’t happy” this spring and are traveling unusually long distances and staying away for multiple days, which might indicate that these black-legged kittiwakes are having trouble finding high-quality, accessible food. In particular, he noted that he hasn’t seen any evidence they’ve been consuming the small lantern fish (myctophids) that generally are an important and consistent food source from them in the spring. These myctophids tend to live offshore from Middleton Island and migrate to the surface at night. We’ll be sampling some of that area tonight, and I am eager to see if we might catch any in the 0.5 mm mesh ‘bongo’ nets that we use to sample zooplankton at each station.

The kittiwakes feed on myctophids. The myctophids feed on various species of zooplankton. The zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, or sometimes microzooplankton that in turn feeds on phytoplankton. The phytoplankton productivity is driven by complex interactions of environmental conditions, impacted by factors such as light availability, water temperature and salinity as well as the presence of nutrients and trace metals. And these water conditions are driven by abiotic factors – such as currents, tides, weather, wind, and freshwater input from terrestrial ecosystems – as well as the biotic processes that drive the movement of carbon, nutrients, and metals through the ecosystem.

Scientists deploy CTD

This CTD instrument and water sampling rosette is deployed at each station during the day to collect information about temperature and salinity. It also collects water that is analyzed for dissolved oxygen, nitrates, chlorophyll, dissolved inorganic carbon, dissolved organic carbon, and particulates.

CTD at sunset

When the sun sets, the CTD gets a break, and the night crew focuses on zooplankton.

Part of the work of the LTER is to understand the way that these complex factors and processes influence primary productivity, phytoplankton, and the zooplankton community structure. In turn, inter-annual or long-term changes in phytoplankton and zooplankton community structure likely have consequences for vertebrates in and around the Gulf of Alaska, like seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and people. In other words, zooplankton community structure is one piece of understanding why the kittiwakes are or are not happy this spring. It seems that research on zooplankton communities requires, at least sometimes, to consider the perspective of a hungry bird.

Peering at a jar of copepods and euphausiids (two important types of zooplankton) we pulled up in the bongo nets last night, I was fascinated by the way they look and impressed by the amount of swimming, squirming life in the jar. My most common question about the plankton is usually some variation of “Is this …” or “What is this?” But the questions the LTER seeks to ask are a little more complex.

Considering the copepods and euphausiids, these researchers might ask, “How much zooplankton is present for food?” or “How high of quality is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” or “How accessible and easy to find is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” They might also ask “What oceanographic conditions are driving the presence and abundance of these particular zooplankton in this particular place at this particular time?” or “What factors are influencing the life stage and condition of these zooplankton?”

Euphausiids

Euphausiids (also known as krill) are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

Copepods in a jar

Small copepods are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

As we get ready for another night of sampling with the bongo nets, I am excited to look more closely at the fascinating morphology (body-shape) and movements of the unique and amazing zooplankton species. But I will also keep in mind some of the bigger picture questions of how these zooplankton communities simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the dynamic Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Over the course of the next 3 blogs, I plan to focus first on zooplankton, then zoom in to primary production and phytoplankton, and finally dive more into nutrients and oceanographic characteristics that drive much of the dynamics in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log 

Life on the night shift requires a pretty abrupt change in sleep patterns. Last night, we started sampling around 10 pm and finished close to 4 am. To get our bodies more aligned with the night schedule, the four of us working night shift tried to stay up for another hour or so. It was just starting to get light outside when I headed to my bunk. Happily, I had no problem sleeping until 2:30 this afternoon! I’m hoping that means I’m ready for a longer night tonight, since we’ll be deploying the bongo nets in deeper water as we head offshore along the Middleton Line.

WWII shipwreck

While on Middleton Island, we marveled at a WWII shipwreck that has been completely overtaken by seabirds for nesting.

Shipwreck filled with plants

Inputs of seabird guano, over time, have fertilized the growth of interesting lichens, mosses, grasses, and even shrubs on the sides and top of the rusty vessel.

 

Did You Know?

Imagine you have a copepod that is 0.5 mm long and a copepod that is 1.0 mm long. Because the smaller copepod is half as big in length, height, and width, overall that smaller copepod at best offers only about 1/8th as much food for a hungry animal. And that assumes that it is as calorie-dense as the larger copepod.

 

Question of the Day:

Are PCBs biomagnifying in top marine predators in the Gulf of Alaska? Are there resident orca populations in Alaska that are impacted in similar ways to the Southern Resident Orca Whale population [in Puget Sound] (by things like toxins, noise pollution, and decreasing salmon populations? Is it possible for Southern Resident Orca Whales to migrate and successfully live in the more remote areas of Alaska? Questions from Lake Washington Girl’s Middle School 6th grade science class.

These are great questions! No one on board has specific knowledge of this, but they have offered to put me in contact with researchers that focus on marine mammals, and orcas specifically, in the Gulf of Alaska. I’ll keep you posted when I know more!

Roy Moffitt: Headed Home, Cruise Summary, August 25-26, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Roy Moffitt

Aboard USCGC Healy

August 7 – 25, 2018

 

Mission: Healy 1801 – Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory

Geographic Area: Arctic Ocean (Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea)

Date: August 25-26, 2018

Past – Current – Future locations/conditions:

72.5 North latitude: This past week we had 3-4 days of below freezing temperatures (27) with snow showers

Nome, Alaska: (8/25/18) Departing temperature 51 and cloudy

Contoocook/Hopkinton, NH: First day of school Tuesday (8/28/18)- Forecast 94 degrees Mostly Sunny (did I mention we don’t have air conditioning in New Hampshire?)

 

Ashore and I am headed back to NH

After completing our work in our most Northern point stop, we steamed back to Nome with just one more set of measurements on the way back, then had one final day of travel. It was sunny on the first day back but rougher seas than we had experienced thus far.

Rough Seas

Rough Seas

There were estimated 8-12 ft waves and some even larger that crashed over the Healy. To the right is a picture that I captured of the bow during this portion of our trip and the rocky seas.   Keep in mind that for most of the day we were lucky enough to be on the front deck of the boat! After the waves calmed we were in the fog for most of the way home so spotting more whales and seals was difficult.

 

 

Cruise Summary

In short, the trip was a success with the tremendous amount of data collected. This data will now be analyzed by scientists and students and I hope to see some scientific papers on this research in the future. Here is a list of what was done on this trip:

  • 31 mooring deployments and 24 mooring recoveries

(To review what the work involved in this see my blog: Moorings all day

  • 142 CTDs (that’s a lot of up and downs!)

(To review what a CTD see my blog: Measuring Ocean Properties with the CTD)

  • 51 Bongo samples

(To review what a bongo see my blog: Bring in the Bongos)

  • There were several Methot net tows.

To review what a Methot net tow is see my blog: Catching the Tiny Fish in the Big Sea

  • There was constant monitoring for birds and marine mammals with all sightings recorded. This experience was my personal favorite of the trip.

To review, see my blog: Walrus and Polar Bears on Ice

Van Veen cup of catch

Van Veen cup of catch

In addition to the above, there were many (I don’t have the exact count) Van Veen Grabs.  I did not get to explain these in a blog so here is a quick overview. Scientists that study the sea floor, including the top layer of soil called the benthic zone, use a VanVeen Grab Sampler pictured below. It is lowered to the sea floor and then the scissor-like arms close the catch capturing a hunk of the sea floor and everything that was living on it. Once on shore the catch is rinsed through a sieve until all the clay is rinsed away leaving just the organisms that were living there (such as mollusks, clams, starfish, worms and more) and a few stones.

van veen process

Van Veen Grab Sampler process

The scientists on the team also took HAPS core samples. I did not get to explain these in a blog so here is a quick overview. The HAPS corer, pictured below, is a gravity corer. This is a device that is lowered to the sea floor and then the weight of the device settles into the sea floor. When the HAPS corer is lifted, the bottom of the tube containing the cut into sediment closes, trapping the sample. These samples are then stored in clear tubes as shown in the picture. Scientists can examine sentiment layers to gain a better understanding of the sea floor at that location by studying the sedimentary layers.

 

All this above data has been copied and specimens are stored. The primary focus of this trip was to gather data and now the long process of analyzing and communicating the results will begin.

Cruise Reflections

This was such a great opportunity for me to meet so many different scientists and to both observe and assist the varied scientific studies occurring all at once. I needed all three weeks to get a handle on it all. I am looking forward to sharing what I have learned with my Maple Street School students back in New Hampshire and following the scientific studies as they move forward. Thanks to NOAA, Maple Street School, everyone else that allowed this learning opportunity to happen. It was a summer I will not forget experiencing a ship crash through ice in August! I leave you with some of the reflections of the birds I captured on those calmer days at sea.

The tufted puffin is not all that graceful at taking off. (below)

tufted puffin take off

The tufted puffin is not all that graceful at taking off.

The Common Murre (below)

The common murre

The common murre

Three male Eider Ducks

Three male eider ducks

Three male eider ducks

Roy Moffitt: Observing Whales Today and for the Next Year, August 8, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Roy Moffitt

Aboard USCGC Healy

August 7 – 25, 2018

 

Mission: Healy 1801 –  Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory

Geographic Area: Arctic Ocean (Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea)

Date: August 8, 2018

Current location:/conditions Evening of August 8th: Near King Island, AK the most southern part of the trip – Air temp 49F, sea depth 50 ft, surface water temp 52F

 

Mammal and Bird Observations

Up on the observation deck formal bird and mammal observations are taking place for the extent of the trip. When recording sighting of birds, observers observe an approximate 300m square area in the front of the ship.  Any seabird that flies or swims through that zone is counted and recorded. Doing these observations over time can give approximations on bird population trends. Here is a picture I took of a Crested Auklet who floated close by to the ship. Crested Auklets eat primarily plankton and breed in the number of millions in nearby islands of the Bering Sea.

Crested Auklet

Crested Auklet

The same can be done for whales. In this case the visible range is used.  With the low angle sunlight, it is easy to see the whale spout from a whale on the horizon, however closer range views of whales is needed for identification. That’s most effectively done on the long range by taking pictures of the whale’s tail.  Here is a picture I took today of a gray whale’s tail.

Gray Whale tail

Gray Whale’s tail

Gray whales frequent the area for its shallow sea and dive to the bottom to eat bottom dwelling sea life such as crustaceans by scooping up the bottom of the sea and filtering out the seabed leaving the food.  But how do you observe whales when you are not in the Arctic?  You eavesdrop on them…..

 

Observing whales acoustically for the next year.

Today I was observing with help of binoculars and a camera to see whales that were in view of the ship.  But how do you know if a whale visited when you where gone?  Record their voices.

Primary investigator Katherine Berchok assisted by Stephanie Grassia are retrieving and replacing acoustic (sound) monitoring devices suspended above the sea floor.  Today one of these instruments that was placed on the sea floor a year ago is now being retrieved.  Within the retrieved equipment is a recording of acoustics that have occurred in the last year.  The sound waves were recorded in a pattern of 80 minutes every 5 hours for an entire year.  That is a lot to listen to, so recordings will go through processing through different software to see if any sound wave patterns are close to those created by different whale species.  Though this data cannot give an accurate count of how many whales are in an area at a particular time, it does allow scientist to verify what species of whales and also walruses visit the study area.

Acoustic Mooring

Acoustic Mooring

This picture here shows the new underwater microphone or hydrophone (the white tube) being prepared to be lowered into the sea to be retrieved next year.  Once lowered in the area pictured here it will be covered in about 30 meters of ocean.  So how will it be found next year?   There is transmitter (the small gray tube) that will allow scientist to find it, send a signal and have the instruments released from the weight and float to the surface.  This year’s instrument will be cleaned up and reused next year.

 

Looking forward

As we move northward the species of mammals (whales, walruses) and birds being observed will change, look for updates in the coming weeks! ​

Roy Moffitt, 40 Scientists Embark from Nome, August 7, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Roy Moffitt

Aboard USCGC Healy

August 7 – 25, 2018


Mission: Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory

Geographic Area: Arctic Ocean (Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea)

Date: August 6 – 7, 2018

 

All Gather in Nome for the Expedition Launch

August 6th:

All of the science party arrived in Nome and gathered for a science briefing before departure. In the evening there was a public presentation by Jackie Grebmeier the missions Co-Chief Scientist and Primary Investigator of the Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory – Northern Chukchi Integrated Study (DBO-NCIS). Jackie presented on what researchers have found. In brief, there is a shift northwards of the bottom dwelling Arctic ecosystems in the Bering Sea. This is due to the lack of winter ice in the southern Bering Sea causing a lack of a deep-sea cold pool of water during the rest of the year. This colder water is needed for some bottom dwelling organisms such as clams. Those clams are the favorite food choice of the Spectacled Eider Duck. When the bottom of the food chain moves north the higher in the food chain organisms such as the Spectacled Eider Duck need to adapt to a different food source or in this case move with north with it. The reason for the lacking cold pool of seawater is the lack ice being created at the surface during the winter, this process creates cold saltier water. Colder water that is also higher in salinity sinks and settles to the bottom of the ocean. So essentially the effects of less southern sea ice are from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the ocean. Grebmeier will be leading the DBO-NCS science team during this expedition so look for a future blogs focused on this research.

August 7th Evening:

We are currently anchored off the Nome Alaska Harbor and have only been on the ship for a few hours. Scientists are preparing their instruments for deployment. These instruments will measure a wide range of non-living and living members of the ecosystem. These scientific measurements will be taken from the sea floor into the atmosphere, the measurements will use a wide range of equipment. Stay tuned to future blogs with focus on different research groups, their data, specialized equipment, and their findings. We are off!

There is no place like Nome, Where the Land Meets the Sea

We are departing from Nome, Alaska. Here are some pictures around the city of Nome. Roadways to the rest of Alaska and beyond do not connect Nome. You must get here by boat or plane.

Nome from Anvil Mountain

Nome from Anvil Mountain

 

Healy anchored off Nome

The USCG Healy is anchored off the coast of Nome.

Healy at anchor

Another view of USCGC Healy anchored off of Nome

 

The Chum salmon were running in the Nome River, they leave the ocean and go up the river to spawn.

salmon jumping

Chum Salmon jumping up the Nome River

I found someone who traveled farther to get here than me: Arctic Terns who travel from the Antarctic to Arctic every year. In this picture, an Arctic Tern is seen with this year’s offspring. The juvenile here can now fly and will stay with its parent for the first 2 to 3 months.

Arctic Tern and offspring

Arctic Tern and its new offspring

 

This is the same variety of seagull that you see in New England, but in Alaska, this one was not so nice. As I was walking on busy road way, this gull caught me off guard and dive-bombed me, almost knocking me into incoming traffic. After several more passes, the gull decided I was not a threat to its offspring. This nest was over 200ft away. Many seabirds use the coast of Alaska to breed and raise the next generation. The common seagull, or Glaucous Gull, and Arctic Tern are only just two.​

Seagull on the roof with nest

Seagull on the roof with nest

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

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

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Staci DeSchryver

Aboard Oscar Elton Sette

July 6 – August 2, 2017

 

Mission:  HICEAS Cetacean Study

Geographic Area:  French Frigate Shoals, Northwest Hawaiian Islands

Date:  July 21, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

 

Science and Personal Log

I’m putting both the science and personal log together this time around for a very special reason.

See, I have a confession to make.  Many of my friends from home know this about me, but I have a secret I’ve kept under wraps for the vast majority of this trip, and it’s time to officially reveal it now, because it just seems to fit so well.  Ready?  True confessions from a Teacher At Sea:

I have an irrational fear of birds.

There.  I said it.  It stems from a wayward trip to London in the Study Abroad program and involves me, innocently consuming an over-priced deli sandwich on a bench outside of the Museum of Natural History when I was suddenly accosted by a one-footed pigeon who made away with my lunch – but not before attacking my face full-force with every wing, beak, and claw it had.  My lunch then became a free sidewalk hoagie, available for all nearby pigeons (you know, like every pigeon from London to France) to feast upon as I sat helplessly watching the gnashing of beaks and flyings of feathers in a ruthless battle to the end for over-processed deli ham and havarti on rye.  I was mortified.  From that moment forth, I was certain every bird wanted a piece of my soul and I was darned if I was going to let them have it.

After many years of active bird-avoidance, my first Teacher At Sea experience allowed me to remove Puffin from the exhaustive list of these ruthless prehistoric killers.  After all, Puffins are not much more than flying footballs, and generally only consume food of the underwater persuasion, so I felt relatively sheltered from their wrath.  Plus they’re kind of cute.  The following year, a Great Horned Owl met its demise by colliding face-first into one of our tall glass windows at the school. When the Biology teachers brought him inside, I felt oddly curious about this beast who hunts with stunning accuracy in the black of night, and yet couldn’t manage to drive himself around a window.  I felt myself incongruously empathetic at the sight of him – he was such a majestic creature, his lifeless body frozen in time from the moment he met his untimely ending.   I couldn’t help but wish him alive again; if not for his ability to hunt rodents, but simply because nothing that beautiful should have to meet its maker in such a ridiculous manner.  And so, I cautiously removed Owls from the list, so long as I didn’t have to look much at their claws.

This has suited me well over the years – fear all birds except for Puffin and Owl, and as a side note Penguin, too, since they can’t do much damage without being able to fly and all.  Plus, you know, Antarctica.  But when I found out that the cetacean study also happened to have bird observers on the trip, I felt momentarily paralyzed by the whole ordeal.  I had (incorrectly) assumed that we wouldn’t see birds on this trip.  I mean, what kind of bird makes its way to the middle of the Pacific Ocean?  Well, it turns out there are a lot that do, and it’s birders Dawn and Chris who are responsible for sighting and cataloging them alongside the efforts of the marine mammal observers.  I promise I’ll come back to my story on bird fear, but for now, let’s take a look at how our birders do their job.

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

The birders follow a similar protocol to the marine mammal observers.  Each birder takes a two-hour shift in a front seat on the flying bridge.  While the marine mammal observers use big eyes to see out as far as they possibly can out onto the horizon, the birders only watch and catalog birds that come within 300m of the ship.

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

How do they know how far away the 300m mark is?  Over the years they just become great visual judges of the distance, but they also have a handy “range finder” that they use.  The range finder is just a plain, unsharpened pencil with marks ticked off at 100m intervals.  By holding the pencil up to the horizon and looking past it, they can easily find the distance the bird is from the ship. They divide this 300m range into “zones” – the 200-300m zone, the 100-200m zone, and the less than 100m zone from the bow of the ship.  Anything further than 300m or outside of the zero to 90 degree field of vision can still be catalogued if it is an uncommon species, or a flock of birds.  (More on flocks in a moment.)

They choose which side of the ship has the best visibility, either the port or starboard side, and like the mammal observers, birders take only the directional space from zero (directly in front of the ship) to 90 degrees on the side of their choosing.  If the visibility switches in quality from one side to the other during a shift, he or she can change sides without issue.

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

The bird team also records information such as wind speed and direction (with respect to the ship), the Beaufort Sea State, visibility, observation conditions, and the ship’s course.  Observation conditions are a critical component of the birder’s tool bag.  They mark the observation conditions on a five-point scale, with 1 being extremely bad conditions and 5 being very good conditions.  What defines good conditions for a birder? The best way to make an observation about the conditions is to think about what size and species of smaller birds an observer might not be able to see in the outermost range. Therefore, the condition is based on species and distance from the ship.  Some birds are larger than others, and could be easier to spot farther out from the ship.  The smallest birds (like petrels) might not be observable in even slightly less than ideal conditions. Therefore, if a birder records that the conditions are not favorable for small birds at a distance of 200m (in other words, they wouldn’t be able to see a small bird 200m away), the data processing team can vary the density estimates for smaller birds when observers are in poor visibility.

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

If a bird flies into the designated “zone”, the species is identified and recorded on a computer program that will place a time stamp on the GPS location of the sighting. These data are stored on the ship for review at a later time.  Ever wonder where the maps of migration patterns for birds originate?  It is from this collected data.  Up until this point, I had always taken most of these kinds of maps for granted, never thinking that in order to figure out where a particular animal lives let alone its migratory pattern must come from someone actually going out and observing those animals in those particular areas.

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An albatross glides behind the ship, looking for fish.

The birder will record other information about the bird sighting like age, sex (if able to identify by sight) and what the lil’ fella or gal is up to when observed.  Birds on the open ocean do a lot more than just fly, and their behaviors are important to document for studies on bird behavior.  There are 9 different codes for these behaviors, ranging from things like directional flight (think, it has a place to go and it’s trying to get there), sitting on the water, or “ship attracted.”  There are certain species like juvenile Red-Footed and Brown boobies and Tropic Birds that are known to be “ship attracted.”  In other words, it could be out flying along a particular path until it sees this super cool giant white thing floating on the water, and decides to go and check it out.  This is how I wound up with that fun photo of the Booby on the bridge wing, and the other snapshot of the juvenile that hung out on the jackstaff for two full days.  These birds would not normally have otherwise come into the range to be detected and recorded, so their density estimates can be skewed if they are counted the same way as all other birds.

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

Any groups of five or more birds within one “reticle” (a measuring tool on the glass of the big eyes seen when looking through them) can be flagged by the marine mammal observers for the birders.  While many flocks are found miles away and might be difficult to see in the big eyes by species, the birders know the flight and feeding behaviors of the birds, and can usually identify the different species within the flock. They have a special designation in their computer program to catalog flocks and their behavior, as well.

I sat with Dawn on a few different occasions to learn how she quickly identifies and catalogs each bird species.  At first, it seems like all the birds look fairly similar, but after a few hours of identification practice, I can’t imagine that any of them look the same. The first bird Dawn taught me to identify was a Wedge-Tailed White Shearwater, more affectionately known as a “Wedgie White.”  To me, they were much more easily characterized by behavior than anything else.  Shearwaters are called “Shearwaters” because they…you guessed it… shear the water!  They are easy to spot as they glide effortlessly just above the water’s surface, almost dipping their wings in the cool blue Pacific.

I then continued my bird observation rotation learning all kinds of fun facts about common sea birds – how plumages change as different species grow, identifying characteristics (which I’m still trying to sort out because there are so many!), stories of how the birds got their names, migration patterns, population densities, breeding grounds, and what species we could expect to see as we approached different islands on the Northwest Hawaiian Island Chain.  Dawn knows countless identifiers when it comes to birds, and if she can’t describe it exactly the way she wants to, she has multiple books with photos, drawings, and paragraphs of information cataloging the time the bird is born to every iteration of its markings and behaviors as it grows.  To be a birder means having an astounding bank of knowledge to tap into as they have a limited time to spot and properly identify many species before they continue on their journey across the Pacific.

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

After two weeks of watching for birds with Dawn and Chris, I feel like I can properly identify a few different species – Wedgies, Frigate Birds (these are the klepto-parasite birds that steal other birds’ dinners), Tropic Birds, two types of Terns, and boobies, though I can only best ID boobies when they are not in flight.  I find myself up on the flying bridge on independent observation rotations calling forward to the birder on rotation, “Was that a tern?”  And now, my identifying skills have vastly improved over the last few days as I have engaged in the process of this very important data collection.

So, what has become of my irrational bird fear?  Well, I have to be honest; much like Puffin and Owl, the Red-Footed Booby melted my heart.  There he was, perched on the bridge’s shade railing, a lonely little fellow staring up at me with no reservation about my presence or expectation of a sandwich.  There we were in the middle of a vast ocean, and he was all alone – simply looking for a place to rest his wings or search more earnestly for the hint of a delicious flying fish escaping the water.  I spent a fair amount of time photographing the little guy, working with my new camera to find some fun angles and depth of field, and playing with the lighting.  He was a willing and I daresay friendly participant in the whole process (in fact I wondered if he had seen a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model), and I felt myself softening my stance on placing the Red Footed Booby amongst the likes of attack pigeons.  By the end of our encounter, I had mentally noted that the Booby should now be placed on the “safe bird” list.

As I’ve spent more time with Dawn and Chris and learned more about each species, seabirds have one by one slowly migrated over to the safe list – to the point now where there are just too many to recite and I feel it is time after fifteen years to do away with the whole of it entirely.  As soon as I changed my perspective, the beauty of all of them have gradually emerged to the point where I can easily find something to appreciate (even admire) about each of the species we’ve seen.  Terns fight fiercely into the wind as they fly, but when they can catch a thermal or pose for an on-land photograph for an ID book, look dainty and regal in their appearance – as if they should be a staple part of every holiday display.  And baby Terns?  Doc (our Medical Doctor on board) showed me a photo of a tern chick that followed him around Midway Island last year and the lil’ guy was so darn cute it could make you cry glitter tears.  Today near French Frigate Shoals many of the species I’ve seen from afar came right up to the ship and glided effortlessly overhead, allowing me to observe them from a near perspective as they flew.  (None of them pooped on me, so if they weren’t off the list by that point, that act of grace alone should have sealed their fate for the positive.)  Frigate Birds can preen their feathers while they fly.  Watching each species cast their wings once and glide on the air while looking all around themselves was oddly entertaining, certainly peculiar, but also impressive.  I can’t walk on the ship looking anywhere besides exactly where I want to go and yet birds can fly five feet away from a mast and casually have a proper look about.

If this has taught me anything, it has shown me the truth in the statement that fear is just ignorance in disguise.  When I accidentally gave my bird aversion away during our quick stop at French Frigate Shoals (more on this in an upcoming blog post) many of the scientists said, “I’d have never guessed you were scared of birds.  How did you keep it secret?”  The easy answer is “Teacher Game Face.” But, more deeply rooted in that is a respect and admiration for those who enjoy the things that I’m afraid of.  Dawn and Chris have dedicated their entire careers to identifying and cataloging these creatures, and they are both so kind and respectable I find it hard to imagine that they would study anything unequal to the vast extent of their character.  Thankfully I learned this early enough on in the trip that it was easy to trust their judgement when it comes to Procellariiformes.   This experience is once-in-a-lifetime, and how short-sighted would I be to not want to explore every aspect of what goes on during this study because I’m a little (a lot) afraid?

In Colorado, before I ever left, I made a personal commitment to have a little chutzpah and learn what I can about the distant oceanic cousins of the sandwich thieves.  And when it came to that commitment, it meant genuinely digging in to learn as much as I can, not just pretend digging in to learn at little.  I figured if nothing else, simple repeated exposure in short bursts would be enough for me to neurolinguistically reprogram my way into bird world, and as it turns out, I didn’t even really need that.  I just needed to open up my eyes a little and learn it in to appreciation.  Learning from Dawn and Chris, who are both so emphatically enthusiastic about all things ornithology made me curious once again about these little beasts, who over the last two weeks have slowly transformed into beauties.

Sorry, pigeons.  You’re still on the list.

Pop Quiz

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

  1.       In response to a rainy morning, “Yeah, when I woke up it sounded a little more ‘splashy’ than usual outside.”
  2.      “So, if Killer Whales sound like this, then what whale talk was Dory trying to do in Finding Nemo?”
  3.       “So, there is no such thing as a brown-footed booby?”
  4.      After watching an endangered monk seal lounging on the sand, “I kind of wish I had that life.”  (So…you want to be an endangered species? Facepalm.)
  5.       All of the above

If you guessed e, we’re probably related.