Ellen O’Donnell: There’s a Lot of Food in the Ocean and One More Whale to Feed! May 20, 2012


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Ellen O’Donnell
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
May 14 – May 25, 2012

Mission: North Atlantic Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean; Franklin Basin
Date: May 20, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge: Light winds, slightly overcast, ocean swells between 3 to 5 feet.

Science and Technology Log:

We spent the night out at sea and today and we worked the Franklin Basin. It is about 120 miles from Cape Cod. At first we didn’t see many whales, but things started picking up by lunchtime. We launched the little gray boat shortly after to get close to the right whales we were seeing. While I didn’t go on the gray boat today, many of the whales came right up to the ship. It was another amazing day and we were quite successful.

Copepod (photo: at-sea.org)

I have seen so many different ways that the whales catch their prey. I asked the question last time, “Why do sei and right whales often appear together?” This is because they like the same food. Both whales eat copepods. Copepods are tiny crustaceans that range from microscopic to a quarter of an inch. Crustaceans are invertebrates which are related to lobster, shrimp and crabs. They eat diatoms and plankton, which are even smaller! They are the most abundant species on earth and are important in many ocean food webs.

Cool Fact from the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A single copepod may eat from 11,000 to 373,000 diatoms in 24 hours!

So sei and right whales feed on these tiny abundant organisms, which is amazing given their size. Humpbacks and fin whales also filter feed, but they eat krill (another tiny crustacean), plankton and small fish. Humpbacks can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food a day.

Sei and right whale feeding in same area (photo: Genevive Davis)

All of these whales are called baleen whales because they filter their prey out of the water as they move through it. Right whales and sei whales surface feed a lot. They are close to the surface slowly moving through the water filtering out copepods. Often they are seen feeding side by side.

Sometimes right whales do what is called echelon feeding. One whale is up front and then whales along each side create a V-shape. The whales to the side of the one in front pick up prey that didn’t make it into the forward whale’s mouth. We saw a great example of echelon feeding right from the ship. There were six right whales slowly swimming in this V-shape. Every once in a while, if one got out of formation, they would swim back toward the V and turn and get back in formation.

Right Whales Echelon Feeding

Humpback whales also use a method for catching prey. When we got close to the humpback, Slumber, the other day, we noticed large bubbles rising to the surface. This is called bubble feeding. Humpbacks create large bubbles to trap and herd fish. Often they do this in groups.

Mother and new calf (photo: Jenn Gatzke)

So while watching the different whales, and how they feed was very interesting, this was not the most exciting thing. These surveys are important because they keep track of vital information needed to develop good conservation plans. Therefore, information such as where the individual whales are, which females breed, where they breed, and how many calves are born is important.

We identified around 17 whales yesterday and found one that one had not been biopsied. This whale was then biopsied so its information can go into the database. We also saw two mothers and their calves. Right whales typically give birth to their calves after a 12 month gestation period, off the coast of Georgia or North Florida.

This year only six calves were born and one died. This number is not good as biologists hope to have the number of calves born in the double digits. So you can imagine how happy everyone was when we identified a female who hadn’t been seen since 2010 with a new calf! We were able to get a biopsy from the calf as well, which will not only give genetic information from the skin, but also information on contaminants from the mother since it is still nursing. But I’m not finished yet! The icing on the cake was that the baby whale also released some fecal matter. Yes that’s right…whale poop! This may not seem important to you, but the whale biologists were ecstatic. The collected whale poop, yes it was collected in a bucket, gives a wealth of information, such as what it has been eating and the level of contaminants in the calves body.  Adult whale poop also gives hormonal information.  All in all it was a very successful day of collecting important data on right whales.

Relaxing after a hard day’s work

NOAA Scientists Peter Duley and Allison Henry scoop whale poop into a collection bag to be later analyzed

Personal Log 

NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Their reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as they work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them. Obviously the ocean is a big part of our environment. NOAA vessels have differing focuses on the data they collect from the ocean.  The Delaware II is a fisheries vessel. It goes out on various research cruises, which collect data on different organisms within our oceans. As you know they perform right whale cruises, like the one I am on now, but they also perform other studies as well. Midwater trawling is done for studies on herring. Large nets are pulled along the boat at mid-water level, and the data collected gives information on the distribution and abundance of herring. Deep water trawls with nets are done to collect scallops and clams, and determine their relative abundance and distribution. Shark cruises collect sharks by sending out a line with baited hooks. The sharks collected are tagged and released. Lastly, the Delaware II performs ichthyoplanktic studies, which collect eggs and larvae from various species of fish.

Jim Pontz (left) and Todd Wilson (right) getting the trawl net ready (photo: Delaware II)

Herring catch (photo: Delaware II)

Clam and Scallop Survey (photo: Delaware II)

Shark Tag and Release Survey (photo: Delaware II)

It is the deck crew that helps make this possible. Acting Chief Boatswain and Head Fisherman, Todd Wilson heads up a 5-man crew, who not only take care of all ship maintenance, with the exception of the engine, but serve as night-time lookouts, and operators of the fisheries equipment. We rely on them to get the little gray boat in and out of the water, which takes a lot of coordination, and they are always there to help you if you need it.

Launching the little gray boat

4 responses to “Ellen O’Donnell: There’s a Lot of Food in the Ocean and One More Whale to Feed! May 20, 2012

  1. Hi Mrs. O’Donnell,

    I still love your blog! I thought that it was really interesting about how the whales feed and the whale poop. I hope that the whales are healthy!
    -Brooke

  2. Hi Ellen,
    The information about the echelon feeding was very interesting. I was unaware that whales did this. The formation is similar to how geese fly…they mutually benefit each other using the v-formation. It makes me wonder if this habit is a learned behavior among the species or innate. How exciting about the baby whale!!! Do they name the whales after they are tagged or are they known by a code/number? I’d be interesting in learning about what you discover in the whale “poop”. Would it be possible for you to blog about it later? Have a safe and glorious day!

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