Daniel Rivera, Days 3 & 4 Bird & Mammal Observation

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Daniel Rivera

Aboard the Ship R/V Fulmar

July 16-24, 2014

 

Mission: Water conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) readings; marine bird and mammal counts

Geographical Area: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries; Sonoma County Coast, Pacific Ocean

Dates: July 18 and 19, 2014

 Weather Data from the bridge: Wind speed variable, less than 10 knots; wind waves less than 2 feet; visibility about 3 KMs, temperature range from 59-68

 Science and Technology Log: Friday and Saturday are mostly filled with marine bird and mammal observations, and we covered many transect lines in the last 2 days: Lines 1, 3, 5, 7, N1, and N3-N7.

These are the paths, or transect lines, taken by our ship on our cruise.

These are the paths, or transect lines, taken by our ship on our cruise.

The transects lines with an “N” stand for near-shore lines, and they are shorter. During these two days the near-shore lines were the only lines where we took CTD readings, so the majority of the time was spent monitoring birds and mammals from the flying bridge, which is the top deck of the boat.

Scanning for birds and mammals while riding atop a moving vessel can be quite challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, a boat is at mercy of the waves, so the bobbing motion makes it hard to focus your eyes. Second, the organisms you are monitoring are in motion as well, so you have to have a quick eye to see them and follow them. Finally, many of the organisms aren’t directly in front of the boat, so you have to be well-trained in spotting the subtle and not so subtle differences in hundreds of organisms. It’s a tough job that requires good eyes, patience, a strong stomach, lots of practice, and the ability to withstand ever-changing weather conditions.

When a marine bird is spotted, there are a series of codes that the watcher calls out to the person recording the sightings on the laptop. As mentioned in an earlier post, these codes stand for location, number of organisms, etc. For example, when on the top deck you might here this: Common Murre 2, zone 1, flying, 160. This means that there are two Common Murre birds within 100 meters of the boat, and they are flying toward 160 degrees in relation to the boat (in a 360-degree circle). For this protocol, zero degrees is always at the bow, or the front, of the boat, and 180 degrees points directly to the stern, or the back, of the boat.

When a marine mammal is sighted, there are even more codes. For example, you may hear this: Mammal, by eye, bearing 270, reticle 7, observer 9, side 1, traveling, immature, sex unknown, 2-2-2.

Now, that is a lot of information. What does all this mean? Take a look at this picture, which has the meanings for all of the codes.

Here are the codes that are called out while monitoring marine mammals and birds. As you can see, there is a lot of information that is called out during a spotting.

Here are the codes that are called out while monitoring marine mammals and birds. As you can see, there is a lot of information that is called out during a spotting.

Now look at the bottom half of this picture where it’s labeled Line Transect Entries-Marine Mammals and Vessels. In order to make sense of these codes, start with the left column and work your way down, moving along to the second column on the right and back down again. By using this chart, you realize what is being said: Marine mammal, spotted by eye (as opposed to binoculars), and it’s located at 270 degrees. Next up is reticule, which is a bit more complicated.

On reticule binoculars, there are 14 tick marks in a vertical column that the observer can see when looking through the lens; the top tick mark is 0 and the bottom is 14. When looking for marine mammals, you can estimate where they are located by these tick marks, called reticules. Reticule 0 is the horizon, and reticule 14 is the boat. If you have a mammal sighting at reticule 7, that means the mammal is roughly somewhere in the middle between the horizon and the boat, which is quite a distance. It takes a lot of practice to accurately estimate distance this way, especially on a rocking boat, but the ACCESS crew is well versed in this task. This is an important data point because the computer program will use compass direction and distance to provide a location on the ocean for the observation. At the end of the cruise, all the observations will be mapped out and you can see how many of which animals were seen in what locations as we criss-crossed the ocean on the boat.

The rest of the codes are pretty self-explanatory until you reach the counts, which gives your best estimate for number of organisms. A count of 2-2-2- means your best estimate of number of organisms is 2, the high number of organisms is 2, and the low count is 2; when you hear a call like this, the observer is certain that the number of organisms is 2 because there is no fluctuation. If you heard a count of 2-3-2, the observer saw at least 2 organisms but it could have been 3. The observers include these different estimates because sometimes it is very hard to count exactly how many dolphins or other fast-moving animals there are.

Here are some pics from the flying bridge (or top deck of the boat). Notice the different weather conditions on two different days, and how the observers have to be prepared to bundle up for the fog and have on hats and sunglasses against the sun. Conditions can change rapidly while at sea.

Many hours are spent perched atop the flying bridge when marine mammal and bird observations take place.

Many hours are spent perched atop the flying bridge when marine mammal and bird observations take place.

A sunny day on the flying bridge.

A sunny day on the flying bridge.

 

Personal Log: I woke up later these past two days because I learned there is time to wake up while the boat is heading out to the first transect. There is no need to wake up before the crew starts the engines because on days such as these we have at least one hour from when we leave port to ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

As mentioned earlier in the blog, these past two days were mostly bird and mammal observations with CTD readings toward the end of the day. When the boat first set out in the morning, we headed out to the west end of the transect line, and because we have more time, everyone on board shares stories, some work-related, some personal. It’s quite nice to have time for these conversations because even though you spend 8 days at sea with everyone, it’s hard to fit in conversation when you’re watching for organisms or trying not to fall off the boat while deploying a net.

Dani Lipski, the Research Coordinator from Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, is a dive master for NOAA. She has lots of wonderful stories about diving, conducting research on different ships and islands up and down the West coast, and she is great at preventing me from tripping over myself on the back deck (I work with Dani the most). Kirsten Lindquist, from the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, loves to cook, spent two seasons in Alaska studying whales, and is an expert seabird observer. Rudy, the man in charge of IT at Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can spot birds, mammals, and even mylar balloons; if it’s on or in the ocean, he’ll notice it. He is also the resident comedian, providing many instances of humor throughout the day. In short, everyone on board is knowledgeable about their jobs and dedicated to protecting the health of the world’s oceans, and it’s inspiring to be around a group as dedicated as the ACCESS cruise team.

Some other tidbits learned: Jaime–the director of all the marine work at Point Blue Conservation and the master of the Tucker Trawl–has a favorite spot to rest on the boat; the bunk rooms never seem to completely dry out; the best place to feel well on a boat is the back because of the least amount of up and down motion; and Dru, mammal spotter extraordinaire from Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, can make an excellent guacamole.

Speaking of food, Cheez-It’s are a favorite of everyone on board, Coke Zero is consumed at nauseam, and apparently the presence of M&Ms brings whale sightings (having a Teacher at Sea on board also seems to bring good whale sightings). Everyone takes turns cooking dinner, but breakfast and lunch are a free-for-all; you basically eat when you want or can while at sea, but dinner is a time for everyone to come together and share their day.

One interesting fact I forgot to mention is that when you come back to shore after spending 10 hours at sea, you still feel like you are moving up and down. When I was in the shower or even just sitting down on land, I felt like I was bobbing up and down and moving back and forth. You have a dizzy-like feeling,. Some people who don’t get sick at sea will get sick from this feeling when they return to land; this is called dock rock. Who knew?!

 

Did you know? Northern Right whale dolphins do not have dorsal fins.

Question of the Day? What types of foods do you think are ideally suited to a trip to sea with limited or no refrigeration?

New Term/Phrase/Word: Reticule

Something to Think About: Bananas on a boat are considered bad luck for several reasons. First, when they go bad the give off a gas that causes other fruit to rot faster. But there are more superstitious reasons as well: banana boats tended to be overloaded and, thus, sank a lot. Bananas carry tarantulas in them, so sailors didn’t want to get bit. You don’t want to bring something from the mountains to the sea, so you can’t bring bananas; there are sure to be more reasons why.

Challenge Yourself: Next time you’re at the shore or beach, count how many different species of birds you see and try to estimate their direction of travel, using a 360-degree circle as reference and using the horizon as 0 degrees.

Angela Greene: “Entangled with Superheroes” May 2, 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: May 2, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Average Air Temperature- 7°C or 44.6°F, Winds out of the north, Sky Conditions-clear

Science and Technology Log:

Lowering CTD

Deploying CTD cast. “All in a days work.”

Time seems to be flying by on the NOAA ship Gordon Gunter as one day quickly runs into the next.  I am learning so many new things, and doing brand new tasks that I am not sure where to begin telling my story.  Every time something awesome happens I want to write it down, but something even more awesome happens.  It’s such a busy work environment for the crew and the scientists!

I am on the ship with a scientist whose job is to “disentangle” whales. Of course I had a million questions such as, “Disentangle whales from what?” The first night on board, we were treated to a “science talk” from David Morin of the Large Whale Disentanglement Program, Protected Resources Division of NOAA.

Large whales can swim into and get entangled by gear of commercial fishermen. Apparently they swim into the gear, panic while attempting to get free, and make the entanglement worse. The gear can be in the form of long ropes, buoys, and even lobster pots.

Trident gillnet

Disentanglement team trying to remove a gill net from a large whale. Photo credit Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies under fisheries permit number 932-1489.

Cutting tools

Tools used for disentanglement. Photo credit Provincetowne Center for Coastal Studies.

Sometimes the whales can free themselves either fully or partially, but all too often they have to learn to cope with all the gear wrapped around fins, flippers, or flukes. The entanglement can become so tight and restrictive that it actually embeds into the flesh of the animal, creating deep gashes, and scars.

When an entangled whale is spotted and reported, a disentanglement team springs into action.  A large boat takes them to the reported location and a small rubber boat gets them as close to the whale as possible.  With cameras mounted on head-gear, the disentanglement team must first assess the type of gear and configuration of the entanglement.  Obviously every case is different, with a wide range of fishing gear, and different species and sizes of whales.  Right then the small boat a plan is launched and put into motion to attempt to free the whale from its bindings using a variety of sophisticated cutting tools mounted to large poles.

Yellowfin lift

Disentanglement is a dangerous job. Photo Credit Florida Fish and Wildlife under fisheries permit # 932-1489.

Dave has been in situations where the whale has become frightened and slapped a fluke down on the small rubber boat.  One swift move from a whale could be the end of a crew attempting disentanglement.    This doesn’t stop Dave from telling the details of his work with passion and admiration for the opportunity to work with whales.  I’ll stick with teaching!

Big Eyes

Me and “Big Eyes” Photo Credit Mark Baumgartner

My job during the right whale survey has, so far, been very addicting!  We run ninety minute “watch shifts” on the flying bridge searching for any signs of life, particularly whales.  The flying bridge, the highest point on the ship, gives you the best vantage point when looking out into the ocean for marine life.

Blow

A “Blow”

There are three stations that I rotate through every thirty minutes while “on watch”. Station one is a set of “Big Eyes”, or really large binoculars. The view of the ocean using the “Big Eyes” is specific and fantastic! During that thirty-minute segment of my watch duty, I scan my side of the ocean, which is bisected by the bow of the ship. I look for any signs of life such as a splash, a “blow”, a dorsal fin, a fluke, or even “suspicious water patterns”. If I think I have spotted marine life such as a dolphin, seal, or a whale I shout out “SIGHTING” to the data recorder. I have to tell the data recorder very specific data about my animal sighting, which is added to a computer program.

The middle station on the fly bridge of watch duty is the data recorder. This is the scariest job for me because sometimes multiple sightings have to be recorded at once. The third position of watch duty is thirty additional minutes on a second set of “Big Eyes”.

Data Collection

Me as “Data Collector” Photo Credit Allison Henry

My very first official sighting was a Mother Sei whale and her calf. Her dorsal was long and sickle shaped as she arched through the glassy water. Then her baby arched right after she did. It was amazing! The process of being on watch is smooth, simple, calm, and easy. I’ve adjusted well to it and look forward to scanning the water. However all this peacefulness changes dramatically when the sighting is a Right Whale… I sighted one today…

Fluke

“Could it be a fluke?”

Personal Log: Many people know that my hobby is “collecting scientists”! I have a rather eclectic sampling of amazing people that I have acquired through the years. Each one of them has an amazing supernatural ability that sets them apart from the normal human. Each of them is a superhero. Watching the scientists on this field experience solidifies my hypothesis. My chief scientist, Allison Henry has the superpower of being able to identify a right whale by glancing at the animal or a photograph the same way I could look at a yearbook and identify a student in my class. This is not a normal skill possessed by regular humans. Scientist, Dave, untangles whales, much like I untangle the Christmas lights each year. Normal people don’t untangle large mammals in the ocean. Aside from possessing supernatural abilities, the new scientists in my collection exude a passion toward their chosen career paths. While these superpowers set them apart, I think that passion is what connects them to us. Maybe my job as an educator is to recognize the passion in each student and encourage him or her to find the superhero within.

Christopher Faist: It Happened, July 27, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 27, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  17 ºC
Water Temp: 17 ºC
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Water Depth: 4365 meters

Science and Technology Log

Well it happened.  This morning I was taking care of a few things before heading to the observation post and while I was below deck they spotted Killer Whales.  By the time I got to the deck the animals were gone.  Initially, I was disappointed but the day continued with another sighting of Killer Whales, some Risso’s dolphins, a pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins, a couple of Sperm Whales, a group of Sowerby’s Beaked Whales and a couple of Basking Sharks.  This list of animals is long but keep in mind this was over the course of 11 hours of observation.

Marine Mammal Observers use a variety of strategies to keep themselves “fresh” and able to look for animals for long periods of time through every weather condition.  The design of their survey procedure allows each observer to take a 30-minute break during each 2-hour session.  This gives them time to rest their eyes, get out of the weather and get something to eat.  Some of the other techniques to stay sharp may go unnoticed but are important and can only be learned from experienced observers.

Observer with Fireball

Observer with Fireball

Standing for hours and looking through binoculars on a rolling ship is not for everyone.   After spending some time observing animals at sea I can pass along a few tricks.  The days can be long but playing music can help keep the time moving.  Talking to other observers keeps your mind engaged and helps to stay focused.  When you start to feel like you need a jolt to stay awake try an Atomic Fireball.  These small candies pack a spicy reminder that you need to stay alert.  In this picture, one of the observers is holding her Fireball in her hand because she was not able to handle the intense heat.

To get a job as a Marine Mammal Observer you need to withstand these challenges while maintaining your ability to tell the difference between a splash and a white cap from three miles away.  Once you do detect the animal you still need to identify the animal with only a quick glimpse of the animal.  Below are a few pictures taken recently for you to test your skills.  Can you use the links above to correctly ID the animals?

RD ID

RD ID

AtSp ID2

AtSp ID2

SW ID

SW ID

BS ID

BS ID

Personal Log

Now that I have overcome my run in with seasickness, life at sea is great.  We are so far out, over 200 nautical miles, that we have lost our satellite TV connection and that is fine with me.  I have seen a variety of species for the first time and I am enjoying being surrounded by people who share my passion for the ocean and marine mammals.