NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
July 6 – August 2, 2017
Mission: HICEAS Cetacean Study
Geographic Area: South of Oahu, heading toward the Big Island
Current Location: 20.20 N 156.37 W
Date: July 8, 2017
Weather Data From the Bridge:
Science and Technology Log
We have arrived! Today members of the incoming crew on Oscar Elton Sette picked me up from Waikiki and we made our way over to Ford Island for training. The HICEAS study is seven “legs” long, each lasting about a month with a one week break in between legs – ours is the first “leg” of the mission, and the training took place for all scientists and crew who would be traveling and conducting research through any of the four parts of the mission. In August and September, two of the legs will run simultaneously, so the project is significant in size with respect to time, manpower, and data collection. We had a very full house of various research teams, some of which will overlap among the various legs of the trip. The full crew is a tight family, with hugs and greetings all around during breaks and meal times. How nice to know that leaving for 28 days (some of them longer) doesn’t necessarily mean leaving your family.
During training, scientists reviewed procedural protocols to follow for different species sightings and learned the protocol changes for a few other species. The primary target for this particular leg of the HICEAS is pseudorca, or False Killer Whale. They are a socially interesting bunch – a little reminiscent of the hallways at Cherokee Trail High School. Whereas most whale species travel as a “class” in one large group all together, pseudorca behave as though all day every day is passing period. The entire group of pseudorca may travel together (similar to being in school all day), but they don’t all congregate together in the same location. They are a rather “cliquey” bunch – with smaller groups milling about together on their own in different corners of the main group but all keeping at least somewhat in eyesight or earshot of the other groups. Because of this, scientists must identify the group, and then each individual subgroup, making note of any groups that join up or split apart. We haven’t spotted any pseudorca yet, but with some time, talent, and a little luck, we will soon!
In a broad sense, the search for cetaceans on a daily basis is executed a little something like this: Three mammal observers take their positions at port (left), center, and starboard (right) on the “flying” bridge – or the topmost deck of the ship. There is also a space reserved just right of center for the Seabird observers. Each observer will rotate through these three positions for a total of a two-hour shift. If, for example, an observer begins at the port side “Big Eye” station, they will scan the water in search of cetaceans for 40 minutes from that position, rotate to the center, and then finally to the starboard side. Where does the starboard side observer go when he or she has completed the rotation? There’s plenty to do onboard and to help with until the next two-hour rotation begins. There are two seabird observers working alongside the mammal observing team, and they alternate in two-hour rotations, so only one bird observer is on the flying bridge at a time in an official capacity. All visual observers work from sunrise to sunset.
Each position at the marine mammal observation area is responsible for visually sweeping the ocean’s surface during observations. The two side observers are only responsible for scanning from 0 degrees (the bow of the ship) to 90 degrees to their direct left on the port side, or direct right on the starboard side. They use a very imposing pair of binoculars called the “Big Eyes” to scan their respective areas. These binoculars are impressive in size and abilities. They can bring even the smallest birds far on the horizon into sharp focus. The center observer does not have Big Eyes, but stands ready to take data if there is a sighting. He or she can scan the area in general, but the big eyes offer much more detailed observation abilities at a much greater distance. The center observer is also responsible for keeping time on the rotations, monitoring the weather, the sun’s position in the sky, and Beaufort sea state.
While the visual observers are on the flying bridge, two scientists work in the acoustics lab to listen for cetacean vocalizations. The two groups work in parallel universes, but only the acousticians can cross dimensions. In other words, if the visuals see cetaceans, they can tell the acoustics about what they are seeing, but if the acoustics scientists hear vocalizations, they will not tell the observers. More often than not, the acousticians will hear clicks, whistles, and moans from the acoustics lab well before the visuals make a sighting, because the acoustics team has a large advantage over the visuals team. The visuals team is restricted to what they can see at the surface, and the acoustics team can “see” many miles away and deeply into the water column, which significantly increases their volume of searchable space.
When the acousticians “see” or hear a vocalization, they plot the distance from the ship. They continue to listen for vocalizations and continue with the plots. Eventually, they have enough data to narrow down the potential location of the cetacean to two spots. This process is not unlike earthquake triangulation, except the observers can narrow down the location to two spots, rather than just one. There will be much more to come as to how this process works in future blogs, so stay tuned!
At the end of training today, Dawn, one of the ornithologists (that’s a seabird “pro”) informed us of the third and far lesser-known Pearl Harbor Memorial, USS Utah. Utah was the very first ship capsized by Japanese bombs on the early morning of December 7th, 1941. Found on the opposite side of the island from USS Arizona, the Utah is only accessible by folks who have military clearance to get on the base, making the memorial incredibly secluded from exposure to the general public. Utah took 64 lives with her when she sank, and a small monument now stands on the shore as a memento to the crew lost that fateful morning. What makes Utah interesting is that she still stands partially above water, her mangled and rusted metal piercing through the water’s surface like the grasping hand of a drowning sailor. There was a brief attempt by the military to right and raise her, but it proved futile, and they made the call to leave her remains be. Her finest and final duty is to serve her watch over the men caught in her belly on the day she fell prey to the Axis forces.
Utah found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time on the morning of December 7. She was moored on a pier normally reserved for aircraft carriers, and her flat and shiny deck betrayed her identity to the incoming Japanese pilots. Due to this mistaken identity, the Japanese attacked her on appearance, and she capsized almost instantly. More interesting is that much like the beginning of a bad cop movie, she was nearing her retirement. She was in port awaiting her execution date, friendly-fire style, her technological abilities waning and falling out of favor compared to the newer commissioned ships. Her final resting place was originally supposed to be somewhere in the Pacific as a victim of a practice bombing drill by the Air Force. The Japanese pilots got to her first. She wasn’t even at work that day.
Utah was built in 1909 and commissioned in 1911, the second of two Florida-class battleships built for service during World War I. After a long stint in the service as a battleship, the Utah was re-appropriated as an auxillary ship for gunnery training and target practice for the allied forces. On the day of the attack, the aircraft carriers that should have been in-port at the time were out to sea, and so Utah moored in one of the empty spaces intended to be held by the aircraft carriers. In the confusion of the attack, it was determined that Utah was a carrier, and the Japanese navy opened fire. The Chief Water Tender, Peter Tomich, served bravely as he assisted crew in their evacuations when the abandon ship call came over the ship’s systems. While everyone was running off the ship, Tomich was running back onboard. He lost his life in that selfless move and is remembered as a hero of the day.
Today Utah sits idly close to shore alongside what used to be a dock. Her neighbor is NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, and just a little further up the harbor, our ship, Oscar Elton Sette. It was sobering honor to be so close to the memorial before we left port, and though USS Utah is one of the smaller memorials on Ford Island, I certainly will not forget her.
Number of cetaceans seen visually: 0 so far
Number/types of cetaceans “seen” acoustically:
*Blainsville’s Beaked Whale
Red Footed Booby
Brown Footed Booby
Land Bird who shouldn’t have been out so far in the ocean (so possibly my spirit animal). Let’s hope he eventually finds his way home.