Cara Nelson: Report from the Flying Bridge, September 16, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 16, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º36.465’
Longitude: 149º14.346’
Wind: North 12 knots
Air Temperature: 16ºC (61ºF)
Air Pressure: 1001 millibars
Clear skies


Science and Technology Log

The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) study focuses on ecosystem dynamics in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how the complex processes of abiotic factors, such as ocean salinity, temperature, currents, and trace metals influence primary productivity of phytoplankton.  The project examines how efficiently this energy is transferred, in turn, to higher trophic levels, from zooplankton to vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals. 

Over the past twenty years, seabird and marine mammal observations have been an important component of the LTER study. Approximately 50 species of birds inhabit the NGA either year-round or seasonally, with a variety of foraging behaviors and diets. Through the LTER, we can learn about how physical and biological oceanographic processes influence the distribution and abundance of higher trophic levels, such as seabirds.

Dr. Kathy Kuletz with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the lead scientist for the seabird part of the research program. Dan Cushing is the seabird and marine mammal observer aboard R/V Tiglax.  He holds a master’s degree in wildlife science and has a wealth of experience in birding both on and offshore.  This fall cruise marks Dan’s eleventh cruise observing in the NGA.  Whenever the R/V Tiglax is underway, Dan can be found on the flying bridge collecting data. 

flying bridge
The flying bridge (named for its bird’s eye view) is an open viewing area atop the wheel-house of R/V Tiglax accessed by a ladder.

Observations are made using a protocol established through the USFWS.  Dan records survey data using a computer on the flying bridge that records both time and GPS coordinates of each bird or mammal sighting. 

Dan on flying bridge
Dan actively observing on the flying bridge.
estimating distance
A chopstick with markings on it helps Dan estimate bird distance. Dan made this simple distance measuring tool using high-school trigonometry. When the top of the stick is placed on the horizon, the markings along the stick correspond to distances from the boat.
observing laptop
Dan is able to quickly document the species seen, abundance and any special notes using the computer program.

It is immediately clear that bird sightings along the LTER follow a pattern.  Inshore, diving bird species are common, such as common murres, puffins and cormorants.  Pelagic bird species inhabiting deeper waters are mostly surface-feeders, and rely on processes such as fronts and upwellings at the shelf break to concentrate prey at the surface where feeding occurs.  Albatross, shearwaters and storm-petrels are abundant as we head further out on our sampling lines.  

birds on the dock
Pelagic cormorants and black-legged kittiwakes sit on the dock in Seward prior to our departure.
black-footed albatross
A black-footed albatross. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

Dan’s experience on the LTER study is helpful in that he can comment on both changes he sees from the spring, summer and fall cruises but also over the past several years.  For example, in winter 2015-16, a large die-off event of common murres was observed in Alaska following an extreme warming event called “the blob” in the North Pacific.  The murre die off was due to starvation from lack of forage fish availability.  A question of the LTER study is how is the ocean chemistry, primary production, and zooplankton abundance tied to events such as this. Today, the murre numbers have not completely rebounded in the NGA and other species, such as the short-tailed shearwater are beginning to experience die-offs in the Bristol Bay area.   In addition to shifts in bird populations, fish that frequent warmer waters, have been observed in the NGA, such as the ocean sunfish.  Dan spotted one on this trip along our Middleton line swimming at the surface near a flock of albatross. 

The fall survey is occurring when birds are preparing for harsh winter conditions or long migrations.  We have spotted a few birds already changing to a winter plumage, which can make identification that much more challenging.  As the strong September storms hit us, it is amazing to watch the birds handle the strong winds and driving rain.  Last night as we worked on our nightly plankton tow a gale blew up around us.  The winds picked up to 30 knots and the seas began to build to 10 feet, and the aptly named storm-petrels kept us entertained.  At one point, we turned around and one had accidently gotten to close and seemingly stunned itself by hitting the back deck.  We watched as it shook off the confusion and again took flight into the storm. 

fork-tailed storm petrel
A fork-tailed storm petrel. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

One of the exciting things about Dan’s job and my time observing with him was the sightings of rare and endangered species.  Just off of Cape Cleare, as I sat on the flying bridge with Dan, I heard him exclaim, “no way!” as he grabbed his camera for some shots.  After a few quiet moments, he shared that he had officially has his first sighting a Manx shearwater.  The Manx shearwater has a primary range in the Atlantic Ocean, with rare but regular (1-2 per year) sightings in the NGA.  There currently are no confirmed breeding locations identified in the Pacific Ocean. Every new sighting adds to our limited understanding of this small and mysterious population. Another exciting observation, although more frequent for Dan, was the short-tailed albatross.  This beautiful bird, with its bubble-gum pink bill, is currently critically endangered, with a global population of only about 4000.  The good news is that the population is currently rebounding from extremely low numbers. 

short-tailed albatross
A short-tailed albatross. Picture credit: Dan Cushing

Dan has not only done an amazing job as an observer but also as a teacher.  He has helped me identify the birds as we see them and given me tips on how to hone in on particular species.  In addition to this, he has supplied me with amazing facts about so many of the species, I am in awe of his knowledge, patience and his skill as a seabird and mammal observer.

Cara observing
I am getting better at identifying northern fulmars on a beautiful evening on the flying bridge.


Personal Log

One of the biggest questions I had (as well as my students) prior to my trip, was how would I handle sea sickness.  I must say for a person who used to get sea sick snorkeling, I am thrilled to announce that I am sea sickness free.  After riding through three strong gales with 12+ seas and 35-40 knot winds without any major problems, I think I’m in the clear.  I owe a lot of it to consistent Bonine consumption!

Additionally, I would say I officially have my sea legs on. I have gotten really good at working, walking, eating, typing, and my brushing my teeth in high seas as the boat tosses about.  One of my favorite phrases is when Captain John says, “the seas are going to get a bit snappy.” I asked him what he meant by this and he explained that snappy means the waves are sharp and about 8-12 feet in height in contrast to the swells.  They hit the ship with a snap that causes it to vibrate, rather than just allowing it to slowly roll over them. 

A last thing that has surprised me on this trip so far is the warm weather.  I am typically always cold and was worried about how I would manage working outside on the nightshift in the elements.  The weather, despite intermittent storms has remained surprisingly warm and with our mustang suits and rain gear, we have remained mostly dry.  Almost daily we have had the pleasure of a beautiful ocean sunset, a full moon rising and stars over our heads.  Now we are just crossing our fingers for some northern lights to grace our presence.

sunset
Another sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!


Animals Seen from the Flying Bridge

Mammals:

Fin whale
Humpback whale
Dall’s porpoise
Harbor porpoise
Stellar sea lion
Harbor seal
Sea otter

Birds:

Greater scaup
White-winged scoter
Sandhill crane
Red-necked phalarope
Red phalarope
South polar skua
Pomarine jaeger
Parasitic jaeger
Commone murre
Thick-billed murre
Pigeon guillemot
Marbled murrelet
Ancient murrelet
Parakeet auklet
Horned puffin
Tufted puffin
Black-legged kittiwake
Mew gull
Herring gull
Glaucous-winged gull
Arctic tern
Pacific loon
Common loon
Laysan albatross
Black-footed albatross
Short-tailed albatross
Fork-tailed storm-petrel
Northern fulmar
Buller’s shearwater
Short-tailed shearwater
Sooty shearwater
Flesh-footed shearwater
Manx shearwater
Red-footed booby
Double-crested cormorant
Red-faced cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Great blue heron
Northern harrier
Bald eagle
Merlin

Mark Van Arsdale: Flexibility, September 5, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 27, 2018

Mission: Long-Term Ecological Research in the North Gulf of Alaska, aka The Seward Line Transects

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 5, 2018

Latitude: 61.3293° N
Longitude: 149.5680° W
Air Temperature: 60° F
Sky: Clear

Logistics Log

When I read the instructions for my application to NOAA Teacher at Sea, they emphasized the necessity for flexibility.  Alaskans, in my mind, epitomize flexibility.  The climate demands it.   When the weather changes, you have to adjust to it.  Not doing so can put you or others at risk.

My original cruise should have departed this weekend into the Bering Sea, but NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson developed problems with its propulsion system. Rather than sailing this research cruise, she will be in Kodiak under repair. I was pretty bummed when I got the news, but I really feel for all of those PhD students whose thesis projects needed the data from that trip.

RV Tiglax

RV Tiglax

The wonderful folks at NOAA told me that they were working on a new assignment, most likely in Southeastern US.  I tried to wait patiently, but I was thinking about how much I wanted to teach Alaskan kids about the ocean just a few miles from them.  Meanwhile, I had to cancel my substitute teacher.  My sub has done some biological fieldwork, and when I talked to him he was very understanding.  The funny thing was I got an email from his wife the next day, saying that she might have a berth for me.  It turns out she works for the North Pacific Research Board and was familiar with most of the fisheries and ecological research going on in coastal Alaska.  The berth was on the R/V Tiglax  (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle).  The Tiglax is not a NOAA vessel.  It is owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and operated jointly by the National Science Foundation.  NOAA Teacher at Sea does occasionally partner with other organizations.  After a few days of waiting, I was told that this cruise met the NOAA Teacher at Sea criteria.

Bringing an end to my long logistical story, I leave Monday on a trip into the Gulf of Alaska for seventeen days aboard the Tiglax.

Science Log

The science behind my new project is pretty exciting.  The Seward Line Transects have been run every summer since 1997 – every May and every September.  Weather permitting, we will repeat the Seward Line Transect (seen below in black) along with four other transects.  Each transect begins at a near shore location and makes it past the edge of the continental shelf into the deep waters of the Pacific.  At each transect station, water is collected using a CTD to test the physical and chemical properties of the water at that location.  A variety of plankton collection nets will be also be deployed.   One of these sampling stations (GAK-1) has been sampled continuously for plankton and water chemistry for forty-eight years, representing an incredible wealth of long term ecological data.

Here is Caitlin Smoot (who will be on board with me) talking about how Zooplankton is collected aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, another vessel that operates in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log

The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project

The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project

My job will be working the night shift, helping to collect plankton.  I go out of my way in all of my classes to look at plankton.  I even wrote a lab using diatoms to investigate a suspicious drowning death for my forensic science class. I’ve been collecting and examining freshwater plankton around my home in Eagle River, Alaska with my science classes for years, but rarely have I gotten to look at marine plankton.  I’m excited to learning how plankton is collected at sea and how those collections are used to calculate relative abundance of plankton in the Gulf of Alaska from these samples.

In my classroom, I am always on the look out for how to better connect students to the science I am teaching.  I’ve taught Oceanography for fifteen years but never been on an oceanographic cruise.  I am hopeful this trip gives me a depth of experience that my students will benefit from.

As I get closer, I am not without some anxieties.  I’m the very definition of a morning person, so working the night shift is going to be an adjustment.  Just being aboard the Tiglax is going to be an adjustment.  At a length of 120 feet, the Tiglax is a small research vessel with pretty limited facilities and no Internet connection.  I’ve been in a lot of boats, but I don’t recall ever being beyond the sight of land.  Those transect lines go way out into the ocean, and I wonder what it will feel like to be 150 miles from shore.

Did You Know?

The average depth of the ocean approaches 3,700 meters (12,000 feet.) The Seward Line transect begins in water only 100 meters deep and moves into water greater than 4000 meters in depth.