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

It’s That Time of Year in the Gulf of Maine

More North Atlantic right whales have been sighted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)’s aerial survey group in recent days. On April 9, four right whales were seen feeding in surface and subsurface waters during an aerial survey of Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin in the Gulf of Maine.  In addition, 11 fin whales, 17 humpback whales, 4 minke whales, and 125 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were also sighted during the five-hour flight.

Nine North Atlantic right whales were observed on April 17, with excellent conditions during a neatly six-hour aerial survey of Cashes Ledge in the NOAA Twin Otter. The right whales were sighted in transit, feeding.  Also sighted during the survey were 5 humpback whales, 4 fin whales, 15 sei whales, 3 minke whales, 29 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and 30 harbor porpoise.

The NEFSC Aerial Survey Group

Retrieving the AMARs, Launching the Buoys

On May 29th, the Henry Bigelow reached the easternmost part of the survey area on the northeastern tip of Georges Bank. We are now continuing our coverage of Georges Bank and will venture into the Gulf of Maine next.

Survey Technician Geoff Shook lowers a transducer over the side to communicate with the submerged Autonomous Multi-channel Acoustic Recorder (AMAR) mooring. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

Survey Technician Geoff Shook lowers a transducer over the side to communicate with the submerged Autonomous Multi-channel Acoustic Recorder (AMAR) mooring. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

While working our way east along the southern flank of Georges Bank yesterday we made a stop at Lydonia Canyon to retrieve an Autonomous Multi-channel Acoustic Recorder (AMAR) mooring that had been deployed last summer to record whale sounds. With calm seas and sunny skies (but a fog bank on the horizon to add some drama) the retrieval went very smoothly. The ship pinged the recorder and received signals back indicating its distance from the ship. After maneuvering the ship closer to the mooring, a release signal was sent, and the recorder popped to the surface ten minutes later.

AMAR unit on the surface after being released from its mooring on the seafloor. The yellow container has part of the unit inside while the red floats are supporting another component beneath them. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

AMAR unit on the surface after being released from its mooring on the seafloor. The yellow container has part of the unit inside while the red floats are supporting another component beneath them. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

After being spotted by our sharp-eyed WHOI scientist Emily Peacock, the command and crew worked together to reposition the vessel and scoop the recorder unit and two glass buoyancy floats from the water. The entire process took no more than two hours.

Retrieval of the AMAR unit on the port side of the Henry Bigelow, Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA

Retrieval of the AMAR unit on the port side of the Henry Bigelow, Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA

This morning our NOAA Teacher-at-Sea, DJ Kast, launched two artistically decorated drifter buoys as part of the NOAA Global Drifter Buoy Program. Equipped with a thermistor, an ARGOS satellite tracking system, and a transmitter, the buoy will send out its location and water temperature for over a year (about 410 days) before its batteries die out. A cylindrical drogue attached to a surface float that the teacher and students decorated will cause the buoy to be moved about by surface currents, not wind gusts on the float.

NOAA Teacher-at-Sea DJ Kast deploying the St. Joseph School buoy while we are on the northeast peak of Georges Bank. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

NOAA Teacher-at-Sea DJ Kast deploying the St. Joseph School buoy while we are on the northeast peak of Georges Bank. Photo by Jerry Prezioso NEFSC / NOAA.

Students from a variety of public schools associated with a University of Southern California program and one parochial school, St. Josephs in Fairhaven, MA, will be looking online to follow the progress of “their” buoys across the ocean!

t. Joseph Elementary School students decorating "their" NOAA buoy prior to the cruise. Photo by Harvey Walsh NEFSC / NOAA.

St. Joseph Elementary School students decorating “their” NOAA buoy prior to the cruise. Photo by Harvey Walsh NEFSC / NOAA.

While on the southern flank of Georges the catches were full of phytoplankton, but now on the northeast peak this has dropped off. The present catches are mostly calanoid copepods and some gelatinous zooplankton, mainly Pleurobranchia ctenophores and an assortment of salps. We are still seeing an occasional Phronima amphipod in its salp shelter too!

Our weather continues to be excellent which has been a real boon to our progress. We are currently heading for the shoal portion of Georges Bank before turning north to sample in the Gulf of Maine, which we will sample to the best of our ability in the time remaining.

Jerry Prezioso, chief scientist

HB1502 Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

End of Cruise Wrap-up

Photo of jumping Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) seen from the Henry B. Bigelow. (Photo credit: Allison Henry/NOAA NEFSC.)

Day 15 – July 11: Another beautiful day. We finished up line 47 and completed about half of line 26 (our two most southern and offshore lines). Our sightings were mostly of squid-eating species: Risso’s dolphin, sperm, pilot, and unid beaked whales. We also had some Atlantic spotted, bottlenose, and rough-toothed dolphins. A group of rough-toothed dolphins came to the bow and, though they weren’t there very long, Pete collected another sample! Pete’s been doing biopsies for a long time and that’s the first time he’s every darted a rough-tooth.

Day 16 – July 12: Windy, windy, windy. Everywhere. So, we stayed put where we were and got caught up on data, movie-watching and naps.

Day 17 – July 13: Completed line 26 in excellent conditions. More Atlantic spotted, striped, and Risso’s dolphins. Also some great looks at a large group of pilot whales. Timing worked out so that just as we finished surveying for the day, the engineers were able to take over and utilize our transit towards some inshore lines to take care of some of their routine maintenance needs.

Day 18 – July 14: Windy, windy, windy. Everywhere. Again. We had given it the ol’ college try, but were out of options, so decided to head back to the barn. After some initial scrambling to prepare for an early arrival, we were greeted at the dock by friendly faces and welcoming arms.

Sunsets on the close of the Henry B. Bigelow's most resent research cruise.

The sun sets on the close of the Henry B. Bigelow’s most resent research cruise. (Photo credit: Sasha McFarland.)

Thanks to all of the scientific and Bigelow crew for making this leg such a success!

Allison Henry, chief scientist

Fog, Fog and More Fog…and Some Whales

Delaware II returned to the NEFSC’s Woods Hole Laboratory dock on Tuesday (May 17), since it did not make good sense to sit at anchor in the fog just off of Nantucket for days. With promising weather in the forecast, we departed Woods Hole on Friday the 20th and steamed through the night to a point northwest of Howell Swell (an undersea feature east of Cape Cod).

Fulmars in the fog (Photo credit: Kate Sparks, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR)

There we sat all day Saturday in thick fog! We ran up to the flying bridge a few times during the day, hopeful that a new-found mile of visibility would soon open up. It never did. Inevitably it would close right back in to the 50 feet of visibility we were looking at for most of the day. The NEFSC’s twin otter tried to take a look around for us on their way to coastal Maine. They called and reported thick fog everywhere in the Great South Channel (GSC) region…so we sat.

Ship in fog

Photo credit: Kate Sparks, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR)

The winds picked up just at sunset Saturday and gave us a fairly rough night. On Sunday morning, the skies were overcast but we had good visibility. We
surveyed about 120 miles of track line, zig zagging through Howell Swell
and southward. We encountered three individual right whales, all widely
dispersed. Our sea state started as a Beaufort 4 with about a six-foot swell and improved throughout the day.  Around 1930hrs (7:30 pm EDT) last night, we came upon about five right whales within a mile or two of each other.

This morning (Monday the 23rd) it’s blowing around 17-22kts (knots, or roughly 19-25 miles per hour) and the seas are building. We found a pile of right whales! Beginning where we left off last night, we scouted around a bit. Approximately 30 right whales or so in the area. We have a strong beaufort 4 and building, which prohibits any small boat work.

Sighting whales from the DEII, with some help from “the big eyes” at right. (Photo credit: Kate Sparks, GDNR)

We are about 50nm east of Nauset. We will continue to track south and see what we find until conditions are unworkable, and will head for cover tonight near Chatham. Tomorrow’s forecast is 20-25kts (winds of roughly 23 to 29 miles per hour), with some hope in Wednesday’s forecast of lighter winds.

Lisa Conger
Chief Scientist, DE 11-04
Large Whale Program, NEFSC
Woods Hole Laboratory