Suzanne Acord: Cetaceans Are Among Us! March 26, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Suzanne Acord
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
March 17 – 28, 2014

Mission: Kona Area Integrated Ecosystems Assessment Project
Geographical area of cruise: Hawaiian Islands
Date: March 26, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge at 13:00
Wind: 6 knots
Visibility: 10+ nautical miles
Weather: Hazy
Depth in fathoms: 2,473
Depth in feet: 14,838
Temperature: 26.0˚ Celsius

Science and Technology Log

Cetaceans Are Among Us!

Our Marine Mammal Observation (MMO) crew was in for a treat today. Just after lunch, we spot a pod of sperm whales. We spotted them off the port side, off the starboard side, and eventually off the bow of the Sette. We frequently see Humpback whales in Hawaii, but sperm whales often evade us. Sperm whales can dive down to extreme depths and they feed on squid. These same squid feed on the micronekton that we are observing during the cruise. Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales. Their enormous size is obvious when they slap the ocean with their giant tails. Another unique characteristic of the sperm whale is their blow hole, which sits to the left rather than on top of the head. This feature allows our MMO team to easily identify them.

Our MMO lead, Ali Bayless, determines that we should take the small boat out for a closer examination of the pod. Within minutes, the small boat and three scientists are in the water following the pod. We think that a calf (baby) is accompanying two of the adult whales. Throughout the next few hours, our small boat is in constant contact with our flying bridge, bridge, and acoustics team to determine the location of the whales. We keep a safe distance from all of the whales, but especially the calf. While on the small boat, MMO scientists also identify spotted and spinner dolphins. We are essentially surrounded by cetaceans. The small boat is just one of the many tools we use to determine what inhabits the ocean. We also use an EK60 sonar, our Remotely Operated Vehicle, our hydrophone, and sonar buoys.

Our acoustics lead, Adrienne Copeland, is especially excited about our sperm whale sightings. Adrienne is a graduate student in zoology at the University of Hawaii. She earned her Bachelor’s of Science in biology with a minor in math and a certificate in mathematical biology from Washington State University. She has served on the Sette four times and is currently serving her third stint as acoustics lead. This is a testament to her expertise and the respect she has earned within the field.

Adrienne Copeland monitors our acoustics station during our 2014 IEA cruise.

Adrienne Copeland monitors our acoustics station during our 2014 IEA cruise.

Adrienne Copeland studies the foraging behavior of deep diving odontocetes (toothed whales). She shares that some deep diving odontocetes have been known to dive more than 1000 meters. Short finned pilot whales have been observed diving 600-800 meters during the day. During night dives we know they forage at shallower depths on squid and fish. How do we know how deep these mammals dive? Tags placed on these mammals send depth data to scientists. How do we know what marine mammals eat? Scientists are able to examine the stomach contents of mammals who are stranded. Interestingly, scientists know that sperm whales feed on histioteuthis (a type of squid) in the Gulf of Mexico. A 2014 IEA trawl operation brought in one of these squid, which the sperm whales may be targeting for food.

Notice the distinct blue and gray lines toward the top of the screen. These are the think layers of micronekton that migrated up at sunset. The number at the top of the screen expresses the depth to the sea floor.

Notice the distinct blue and gray lines toward the top of the screen. These are the thick layers of micronekton that migrated up at sunset. The number at the top of the screen expresses the depth to the sea floor.

Examine the acoustics screen to the left. Can you identify the gray and blue lines toward the top of the screen? These scattering layers of micronekton ascend and descend depending on the sun. Adrienne is interested in learning how these scattering layers change during whale foraging. Our EK60, Remotely Operated Vehicle, and highly prescribed trawling all allow us to gain a better understanding of the contents of the scattering layers. A greater understanding of whale and micronekton behavior has the potential to lead to more effective conservation practices. All marine mammals are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Sperm Whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Interesting fact from Adrienne: Historical scientists could indeed see the scattering layers on their sonar, but they thought the layers were the ocean floor. Now we know they represent the layers of micronekton, but old habits die hard, so the science community sometimes refers to them as false bottoms.

Live Feed at 543 Meters! 

The ROV prior to deployment.

The ROV prior to deployment.

Our Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) deployment is a success! We deploy the ROV thanks to an effective team of crew members, scientists, and NOAA Corps officers working together. ROV deployment takes place on the port side of the ship. We take our ROV down to approximately 543 meters. We are able to survey with the ROV for a solid five hours. A plethora of team members stop by the eLab to “ooh” and “ahh” over the live feed from the ROV. Excitingly, the ROV is deployed prior to the vertical migration of the micronekton and during the early stages of the ascent. The timing is impeccable because our acoustics team is very curious to know which animals contribute to the thick blue and gray lines on our acoustics screens during the migration. In the ROV live feed, the micronekton are certainly visible. However, because the animals are so small, they almost look like snow falling in front of the ROV camera. Periodically, we can identify squid, larger fish, and jellies.

Did you Know? 

Kevin Lewand of the Monterey Bay Aquarium constructs a hyperbaric chamber for marine life on board the Sette.

Kevin Lewand of the Monterey Bay Aquarium constructs a hyperbaric chamber for marine life.

Mini hyperbaric chambers can be used to save fish who are brought to the surface from deep depths. These chambers are often used to assist humans who scuba dive at depths too deep for humans or who do not effectively depressurize when returning to the surface after SCUBA diving. The pressure of the deep water can be life threatening for humans. Too much pressure or too little pressure in the water can be life threatening for marine life, too. Marine life collector, Kevin Lewand, constructed a marine life hyperbaric chamber aboard the Sette. He learned this skill from his mentor. Be sure to say Aloha to him when you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.

 

 

 

 

Personal Log

Daily Life Aboard the Sette

There is never a dull moment on the ship. Tonight we have ROV operations, squid jigging, acoustics monitoring, and a CTD deployment. We of course can’t forget the fact that our bridge officers are constantly ensuring we are en route to our next location. Tonight’s science operations will most likely end around 05:00 (tomorrow). Crew members work 24/7 and are usually willing to share their expertise or a good story. If they are busy completing a task, they always offer to chat at another time. I find that the more I learn about the Sette, the more I yearn to know. The end of the cruise is just two days away. I am surprised by how quickly my time aboard the ship has passed. I look forward to sharing my new knowledge and amazing experiences with my students and colleagues. I have a strong feeling that my students will want to ask as many questions as I have asked the Sette crew. Aloha and mahalo to the Sette.

 

Donna Knutson, September 10, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea Donna Knutson
NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
September 1 – September 29, 2010

Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey
Geograpical Area: Hawaii
Date: September 29, 2010

Kogia!

September 10, 2010

Me and Kogia!


Mission and Geographical Area: 

The Oscar Elton Sette is on a mission called HICEAS, which stands for Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey. This cruise will try to locate all marine mammals in the Exclusive Economic Zone called the “EEZ” of Hawaiian waters. The expedition will cover the waters out to 200 nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands.

Also part of the mission is to collect data such as conductivity for measuring salinity, temperature, depth, chlorophyll abundance. Aquatic bird sittings will also be documented.

Science and Technology:

Kogia with sharks.

Latitude: 25○ 35.5’ N
Longitude: 166○ 20.4’ W
Clouds: 3/8 Cu, Ci
Visibility: 10 N.M.
Wind: 12 Knots
Wave height: 2-3 ft.
Water Temperature: 26.5○ C
Air Temperature: 25.8○ C
Sea Level Pressure: 1021.6 mb

There are two types of Kogia. Kogia is a genus name and the two types (species) are the breviceps and the sima. The common name of breviceps is pygmy and the common name for sima is dwarf. These animals are called sperm whales even though they are much smaller because they too have the spermaceti organ located in their heads just like their much larger relative.

One unique feature they do not share with the large sperm whale is a sac in their lower intestine that can hold approximately three gallons of syrupy, re-brown liquid. The dwarf and pygmy sperm whales will expel the liquid when they feel threatened as a defense mechanism. The liquid will cloud the water temporarily allowing time for the whale to escape.

Notice Kogis’s small mouth.

These are not very large whales. The pygmy sperm whale has a maximum length of eleven feet six inches and a maximum weight of nine hundred pounds. The smaller dwarf sperm whale has a maximum of eight feet ten inches and a weight of at least four hundred and sixty pounds.

It is very hard to tell these whales apart, especially in the water. Their dorsal fins are different in that the dwarf has a higher more pointed fin which is set farther back toward the tail than the pygmy which has a more curved dorsal fin in the middle of its body. Their heads have a slightly different shape also. The pygmy sperm whales head is blunt and is more square.

Mills eating in front of the scientists taking measurements.
“If there was ever a “Zissou”esque moment that is it!” from Team Zissou, Life Aquatic

They are both a bluish steel gray color and have a pinkish line where a gill slit would be on a fish. Because of this marking, the pygmy and dwarf sperm whales have often been falsely identified as sharks.
Both species of Kogia can be found at great depths in the tropical and temperate latitudes. They are relatively widespread but they are not abundant. Despite their large range relatively is known about these species. It is hard to find these whales in the wild because they do not “show off”. They do not jump or move in groups together. Even their blow is faint if not invisible.

Left side of Kogia.

Like the large sperm whales the dwarf and the pygmy sperm whales feed mostly on jellyfish, but also on shrimp, crab and fish.
A number of these whales have been stranded and the necropsy showed a gut blockage caused by plastic bags. People usually do not hunt pygmy and dwarf sperm whales for food, but because of their size they are occasionally trapped in fishing nets.
Personal Log:
After lunch on the flying deck Allan Ligon, mammal observer, was viewing through the “big eyes”. He said he saw something green in the water and said it was probably the shadow of an underwater net. As the ship got closer to the object he thought he was seeing a dead shark. A few minutes later he realized it was a dead whale with sharks feeding on it. The green color was caused by the whale’s blood dripping from bite marks.

A close up the head and pectoral fin.

All scientists were on deck to watching viscous sharks. Sure we had all seen similar scenes on television but to see it happen in real life right before your eyes was amazing! There were at least two sharks and they would circle the whale and then attack it. Sometimes a sharks head would come out of the water for a huge powerful bite. Occasionally a shark would push the whale under and swim over it. It definitely reminded me of an animal claiming its kill as the ship approached closer.
The whale was identified as a Kogia because the small mouth narrowed down the possibilities. It was either a breviceps, pygmy sperm whale, or a sima, dwarf sperm whale. Both species of whales are very elusive and are seldom seen on mammal survey cruises. Because there is a lot to learn about these whales, it was decided to bring the whale on board.

Kogia’s teeth in it’s small lower jaw.

Not only was the science crew excited at the extraordinary find, but every member of the ship was in attendance for the whale “capture”. All the officers, the stewards, the engineers, everyone was watching as the deck crew got prepared to lift the whale on the deck.
The boatswain, pronounced bosun (which is a story in itself), had his crew gaff the whale to the side on the ship. (a gaff is a pole with a hook on the end) Once the whale was close enough a rope was tied around its tail and attached to a crane. The Kogia was lifted easily out of the water. By this time the sharks had given up to the much larger ship and were lurking nearby. With all the blood in the water everyone was being extra careful not to fall in!
Once on deck the damage the sharks had inflicted became evident. Large chunks were missing from the whale’s back, head and tail. Everyone was speculating what kind of whale it was, either the dwarf or the pygmy. Nicky, from the acoustics team, approached Erin the chief scientist and asked her if she could perform a necropsy on the animal. Performing necropsies is part of Nicky’s job description at Southwest Fisheries in California and she has worked on dozens of stranded whales, so Erin was happy to have her handle the sampling.

The biginning of the necropsy.

Nicky got together a kit for dissection and also the containers for the samples and off she went. She had help from Aly Fleming, a grad student and visiting scientist, Corey Sheredy an oceanographer, Andrea Bendlin, mammal observer, and myself. We were all decked out in fishing boots and gloves. My chief job was to bag and label samples and to record data about the size and appearance of the whale “parts”, but I ended up using the scalpel and saw as well.
This was a long process and eventually the working scientists had to go back to their jobs, but Nicky, Aly and I kept working until finished. It took over five hours to look at all the major organs and tissues. We took two samples of every organ. One sample will be sent to Hawaii and the other sample to Southwest Fisheries where Nicky works. In the case of the lungs and testes, (yes we discovered it was a male) we had to take a sample from both the left and the right.

Aly and Nicky showing Kogia’s enormous liver.

Nicky did not think the small intestine felt right. It was extremely hard and compact and felt there might be some kind of blockage as the colon was empty. She made sure to get a feces sample for the lab also. Wow what a highlight! Yes, I am being sarcastic. It is a good thing hands are washable. I couldn’t keep gloves on while writing and sealing bags. It sure looks he was a very sick whale in the digestive system!
Nicky showed me some of the parasites she found in the tissue and also in the blubber. That was something I was surprised by but in hind-site all animals have some kind of parasite, even humans. There was foam in the left lung, much more than in the right. This could mean that the real death was drowning. Whether it was from a blockage or a drowning, it seems likely the sharks came across a dead carcass rather than attacked and killed the whale. The actual results will come when the samples are processed in the lab.

Aly holding the extraordinary liver.

The Kogia’s organs are all very similar to ours, comparing mammal to mammal, with a few exceptions. Their stomach has three distinctive sections and the kidney has many bulbous sections forming one large kidney. I did not do any research of kidneys but Aly believes the old shape in the kidney is due to the complex filtration system needed to remove salts from the whale’s body.
I asked the girls about the ears and they were almost impossible to find, but Andrea discovered one on the left side. It was a tiny pin hole behind the eye. Without specifically looking for it, we would not have seen it. We counted the teeth and there were twenty four (bottom only) which is normal.

Feeding the sharks the remains. Nicky, Aly and I eventually needed to use a pulley, it was too heavy.

Many people from all crew came to check on us, some even brought water. It was extremely hot and no breeze was felt the whole time. It sure was fun dissecting again and doing some comparative anatomy! The girls did a great job, at least from my point of view, they were very knowledgeable and taught me a great deal! Everyone seems proud to be on the Sette and be involved in the unusual tasks that this mission has undertaken.
The remainder of the Kogia was returned back to the sharks and the huge clean-up began. That did not even feel like a chore as we were chatting about the findings the whole time.

Cleaning up. Thanks Kogia for helping us learn more about you!

The type of Kogia (species) will not be known for certain until the test results are in, but most scientists feel 60/40 it is a breviceps or the pygmy sperm whale.

Donna Knutson, September 4-5, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea Donna Knutson
NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
September 1 – September 29, 2010

Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey
Geograpical Area: Hawaii
Date: September 4-5, 2010

The Whale Chase

Me on the water in the small boat.

Mission and Geographical Area:
The Oscar Elton Sette is on a mission called HICEAS, which stands for Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey. This cruise will try to locate all marine mammals in the Exclusive Economic Zone called the “EEZ” of Hawaiian waters. The expedition will cover the waters out to 200 nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands.

Also part of the mission is to collect data such as conductivity for measuring salinity, temperature, depth, chlorophyll abundance. Aquatic bird sittings will also be documented.

The dorsal fin of a sperm whale.

Science and Technology

Latitude: 13○ 22.3 N
Longitude: 167○ 17.8 W
Clouds: 6/8 Cu, Cb
Visibility: 10 N.M.
Wind: 12 Knots
Wave height: 2-4 ft.
Water Temperature: 27.1○ C
Air Temperature: 25.5○ C
Sea Level Pressure: 1021.2 mb
Spermaceti, which means “sperm of the whale”, is commonly called a sperm whale. These whales had great commercial value in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The head of a sperm whale is filled with a semi-liquid oil which was used for making candles and later for cosmetics. This whale was the “villain” in the Herman Melville’s classic tale, Moby Dick.
Sperm whales are easy to identify at sea by their distinctive blow. They are seen almost anywhere around the world, but they especially like the areas around continental shelves.
Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales. The males can reach sixty feet long while the females are smaller at a maximum of thirty-six feet long. The males may weigh up to one hundred twenty thousand pounds while the females may reach fifty-five thousand pounds. The females are usually a third of the male’s size, which is the greatest size difference between all the whale species.
Medium to large sizes squid is the main food source for the sperm whale. One individual had a forty foot squid in its stomach.
Sperm whales may live between sixty to seventy years. Their population is growing steadily and with continued protection they should continue to recover.

A sperm whale blowing.

References for the past three logs:
Seabirds of Hawaii, Natural History and Conservation by Craig Harrison, copyright 1990.
A Field Guide to Sea Birds of the World by Peter Harrison, copyright 1987.
Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, National Audubon Society, copyright 2002.
Personal Log:
I had completed my” job” at 6:00 in the morning and then volunteered to be an independent observer for animals on the flying deck when Erin called me to the main deck for a “small craft safety meeting”. I started getting excited because I might have a chance to go out on the small 19 ft. boat.
Erin Oleson the chief scientist and the other acoustic girls, Suzanne, Yvonne and Nicole wanted to test their array. The array is a device that picks up sounds preferably whale and dolphin sound in the ocean. The small boat’s mission would be to go out ahead of the main ship with a “pinging” device that would be lowered into the water and then the array should be able to pick up the sound if the array is working properly. There had been some problems receiving data from the array so this outing seemed like a likely trip.
Not long after the meeting I was told I could go with Adam U, a mammal observer, and Nicole Beaulieu an acoustician. Woo Woo! I was one of the lucky ones for the adventure! Just being on the boat in the ocean with the rolling waves was a thrill. We needed to get two miles ahead of the ship then stop and lower the pinging device. It was hard to get that far ahead of the ship that was cruising at 10 knots with waves between three and five feet high.
Ray and Mills, both seamen, were with us. Mills drove the boat. He had obviously done it before because he had us soaring over the crests, catching air, and then slamming into the troughs.

The whale chase. My back is to the camera.

It was crazy /exhilarating for me because I hadn’t experienced anything like it. It was hard to hold on and I gave my weak left wrist a good workout! Especially when we slowed down a bit and I tried to take pictures with the right hand while trying to hold on with the left. My pride would have been hurt if I’d fallen out and so would my body considering we trying to outrun the ship, but the water was eighty degrees Fahrenheit and a beautiful royal blue.
When we had finished “pinging” the ship spotted some sperm whales and set out to chase them. We sat for about half an hour bobbing up and down on the waves and watching the ship and the water for whale blows. Listening to the radio we realized the whales were between us and the ship. They were blowing right in front of us! Now it was our turn to follow the whales and off we went!
When we discovered that we could get up close Adam brought out the crossbow. It was quite the frenzy! I was taking pictures, holding on and looking for whales at the same time! Adam was trying to get the crossbow ready and hold on while trying to watch for whales. Nicole was in the middle getting bounced around watching for whales.
Adam got a shot. The arrow hit the back of the whale and skidded off. He did not feel the arrow contained a good biopsy sample so we stopped got the arrow while he reloaded and off we went again. The arrows are hollow tipped for tissue to get trapped and once they strike they fall off and float until retrieved.
We continued our mad chase with Mills at the wheel. Eventually after chasing for approximately twenty minutes we came across a sperm whale” rafting” evidently they do this after being submerged up to forty minutes. Adam shot again and this time he was pleased with the biopsy sample as we could see the tissue dangling off the end of the arrow. Once hit the whale quickly put her head up. The action made me imagine her thinking “What was that?” and she submerged.

A sperm whale coming up for air.

Our whale chasing adventure was over and we returned to the Sette. I took over three hundred photos and five videos. My new little camera held up well in the salt water spray. I saw at least five sperm whales in the pod and one was a small one, a calf. Wow! Definitely a time I will never forget!
I need to tank Erin for letting me go! I’m heading back to the flying bridge with hope of finding more whales and dolphins.
Question: How do N.M. nautical miles compare to miles? How do Knots compare to miles/hour?

Melinda Storey, June 15, 2010 part2

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melinda Storey
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
June 14 – July 2, 2010

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 15, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge

Date: 6/15/2010
Time: 1000 hours
Position: Latitude: 27.38.1 N Longitude: 088.18.9 W
Present Weather: cloudy
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Wind Direction: SSW
Water Temperature: 30.4 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 29.5 degrees Celsius
Ship’s Speed: 12.2 knots

Science and Technology Log

Today at around 1000 hours (10:00 am) our CO sighted a dead Sperm Whale from the bridge. Our scientists say it is extremely rare to see a floating sperm whale. In fact, a whale expert who communicated with one of our scientists said he has only seen one in 25 years of studying them! The Gulf of Mexico is a habitat of Sperm Whales. Females stay here year round and birth their young in these waters while male Sperm Whales travel to many different locations, some as far as the Antarctic Ocean. Sperm Whales are the deepest diving whales. Although they live at the surface, they dive to hunt Giant Squid that are bottom dwellers. They have been known to dive as deeply as 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) but average dives are about 4000 feet (1,200 meters) deep. The Sperm Whale can hold its breath for about an hour!

Sperm Whale

Dead Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Dead Sperm Whale

Here you see a close up of the teeth of the whale and some of the small fish swimming around it.

As you can see, the whale was covered in some black substance. Our scientists are not experts on marine mammals; however they spoke with Dr. Keith Mullin, the Southeastern Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammals Program manager, who stated that this is typical for the skins of dead whales to blister, char, and fall off. Upon seeing photos of the whale, the experts stated that it appeared to have died of natural causes; however we were asked to take samples from the whale to eliminate the possibility of oil as the cause of death. The ship positioned itself next to the dead whale and scientists swabbed the carcass in order to test for oil toxins and took tissue samples for DNA. NOAA catalogues mammal DNA to record species information and migration of different animals.

Dead Sperm Whale

Blistered Skin of Dead Sperm Whale

As we watched the whale float next to the ship, a 12 foot Tiger shark approached. It was obvious that sharks had been feasting on the whale because we could see definite bite marks along the side.

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark

The Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is a fierce predator that has tiger-like markings and can grow to be over 14 feet (4.2 meters) long. It eats just about anything: fish, turtles, crabs, clams, mammals, seabirds, reptiles, other sharks, and just about anything else they can catch. It apparently likes to eat dead whales too! The Tiger Shark is one lean, mean eating machine. Each of its teeth is shaped like those found on a circular saw with a flat and curved hook at the end. A power saw might not even equal this shark’s power since it can cut through turtle shells with a single bite.


The shark circled the whale carcass and suddenly attacked, twisting back and forth in typical shark style. A bit later, the shark came along side the whale, bobbed up and down and took several chomping bites. Everyone was amazed at what we were witnessing!

Tiger Shark circling the whale carcass

Tiger Shark circling the whale carcass

 

Tiger Shark biting the whale carcass

Tiger Shark biting the whale carcass

 

Personal Log

As I watched the stunning display before me, I felt like I was a National Geographic videographer! I’ve had some interesting experiences in my lifetime, but this has got to be up at the top of the list! The thrashing and bloody water was unbelievable and watching the bobbing motion of the shark eating the side of the whale was like nothing I’ve ever seen – even on TV! And the SMELL! UGH! Ensign Schill fitted us with respirators so we could go out on deck and not gag.

I’ve also seen thousands of flying fish that actually do fly! They are tiny silver fish whose bodies are streamlined in a torpedo shape that helps them gather enough underwater speed to break the surface and take to the air. Flying fish are thought to have evolved this ability to escape predators.

Silverfish

Silverfish

Silverfish

Silverfish

“Something to Think About”

If this whale did die because of the oil, will we see more dead fish and mammals? How is the oil affecting birds, fish, and mammals along the coast? What will the long term affect be for the Coast?

“Did You Know?”

The tiger shark is one lean, mean, eating machine. Each of its teeth is shaped like those found on a circular saw, with a flat and curved hook at the end. A power saw might not even equal this shark’s power, since it can cut through turtle shells with a single bite.

Nicolle von der Heyde, June 15, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Nicolle von der Heyde
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
June 14 – July 2, 2010

Nicolle von der Heyde
NOAA Ship Pisces
Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Dates: Tuesday, June 15

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1000 hours (10:00am)
Position: latitude = 27.38.1 N, longitude = 088.18.9 W
Present Weather: 4/8 cloudy
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Wind Direction: SSW Wind Speed: 5 knots
Wave Height: < 1 foot
Sea Water Temp: 30.4 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: dry bulb = 29.5 degrees Celsius
wet bulb = 27.2 degrees Celsius

Science and Technology Log

Today at around 1000 hours (10:00 am) our CO sighted a dead Sperm Whale from the bridge. Our scientists say it is extremely rare to see a floating sperm whale. In fact, a whale expert who communicated with one of our scientists said he has only seen one in 25 years of studying them! The Gulf of Mexico is a habitat of Sperm Whales. Females stay here year round and birth their young in these waters while male Sperm Whales travel to many different locations, some as far as the Antarctic Ocean. Sperm Whales are the deepest diving whales. Although they live at the surface, they dive to hunt Giant Squid that are bottom dwellers. They have been known to dive as deeply as 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) but average dives are about 4000 feet (1,200 meters) deep. The Sperm Whale can hold its breath for about an hour!

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

Here you see a close up of the teeth of the whale and some of the small fish swimming around it.

As you can see, the whale was covered in some black substance. Our scientists are not experts on marine mammals; however they spoke with Dr. Keith Mullin, the Southeastern Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammals Program manager, who stated that this is typical for the skins of dead whales to blister, char, and fall off. Upon seeing photos of the whale, the experts stated that it appeared to have died of natural causes; however we were asked to take samples from the whale to eliminate the possibility of oil as the cause of death. The ship positioned itself next to the dead whale and scientists swabbed the carcass in order to test for oil toxins and took tissue samples for DNA. NOAA catalogues mammal DNA to record species information and migration of different animals.

Black substance on sperm whale

Black substance on sperm whale

Getting DNA of the sperm whale

Getting DNA of the sperm whale

As we watched the whale float next to the ship, a 12 foot Tiger shark approached. It was obvious that sharks had been feasting on the whale because we could see definite bite marks along the side.

Tiger shark approaching sperm whale carcass

Tiger shark approaching sperm whale carcass

Bites out of the tiger shark

Bites out of the tiger shark

The Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is a fierce predator that has tiger-like markings and can grow to be over 14 feet (4.2 meters) long. It eats just about anything: fish, turtles, crabs, clams, mammals, seabirds, reptiles, other sharks, and just about anything else they can catch. It apparently likes to eat dead whales too! The Tiger Shark is one lean, mean eating machine. Each of its teeth is shaped like those found on a circular saw with a flat and curved hook at the end. A power saw might not even equal this shark’s power since it can cut through turtle shells with a single bite.

The shark circled the whale carcass and suddenly attacked, twisting back and forth in typical shark style. A bit later, the shark came along side the whale, bobbed up and down and took several chomping bites. Everyone was amazed at what we were witnessing!

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Tiger shark eating whale carcass

Personal Log

Tuesday, June 15: The day started again with breakfast at 0700 hours. Since most of the day would be spent cruising through Gulf waters to our first research site off the coast of southern Texas, the plan had been to take a tour with the First Engineer of what I was told is a very impressive engine room in the lower deck of the Pisces. Little did I know that in a few hours I would witness one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. But first, as expected, an announcement came over the ship’s intercom announcing a “man overboard” drill, followed by three blasts of the general alarm. All the scientists “mustered” in the conference room to await the end of the drill. This was shortly followed by a fire drill where our muster station was again in the conference room. After the drills I began talking to Christopher Gledhill, one of the scientists, about the reef fish survey and some of the data he has collected on past surveys. All of a sudden, the Chief Scientist Paul Felts came into the conference room and announced, “They’ve spotted a dead whale!” I couldn’t believe my ears as I quickly gathered my things and headed to the deck of the ship. Sure enough, there was a big floating white mass just ahead of the bow of the ship. I frantically began taking pictures, not realizing that we would be spending the next few hours alongside the dead carcass plus all the fish that had gathered around to feed off of the remains. Someone said that sharks had left the scene as we approached and I was hoping they would return so I could catch a glimpse of one. I would not be disappointed.

Of course, my first observation was the black, charred-looking surface of the whale. It looked like someone had taken a torch and lit it on fire. My first thought was that this must be oil, but as stated in the science log above, the skin of a dead whale will blister, burn, and turn black when exposed to the heat of the sun. My second observation hit me like a ton of bricks as the wind shifted toward the deck of the boat and I caught my first whiff of dead, decomposing, sunburned sperm whale. I’m not really sure what to compare it to but imagine the worst smell you’ve ever smelled and multiply it by 10. I think the stench is permanently etched into my sensory memory. Fortunately, we were all just about to be fitted with respirators (like a gas mask) in case we came across fumes from the oil spill. I went inside to be fitted with the respirator and when I stepped outside, I didn’t smell an ounce of dead whale – what a relief! My third observation was of all the life that was swarming around this dead, decaying carcass. Schools of Mahi Mahi (aka Dolphin Fish), some up to 4 feet long, and other smaller fish dotted the depths of the crystal clear blue water. I noticed activity at the stern (back) of the boat as some of the officers and deckhands began assembling fishing poles to reel in the Mahi Mahi. Before long, the crew had hauled about 15 Mahi Mahi onto the ship!

Lines to reel in the Mahi Mahi

Lines to reel in the Mahi Mahi

Mahi Mahi

Mahi Mahi

During this time, the Chief Scientist was on the phone with other NOAA scientists discussing how they should handle taking samples from the whale. Our ship was not equipped to study marine mammals so we did not have the traditional tools necessary for this type of task.

All of a sudden someone spotted the Tiger Shark circling the waters around the whale. I was able to capture the image below of the shark as it swam under our boat. It circled the carcass a few times and then attacked! What a scene as it first thrashed at the belly, then swam to the backside and took a few chomps. What a thrill to see this powerful predator up close (and from the safety of the ship!). Barely a day into this trip and I’ve had an experience I will remember forever!

Animals Seen Today

Dead Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier)

Mahi Mahi (Coryphaena hippurus)

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Flying Fish (Family Exocoetidae – There are 64 species in this family!)
Various smaller fish

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster): Shown below.

This seabird landed on the mast of our ship one evening and hitched a ride through the night until the next evening. It was hunting the flying fish in the water as we cruised toward Southern Texas waters and I even observed it dive into the water after a fish!

Sea bird

Sea bird

Methea Sapp-Cassanego, August 1, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Methea Sapp-Cassanego
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 19 – August 8, 2007

Mission: Marine Mammal Survey
Geographical Area: New England
Date: August 1, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility: 7nm lowering to less then 1 in fog
Wind Direction: Southerly
Wind Speed: 3-8 knt increasing to 8-13
Swell height: 3-5 feet

The flexible Jacob’s ladder rolled up for easy storage.

The flexible Jacob’s ladder rolled up for easy storage.

Science and Technology Log 

Fog has kept our sightings to a minimum over the past two days. In fact we’ve had only two sighting since my last log on July 27th. Yet despite today’s weather forecast, the fog horn has been silenced and everyone is outside enjoying the sunshine and stretching their eyes.  It is a wonder to see color other then a shade of grey!  The change in weather has also brought new sightings including 3 humpback whales, a pod of harbor porpoises, 4 right whales, a minke whale and a dozen or so pilot whales (spotted by your’s truly).  These sightings kept the observers busy as well as those involved in the launching of the zodiac (aka little grey boat) and the Tucker trawl. The morning sighting of the right whales prompted a Tucker trawl sampling in order to examine the copepod densities in the surrounding areas.

Dr. Richard Pace assists with deployment of the zodiac.

Dr. Richard Pace assists with deployment of the zodiac.

The trawl did yield a higher density of copepods then all of our previous trawls which where carried out in the absence of right whale sightings, however compared to their prior experiences most of the researchers thought that the copepod densities were still on the sparse side. The sighting of pilot whales brought the first launching of the zodiac boat.  The goal for this expedition is two fold:  1. To attain tissue samples from some of the pods larger whales so that genetic analysis and subsequent pedigrees may be chronicled and;  2. Acquire photographic images of individual dorsal fins in an effort to establish a method of identifying individuals based on their unique dorsal fin features. Such features may include nicks, scratches, unusual scars and or color patterns. Deployment of the zodiac requires numerous experienced hands and a wherewithal for safety. First the boat is loaded with all the supplies (photography equipment, biopsy tips and crossbows, and tissue specimen jars) that will be needed for the sampling and documentation of the pilot whales.  Then the crane on the back deck is used to hoist the zodiac up and over the side of the DELAWARE II.  Chief scientist, Dr. Richard Pace then climbs on board the zodiac while the crane slowly lowers the boat into the water.   Dr. Pace keeps the zodiac in position while a special flexible hanging ladder called a Jacob’s ladder is unrolled down the side of the DELAWARE II.  All other persons enter the zodiac from the DELAWARE’s back deck via the Jacob’s ladder. 

Once deployed, the researchers make final adjustments before pursuing the pilot whales.

Once deployed, the researchers make final adjustments before pursuing the pilot whales.

After the little grey boat is loaded it sets off in the direction of the whales as indicated by the observers on the fly bridge, who have all the while been communicating the whales’ position to the captain of the DELAWARE who then makes sure that the ship stays relatively close to the pod.   As one can imagine three-way communication between the fly bridge, the wheel house and the zodiac is critical for not only tracking the swiftly moving whales but also for the safety of all involved. Today was my day to be on the fly bridge as all of this was going on but if the weather holds and we keep seeing pilot whales then I too may get to ride on the zodiac.