Animal surveillance

In our quest for turtles, we have traveled far and wide in the past 13 days. From Nova Scotia to New Jersey, we have kept almost constant watch during daylight hours in order to spot turtles basking in the sun, and in the process, we have seen many different marine creatures.

On July 8th, we awoke to pilot whales curious about the ship and they accompanied us for the entire morning.  A couple of days later, we crossed the Hague Line on the shelf of George’s Bank. Very soon after, we started seeing sperm whales,  some of them breaching – a behavior where they launch themselves  entirely out of the water landing in a large splash that we can see miles away! Sperm whales can dive to very deep depths and tend to inhabit waters around canyons. This habitat also attracts beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whales which we also spotted. We saw more pilot whales and small groups of bottlenose dolphins, many of them jumping out of the water as well. Meanwhile, above the surface, we have encountered many pelagic seabirds that are expected in this area, including the shearwater, storm petrel, and gull species. This day we also had south polar skuas flying around the ship.

 

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We turned south on July 12th toward the mid-Atlantic and started to encounter larger numbers of common dolphins characterized by the hourglass pattern on the sides of their bodies. We have seen pods numbering in the hundreds out here so far, and they have given us great looks when they come in close to the ship.

Of course, the focus of this cruise is to find loggerhead turtles and we did encounter quite a few on July 13th. We spent a few days in the warmer waters off New Jersey working these animals where we also spotted a few leatherback turtles.

On July 16th, we turned to work our way north again and started our day with flat calm waters, the best sighting conditions so far. We saw many common dolphins, including a group of around 500, bottlenose dolphins, and many groups of Risso’s dolphins. The Risso’s are darker when they are younger, and lighten up (and gain some impressive scars) as they age.

In addition to the reptiles, mammals, and seabirds that we tend to see at the surface, there are of course, many fish species in the ocean. We have seen a lot of ocean sunfish along our entire track, a glance at a couple of rays, and also a few shark species including hammerheads, basking sharks, and three whale sharks on July 16th! This was a new species for almost everyone on board, and it took us a second to understand what we were seeing! Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching lengths of over 40 feet, and feed on zooplankton by filter-feeding. They are characterized by their size, but also by the spots on their dorsal body which helped us identify the species.

Only a few days left out here, but many chances yet to spot additional animals.

Leah Crowe and Lisa Conger
NEFSC Protected Species Branch, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

More Tales from the Night Shift

Predator worms, spines with eyeballs, and a mystery

I’m Hannah Blair, a graduate student at Stony Brook University, aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow for the 2017 sea turtle and cetacean cruise.  This trip is my first foray into the world of zooplankton identification. Each night, we sift through the contents of targeted zooplankton trawls, pull individual plankton out of each sample collected by the nets, and measure and photograph what we find. I’ve slowly been learning to recognize the categories these tiny animals belong to. For example, we pull up lots and lots of chaetognaths, or arrow worms, a group of predatory worms!

Tiny transparent marine worms

Carnivorous, predatory arrow worms that prey on other plankton. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Cassie Fries

We find many kinds of gelatinous animals, such as jellyfish, as well as a number of crustaceans, like these adorable bug-eyed megalops, an early crab life stage.

Tiny bright red-orange early life-stage crab

Megalops, early life stage crab. Who doesn’t love those googly eyes? Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/ Cassie Fries

We also find fish larvae of various sizes and shapes, from the wide and flat larvae of flounder to fish so small they look like spines with eyeballs. After going through a few hauls, you start to recognize what animal belongs with what category.

And then, this guy appeared:

Sea slug,

There’s no zooplankton too odd for Betsy Broughton’s mad identification skills. Mystery solved and sea slug unmasked. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Joe Warren

The first time we saw it, we dismissed it as an unidentifiable piece of another animal. But then we got another, and another. When, on the third night, we got six in one haul, we had to stop and take a closer look.

As someone who’s spent many an hour identifying species, whether for classes or for surveys (or for fun), I am familiar with the frustration of not being able to figure out what species an animal or plant is, and the satisfaction of finally pinning it down. However, at first we couldn’t even determine what group of animals we should start narrowing down from! Was it a flatworm? Some type of echinoderm (starfish and relatives) larva?

After spending hours searching through identification keys and checking our trusty friend Google Images, our resident marine zooplankton expert Betsy Broughton was able to track it down. Meet Phylliroe bucephala, a free-swimming nudibranch!

Nudibranchs are a type of sea slug, and are a highly varied group. Searching the term (which I highly recommend, I love these guys) will bring up many photos of brightly-colored tropical sea slugs, crawling around on the ocean floor. But Phylliroe is pelagic, which means it lives up in the water column, swimming much like a fish as it searches for tasty jellyfish prey. Check out this link to see images and even a video of them swimming through the water!

We’ve found a lot of cool animals in our trawls, but this one is definitely my favorite so far.

Cheers,

Hannah Blair

Oceanography Team, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow

 

Pop Goes the HARP

Deep ocean sound recorders on the deck of a research dhip

Eric Matzen among the HARPS. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Henry Milliken

This cruise aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow is dedicated to sea turtle ecology and oceanography, but we have also been successful replacing passive acoustic recording instruments called HARPs (High-frequency Acoustic Recording Packages), made by the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  These instruments have to be replaced annually, and we are entering our third year of data collection using them.

The HARPS sit on the edge of shelf-break canyons at about 1000 m deep. We have to be exact in our drop points or the units could descend to crushing depths in the canyons or land in shallow water near fishing activity.

We position the ship over the instrument, contact the acoustic release, and give the release command, which jettisons the ballast weights on the unit. It takes about 15 minutes for the HARP to float to the surface, so this is an exciting time waiting and watching. Everyone wants to be the first to spot the surfaced unit, but on the first recovery, Mate Dana Mancinelli spotted the HARP while it was still under water on its way up.  That is good spotting!

yellow recording device and orange floats bobbing on the surface ot he water

HARP floating at the surface having successfully jettisoned the ballast that’s kept it on the ocean bottom for the past year. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Leah Crowe

Large yellow recording being pulled onto resarch vessel

HARP coming aboard during last stage of retrieval operation. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Heather Haas

The three recorders we are replacing are part of an  array of eight such instruments covering waters from Northeast Georges Bank to Florida. This network is a combined effort of NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers to understand biological activity along the U.S. continental shelf break before the planned seismic exploration starts off the United States’ Eastern Seaboard.  They are part of the US NorthEast Passive Acoustic Sensing Network. While deployed, the HARPS record sounds made by many species including baleen whales, sperm whales, beaked whales, and dolphins.

Eric Matzen, NEFSC Protected Species Branch

Annamaria Izzi, Integrated Statistics

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Another Mystery Mom!

2017 has been a very low calving year for the North Atlantic right whale population. Only 3 calves were documented in the Southeast U.S. calving grounds – the lowest number on record since 2000, when only one calf was sighted. In the intervening years, calving numbers have fluctuated, but on the whole have been lower than right whale researchers would like to see for the recovery of such a critically endangered species.

On April 12, both the Center for Coastal Studies and NEFSC aerial surveys documented a new mom & calf pair for the season, bringing the calf total for 2017 up to 4. While a sighting of new mom & calf pairs outside of the calving grounds is not unheard of, it is not common. So we were very excited Sunday (April 30) when we realized that we had found yet another new mom & calf pair for 2017! I tentatively identified the whale as catalog #1515 while still in the air, but researchers at the New England Aquarium, which houses and manages the North Atlantic right whale catalog, confirmed my identification on Monday morning. The new mom and calf were sighted feeding in the Great South Channel.

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New right whale mom identified as #1515. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Tim Cole, NEFSC

#1515 has not been seen since 2009 (also with a calf), so she had been presumed dead by the New England Aquarium. She has been sighted infrequently since 1985 and usually only down on the Southeast U.S. calving grounds, so, much like our other recent mom/calf sighting of 1412, we do not know where she spends the majority of her time. Another mystery mom!

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Calf of right whale #1515. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Tim Cole, NEFSC

Images taken under MMPA research permit #17355 by Tim Cole, NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC

Allison Henry
NEFSC Aerial Survey Team

Little Boat, Big Whales

On March 6, we took advantage of fair weather and calm winds to look for North Atlantic right whales south of Martha’s Vineyard.  By day’s end we’d seen 5, and the New England Aquarium aerial survey team we are working with spotted another 9. Colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were also working in the area  were aboard the WHOI R/V Tioga.

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Survey crew with cheerful smiles despite freezing air temperatures aboard the R/V Selkie, (left to right) Leah Crowe, Christin Khan, Allison Henry, and Tim Cole of the NEFSC Protected Species Branch. Photo credit NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Darcie Cole

We’re collecting data important for documenting the distribution, movement, and health of these rare animals.  We also coordinate with the New England Aquarium team that is photographing whales from the air as part of their survey.

We’re focused on gathering several kinds of information: photographs that are used to identify individual animals, and small samples of skin and feces.

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R/V Selkie underway (white plume in the water) photographed by the New England Aquarium aerial survey team.  At left, a still camera is pointed out a small window to photograph whales.  Photo credit NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Ester Quintana, New England Aquarium

Our sightings of 5 whales, along with 9 more spotted by the aerial survey team were the basis for establishing an 1800 mi2 voluntary speed restriction zone (Dynamic Management Area-DMA) that will remain in place for at least 2 weeks.  Our research is being conducted under federal research permit  #17355-01, NMFS/NEFSC.

The R/V Selkie Survey Team

Right Whales Sound Off

On Tuesday this week, I got a chance to go out with a crew from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution aboard their research vessel (R/V)  TiogaWe searched for North Atlantic right whales, towed for plankton, and deployed both a slocum glider and an underwater microphone called a hydrophone.  Just last week a crew from the center spotted more than a dozen whales in the same area we worked in, where there is also a  moored listening station that captures the sounds made by several species of large whales when they are present. WHOI, our center,  and the US Coast Guard are collaborating on the project.

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DMON buoy near Martha’s Vineyard that detects the presence of whales in the area by recording their calls.  Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan

The moored digital acoustic monitoring –DMON for short– buoy includes a real-time detection system and hydrophones that listen for and record the vocalizations, or “calls”of four kinds of baleen whales: sei, finback, humpback, and the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale. The hydrophones record around the clock. Snippets of the recordings are sent back to shore every two hours.  Eventually all the data are retrieved and then analyzed by experts who can identify which species of whale made the sounds..

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A hydrophone array is prepared for deployment by WHOI scientists abroad the R/V Tioga. Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan

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WHOI crew with slocum glider on the back deck of the R/V Tioga. Photo by NOAA Fisheries NEFSC/Christin Khan

We also deployed a WHOI slocum glider, an underwater robot that can also detect and record whale calls.  The recordings are  transmitted by satellite phone to a computer onshore that also helps navigate the glider from point to point.   The glider powers its way up and down in the water for two to three weeks on a set of alkaline batteries.

These projects are examples of how NOAA scientists are collaborating with biologists and engineers to increase our understanding of the marine environment using state of the art technology.  Although we didn’t find any right whales, it was a beautiful day on the water and I enjoyed learning about research underway by WHOI scientists.

Christin Khan

NEFSC whale biologist

Beautiful weather, many whales

A six-hour  survey  May 26 in the Great South Channel, SCOPEX SOUTH led to lots of whale sightings, including 15 North Atlantic right whales feeding.  One of those was  “Velcro”, a male first seen in 1981 and observed  a few days ago during another aerial survey.

The survey team also observed 7 humpback whales, 4 fin whales, 18 sei whales, 4 minke whales, 26 pilot whales, 45 Atlantic white-sided dolphin, 5 harbor porpoise, 28 basking sharks, and 4 ocean sunfish.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Team