Kelly Dilliard: Individual Right Whale Identification, May 19, 2105

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship 
Gordon Gunter
May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 19, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air pressure: 1010.60 mb
Air Temperature: 11.3 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 96%
Wind Speed: 16 knots
Wind Direction: 182 degrees

Science and Technology Log:

Today will look at how to identify individual right whales.  Right whales, as many other whale species, have several physical characteristics that are specific to unique individuals.  Scientists use photo-identification to distinguish individuals, taking photographs of the unique characteristics and then comparing them to past photographs in a catalog.  This allows the scientist to know if the individual has been seen before and the where and when of those sightings.  Scientists can then monitor populations of whales through time and space.

Right whales are identified by their distinct pattern of callosities on the upper part of their heads.  Callosities consist of rough, calcified patches of skin, are grey in color, but often contain colonies of whale lice, barnacles, and parasitic worms that all give the callosities a white color.  Callosities form a unique pattern along the top of the rostrum, behind the blow holes, on the lips, along the jawline and above the eyes of every right whale making this pattern extremely useful to scientists trying to photo-identify specific whales.  Even newborn calves contain a unique callosity pattern.  Another interesting fact is that male right whales have a higher density than females.

Right whale callosities (image from WHOI).

How does this work?  Scientists out on a research ship or on aerial surveys take high-resolution photographs with large telescopic lenses.  These photographs are time stamped and the location is noted.  They then making drawings of the callosities pattern and determines a series of codes that describes the callosity pattern and other identifying marks.  They then try to match the pattern to known individuals within a computer database (The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog –

Right whales taken from an aerial survey. (Image from NE Aquarium).

Callosity patterns typically occur on the top of the head and can be characterized as “continuous” or “broken”.  A continuous pattern means that the callosities exist between the blowhole all the way to the tip of the head.  Broken callosities look patchy.  According to the New England Aquarium website on Right Whale Callosity Pattern Identification, 60 percent of right whales have a broken pattern.  Callosities can also occur around the lip, around the eye, and behind the blowhole.

Right whale callosities pattern, looks continuous with 2 symmetrical peninsulas. (photo of right whale in Florida from

Categories of callosity patterns have been established and they are given codes, such as B6 – broken, two islands with the left island forward.  These categories describe the spatial relationships of the callosities, specifically the number of “islands” and their relationship to each other in whales with a “broken” pattern and the number and relative position of “peninsulas” or bulges on a “continuous” pattern.  Unfortunately, whale lice, or cyamid, can move around giving the appearance of callosity in places it does not exist and making these animals difficult to individually identify.

Sketch of callosities pattern

Sketch of callosities patterns from continuous with peninsulas to broken with islands.

Callosities pattern on a right whale with a composite code of C11 which indicates that there are four asymmetrical peninsulas.  (Image from NE Aquarium website, photo taken under NOAA permit 775-1600)

Other identifying marks are also used.  These can include: ridges along the lower lip, white patches on the belly and chin, a dip in the head seen in profile, erosion of the callosity at the front of the head or bonnet known as “tooth decay”, white blow holes, white fluke tips, and gray lines behind blow holes.  Other important identifying marks are scars.  These scars come from anthropogenic causes (entanglements in fishing gear, being hit by ships, etc…) and from other animals (bite marks from cookiecutter sharks or lamprey which leave behind a circular scar to attacks by killer whales).

Right whale fluke and if you look closely you can see a round mark made by a cookiecutter shark.

Right whale fluke and if you look closely you can see a round, light-colored mark made by a cookiecutter shark.

The New England Aquarium has a wonderful website about right whale photo-identification as well as pages on identification codes (see link NE Aquarium).  They also have a right whale photo-identification game (see link NE Aquarium Online Games).

Yesterday (Monday, May 18th) was the first day that we saw right whales up close and were able to photograph them from the ship.  Corey Accardo was behind the camera and captured many good photographs.  Four individual right whales were seen.

Corey taking photographs for photo-identification of right whales.

Corey taking photographs for photo-identification of right whales.

Corey taking more photographs and Hansen taking notes and helping her see.

Corey taking more photographs and Hansen taking notes and helping her see.

Personal Log:

I was surprised with how easy it was to acclimate to life on the ship.  Of course the main reason it was pain free was that everyone, crew and scientists, are so friendly.  It has been wonderful getting to know the scientists and some of the crew that I have met so far.  I am intrigued with how everyone came to be on this ship, the Gordon Gunter.

I was a bit nervous about sea-sickness since I am prone to getting car sick.  Luckily I have fared pretty well.  I have taken to heart the suggestions for combating sea-sickness by drinking plenty of fluids and munching on dry foods.  I have occasionally taken BONiNE for motion sickness and they seem to help when I look through the binoculars.  The boat does rock and roll a bit and sometimes in bed you are being rocked side-to-side or back to forward.  It can be occasionally soothing, like a being a baby rocked to sleep.

One thing that will never happen on this ship is starving.  The food is amazing.  We have at least four or five entry choices at both lunch and dinner as well a full salad bar.  We have had lasagna, pizza, all sorts of fish, chicken parmigiana, Brazilian steak, chicken cordon bleu, vegetable curry, and vegetable lo mein to name a few.  As well as made to order hamburgers, gyros, and Philly cheese steaks.  There are always two different desserts from cookies, to pies, to banana fritters, to homemade custard.  I did not even mention the assorted condiments, including jellies from the Philippines.  There is a very large selection of hot teas, cereals, and breads.  I think I am going to gain weight.  Margaret, the head steward, is a wonder.

A portion of the mess.  you can see all of the selections of cereals in the background.

A portion of the mess. you can see all of the selections of cereals in the background.

Kelly Dilliard: Day 1 and 2, May 17, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship
 Gordon Gunter
May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 17, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Pressure:  1018.34 millibars
Air Temperature: 11.3 degrees C
Wet Bulb Temperature: 11.0 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 97%
Wind Speed: 10.4 knots
Wind Direction: 33. 69 degrees

Science and Technology Log

The Right Whale cruise that I am on has several objectives.  The main objective is to collect photo identification and biopsy samples of baleen whales, specifically Right Whales and Sei Whales, and apply dermal tags to the whales via small boats (RHIB = Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) launched from the stern on the Gordon Gunter.

Once the targeted whales are tagged, a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) will conduct oceanography sampling around the tagged whales using a CTD (which measures conductivity, temperature, and depth).  The CTD will be deployed every 20 minutes for as long as the tag stays on the whale and will collect vertical profile data including conductivity, temperature, depth, and information about zooplankton using a video plankton recorder (VPR) and an optical plankton counter (OPC).

Zooplankton will also be sampled via ring nets off the ship or the small boats.  Another objective is to do visual scans and report observations from the observation deck via large binoculars referred to as “big eyes”.  These observations will be tied into acoustical data being collected by two autonomous vehicles, referred to as gliders, which are surveying the Great South Channel, and sonabouys that can be deployed from the ship or small boats.  The gliders can detect and classify the calls of various baleen whales almost in real time.  Today let’s talk about identification of various marine mammals that we have seen and might see on this cruise.  In future blogs we will look into the acoustics of marine mammals and zoo plankton.

Every day there is a watch schedule with three scientists on watch at once, unless there is fog, and then there is only one monitoring the weather.  These scientists stand above the bridge with two big eyes, one on the port side (left) and one on the starboard side (right).  The third scientist is stationed at the computer inputting sightings.

Via the big eyes, you can record the bearing of the sighting, somewhere between 270 and 90 degrees, and the distance of the sighting, in reticles.  The binoculars are at 25 power, that is an object looks 25 times larger than seen with the naked eye.  The scientists are on the half hour rotation between the three stations, starting with the port side, then the computer, then starboard side.  Watch starts at 6 am and ends at 8 pm (or until it gets dark).  Data collected for a sighting includes the type of animal (right whale, sei whale, minke whale, unidentified dolphin, unidentified whale, etc…), number seen, number of calves, swim direction, certainty of identification, and what was the indicator (blow, breach, body…).  So in order to help out with watch, one needs to learn how to recognize the different species that one might see.

Me standing at the big eyes scope on watch.  (photo taken by Divya )

Me standing at the big eyes scope on watch. (photo taken by Divya Panicker)

The target species of the cruise are North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), which are an endangered species and are protected under both the U.S Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Right whales are identified by: their “V” shaped blow, a large head with an arched jaw, black and white patterns on the head (callosities are the white), and no dorsal fin or hump.

North Atlantic Right Whale drawing. Note the curved jaw and the white callosities. (image from Duke University – OBIS Seamap)

Another targeted species are sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), which are another endangered species.  Sei whales are large whales reaching almost 19.5 meters (64 feet) long.  Sei whales are identified by: their pointed head with one ridge, a tall dorsal fin, and seeing the blow and the dorsal fin at the same time.

Sei whale drawing (from BBC news).

Other whales include humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales.  Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are identified by: knobs on their head, white or black undersides (ventral), a low dorsal fin with a broad base that can have distinct nicks or scarring, an S-shaped fluke with a distinct notch, and unique white or black coloring on the ventral side of their fluke.  Humpback whales also tend to breach (come up out of the water) and flap their tails and flippers.  Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are commonly mistaken for Sei Whales and vice versa.

Luckily the data collected usually groups the two whales, fin/sei.  Fin whales have a dorsal fin that sits far back, like a sei whale.  They have a lower, white right jaw and a chevron pattern behind their blowhole.  Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) have a pointed head with a ridge, they are small in size, and have a pointed fluke.  Their blow is not usually seen.  Other marine mammals that can be seen include dolphins (various species) and seals.

Humback whale

Drawing of a humpback whale courtesy of NOAA Fisheries: West Coast Region.

Fin whale drawing. (Image from University of California – San Diego)

Minke whale drawing. (image from NOAA PMEL Acoustics Program)

Personal Log

Today is day three on the ship.  We set sail from Newport, RI on Friday at 5 pm and headed towards the Great South Channel, which is located to the southeast of Cape Cod between the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank.  Both the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank are remnants of past glaciations and have been subsequently modified by marine transport.  The Great South Channel provides a link between the Gulf of Maine and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and is funnel-shaped with a wider and deeper end toward the north and the Gulf of Maine.  Water flowing in the channel results in the upwelling of nutrients and zooplankton that whales, especially right whales, like to feed on.  The autonomous acoustic gliders picked up signals of whales in the area so we headed towards those waypoints.

Map of Great South Channel

Bathymetric map showing the location of the Great South Channel with reference to the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank. The ship path is shown in red (map is from Saturday, May 16th).

We had a beautiful day on Saturday, May 16th.  We woke up to glassy water and blue skies.  The watch started around lunchtime and we had an active day of spotting whales and other marine animals.  We saw humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales and sei whales.  We also saw lots of dolphins playing, a seal or two and some basking sharks.  Towards the later afternoon/early evening we came across a group of sei whales and we stopped the ship to observe.  A sonabouy was deployed in the midst of the whales.  It was a fun experience watching these whales swim around the sonabouy for hours (marked by a small orange blow-up float).  Last light, three of the scientists saw two right whales, recognized by their distinct V-shaped blow.

Sei whales

Sei whales swimming around the orange float of the deployed sonabuoy.  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number 17355.)

In the middle of the afternoon we performed the safety drills, including mustering on the correct deck with our life jacket and immersion suit, also known as the “gumby suit”.  We then went back to our rooms and had to put on our “gumby suit” in under a minute, without assistance.  This is not an easy feat and after doing it once with a large size (which was way to big for me), I had to do it again with a small size.

Gumby suit

Me in a “gumby suit”. (Photo taken by Suzanne Yin)

Sunday, May 17th, we woke to the ships’ foghorn.  We had fog for most of the morning and off and on during the day.  When fog occurs the person who would normally be on the computer (the center) is stationed up on the bridge observing the weather.  I was a bit intimidated about going on the bridge, but once there had some wonderful conversations with the Captain and several of the crew.  I ended up spending an hour and half up there (well past my shift).  Today was not as active with whales, but we saw several dolphins playing off the bow of the ship.

Whale #1

Whale #1  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Whale #2

Whale #2  (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Whale #3

Whale #3 (Images taken under permit NEFSC MMPA number (17355)

Joan Le, TowCam & Crew, August 13, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Off the coast of Fenwick Island, Maryland
Date: August 13, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 24°
Wind Direction: 294
Weather Conditions: Mostly Sunny
Latitude: 38° 33.1870′
Longitude: 73° 10.9734′

Science and Technology Log

Week 2 started for me as it has for the past few days, at midnight. The camera was already on the seafloor taking pictures of Wilmington Canyon off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland when I arrived. It was the longest dive we’ve completed, spanning almost 10 hours of tow time. TowCam took us through some interesting terrain, and I’m excited to take a look at the new images she’s caught for us.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen prepares TowCam for its first dive.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen prepares TowCam for its first dive.

In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with TowCam these past few days. I’ve grown curious about where she’s been, where she’s going, and what she does when she’s not here on the Bigelow. Turns out, TowCam is well-travelled, and far from a one-trick pony.

TowCam’s Cam, Travels, and Talents

TowCam's camera is protected at depth by its sturdy casing.

TowCam’s camera is protected at depth by its sturdy casing.

This Nikon D7000 is a high-end off-the-shelf DSLR camera that has been modified to operate remotely. It can dive to depths of 6,000 meters thanks to its titanium casing made by Ocean Imaging Systems, which has a high strength-to-weight ratio. It streams low resolution images in real-time and can hold over 5,000 high resolution (16 MegaPixel) images to be retrieved after each tow.

TowCam has worked all over the world, at depths ranging from shallow coastal waters to 6,000 meters. Getting there requires a lot of planning and some interesting travel plans. TowCam arrived ready for deployment on the Bigelow by way of a flatbed truck from nearby Woods Hole, Massachusetts. But she is also no stranger to long journeys on freighter ships across the sea.

Besides taking beautiful pictures of deep-sea coral, TowCam can also “slurp” biological samples, take CTD data (salinity/conductivity, temperature, and depth), dissolved oxygen, turbidity (visibility), and collect water samples.

Click on each of the images below to learn more about each component of TowCam.

TowCam is owned by the Multidisciplinary Instrumentation in Support of Oceanography (MISO) which is a facility of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). During the planning of this cruise, Senior Scientist Dr. Fornari, an expert in deep-sea imaging, was contacted to discuss using the TowCam on this expedition. WHOI contracted the TowCam engineers from Seafloor Investigations, LLC (SFI) to operate the system, bringing Mr. Kurras and Dr. Christiansen and out to the Bigelow.

TowCam Crew

The TowCam narrative could hardly be considered complete without a brief word on TowCam’s operators. Without them, we could only guess at the wildlife beneath our feet. Dr. Lizet Christiansen and Gregory Kurras of SFI joined us from California and Hawaii respectively, and are an incredibly important part of the research team. Both spend much of their careers at sea studying the ocean floor as geophysicists, and own businesses back home. Kurras owns SFI, and Dr. Christiansen owns Gear & Grind Cafe in Tahoe City, where customers are treated to pour-over coffee and locally-made ice cream.

Personal Log

I’m still having a tough time adjusting to the midnight-noon schedule, but I’ll tell you why. Any time I can’t sleep, I get up and see something beautiful like this:

 If you look closely, you can see two Pilot Whales swimming just below the surface. Who could sleep through that?


Beverly Owens: Science on Board NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow, June 18, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Beverly Owens
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 10 – 24, 2013

Mission:  Deep-Sea Corals and Benthic Habitat: Ground-Truthing and Exploration in Deepwater Canyons off the Northeastern Coast of the U.S.
Geographical Area: Western North Atlantic
Date: June 18, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air temperature: 13.50 oC (56.3 oF)
Wind Speed: 20.05 knots (23.07mph)

Science and Technology Log

Teacher at Sea Beverly Owens, and Dewey the Dragon at the Helm

Teacher at Sea Beverly Owens, and Dewey the Dragon at the Helm

On a research vessel such as NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow, does the ship support the science? Or are the ship’s activities separate from those of the Science Crew?  I didn’t realize how much the Ship’s Crew and the Science Crew worked hand-in-hand until I toured the Bridge.

First off, the ship is what’s known as an FSV. What does FSV stand for? FSV stands for Fisheries Survey Vessel. The primary responsibility of the Henry B. Bigelow is to study and monitor the marine fisheries stocks throughout New England (the Northeastern section of the United States). There are many scientific instruments aboard the Henry B. Bigelow that allow crew members and visiting science teams to do this and other work.

The ship has multiple labs that can be used for many purposes. The acoustics lab has many computers and can be used for modeling data collected from multibeam sonar equipment.  The chemistry lab is equipped with plentiful workspace, an eyewash, emergency shower, and fume hood. Our TowCam operations are being run from the dry lab. This space has nine computers displaying multiple data sets. We have occupied the counter space with an additional eight personal laptops; all used for different purposes such as examining TowCam images or inputting habitat data. The wet lab is where the collection sorting, and filtering take place. It is used during fisheries expeditions to process and examine groundfish.  During our research expedition, the wet lab is used mostly for staging TowCam operations. We also process sediment and water samples that were collected from the seafloor.  Sediment is collected using a vacuum-like apparatus called a slurp pump; water is collected in a Niskin bottle.  The sediment is sieved and any animals are saved for later examination.  Water samples are also filtered there, to remove particulate matter that will be used to determine the amount of food in the water column.

Walking around the ship, I noticed a psychrometer set, which is used to monitor relative humidity, or moisture content in the air. There is also a fluorometer, which measures light emitted from chlorophyll in photosynthetic organisms like algae or phytoplankton. The CTD system measures physical properties of the ocean water including conductivity/salinity, temperature, and depth. Additionally, the ship has a thermosalinograph (therm = heat, salin = salt, graph = write). Saltwater is taken into the ship and directed toward this instrument, which records the sea surface salinity and sea surface temperature.

The crew of the Henry B. Bigelow not only supports the research efforts of the science team but is also actively involved in conducting scientific research. Their instrumentation, knowledge, and team work enable them to protect and monitor the western North Atlantic waters and its living marine resources.

 Personal Log

Dragon on the Bridge

Dewey the Dragon is plotting the course.

Dewey the Dragon, all the way from Crest Middle School, enjoyed getting a tour of the Bridge. Dewey the Dragon learned how to steer the ship, read charts, and monitor activity using devices such as the alidade. Thanks to Ensigns Katie Doster and Aras Zygas for showing us around.

Did You Know?

Teacher at Sea, Beverly Owens, using the Alidade on the FSV Henry B. Bigelow

Teacher at Sea, Beverly Owens, using the Alidade on the FSV Henry B. Bigelow

The alidade is a device that allows people on the ship to sight far away objects, such as land. The person on the ship spots three separate points on land uses these sighting to determine the location of the ship. Alidades can also be used as a tool when making and verifying maritime charts.

Melanie Lyte: May 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Melanie Lyte
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 20 – 31, 2013

Mission: Right Whale Survey, Great South Channel
Geographical Area of Cruise: North Atlantic 
May 22, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 12.01 degrees Celsius or 54 degrees fahrenheit
Wind Speed: 8.88kts
Relative Humidity: 97%
Barometric Pressure: 1,012.42mb

Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter

Scientific crew on the Gordon Gunter
Photo credit: Mark Weekely

Science and Technology Log

(by Carl Sandburg)

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

And that’s just what we awoke to this morning – heavily clouded skies and fog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t moved on yet, and actually looks like it’s here to stay. This made visibility very poor. The fog horn had been blasting every few minutes all night so the fog didn’t come as a surprise, but was a disappointment. My first shift on watch was moved to the wheel house and we watched with the “naked eye” instead of the “big eye” (giant binoculars that are outside on the bridge).  Our primary mission is to search for right whales, but any sea life observed is recorded. I was lucky enough to see 6 white sided dolphins on my first watch after Allison Henry (chief scientist) pointed them out to me.  By mid-morning, the fog had lifted and the visibility improved. I am on 90 minute shifts from 7am-7pm with 90 minute breaks between shifts. While working we either watch for whales or record data as others watch for whales.

The scientists want to identify each whale they see. They do this by examining the unique patches of callosities the whales have on their  heads and backs. The whales’ callosities are categorized as either broken or continuous.

Callosity comparison

Diagram from New England Aquarium

They have cataloged 669 right whales using this method since they began the identification process in the late 70’s. The callosities are the same color as the whale’s skin, but appear white or yellow due to the presence of thousands of tiny crustaceans called cyamids, or “whale lice”.

Learning about dermal tags

Photo credit: Allison Henry

If we spot a right whales and the conditions are good (no fog and the seas are not too choppy) some of us will go in the “small boats” to photograph the whales, and to do a biopsy sample on the whale if it has not already been sampled.

Biopsy tag in right whale

Biopsy tag in right whale
Photo Credit: NOAA/NEFSC/Lisa Conger under Permit #775-1875

Another small boat will try to tag the whale. Tagging the whale is a sophisticated process and uses high tech equipment. Mark  Baumgartner from Woods Hole Oceanic Institute (WHOI) showed us the dermal tag he will be using on whales. He also showed us how the tagging equipment has evolved over the last few years. The tag is shot into the whale where it goes into the skin about 3 inches. It has a GPS attached to it so it can be recovered from the whale when it falls off (usually in 24 hours). The scientists can set it to come off the whale in a certain amount of time. The implantable dart stays in the whale’s skin until it eventually works its way out which they estimate to be in 3-4 weeks. This process startles the whale, but is not thought to cause them pain.

Personal Log

We have been out on the water for 24 hours at this point, and I feel like I am adjusting well to life at sea. No seasickness yet (knock on wood), and I slept very comfortably last night (I know that comes as no surprise to any of you who know the ease with which I sleep in any situation). Everyone on the ship has been very friendly and willing to share information with me. The food is excellent, with lots of vegetarian choices, great mixed greens salad, and even a pineapple upside down cake for dessert last night.

Did You Know?

Did you know that right whales are identified by the callosities on their heads and bodies?

Did you know that the North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whales? It is estimated that there are only about 470 right whales alive today.

Question of the day: What is the smallest whale in the world?

Angela Greene: “I found a Science Town… with great coffee!” April 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Angela Greene
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 29-May 11, 2013

Mission: Northern Right Whale Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean out of Woods Hole, MA
Date: April 29, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Air Temperature: 12° C or 53.6° F, Sea Temperature: 11° C or 51.8° F, Winds out of the south at 10 knots, Partly Cloudy

Woods Hole

“A day of exploring the land before the ocean.”

Science and Technology Log: Flexibility is definitely the key to success on a NOAA research cruise. I am in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Our ship, the Gordon Gunter, is having minor technical difficulties, so we are not leaving port until tomorrow morning at 8:00 am, one day later than planned. This delay gave me the opportunity to explore a town known as “Little Village, Big Science”!

Little village

“The phrase says it all!”

Woods Hole is a world center for marine, biomedical, and environmental science. Within this tiny village are two large private science organizations, the Marine Biological Laboratory (MLB), and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Also in the village are two large federal government science facilities, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In short, a science town with, not one, but two great coffee houses!

Museum alvin

“Alvin, a ship built for three!” Photo Credit: Peter Partridge, museum staff

I was able  to visit the WHOI Ocean Science Exhibit Center. This is small museum that features the work done by the “Alvin Submarine” including the exploration of hydrothermal vents, and the discovery of the Titanic. I was not familiar with Alvin, so I spent quite a bit of time at this exhibit. Alvin is a submarine that probes the depths of the oceans (all the way to the bottom!) with three scientists in a small titanium sphere. The museum has a simulation model that I was able to board.

New Alvin

“The Alvin Submarine”

Curiosity killed the cat. After leaving the museum, I set out on a quest to find the real Alvin. It seems all I have to do in this town is tell people I am the NOAA Teacher at Sea aboard the Gordon Gunter, and I am permitted to go where no other man has gone before! I. FOUND. ALVIN. Not the old Alvin, but the brand new, not even fully assembled yet, scheduled to deploy this weekend, Alvin! That’s right, folks, I was standing right in front of a scientific vehicle that will propel itself along the floor of the dark, cold ocean with three humans on board in a tiny compartment for a nine hour dive! No standing, no walking, no sunlight, and no bathroom…


“Alvin Pilot, Bruce and a fellow diver discussing the addition of fog lights!”

I met Bruce, one of the Alvin pilots, who has served on over three hundred dives. He was frantically working on the submarine actually owned by the Navy, to meet his weekend deadline. I was amazed that he not only pilots this underwater ship, but he also works on assembling it. I asked him, “What is the worst part about doing a nine hour dive in Alvin?” I was coming up with answers to my question in my own head such as, “leg cramps, claustrophobia, an unexpected need for a bathroom…” He thought a moment and said, “Nothing. There is no worst part of a dive.” He has never turned down the opportunity to dive. I knew then, that I had to figure out a way to become a “Teacher in Alvin”…


“My new Scallop Scientist Friend, Deborah, Operations Research Analyst for NOAA!” Photo Credit: Anthony L. VanCampen, Electronics Technician onboard the Gordon Gunter

Personal Log: Even though our ship hasn’t left the dock, I am already having a great time learning about so many things I never knew existed. I saw a lady walking out of a NOAA building, obviously on her way home after a long day at work. I introduced myself, once again dropping my new powerful title, and I learned that she is a “scallop scientist”! A NOAA PhD! Even though the NOAA aquarium was closed for the day, she took the time to give me a private tour. She showed me her office, shared a Powerpoint about scallop survey research with me, and gave me a scallop shell. I have collected a new scientist friend.

All aboard

“All aboard!”

Today I have learned that so many more things are possible for my students than even I had imagined. In the past I have had a few students say to me that they wanted to be marine biologists. I have made the mistake of telling them to consider limnology, the study of inland waters, because we live in a state bordered by Lake Erie. While limnology would be an amazing field of study for any Tecumseh scientist, marine biology is NOT out of our reach. I see that now. We set sail in the morning.

Sue Oltman: In Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, June 6, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sue Oltman
Aboard R/V Melville
May 22 – June 6, 2012

Location: Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands
Date: June 6, 2012

Weather Data from the Enchanted Isles (Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador)
Air temperature: 82 F (feels hotter!)
Relative humidity: 73%
Precipitation: 0.0 mm

Personal log

The NOAA research cruise is over and we are now on land, but the elements of science are simply different.

Farewell, Melville!

The view from the back deck of the Red Mangrove, where the Melville remained for a day before sailing out on its next scientific journey. I’ll miss you, Melville and crew!

The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador, on the equator and at about 90 degrees longitude west. The time is the same as Mountain Time zone in the United States. There are 12 hours between sunrise and sunset here – while my hometown is approaching the longest period of daylight of the year.

At the water taxi

We are at the water taxi area waiting for a bus to take us to our hotel.

As we sailed into the islands, we could not be all the way into the harbor as the coastline is not only too shallow for the Melville, but rocky and ecologically fragile. Ecuador carefully inspects all boats – inside and out – that enter its waters. There are so many endemic species (found only here) and some are endangered, that they are vigilant to protect against the introduction of any foreign organisms, no matter how small. The Galapagos Islands are in a fracture zone and were formed by a hot spot – an opening in the slowly moving crust which allows molten rock to rise from the mantle.  The hot spot – which changed directions at some point – has formed over 100 islands (some of them very tiny!) which comprise what is called the Galapagos Islands.

While the abundant animal life is really diverse and captivating (I’ll get to that next), the geology is beautiful as well.  There is dark volcanic rock everywhere you look!  It is even used in the walls of the buildings and sidewalks. It is mostly extrusive and mafic igneous rock, and one little island is a national preserve called Las Tintoreras, made completely out of  Aa!

Aa and mangroves at lagoon

With volcanoes in the background, the green mangroves, blue waters, black aa and white lichen makes for a very picturesque lagoon at Las Tintoreras..

Even though there is black rock everywhere, there are still beaches with the finest white sand.  Some places in the islands have red or green sand, depending on the minerals. Visiting a green sand beach is something I’d like to do, as I love rocks that have olivine.  By the way, no rocks or any other natural material can be taken out of the islands. What I was able to take away were wonderful pictures and happily, some beach glass (litter, really) to add to my collection.

pronounced pa-hoy-hoy

Among all of the aa, you can see some pahoehoe, where the mafic lava flowed and cooled differently.

The Aa is covered in a lot of white material, and since there are various birds all around, I thought it was bird droppings at first!

However, it is actually a lichen, which was able to establish itself on the nutrient-poor rock. With the process of succession, some small, low plants began to grow as have mangrove trees. Some areas look like there are lots of white pebbles, but it is actually small bits of coral or sea urchin spines – calcium carbonate. The two animals common in this particular area off of Isabella Island are white-tipped sharks (tiburones or tintoreras) and marine iguanas.  There are some lava tunnels and channels which are great places for these sharks to hang out.

white tipped shark

A white tipped shark (tiburone) is at the bottom of this clear channel (grieta.)

a grieta where the sharks can be found

The narrow channel where sharks can be seen off of Isla Isabella.

Marine iguanas are very different from terrestrial iguanas. As their name implies, they swim and they are also herbivores, eating only plants, algae in particular.  They were everywhere in all sizes, but sometimes quite hard to see until you were right on top of them, as they blended in with the black rock.

Iguana pile

There are so many of the black marine iguanas, and they blend right into the rock!

It was mating and nesting season and the males sometimes change colors, to a reddish hue, at this time.

During mating season, sometimes males change to a reddish or brown color.

If a marine iguana looks like it is wearing a white hat, this is due to their bodies excreting salt – they do live in salt water, after all! Other animals seen in this area are two species of sea lions, one a small variety that makes you think they are all babies!  Also, there is an endemic species of Galapagos penguins, much smaller than the Antarctic penguins we commonly think of.

Galapagos penguins

The only species of equatorial penguins, these little Galapagos penguins are warming up on the rocks, with their soon-to-be lunch swimming nearby.

Blue feet and a blue beak

Blue feet and a blue beak are the colorful characteristics of a blue footed booby, another of the endemic species on the Galapagos Islands.

Other birds included pelicans, frigate birds, and the Blue Footed Booby.  From the boat, you could see the animals, birds and crabs on the rocks and the larger animals (sea lions, sea turtles, sharks, manta rays) swim near the boat.  Since I was snorkeling, I was able to see all these cool creatures underwater swimming with me!  Not only that, but there were a wide variety of colorful tropical fish and some eels. Animals that didn’t move were sea cucumbers, sea urchins and some that I will have to research to identify.  Not too long ago, the sea cucumber was almost over-harvested to extinction here!  It had become an edible delicacy for a while.  However, one look at the reefs here will prove to you that this primitive and sometimes disgusting organism is back in force.

Scuba divers have a great opportunity to see hammerhead sharks which are in abundance in certain areas.  Although I was not able to dive this time, therefore did not see them this time, but one of the scientists in the group, Sean, captured some amazing footage from his dives at Gordon Rocks and North Seymour.

On land, there are also a number of endemic species, the most famous being the species of giant tortoises that can live much longer than humans.  The Charles Darwin Research Center is here on Santa Cruz and many tortoises are in natural habitats (albeit in fenced in areas). Surprisingly, they can be VERY active, sometimes a bit ornery towards each other, and even make noises!

Giant tortoises

These giant tortoises seem to have something important to communicate to each other!

The tortoises are herbivores and are fed a few times a week. The oldest and most well-known is a Pinta tortoise named Lonesome George.  He is about 200 years old and is the very last of his species, so when he dies, the Pinta tortoise will be extinct.  The research center tried several times to mate him to save the species, but it was never successful.

If you take a tour to the Highlands of Santa Cruz, up in the forests you can see many even larger giant tortoises than the ones at the Darwin Center, roaming freely about. Sometime in the future, I hope to do this. A neighboring and very “young”  island, Isla Isabella, a 2 ½ hour boat ride away, has a terrific turtle research center, too.  In my opinion, this was an even better place to learn about the developmental stages of the turtle from egg to the twilight years.

Birds are numerous and I mentioned several earlier, but Darwin was known for researching finches of which we saw many. My favorite was a little yellow finch and boy oh boy, are they hard to photograph!  It was possible to get very close to the birds, perhaps even a couple of feet away.

A yellow finch – one of the finches Darwin studies – is still long enough for me to capture a photo!

Another recurrent daily scene was the fish market at a bay in Santa Cruz. Fresh catches were brought in, sold, and the fish often cleaned right there at special tables for this purpose.  The pelicans were certainly omnipresent pests, but there also was always a sea lion there, begging for fish, and sticking his nose towards the table, just like a family dog would do!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are many volcanoes here, some of which are still considered active, as is the case on Isabella.  Scientists study the volcanoes here as well as the animal life. All around you, there is talk about respect for and conservation of the animal life, as well as preservation of the geological formations.

Although we did not have a lot of time here, it seemed like an appropriate place to terminate a scientific research cruise, with all of the geologic and biologic connections here.  Many times throughout my stay, I couldn’t help thinking that this place would be the ultimate school field trip!  Perhaps that will be a scientific adventure in the future.