Alexandra Keenan: Watching for Whales, June 21, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – June 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 21, 2012

Weather data from the bridge:
Air temperature: 15.84° C
Wind speed: 7.42 knots
Wind direction: coming from N
Relative Humidity 94.9%

Science and Technology Log:

We departed from Naval Station Newport (NAVSTA) shortly after 2:00 pm on June 18th. During our first three full days at sea, we have been intermittently retrieving marine acoustic recording units (MARUs–more on this later) and recording whale sightings on Georges Bank.

Georges Bank is an elevated area of sea floor extending from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia. This special place is a feeding ground for cetaceans because the topography and position of the bank result in an upwelling of nutrient-rich water which supports a high level of productivity.

Our day begins at 7:30 am when we begin watch sessions.  Every hour and a half, we rotate through three stations. Scientists at two stations use high-power binoculars, dubbed “big eyes,” while a scientist at another station records sightings.

sighting data entry

Peter Duley enters data from a sighting on the fly bridge.

big eyes

Me on the “big eyes” scanning for whales.

The following information is recorded for each sighting:

  • species
  • position of animal relative to the ship
  • distance of animal from ship
  • number of animals in the group
  • calves (if present)
  • animal behavior (porpoising, swimming, breaching, etc.)
  • swim direction

Environmental conditions and ship position data are recorded concurrently. All of this data can then be used together to monitor certain species and to create statistical models of whale populations.

In this area, we expect to see humpback, sei, fin, pilot, and right whales. In order to distinguish species while on watch, we must take into account a few important characteristics:

Spout: The spout is a column of moist air emitted from the whale’s nostril (blowhole) on its back as it exhales. Right whales and humpbacks have short, bushy spouts, while fin and sei whales have tall, columnar spouts. If the wind is strong, it can be hard to distinguish them. Luckily, there are a couple of other ways to identify whales  from a distance.

Dorsal fin: This is the fin on the whale’s back behind the blowhole. Right whales do not have dorsal fins, and humpback whales have a bit of an extra “hump” on their dorsal fin. Fin and sei whales are slightly more tricky to distinguish. The best way to distinguish them is to recognize that the dorsal fin on a sei whale is taller than on a fin whale. There is also a white coloration pattern forward of the dorsal fin on a fin whale called a chevron. Sei whales do not have these. Fin whales also have white markings on their lower jaws, which sei whales do not have.

Fluke: The fluke is the whale’s “tail.” Humpbacks and right whales show their flukes more often than the others when they dive. Right whales have a very smooth black fluke, while humpback whales have more deeply notched flukes that can range in color from all white to all black.

So far on this cruise we have seen: humpback whales, pilot whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, sperm whales, common dolphins, white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, striped dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, mola-mola, and a Portuguese man o’ war.

No right whales yet, though tomorrow we plan to cross the Great South Channel in order to retrieve more MARUs, with a possibility of a sighting there. There was also an aerial survey over Georges Basin– the extreme northern edge of George’s Bank– today that reported 12 right whales. We hope to see plenty before the cruise is over, as right whales are the species targeted for biopsy and photo-identification on this mission.

Common Atlantic white sided dolphin

Dozens of common dolphins surrounded the ship on June 19th.

dolphins near ship

Dolphins playing around the ship.

Listening to dolphins

Genevieve Davis records dolphin whistles using the ship’s hydrophone as I listen on headphones.

From the starboard 01 weatherdecks (the decks on the right side of the boat when facing forward), I was able to hear the dolphins whistling to each other as they played around the ship on June 19th. Scientists Denise Risch and Genevieve Davis recorded their acoustics using a hydrophone mounted on the ship’s centerboard.

Personal Log:

Henry B. Bigelow

Galley stores are loaded on to Henry B. Bigelow just before departure.

Seeing the Bigelow from my cab as we drove onto the pier on June 17th was a bit of a shock for me. I didn’t realize quite how huge it was going to be. As I sauntered up the gangway with my backpack, I thought there was no way I could get seasick on a ship this big. My confidence grew as we left port on the 18th and I felt fine. By the end of the next day (our first full day at sea), though, I was looking for a rock to hide under. A stationary rock.

Happily, today felt great. I feel like my normal self again, have gotten into the swing of things aboard, and know my way around the ship. Everyone here has been exceptionally welcoming and nice which made the seasickness easy to forget. Tonight the ship had a summer solstice party on the flybridge. The weather was absolutely beautiful– complete with an orange sunset and glassy seas.

survival suit

Me in my survival suit during an abandon ship drill.

Overall, things are going great here. The ship is  comfortable, the food is delicious, and the whale sightings have been absolutely incredible. I could get used to this.

The video below is a short tour of my stateroom.

Happy sailing!