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.

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
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: 


Right Whale

Sei Whale

Fin Whale

Minke Whale

Humpback Whale

Atlantic Whitesided Dolphin

Harbor Porpoises


Herring Gull

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

Northern Gannet

Sooty Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Atlantic Puffin

Philip Hertzog, August 4, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Philip Hertzog
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 25 – August 13, 2005

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Aleutian Islands, AK
Date: August 4, 2005

hertzog_log11Weather Data from Bridge

Latitude: 55˚ 50.8’N
Longitude: 158˚50.0’W
Visibility:  10 nm
Wind Direction: light
Wind Speed: airs
Sea Wave Height: 0 feet
Sea Water Temperature:  12.2˚ C
Sea Level Pressure: 1011.5 mb
Cloud Cover: 2, stratocumulus, altocumulus

Science and Technology Log 

Four launches left early today (7:00 am) and I got up to watch the deck crew lower them into the water. Two launches took off to finish up mapping in the Fish Ranch Bay area while the other launches went across to Mitrofania Island to map shoreline and submerged rocks on aerial photographs.

hertzog_log11aWith our mapping work nearly completed in this area, the Commanding Officer moved the RAINIER to Sosbee Bay located on the south side of Mitrofania Island.  The RAINIER traveled along the north side of Mitrofania and made a left turn to skirt the southwestern shore and Spitz Rock before a second left turn into Sosbee Bay.  The move took approximately 2 hours.

Along the way, I saw at least two dozen Sei whales surface and blow spray in groups of up to four individuals.  As we approached each group of whales, they would submerge and then reappear several hundred yards behind the ship.  At one point the whales seemed to surround the RAINIER in a 270-degree arc: In my earlier log entries, I mistakenly called these creatures fin whales and provided the wrong life history. Sei (pronounced “say”) whales live in all ocean waters of the world.  They can reach up to 18 meters in length and have a small dorsal fin forming a 40 degree angle back with the body. The dorsal fin is located down about two thirds of their body length from the snout. A single ridge runs along on the top of their heads from the snout to the blow hole. Sei whales have black colored backs covered with oval scars that results in a shiny, metallic appearance. Lamprey bites cause the scars when the whales migrate into warmer waters.

Safety gear
Safety gear

Sei whales skim the water and remove tiny marine organisms called copepods for food with long, narrow plates (baleens) under their heads.  These whales tend to feed close to the surface and leave large swirls on the surface as they move their tails. I saw many of these swirls next to the RAINIER after whales had submerged in front of us.

I spotted the Sei whales by first seeing a black snout appear followed by an inverted cone shaped spray about 2 to 3 meters high.  A sleek long, shiny back then glides over the surface followed by the dorsal fin near the rear of the body.  The back then gracefully disappears without the fluke (tail) breaking the surface.  Once in a while the tail does appear as shown in the photo above.

Survey launch being lowered into the water
Survey launch being lowered into the water

After passing the whales, the ship practiced an emergency fire drill and we reported to our assigned stations. The RAINIER’s fire fighting crew donned bumper gear and oxygen tanks and pretended to put out a fire by spraying water from a pressurized hose over the side of the ship.  Within 30 minutes of the fire drill, we had an abandoned ship drill. We grabbed our survival suits and hurried to our stations.  During the drill an Ensign described how to deploy the life rafts by first tying off the canister (see photo below) and then yanking on a release cable. A sensor automatically opens the raft when it hits the water. A rope holds the raft to keep it from drifting a way, but each raft comes equipped with a sharp knife to cut the rope if the ship should sink into deep water: The ship conducts the emergency drills at least once every two weeks to ensure we remain sharp on these important safety skills.  In the event of a real emergency, we have no place to go except into cold water where one could survive for only a few minutes without protection. The RAINIER’s crew takes these drills seriously so we can solve problems (like putting out fires) and prevent the need to enter the water.

After the drills, the RAINIER slowly coasted into Sosbee Bay.  We entered a new environment.  An arc of steep cliffs rose out of the water and surrounded the bay.  We distinctly recognized the shape of a caldera, former volcano that exploded long ago and left a large crater now filled with ocean water.  Tonight, we will sleep on board the ship located inside the remains of a crater.

The Southwestern Alaskan Peninsula is part of the Pacific “ring of fire.”  A large tectonic plate located far beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean slowly runs into the North American plate.  The meeting of the plates causes earth quakes and friction creates large chambers of magma (molten rock) that can form large volcanoes when it reaches the surface of the earth.  All around us, we have seen signs of past volcanic activity from the large shield volcano, Mount Veniaminof, to the north of Mitrofania to the small pieces of pumice found on the beaches.  However, Sosbee Bay provided a sober reminder of the power and destructiveness of nature. The rest of the day I spent reading and completing my documentation.

Personal Log 

I had another busy day on the RAINIER learning about Sei whales and practicing my photography. Again, the galley crew fed us well and I’m need of some exercise.  I’ll go hit the small gym below deck tonight to work off some calories.  On a ship I find it difficult to get sufficient exercise.  If I ever get permanently assigned to a ship, I’ll have to become disciplined in setting up an exercise routine.

Question of the Day 

What is the “ring of fire” and where is it located?