DJ Kast, Interview with the Marine Mammal Observers, May 21, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
May 19 – June 3, 2015

Mission: Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Geographical area of cruise: East Coast

Date: May 21, 2015, Day 3 of Voyage

Interview with the Marine Mammal Observers

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid Photo by: DJ Kast

Marine Mammal Observers Marjorie and Brigid
Photo by: DJ Kast

Marjorie and Brigid on the Flying Bridge.

Whale Observer Station on the Flying Bridge. Photo by: DJ Kast

Whale Observer Station on the Flying Bridge. Photo by: DJ Kast

These two marine mammal observers are on the Flying Bridge of the ship.

I asked them what they were looking for and they said blows. I thought I spotted one at 11 o’clock and asked if it was supposed to look like a puff of smoke. They turned their cameras and binoculars to that direction and there were two whales right there. Marjorie turned to me and said, “you make our job look very easy”.

I spent some time interviewing the two of them today on May 21st, 2015.

Tell me a little bit about your background:

Marjorie Foster:

“I went to Stetson University and majored in biological sciences and concurrently worked with aquariums and sea turtle and bird rehab. Started flying aerial surveys for right whales, and was pulled into the world of NOAA in 2010. I’ve worked on small boats for bottlenose dolphin surveys as well.”

Brigid McKenna:

“I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and received my degree in biology, because I originally wanted to go into veterinary school, and worked in the aquarium medical center as an internship. Afterwards, I realized that veterinary school was not for me and I started an internship with the whale watch, and worked with spinner dolphins. Then I worked with scientists for Humpback Whales in Provincetown. Afterwards, I became a Right whale vessel observer and pursued my masters in Marine Mammal Science at St. Andrews. Afterwards, I became an aerial observer for right whales. This means I got to be in planes above the ocean looking for whales.”

Shoutout to Jen Jakush for keeping up with my blog in Florida.

What is your exact job on this research cruise?

Marine Mammal Observers are contracted by NOAA. We keep an eye out for whales and dolphins from the top of the ship and collect information about what we see.

How do you get trained to be Marine mammal observer?

Field experience is vital. The more you have seen, the more you can easily narrow down behavioral and visual cues to define a species. Also, conversations with other scientists in the field can really help expand your knowledge base.

For me:

Bridget- internship on a whale watch boat

Majorie- working with right whales

What do you enjoy about your job?

Marjorie: Being outside, and getting the opportunity to see things that people don’t normally get to see. Every day is exciting because there are endless possibilities of amazing things to witness. I feel very lucky to collect data that will be used in larger conversation efforts to help preserve these animals.

Brigid: Everything is dynamic, every project is new, I love being outside on the ocean. We can do aerial and vessel observations. We get to travel a lot. It’s a small world in the marine mammal community, so you get to know a lot of cool people.

What are the most common mammals you have seen on this cruise?

Common dolphins: white patch on sides and dark gray on top, and v shaped saddle.

Dolphin spotted by the observers on the side of the boat. Photo by: DJ Kast

Dolphin spotted by the observers on the side of the boat. Photo by: DJ Kast

Bottlenose dolphins: light gray and dark gray on top

Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Photo taken by DJ Kast from the Marine Mammals of the World book.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin. Photo taken by DJ Kast from the Marine Mammals of the World book.

Couple of mola mola – largest of the bony fish


Fin whales

Pilot whales.

Sei Whale

Humpback in the distance.

Marjorie: On the ledge and on the shelf there should be much more life than we have been seeing. And that will be in about an hour or two.

Up North- in the Gulf of Maine.

Northern waters are more abundant with the small marine life large whales like to eat. We are expecting to see a lot of baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine later on in this project. Further south we will see more dolphins and other toothed whales. We expect to see bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, and possibly Risso’s dolphins.

Did you know?

Right Whale’s favorite copepod is Calanus finmarchicus, which bloom in Cape Cod waters. The Right whales know when the copepods are in a fatty stage and will only open their mouths if the calorie intake is worth it.

Did you know?

Different humpbacks have different hunting techniques.

The hunting technique specific to the Gulf of Maine is bubble-net feeding with lob-tailing. This means that they make bubbles around a school of fish and then hit the water with their tail to stun them.

Did you know?

Sad Fact: 72% of right whales have been entangled at least once, which we can tell from the scars that remain on their body.

What do you do when you site a marine mammal?

  1. One of us points
  2. Keep track of it. Both of our eyes on it
  3. Take pictures and look through binoculars for a positive identification of the species of marine mammal.
  4. How far they are, what direction they are swimming in, and what behaviors they are exhibiting.
  5. We have a system on our Toughbook computer called Vissurv. The data we input into this system includes:
    • Which side of the boat, and how many meters, and what direction are the animals are swimming to help us keep track of them
    • Our main objective is to ID them to species and count how many of them there are, which is called the pod size.
    • Some example behaviors include: swimming, breaching, porpoising, bow riding
    • Our computer is constantly recording GPS and environmental conditions. This information will ultimately be tied to the sightings. Environmental conditions include: swell, glare, wind, sea state etc.

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