NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard the Ship R/V Fulmar
July 16-24, 2014
Mission: Water conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) readings; marine bird and mammal counts
Geographical Area: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries; Sonoma County Coast, Pacific Ocean
Dates: July 18 and 19, 2014
Weather Data from the bridge: Wind speed variable, less than 10 knots; wind waves less than 2 feet; visibility about 3 KMs, temperature range from 59-68
Science and Technology Log: Friday and Saturday are mostly filled with marine bird and mammal observations, and we covered many transect lines in the last 2 days: Lines 1, 3, 5, 7, N1, and N3-N7.
The transects lines with an “N” stand for near-shore lines, and they are shorter. During these two days the near-shore lines were the only lines where we took CTD readings, so the majority of the time was spent monitoring birds and mammals from the flying bridge, which is the top deck of the boat.
Scanning for birds and mammals while riding atop a moving vessel can be quite challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, a boat is at mercy of the waves, so the bobbing motion makes it hard to focus your eyes. Second, the organisms you are monitoring are in motion as well, so you have to have a quick eye to see them and follow them. Finally, many of the organisms aren’t directly in front of the boat, so you have to be well-trained in spotting the subtle and not so subtle differences in hundreds of organisms. It’s a tough job that requires good eyes, patience, a strong stomach, lots of practice, and the ability to withstand ever-changing weather conditions.
When a marine bird is spotted, there are a series of codes that the watcher calls out to the person recording the sightings on the laptop. As mentioned in an earlier post, these codes stand for location, number of organisms, etc. For example, when on the top deck you might here this: Common Murre 2, zone 1, flying, 160. This means that there are two Common Murre birds within 100 meters of the boat, and they are flying toward 160 degrees in relation to the boat (in a 360-degree circle). For this protocol, zero degrees is always at the bow, or the front, of the boat, and 180 degrees points directly to the stern, or the back, of the boat.
When a marine mammal is sighted, there are even more codes. For example, you may hear this: Mammal, by eye, bearing 270, reticle 7, observer 9, side 1, traveling, immature, sex unknown, 2-2-2.
Now, that is a lot of information. What does all this mean? Take a look at this picture, which has the meanings for all of the codes.
Now look at the bottom half of this picture where it’s labeled Line Transect Entries-Marine Mammals and Vessels. In order to make sense of these codes, start with the left column and work your way down, moving along to the second column on the right and back down again. By using this chart, you realize what is being said: Marine mammal, spotted by eye (as opposed to binoculars), and it’s located at 270 degrees. Next up is reticule, which is a bit more complicated.
On reticule binoculars, there are 14 tick marks in a vertical column that the observer can see when looking through the lens; the top tick mark is 0 and the bottom is 14. When looking for marine mammals, you can estimate where they are located by these tick marks, called reticules. Reticule 0 is the horizon, and reticule 14 is the boat. If you have a mammal sighting at reticule 7, that means the mammal is roughly somewhere in the middle between the horizon and the boat, which is quite a distance. It takes a lot of practice to accurately estimate distance this way, especially on a rocking boat, but the ACCESS crew is well versed in this task. This is an important data point because the computer program will use compass direction and distance to provide a location on the ocean for the observation. At the end of the cruise, all the observations will be mapped out and you can see how many of which animals were seen in what locations as we criss-crossed the ocean on the boat.
The rest of the codes are pretty self-explanatory until you reach the counts, which gives your best estimate for number of organisms. A count of 2-2-2- means your best estimate of number of organisms is 2, the high number of organisms is 2, and the low count is 2; when you hear a call like this, the observer is certain that the number of organisms is 2 because there is no fluctuation. If you heard a count of 2-3-2, the observer saw at least 2 organisms but it could have been 3. The observers include these different estimates because sometimes it is very hard to count exactly how many dolphins or other fast-moving animals there are.
Here are some pics from the flying bridge (or top deck of the boat). Notice the different weather conditions on two different days, and how the observers have to be prepared to bundle up for the fog and have on hats and sunglasses against the sun. Conditions can change rapidly while at sea.
Personal Log: I woke up later these past two days because I learned there is time to wake up while the boat is heading out to the first transect. There is no need to wake up before the crew starts the engines because on days such as these we have at least one hour from when we leave port to ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.
As mentioned earlier in the blog, these past two days were mostly bird and mammal observations with CTD readings toward the end of the day. When the boat first set out in the morning, we headed out to the west end of the transect line, and because we have more time, everyone on board shares stories, some work-related, some personal. It’s quite nice to have time for these conversations because even though you spend 8 days at sea with everyone, it’s hard to fit in conversation when you’re watching for organisms or trying not to fall off the boat while deploying a net.
Dani Lipski, the Research Coordinator from Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, is a dive master for NOAA. She has lots of wonderful stories about diving, conducting research on different ships and islands up and down the West coast, and she is great at preventing me from tripping over myself on the back deck (I work with Dani the most). Kirsten Lindquist, from the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, loves to cook, spent two seasons in Alaska studying whales, and is an expert seabird observer. Rudy, the man in charge of IT at Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can spot birds, mammals, and even mylar balloons; if it’s on or in the ocean, he’ll notice it. He is also the resident comedian, providing many instances of humor throughout the day. In short, everyone on board is knowledgeable about their jobs and dedicated to protecting the health of the world’s oceans, and it’s inspiring to be around a group as dedicated as the ACCESS cruise team.
Some other tidbits learned: Jaime–the director of all the marine work at Point Blue Conservation and the master of the Tucker Trawl–has a favorite spot to rest on the boat; the bunk rooms never seem to completely dry out; the best place to feel well on a boat is the back because of the least amount of up and down motion; and Dru, mammal spotter extraordinaire from Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can make an excellent guacamole.
Speaking of food, Cheez-It’s are a favorite of everyone on board, Coke Zero is consumed at nauseam, and apparently the presence of M&Ms brings whale sightings (having a Teacher at Sea on board also seems to bring good whale sightings). Everyone takes turns cooking dinner, but breakfast and lunch are a free-for-all; you basically eat when you want or can while at sea, but dinner is a time for everyone to come together and share their day.
One interesting fact I forgot to mention is that when you come back to shore after spending 10 hours at sea, you still feel like you are moving up and down. When I was in the shower or even just sitting down on land, I felt like I was bobbing up and down and moving back and forth. You have a dizzy-like feeling,. Some people who don’t get sick at sea will get sick from this feeling when they return to land; this is called dock rock. Who knew?!
Did you know? Northern Right whale dolphins do not have dorsal fins.
Question of the Day? What types of foods do you think are ideally suited to a trip to sea with limited or no refrigeration?
New Term/Phrase/Word: Reticule
Something to Think About: Bananas on a boat are considered bad luck for several reasons. First, when they go bad the give off a gas that causes other fruit to rot faster. But there are more superstitious reasons as well: banana boats tended to be overloaded and, thus, sank a lot. Bananas carry tarantulas in them, so sailors didn’t want to get bit. You don’t want to bring something from the mountains to the sea, so you can’t bring bananas; there are sure to be more reasons why.
Challenge Yourself: Next time you’re at the shore or beach, count how many different species of birds you see and try to estimate their direction of travel, using a 360-degree circle as reference and using the horizon as 0 degrees.