Tom Savage: In Search of Whales, June 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tom Savage
On Board NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 10 – 19, 2015

Mission: Cetacean and Turtle Research
Geographic area of Cruise: North Atlantic
Date: June 11, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air temperature: 15 C
Wind speed: 22 knots
Wind direction: coming from south-east
Relative humidity: 95%
Barometer: 1010 millibars

Personal Log

My first day at sea began at the bow of the ship searching for Sei and Beaked Whales. What a privilege it is to wake up and walk to the front of a research vessel to start your work day. The early morning hours were ideal for sighting whales as we experienced sunny skies and calm seas. The weather conditions deteriorated into the afternoon and made sightings very challenging.  To accurately record the distance from the ship to the marine animals, the observer needs to see the visual horizon. This wind speed also increased during the day causing the ship to move in all directions impacting our accuracy.


Using the “Big Eyes”

Preparing for a complex research mission is not easy and takes months of planning. Due to the complexity of this mission, we were delayed three days to ensure that all scientific equipment and gear was properly working. During this delay, the mission’s chief scientist, Dr. Danielle Cholewiak, has been exceptional in welcoming me. I took her advice and stayed in Falmouth, Massachusetts, which is near Woods Hole. Woods Hole is home to NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Woods Hole is a village in the town of Falmouth with a strong science contingent including Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute which are private research institutions not directly affiliated with NOAA.

During this time, I had the privilege of meeting other scientists who are participating on this mission, Mike and Lorenzo. Mike will be collecting data on sea birds and Lorenzo is an acoustics (sound) specialist from Scotland.

Everyone on board NOAA’s research vessel Henry B. Bigelow has been exceptionally welcoming and nice which made my transition to life at sea smooth.

The food on board the ship is amazing; my Teacher at Sea colleagues were correct.

Science and Technology Log

Although visual whale sightings were difficult today, this did not prevent the scientists from using other technologies to detect the animals. Today, a Sonobouy was deployed for the purpose of detecting a “call” from Sei Whales. Like a human voice, whales produce sounds for communication. Each species of whale has  unique vocalizations with distinctive frequency range and timing characteristics, and the sonobouy is used to detect these sounds and to track their location. The sonobouy contains a single omni-directional hydrophone, particle motion sensors and a magnetic compass.



Preparing the Sonobouy

This device is deployed from stern of the ship. The sonobuoy is configured to drift at a depth of 90 feet and send back acoustic signals to the vessel by VHF radio, where the data are processed using computer software.  The hydrophone is connected to the sonobouy by 90 feet of thin wire. This technology is relatively new in detecting whales for NOAA, but have been used extensively by the Navy for locating submarines. Today, the sonobouy did detect sounds from Sei whales (called “downsweeps”). The acoustics team plan on launching another sonobouy tonight and depending on this outcome will determine our travel plans for tomorrow.

Until next time, happy sailing!

~ Tom

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