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.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


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

Delicate Jellies, Video Stars

Hi! I’m Liese Siemann, and I am primarily a computational biologist. I spend my time running statistical and fluid dynamics models and writing programs to analyze images. So when I was invited to participate in this research cruise to develop a new camera system to survey jellyfish and other gelatinous animals, I jumped at the chance. Getting to work with sea turtles again and spend time watching whales all over the North Atlantic made the opportunity even more enticing.

The scientists at Coonamessett Farm Foundation have been attaching cameras and lights to scallop dredges for years, so I had a wide array of cameras, lights, and attachment hardware to choose from when designing the camera system.

As a first step, I spent many hours kayaking in ponds and coastal waters near home, testing camera settings with GoPro cameras attached to long poles. Preliminary testing of the whole set-up on a mock PVC frame was conducted at night in coastal waters off of docks in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Even if the jellyfish survey tows were conducted only during the day, it would still be dark at many of the depths we were likely to survey with the video system.

I did as much prep work as possible because the first time the camera system would be attached to a net frame and towed behind a big vessel is now, during this cruise. I had no idea if the system would work as planned. Luckily, the project has been successful beyond my expectations.

Small transluscent jellies form a chain

A pair of salp chains. Salps are gelatinous planktonic tunicates that often link together to form long chains. When collected in survey nets, these chains break apart, but the camera system records the salps as they enter the net with their chains intact. Photo by Liese Siemann

Transparent jellyfish and it's shadow

Ctenophores, or comb jellies, have rows of cilia along their transparent bodies for locomotion. These combs are particularly visible in the ctenophore shadow. Photo by Liese Siemann

We have collected imagery of small gelatinous animals that are normally damaged during typical survey trawls. By analyzing the videos with behavioral observation software and coupling the results with tow data collected by NOAA scientists, we will be able to estimate the abundance of these smaller, delicate organisms in a new way.

Liese Siemann, Coonamessett Farm Foundation

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Turtle Team and Oceanographers Do Mix

Bigelow scientific team at dinner

Here’s the team, at dinner before the first night on the boat: (around the table from the first on the left) Leah Crowe, Cassie Fries, Joe Warren, Eric Matzen, Michael James, Betsy Broughton, Samir Patel (obscured), Liese Siemann, Hannah Blair, Chrissy Hernandez).

Samir Patel here, turtle biologist aboard the Henry Bigelow for the 2017 Turtle and Cetacean cruise.   I am fortunate to have this opportunity to collaborate with many scientists from varying fields. As a sea turtle biologist, I do not typically conduct oceanographic surveys, or deploy acoustic recording devices, or sift through plankton in search of larval fish. However, we’re doing all of that.  This combination of researchers from government agencies, academia and non-profits means a cruise for turtle research becomes an opportunity to successfully integrate many research goals.

For the turtle research itself, the team consists of scientists from NEFSC, Department of Fisheries and Oceans-Canada, and Coonamessett Farm Foundation (CFF). The oceanographic work includes researchers from NEFSC, Stony Brook University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and CFF.

The goal of the sea turtle research is to sample a population of turtles that is typically difficult to encounter.  Using our combined resources, we hope to achieve this difficult goal. We expect turtles in this region to be smaller and forage higher in the water column than those encountered in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, for example.  There, through collaboration with NEFSC and CFF, we have caught and tagged more than 100 loggerhead turtles. We also expect the density to be lower than in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, thus communication and additional collaboration with local fishermen is key to providing intel on where we might encounter loggerheads.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the oceanographic sampling, collaboration allows the use of the same tools to help solve multiple problems. By towing neuston and bongo nets that are sampling at varying parts of the water column, several research questions can be addressed. First, what plankton are found in these regions and under these environmental conditions, specifically, in the frontal zones between warm and cold waters? Second, are there any particular fish larvae found in the plankton that would help us improve understanding of the spawning locations? Third, can we use video recording to measure the presence of gelatinous zooplankton in the water, a major food source for leatherback turtles and, occasionally, loggerhead turtles as well?

If not for the diversity of collaborators, our goals and objectives during this leg would be very limited; however through strong collaboration, we can address many research questions and bring many scientists together.

Samir Patel, Coonamessett Farm Foundation

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry Bigelow

Oceanography After Dark

Oceanography After Dark

July 10, 2017 — Hello from the Night’s Watch !  Unlike Jon Snow and his buddies on Game of Thrones, the night watch  on the ship are the folks who work between sunset and sunrise while the turtle-spotting scientists (and probably you) are asleep. It takes a day or two to get your body/brain to switch over to night-time as your working time, but a lot of very cool stuff happens at night.

I’m a bioacoustician. That means I use sound to study the marine environment.  One of my primary tools is an echosounder, which works much like a fish-finder or depth-finder you may have seen on a boat at some point.  Our equipment works similarly to those, it sends out a short pulse of sound (“a ping”) and then we listen for the echoes that come back. The ship we are on (NOAA’s Henry Bigelow) has a very nice, five-frequency, hull-mounted echosounder and as we drive around the ocean, we can see where different fish and plankton (small animals that can’t swim against a current very well) are located in the water column.


This is an echogram showing where organisms are located in the water column. The five windows show the five different frequencies (or wavelengths) of sound. Different wavelengths can detect some animals better than others. The blue dots represent a layer of animals that are located at different depths in the upper 100 m of the water column. We try to target a specific layer (or depth) when we deploy our nets). Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University

We use this information to determine at what depths we send our nets down to collect samples of these organisms.  And there’re A LOT of very cool animals that live in the ocean – most of which you probably have never seen or heard of.  One of my students will be blogging about some of these later on.

People washing out large plankton net on deck

Scientist are washing down the net after we bring it back on board the vessel, so that we make sure that we get all the animals in the net into our sample that we process inside the boat in the wet lab. Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University

Once we have these animals on the boat, we take a small number of them and measure their density (how much they sink or float relative to seawater) and their soundspeed (how fast sound moves through them), and photograph them with a ruler for scale so we know their shape and size.  We use these data to determine how much sound would reflect off a single animal.  With this information, we can convert the echoes (blue dots in the echogram) to how many animals there were beneath the boat.  This process can get very complicated if there are lots of different types of animals in the water – but in many cases we can use the acoustics to map out where the animals are relative to the different types of water we’re encountering.

In our nets, we find lots of different animals :

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Photos Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University)

Our cruise track for the past few days has us (at night) going in and out of a warm core ring, which is a chunk of water from the Gulf Stream (so it’s warm and salty) that has spun away from the Gulf Stream and is now traveling up along Georges Bank (southeast of Cape Cod).  What’s really interesting about sampling this warm core ring is that you can find completely different sets of animals when you do a tow inside or outside of the ring.  So you can find tropical species in one tow, and more typical species for coastal New England in the next tow depending on where the ship is.

Color coded chart of ocean water surface temperatures off the Northeatern U.S.

This is a map of sea surface temperatures that are collected by a satellite in space, and made available by scientists at Rutgers University. The left side of the orange-blob of water at the far right-hand side of the image is where we are working currently. This satellite can’t see through clouds so the maps that we get are a function of the weather conditions as well. (Photo Courtesy Joe Warren/Stony Brook University)

Thanks for reading about our science,

Joe Warren

Stony Brook University

Aboard the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow for the 2017 Cetacean and Turtle Cruise

Stayin’ Alive

GM wheel_opt

Chris Gallagher (left) and Andy Reynaga (center), in the wheelhouse of the Gloria Michelle. Andy and Chris are OMAO officers who operate the boatPhoto by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

For once, we needed live fish at the end of a cruise

Collecting cold-water species for the Woods Hole Science Aquarium is always a challenge.  It’s not that they are rare, it’s that they are hard to keep alive from capture to quarantine for display. The crew of the NEFSC small research vessel Gloria Michelle were about to do a short cruise, beginning field testing of newly designed trawl doors for the upcoming shrimp survey.  When I got a chance to tag along to test a kind of portable live well, I was in.

Industry folks never liked the old doors because of their size and design they no longer used, so Pete Chase of the survey branch talked with a number of industry members about the types of doors they used. Nearly all said Bison doors, which trawlworks in New Bedford agreed with, and both industry members and trawlworks provided recommendations for sizing to match the Gloria Michelle’s net. We ended up with size 7+ Bison doors, and brought along a commercial fisherman who has many years of experience with said doors to help us test and tune the new doors.  As Pete Chase notes, “We tested a number of different settings on the doors and experimented in a variety of depths. We are now confident that the doors are properly tuned and are fishing the net optimally.”

doors over_opt

Deploying the redesigned shrimp trawl doors, R/V Gloria Michelle. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen


Sensor package used to document performance of the new doors. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

The first day of door testing started around 0630. Several tows were performed at 150’ — we were near Stellwagen Bank…I could see Boston. The next day we were towing at 250’ on Stellwagen. The measurements for the spread were so consistent we were able to call the trip a success and head back to Woods Hole.

While  this was going on,  I was testing my gear as well.  The Gloria Michelle does not have a live well, so my few days (and first time!) at sea were used to find the best way to collect and keep the fish wanted alive.   I brought two coolers, a number of ice packs, a dissolved oxygen meter, an oxygen tank and several collection bottles for water-quality testing back at the aquarium’s lab. There were many failures (deaths!) and some success, as expected but there were also lessons learned.  I have already figured out some ways to make the next trip more successful. In the end, I returned with several species of invertebrates and four goosefish, which the aquarium has not displayed in more than ten years.


Experimental portable live well with flatfish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/Kristy Owen

Other lessons learned were that even though you have never been seasick  (I do have boating experience) that does not necessarily mean you will never get seasick! Therefore, lesson learned…drink lots of water (because you are working hard); do not eat a whole package of Oreo cookies, and Ziploc bags come in handy for many uses.

On our way back to Woods Hole we saw several basking sharks feeding at the surface and humpback whales breaching of in the distance. Overall, my first time at sea on a NOAA vessel was a great experience. I was able to collect animals for the aquarium, my primary mission, but also to meet and work side-by-side with people I have only seen in passing or never at all. I look forward to my next trip!

Kristy Owen
Senior Aquarist
Woods Hole Science Aquarium