Monday, January 14, 2013

Kinder Waters

It was the day after my Sea Legs adventure.  The weather was decent, so we headed back to the water to find more whales.  Armed with motion sickness meds and a sleeve of saltine crackers, I prepared myself physically and emotionally for another potential oceanic disaster.  The winds and the waves had died down quite a bit overnight, so I was already feeling more confident in my abilities to maintain composure aboard our research vessel.  As we headed offshore, we got a call about a reported right whale that was sighted by a local beach-goer.  We were skeptical (did this person actually see a right whale?), but we decided to check it out just in case.

After a few minutes of searching near the reported location, we spotted something shiny and black off the starboard bow.  Further investigation proved our efforts were not in vain...our beach-goer was right!  We had found the mommy whale and her calf.  Our photo-ID confirmed that this was #2912.  Hydrophones were deployed, video was recorded, and behavioral data was collected.  There were a few bumps along the procedural road, but it was a great day to figure out things that worked well and things that may need to be tweaked in the protocol.  After a few hours with this pair, we deployed the CTD (a device that measures conductivity, temperature, and water depth) and packed up shop.  It was already time to head back for the night.

Overall, I was pleased with our day.  It wasn't perfect, but we have to have days like that to figure out the best way to collect the data that we want.  AND I doubled the number of whales on my "whales I've seen" list, and that, at least to me, is very very exciting.

But now, alas, it is my last night in Fernandina Beach.  I feel like I just got here!  I'm sad to be leaving so soon, but I'm so glad I was able to help out for the past ten days.  Until next time, right whales!

FUN SCIENCE FACT #33: The speed of sound in water is about five times faster than the speed of sound in air (1497 m/s in fresh water, compared to 343 m/s in air).  That's pretty fast.  With all these hydrophones hooked up, it's not uncommon to hear a boat coming before we actually see the boat coming.  Turns out oceans are noisy places.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sea Legs

To "get one's sea legs" - a maritime catchphrase I have recently added to my ever expanding list of boat-related vocabulary.  Commonly used in association with one's inability to remain poised onboard a moving vessel, this phrase also refers to the issue of motion sickness.  As in, Leanna hadn't found her sea legs before yesterday, so she threw up six times off the back of the boat.  Too much information?  Apologies to any readers with weak stomachs.

The morning of January 11th was very exciting.  It was my first real day on the water!  My first real chance to see some whales!  We topped off the boat's tank at a local gas station, grabbed a quick slice of pizza for lunch, and we were on our way.  After loading all the gear onto the R/V Selkie (R/V for research vessel), we launched the boat out of Fernandina Beach.  Soon after, we got a call from an aerial survey plane that there was a North Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf about 25 miles offshore.  The seas were rough.  Very lumpy.  We charged ahead.  I already knew pizza was a bad idea.

While en route to that pair, we came across a different female with her new calf and decided to stick around to collect some acoustic and behavioral data.  My stomach was unquestionably queasy and my dizziness was rising at a steady pace.  I asked right then about boat-vomit protocol.  "So if I need to throw up, I just do it off the side of the boat?"  There was a unanimous "yes" from my fellow researchers, followed by a couple versions of "make sure you're downwind."  I made sure I was downwind.

We hadn't even started collecting data yet.

As I held on to the boat and waited for the sea sickness to pass, the three others, fully equipped with their sea legs, manned the camera, identified the whale (#2753 if you feel like looking her up in the NARW catalog), and started setting up the hydrophones (underwater microphones).  It was all a blur as I hurled that pre-boat pizza off the port side stern.  Next thing I knew, I was assigned to operate the digital recorder.  There was no way on God's green earth (or I guess, more appropriately, God's blue ocean) that I was going to be able to look at and read that tiny little screen, so I just put on some headphones and crossed my fingers that everything was set properly.  Yay data collection!

We stayed with that mom/calf pair for about an hour, and then it was time to head back to shore.  Once the boat got moving, I started to feel less ill.  The wind on my face, the knowing that solid land was in my near future.  As we arrived back at the dock and I stepped off the boat, I immediately felt better.  Granted, all the pizza and any trace of breakfast was long gone from my system.  But now I know - no pizza before boats.  And maybe next time I'll take a little dramamine (or some non-drowsy equivalent).

Back on land, it finally hit me.  I saw a whale.  I actually saw two whales - one mom and one calf.  Wow.  Those guys are HUGE.  I saw my first whale and it was a North Atlantic Right Whale.  There's only 500 of them in the entire population, and I saw two of them.  It was an awesome experience.  Minus the vomit.

FUN SCIENCE FACT #32:  Some research suggests that individuals require different amounts of time to adjust to "new sensory environments."  In other words, the genes needed to cope with motion sickness turn on faster in some people than in others.  I think I have slow genes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Right Whales, Wrong Weather

I will be the first to admit that I’ve never really been on a boat.  And that I’ve never been to the Atlantic Ocean.  And that I’ve never actually seen a whale in real life.  But when I had the opportunity to help out my advisor (Susan Parks) with her ongoing North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) mother/calf study, there was no way I could turn it down…ten days in Florida to play with whales and hydrophones?  Yes, please!  

When I left a very snowy Syracuse a few days ago, I had no idea what to expect with this type of fieldwork.  Whales are pretty big, right?  So how hard could they be to find?  Well, turns out that you don’t actually get to see any whales (or even go out on the boat) when the weather is terrible.  We’ve been unlucky with the weather here so far.  Wind, rain, fog…we just can’t catch a break.  We did go out on the boat this past Saturday though.  We tested some equipment and played with cameras and laser rangefinders.  No whales on Saturday, but we did spot some dolphins near the boat and some ponies on the beach.

The past couple days have been spent getting the rest of our equipment prepped and at least for me, learning how to use all of this equipment.  I also got a crash course in North Atlantic Right Whale identification.  Because there aren’t really that many of these guys left (only about 500), researchers are able to keep up with basically the entire population.  There’s an online catalog of all of the known individuals with photos and drawings of their distinctive markings, and there’s even a matching game if you want to try your hand at matching some whales.  It’s pretty fun once you get into it, but it can also be a terribly time consuming and exhausting process.  My first day of whale matching was full of ups and downs, but we ended up correctly matching about five or so whales….which counts as a success in my book!

It looks like the weather is going to clear up and be lovely this weekend, so hopefully we can get a few good days in on the boat!  I can’t wait to see a whale IN REAL LIFE!  And hopefully see a precious little baby whale.  Little is a relative term…these babies are still like 13-17 ft. long. 

You can find more updates from the field on the Parks Lab Field Blog.

If we can't go out on the boat, might as well enjoy a walk on the beach

FUN SCIENCE FACT #31: Male right whales have the largest testicles of any animal, weighing in at one metric ton (2204.62 pounds).  You never know when facts like these might come in handy on trivia night.