Of dolphins and goodbyes

Written Thursday evening:

Today was bittersweet. We saw seabirds and one that was lost at sea.  We woke up to find a female Yellow warbler hitchhiking on the ship – a nice little treat for birders, probably not so nice for the poor warbler, who must have blown off course. When we awoke we were well offshore, headed northeast toward Astoria. During the first shift of observations someone spotted dolphins! As we got closer, we realized there were about 80 of them – Pacific white-sided dolphins – riding the bow waves. Right after they left a pod of Northern right whale dolphins appeared. This was even exciting for Dr. Torres, our marine mammalogist. These dolphins have no dorsal fin and purportedly look like the extremely endangered Northern right whale.


Northern right whale dolphin, named for the extremely endangered Northern right whale

We didn’t see many whales today, but throughout the day we spotted birds galore – Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters, Black-foot albatross, Sabin’s gulls, Fork-tailed storm petrel, Cassin’s auklets, Marbled murrelets, and many gulls. We also saw an Albacore tuna and several Mola-mola (ocean sunfish). Incredible sightings.

A short video of some of the many dolphins that swam around our bow:

The bitter part of the day came near the end when we had to say goodbye to our scientists and Warrenton High School teacher Josh Jannusch.


We say goodbye to the scientists and Josh

Now we are motoring up the Columbia River – it will take us about 10 hours on the Columbia to reach the Willamette. We expect to arrive in Portland at about 6:30 tomorrow morning, and we are all planning to get up at 4:30 to see the bridges.


Not all fun and games: Natalie and Leland doing homework

Next challenge: giving tours of the Oceanus tomorrow.


Good night!

Spotlight on the Scientists

I have not yet been able to pin down Dr. Torres for an interview as she has been incredibly busy, but the graduate students have told me about their research goals and history. Again, I have pictures but the wifi on board is not allowing me to transfer them, so I’ll do that when we dock in Portland tomorrow.

Meet Jane Dolliber!

Jane grew up in Seattle, Washington. She has been interested in birds for as long as she can remember; her interest in science dates back to high school. She wanted to be a Biochemist until she realized that being a Biochemist meant being in a lab ALL the time, so she switched to a field that would get her outside. Jane did her undergraduate schooling in the Biology Department at the University of Washington; then she converted to Beaverism and now is a Master’s student at Oregon State University. Her specialty is pelagic birds, and her thesis research is on using satellite imagery to count nesting, Short-tailed albatross on colony (as opposed to on the water). Short-tailed albatross are a North Pacific species – they live from the east to the west Pacific down to the Oregon coast. Jane says that the juveniles tend to wander farther than the adults; kind of like sending your kid to the store and they wander around to several stores before the parents tell them, “No, just go to the hardware store.”  When she finishes her Master’s, Jane would like a job that blends teaching and research; she will likely go back to school to earn a PhD. On this cruise she is doing counts of any seabirds found to augment information on how these birds will be affected by development of alternative energy.


Meet Florence Sullivan!

Florence is a graduate student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. Originally she hails from Seattle, like Jane and myself. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from University of Washington in the Oceanography department. Florence’s research is on the foraging ecology of gray whales on the coast – the specific group she studies is the Pacific Coast Feeding Group – about 200 individuals that, instead of migrating up to the Bering Sea, stays between Northern California and southeast Alaska. Usually gray whales range from Baja to northern Alaska. They are hoping to do long-term ecological research. Gray whales are very plastic on what they eat, so part of her research is looking at what they eat. She has also been investigating the impact of whale-watching tour boats on gray whales. As this industry grows, she and Dr. Torres just want to help the average boater understand how to keep the whales safe. They are very close to having a brochure to distribute up and down the coast. On this cruise, Florence is in charge of oceanography, running the CTD casts to profile the water column to get snapshot images of the ocean conditions that the whales are traveling through. In particular, they are looking at the temperature and primary production (plankton). Regions that are very productive because of upwelling have high productivity and this magnifies up the food chain. In essence, what is good for the prey is good for the predators. Florence and Amanda have been writing blog posts and they wrote a great post about humpback whales. Here’s the link: www.blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab.


Meet Amanda Holdman!

Amanda is currently working on her Master’s degree with Dr. Torres at Oregon State University. She is a transplant from Bloomington, Indiana, having earned her bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in northern Indiana. Amanda is nearly finished with her thesis. She has been researching the habitat ecology of harbor porpoises, along with a bit of behavioral ecology; she accomplishes this through both visual and acoustic data. In other words, she watches them and listens to the sounds they make. To do this, she has used hydrophones that are designed for high-frequency sounds, such as those made by porpoises, dolphins, and killer whales. On this cruise, Amanda is collecting data on all marine mammals we’ve spotted, but she will only analyze the data on harbor porpoises. Amanda also has done research in terrestrial habitats – she has worked with black bears in Michigan, white-tailed deer, coyote pups, and fox in Indiana. She has a passion for protecting animals from anthropogenic impacts, so information about their habitats is essential. When she finishes, Amanda would like to continue researching conservation ecology of mammals, and after a couple years, she will likely pursue a PhD.
Link to OSU blog

What happens to styrofoam, paper, and plastic when it’s dropped to the ocean floor?

Yesterday afternoon we dropped the mesh bags with experiments from Ms. Steinman’s Ocean Engineering class. The experimental material contained Styrofoam cups, paper cups, 2-liter plastic soda bottles with paper inside, and two Pelican brand, water-tight containers. Both mesh bags were attached to the CTD (see previous post) and went down to 1,383 meters!  Yes, meters, not feet. It took a full hour to drop the CTD and return it to the surface. I’ll try to embed a video here to show the return of the CTD to the vessel. The results are interesting, but I’ll wait to report on that until the Ocean Engineering students can see and interpret the evidence. I will include a photo of the cups and, if wifi is good, I’ll include a short video of the CTD coming up to the ship.


Cups attached to the CTD with my hand for scale.

Martha, the teacher from Bandon High School, calculated that at a depth of 1,383 meters, the pressure is 1,400 decibars, which converts 138.2 atmospheres and 2,031.589 PSI (pounds per square inch). Just for comparison, we live at sea level which has an atmospheric pressure of 1.0.  Wow! And how cool that scientists really use dimensional analysis, like Martha did. OK, so here’s a picture of the cups after they came up – unfortunately I didn’t stick my hand in the picture, so it might be hard to see the difference.


After being submerged to 1,383 m the styrofoam cups are much smaller, but the paper cups are not.

Above is a short video of the CTD being raised to the boat. The poles extending out to clip ropes on are being managed by two of the high school students. The white blobs at the top of the CTD are the paper and styrofoam cups.

Also this afternoon I saw three life species of birds – this means I saw them for the first time in my life. Birders often keep life lists; I’m too lazy to do this, but I do get pretty excited when I see a new species. The first is the Black-footed albatross – I’ve seen about 20 of them, total. While waiting for the CTD to come up, Jane and I birded on the fly deck and she pointed out a single Long-tailed jaeger. Finally, during my observation shift this evening we saw several Cassin’s auklet – a tiny, cute little bird that nests in burrows. This is a great adaptation, because the holes are small and it’s difficult for predators to pass through. I’m hoping to see Storm petrels tonight – Matthew told me about a recent discovery with these diminutive predators – apparently they can leave eggs on the nest for long periods of time, with little to no incubation. It’s thought that this is an evolutionary adaptation to the birds being blown out to sea (while foraging for food) during a storm. They are so small that it can take a long time to be able to get back to the nest, so the chicks don’t die, but their growth stops until a parent can get back to the nest.



Where in the world is Ms. Almasi and why on earth is she there?

AGH! There’s ocean all around me and I don’t know where I am!!  Well, sort of. I know I’m on the Pacific Ocean and that we’re heading south right now. Last night we spent the night around Heceta Bank, where we’d seen the humpback whales, so I believe by now we are probably south of Florence.

I want to introduce you to the projects on board, as well as a few of the scientists and ship’s crew. There are two types of projects on this trip: scientific and educational. Dr. Leigh Torres is the Principal Investigator (“The Boss”) for the science projects and Tracy Crews is the Principal Investigator for the educational research project.

Let’s start with the education research project, since that is why I’m here. Oregon Sea Grant and Oregon Coast STEM Hub secured funding to test the question of whether a unique, hands-on experience with “near peer mentors” stimulates enough interest for students to prevent them from dropping out of science in college. The teachers were invited to see if this kind of experience will help increase interest in STEM fields for both teachers and their students back at home. The “near peer mentors” term refers to the fact that we have several levels of academic students: high school students à undergraduate college studentsà graduate students à professor & high school teachers. This is also an opportunity to help grad students learn to communicate and teach others about their research.

OK, now for the Science research. We are out here primarily to collect data on the population abundance and behavior of marine mammals and pelagic birds. Pelagic means open ocean, so these are the birds that spend most of their lives on or above the ocean. Most of them raise their chicks on land, but that’s the only time we’ll see them on land. Except for those pesky and abundant gull species.


Ms. Almasi and Etasha work on the CTD

There are four scientists on board, if you don’t count Tracy, the high school teachers, or the high school students. As I mentioned before, the Principal Investigator is Dr. Leigh Torres, whose expertise and research area is marine mammal ecology (especially the distribution, abundance, and behavior). She has two graduate students on this cruise who are working on their Master of Science degrees: Amanda and Florence. Jane is another grad student who works with Dr. Rob Suryan on the ecology of pelagic birds, such as albatross, shearwaters, storm petrels, and fulmars. Amanda studies harbor porpoises and Florence works on the feeding ecology of gray whales. On this cruise, Florence is managing the data from a large, heavy contraption called the CTD.


Jane Dolliber (left) and Dr. Leigh Torres (right) doing observation duty.

The CTD collects data that is useful for a wide variety of projects.  CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. A very heavy piece of equipment, the CTD has sensors for conductivity, temperature, elevation (an altimeter), pressure (helps measure depth), and a GPS. There are also about 12 water chambers for collecting water samples. Here’s one of the coolest parts – Florence and/or the ship’s Marine Technician, Croy, can program the sample collection from the Tech Lab. So they tell the CTD from the computer to close these chambers at different depths – and they can read what depth the CTD is at from the graphs generated on the computers. Once the CTD is pulled back up to the surface, the chambers are opened and water is removed and tested.

Why do they need the conductivity measurement? Turns out that electrical conductivity is determined by ions in the water. Many ions are salts, so the more ions in the water, the greater the conductivity, and the higher the salinity (salt content). This feature – salinity and/or conductivity – determines which species of organism can survive in the water. Pretty cool, huh?

So far the CTD has been deployed 4 times on this journey – and right now it’s about lunch time on Wednesday.  Our deepest spot will occur tomorrow when we head north to the Columbia river.

P.S. The Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles and containers just went down with the CTD and will be reaching a depth of 1,400 meters. This

Coming soon: spotlight on the researchers!

Also, if you are interested in having me interview someone on board about a particular career, please let me know. There are 25 of us on board – 13 students, teachers, and scientists plus 12 ship crewmen and women.  More soon!


Of Whale Poop and Shearwaters

Wifi is spotty and I didn’t have down time yesterday, so this morning I’m posting a short note I wrote last night. I have pictures, but with the wifi, I can’t connect them yet.

Did you know that Blue whale poop is RED?!


We did NOT see blue whales and their feces today, but we did have the once-in-a-lifetime (at least for me) experience of sitting next to a pod of more than 50 humpback whales, watching them feed.  Pink-footed shearwaters (with a few sooty shearwaters thrown in) loved the whales too; there must have been more than 200 shearwaters feeding on the krill and other plankton brought up by the whales.


Humpbacks, Gray whales, and blue whales belong to a group called the Balinadae, because they have a structure called baleen that helps them sift prey items. Watching them feed is incredibly – they drive their tiny plankton prey upward and into their mouths by starting below them. From the boat, we see their huge, open mouths swoop up and out of the water, then they turn their bodies sideways while sifting the water out and keeping the plankton in. Even our Chief Scientist, Dr. Leigh Torres, was astounded at the size and feeding behavior of these creatures. We collected a plankton sample at the same time and found krill! Krill are actually what makes the poop of blue whales (and probably other baleen whales) red because these little shrimp relatives are pink.


Just before that we saw the humpbacks, we spotted a small group of killer whales – about 4. Wow, incredible day.