Friday, November 26, 2010

Signing off... wait before you do that... stick a Steno!

Yet again the weather stunk today, but we decided to pull into the lee of Kauai and trawl for dolphins. We struck success with a large group of rough-toothed dolphins. These guys are usually disinterested in riding the bow wave, but to our surprise we had ample opportunity to do some biopsy sampling from the bow. Miraculously, we doubled our sample collection numbers for this leg in about 2 hours (up to a whopping total of 6).

Here is the overall summery for sightings added to my personal "life list":

Longman's beaked Whale - Indopacetus pacificus
Bryde's whale - Balaenotpera edeni
Sei whale - Balaenoptera borealis
Rough-toothed dolphin - Steno bredanensis**
Gray's spinner dolphin - Stenella longirostris longirostris
Short-finned pilot whales - Globicephala macrorhynchus**
Fraser's dolphin - Lagenodelphis hosei
False killer whale - Pseudorca crassidens

That's 8 new species including the very rare Longman's beaked whale, and two first timers made the biopsy list**!!!

OK folks - thanks for keeping up with the Okie, and for giving me some good comments and questions along the way. If you have enjoyed, please feel free to post it or email to let me know. After tonight's post, I'm on shore leave with a beautiful brunette for a week, and then I'm head back to the alternative lifestyle of a graduate student thereafter. Thanks again for logging on!

Until next time, be sure to cork your irons and coil your lines!!


Okie Whaler
photo courtesy of Jim Cotton

Fin whales at our six o'clock, surfing the wake?

Well folks the weather today was slop and chop! We have two days left until we pull into Ford Island, Honolulu for some R&R. Most of the other researchers will be working the transit back to San Diego, but I will be staying in Hawaii for another week of vacation. Our one and only sighting today was pretty memorable! A pair of fin whales (note: fin whales aren't really supposed to be here - they are exceedingly rare in this part of the world)! We were sure they were just going to make an appearance and run away, but to our glee, they stayed and circumnavigated our ship about 5 times. Each time we lost them, they would surface just behind the ship, literally 5 meters from the fan-tail. We would slow down and they would pass us at a safe distance, then we would speed up and they would dive, only to surface again body-surfing the ship's wake. It made for good photos, but they never came close enough for a biopsy opportunity. It would have been interesting to sequences these guys to see if they are the western Pacific population or the Eastern pacific, or a whole new population. My guess? They looked Russian to me.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love at first Strike: Sampling the Rocketeer

Sorry for the delinquency folks. It’s been an exciting few days here on the Mac II. We've found ourselves in the midst of some great weather, finally! Making it so much more fun to do our jobs!!

Wow - now that's good weather!

Yesterday we found a mess (about 12 sub groups, spread out over 8 nautical miles) of pilot whales. This was our first sighting of this species all leg. In fact the chief scientist had just mentioned that we hadn't seen them. (Of course once we saw them everyone started in with the , "We haven't seen killer whales... or mesoplodon... or a million bucks either!")

Pilot whales are beautiful in their own strange way. They are a member of the "blackfish" or the Globicephalinae subfamily (literally means "globe-head) that are all or mostly black and have rounded heads instead of beaks. They're not true whales at all, but firmly nested with the dolphin family. Pilot whales are one of the biggest species (actually two species) of dolphin, but still much smaller than the true whales. They also have teeth like dolphins and they are fairly social like most dolphins. The adult males are easily distinguishable from the females by their HUGE dorsal fin. Unlike killer whales that are also "sexually dimorphic", the male pilot whales have very broad dorsal fins instead of really tall dorsal fins. Its pretty awesome - a big males head looks like a big shiny black helmet and their dorsal fin looks like a jet pack designed when Art Deco was the rage. This combination reminds me of the Rocketeer!!

Thanks to IMDB for the poster, and A. Mackay of Cascadia Research for the Globicephala photo.

I finally got a fair chance at using my marksmanship skills. Photos are coming as soon as I can pry them from the hands of the photo team. You'll get a more detailed description of the transgressions then. It’s somehow fitting that my Okie friends are probably gearing up for their annual Thanksgiving clay pigeon shoot-off at Grampa Constien's ranch. Hope you're proud of me boys for bringing a little of the Turkey-day tradition to the central north Pacific!

Scientifically speaking, this is a great sample to have, as we don't have any from this species in this region of the ocean. Now who knows when NOAA will have enough samples for some lowly graduate student to actually analyze them, but at least this one is "in the freezer".

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Miranda Davit and the Ptotally Pterrible Pterodactyls

I'm getting a feeling that the blog is a little too cute and cuddly. So to take a stride from the softer side of Sears, back in the chainsaws and lawn tractors, I'd like to introduce you to my friend Miranda and the Pterrible Pterodactyls.
Miranda Davit is a fancy lassie not afraid to do some serious heavy lifting. I can say without hesitation that upon first sight, I knew I'd never seen her equal in both form and function. She's an elegant assembly of steel and hydraulics. Effectively, the Miranda is nothing more than a metal sled attached to a crane, but she is so well designed that at cruising speed of 8 knots (9.2 mph) and seas state up to 6 (9–13 ft seas and a stiff breeze), she can lift a small boat and crew safely up and onto the deck. She sits high above the waterline, and via a single set of controls lowers and retrieves a small boat down the side of the ship on a track. Functionally, there is only one point of contact from the small boat to the Miranda. This does give some more safety conscious users a bit of a start. What if that single connection breaks? Well yes, then you're in the drink, so to speak. But on the other hand, there are not a load of lines and chains and cables to get fouled up in. This single connect really allows for quick deployment and recover of a small vessel (...and honestly, what other multi-point crane contraption wouldn't also dump you into the drink if any single connection broke!?). The connection is operated from the small boat, so there is little option of being dropped from too high, or lifted without a proper hook secured. Modern Marvels!!
Miranda in action!

For more information - check out the link HERE.

PS> Sea Sheppard should look into buying one of these puppies!! Check out the complete idiocy, (they're really lucky no one was killed!):

In other news - we stopped to pick up a USFWS biologist at Laysan Island today; home of the endemic Laysan finch and Laysan duck (the rarest duck in the world!!). Laysan is also home to thriving populations of pterodactyls (AKA Frigate birds) and Brown Boobies (not the ones you see on vacation in the French Riviera).

Frigate birds are AWESOME!! If I wasn't a whale biologist, I might study frigate birds. These guys are almost entirely pelagic, and absolutely entirely aerial. They physically cannot land on the water, and cannot take of from any flat surface. Although their toes are slightly webbed (probably a throwback from evolutionary past because they share this feature with their pelican relatives) their skin doesn't produce oil, so if they were to fall into the ocean, they would be sunk!! They have the largest wingspan to body-size ratio of any bird, making them AMAZING fliers, but absolutely worthless on the ground. Even more interesting than that, these guys are the Winona Ryders of the sea bird world: they're kleptomaniacs! Technically they're called kleptoparasitic, which means to obtain your nutrients by stealing it from someone else (more like Biff Tannen the lunchroom bully than Winona Ryder). The huge acrobatic birds (wingspans up to 7.5 feet) occasionally forage by stealing other seabird's meals: either by out maneuvering the birds to the recently killed item, or by harassing the other bird until they either drop the fish or... get this... toss their cookies! The frigate then scoops "up the chuck" and flies off before "up-chuck" even hits the water!! Impressive? Yes! Disgusting DEFINITELY!!Don't they look like pterodactyls?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome back humpback!! And capture evaded; try again in another 70 years...

Another excellent day of atoll hopping was capped with the cruise's first sighting of a humpback whale (6 ship months worth of work) and a new species of seabird for me, the masked booby. The humpbacks are just starting their breeding season, so we should see some more this week. They migrate from feeding areas (mostly off Alaska) here to Hawaii to breed and have their babies. We couldn't get close to this guy today because the seas remain high, and he was hugged right up against a coral atoll. Needless to say it would have been a dangerous maneuver. He announced his presence in typical humpback fashion with a majestic fully-out-of-the water breach, and a massive KIRPLUNK!! Show-off! It would have been nice to get a photo and some skin for genetics. An attempt to survey the entire north Pacific population of humpbacks was conducted a couple years ago, and interestingly they found genetic signatures in the feeding locations that they didn't find in the breeding locations. What does this mean? Either, they just missed it by chance (a long shot given the efforts), or there's a breeding location that we haven't found yet. Where is the most likely spot for a lost breeding location? Probably right where we are!! Humpbacks tend to congregate around islands or in coastal areas to calve, and these islands are some of the most remote islands on the planets (read: they don't get surveyed very frequently!). Hopefully we'll see more soon (through the sights of my crossbow!).

Masked Booby

This evening's sunset activity was trying to recover a glass fishing float. Yes, you read correctly, a float made from hand-blown glass that were used (largely by the Japanese fishing fleets) in the first half of the 20th century. Where do these come from? As you can imagine, nets get lost in the big blue and when they do, they sadly continue fishing (known a ghost fishing) and kill many living creatures in secrecy. When the nets deteriorate and sink, they leave just the floats adrift at the surface. Interestingly, the use of glass was discontinued in about the 40s, replaced by cheaper plastic and wood. It’s amazing to think that these guys have been out here a minimum of 70 years!!! The coolest thing is that they largely don't leave the north Pacific because of the surface currents here are just one big gyre; they just go round and round! On the last leg of the cruise the biologists found 6 floats; we've seen 3!! They're out here, just waiting to be picked up! Including the beautiful beach ball-sized green one we attempted to pick up tonight. After three runs at it we gave up - he'll continue to float around the north pacific another day... or maybe for another 70 years! There it is!!

... and there it goes!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What a difference a day makes

After several miserable days socked-in, we now seem to have the worst of the weather behind us (knock on serious wood). Just in the nick of time, as we only have 10 days of the cruise left and we have a lot of ground (or should I say water) to make up. We actually got almost a full day in today. We stopped a little early just offshore of Midway Atoll to pick up some gear from USFWS and gawk at the local wildlife. This was the second of two atolls we cruised by today, and the represent the first views of land in about 20 days. The first sighting of breakers was Kure atoll at about 1130 this morning. This spit of sand, trees, reef and shipwrecks is the most northerly atoll in the world; and the most remote (e.g., oldest) atoll in the Hawaiian chain. Other than it's roll as a seabird motel, there isn't much more to say about Kure. Midway on the other hand has deep historical significance. It was the target of an extensive Japanese naval air attack only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thankful for the US fleet, (and maybe the fate of the free world), codebreakers cracked the plan and the US navy had a day's jump on the Japanese fleet. Many have called this six-day battle the turning point for the war in the Pacific; others have called it the "most stunning and decisive battle in the history of naval warfare". In total 4 Japanese carriers (including the flagship for the attack on Pearl Harbor), 2 heavy cruisers and 2 destroyers were sunk. The US fleet lost the carrier Yorktown, which was badly hobbled already from the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Destroyer Hammann (which was aiding the Yorktown); submarine torpedoes sank both ships. The US later established a submarine base at Midway extending the reach of its submarine fleet by 1200 miles past Pearl Harbor, and 3200 miles from the US west coast.

In more peaceful news... Midway is home of a staggering 3 million breeding seabirds, from 17 different species. After today's view of the bird traffic (on the cusp of Albatross breeding season), it’s a wonder how planes ever took off from the island. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and the state of Hawaii now manage Midway as part of the "Really Big P-word" National Monument (Papahānaumokuākea).

Laysan Albatrosses (below) make up half of the breeding bird population (~1.5M birds, each with a 6.5ft wingspan; that sounds like a load of guano to me!).

And members of the local population of spinner dolphins greeted us (interestingly we could actually hear their whistles from the bow of the ship!!)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yesterday's Rant - The Tale of the Little Red Wagon

This morning, while trying to assuage the "waves in me belly", I truly thought I had a winner, "I'm going of buy a wagon, or even better a kid-sized wheelbarrow, from Radio Flyer for my nieces". I was already writing my acceptance speech for winning the "Triple Crown of Sensible Consumerism", an award that includes: 1) the best Uncle on the planet, 2) Captain America Stimulus, and 3) the Sir Galahad the Green for a low carbon footprint.

As a person who tries to vote for American jobs with his pocket book, I try to buy products made in the good ol' U.S. and A. Largely because of my lovely wife's influence, I've become the guy that looks at all the tags at the store, and the labels on the fruit and veggies. Every little bit helps, right?

But alas, after about an hour of searching, which brashly announces on one in-depth family heritage page after another, "The Radio Flyer is a true American Icon", I found no sign of where they are manufactured. It even seems that Radio Flyer is one of the top ten "places to work" in Illinois, but there is no manufacturing wing there or in any of the 49 other states for that matter. After a little more digging, I found where this American Icon is manufactured. All you have to do to find it is follow our economy. You guessed it, "up the yin-Yangtze".

I know this probably isn't Radio Flyer's fault. They are just trying to hold onto their business to employ those lovely people in Illinois, and they have to make cuts somewhere. So whom do we blame? Congress? The President? The lazy Americans who can't get off their couches and take a job that involves manual labor? Like most things in life, we should probably look at ourselves first. For the last few decades, WE THE PEOPLE have shot ourselves in the proverbial economic toehold by demanding "cheaper", but at what unforeseen cost? We in the science and technology sector sometimes recall a foreboding saying, "We were too busy asking if we could make it, that we forgot to ask if we should make it". In this situation we were too busy asking if we could buy it cheaper, and forgot to ask if we should buy it cheaper.

We're all just the little people right, but in this atmosphere of change please look at what you can do within your little world, from your pocket book to your newly elected officials, and demand that your money go to help your family and your community. Demand it of your policy-makers, your co-workers, and your friends: stop selling you brother down the river, while building up the Yangtze. Buy local, Buy US. Sure you'll have to pay a little more, but you'll be able to tell your nieces that "the Radio Flyer is really a True American icon, built with skilled American hands and supporting American families just like ours."

This rant is "Booby Approved"!

Monday, November 15, 2010

"What the heck are you doing out there anyway?"

We're mostly doing 'line transect surveys', which basically means sail the line and count how many things you see along your way. From this we get two pieces of information: we calculate the amount of area we've covered, and we know the number of "things" we saw. We combine the two and get an estimate of "things per area". Pretty simple. When you do this year after year, you can then make estimates of whether you have more or less things than you did before. This is really what we care about, because NOAA is charged with monitoring the status of marine mammals in the waters of the US.

Once we see things and we count them, we deviate from our "track-line" to get a closer look. This is when the fun ensues. We take loads of photos, make notes on the behavior of the animals and if we're in safe enough circumstances we try to collect biopsy samples using crossbows. My nuanced roughneck skills comes into action at this point... I didn't win top marksmen at Cub Scout day camp for nothing! These biopsy samples are critical to our ability to shed light on the many outstanding questions of basic taxonomy (e.g., is what we call a fin whale one species, or three?) and population biology (e.g., is the super-small insular population of false killer whales in Hawaii just an unimportant subset of the open ocean populations, or is it truly unique locally adapted population worthy of protection?). Its amazing to some people that basic questions of "how many species are there" for cetaceans is still largely outstanding. Despite hunting many of these little guys for the last 200 years, we didn't do a very good job of taking notes. So now we do most of the taxonomy with genetics because we can't kill them, and they don't come to the beaches to die, (unfortunate I know) making in-depth studies of anatomy very difficult.

The photo is of a phalanx of Fraser's dolphins (Lagendelphis hosei), a species that was 'rediscovered' in the 1970's by my adviser Bill Perrin. It was initially described from a single skull on a beach in Sarawak, but nobody knew what the outsides looked like (DOH!). So he put the two together. I saw a crispy dead one from a beach in Northeastern Queensland in 1999; they're fascinating little dark meated buggers.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

BOINGs and Baby Mattresses

Today's weather was slightly better than yesterday's but only in that the rain held off so we could see the wind and waves pounding us. The swell at times today reached epic proportions with the length of our hull running up one side of a wave and down the other (our hull is 250ft...)

Icing on the bad weather cake was that we saw no animals today (aside from the flying trapeze acrobat-o-boobies that NOAA hired to keep us entertained - don't worry taxpayers they're only paid what they can eat in flying fish...)

Interestingly, our acoustic team heard some Minke whales today. These are the second smallest of the baleen whales. They communicate using a wonderfully cartoonish "BOING" sound. Its as if they all swallowed Acme pogo sticks. Wait until Sesame Street gets a hold of this! I find it amusing that the only thing we know about breeding areas for Minke whales in this part of the world is from a couple of NOAA scientists sitting around listening to sounds that could be used to accompany Wile E. Coyote vaulting over a canyon with springs strapped to his feet. I couldn't make this up - watch the video for your self.

So, since I don't have anything else to write about, I'll introduce you to my quarters. My "stateroom" is small, a little smelly, and not "stately" at all. But somehow it is insulated from the constant drone of whirling and whizzing mechanical parts (diesel engines, exhaust fans, electronics, transformer buzz) that make-up the soundtrack of life at sea. I've been working in my room most days when I'm not on watch (as a graduate student, there's always something to write, I think they're preparing us for fall back careers as university administrators). I sleep in the top bunk, over what sounds like a lawnmower failing to fire every 3 seconds; he's my bunkmate Richard. He's a really sweet guy with a talent for percussive nasal music. He practices a lot, so he's really good. My bunk is nice and cozy. If I had to guess, I'd say it offers 24 spacious inches of headroom. Better yet, the mattress is bed bug, crab and 'accident' proof; that's right its covered in plastic!! Now that I think about it, it's amazing I'm not having nightly dreams of being stuck in a crib on tilt-a-whirl operated by a narcoleptic Carney.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Today was a wash. The visibility barely overcame one nautical mile and winds and swell increased steadily all day. Currently, we're riding four-meter swells and look to be doing so until early in the week. The red-footed boobies seemed to be the only ones on our ship enjoying the weather. FISH-ON!!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sunrise Sentinel

First watch this morning began like most first watches: bleary-eyed and unkempt scientist climbing to the tippy-top of the flying bridge toting binoculars, cameras, notebooks, sunscreen, water and NPR-laden iPods. Anecdotally, if you happen to fall slightly tardy in this processional (my usual position), you could navigate to the flying bridge Hansel and Gretel-style, following the trail of breakfast morsels and coffee droplets. Our typical best-case scenario for the "rooster watch" is a brilliant unimpeded sunrise. The members of today's sunrise shift, however, looked on in wonder as if they'd just stumbled upon the majestic geysers of the Yellowstone valley. Fifty sperm whales surrounded us! The characteristically canted blows rose dense and bushy in the early morning air, probably a result of deep recovery breathing. Sperm whales feed through the night when the schools of squid ascend from the depths to feed on shoaling fish. Each of the night's feeding dives can last well over an hour! Upon further inspection, most of the groups included cows with young calves resting placidly at the surface, the antithesis of the Moby Dick stereotype. Our attempts to get close to them were fraught with frustration (hence no good photos to share). None-the-less an exciting way to start the day! It's also good to know large groups of the prune-headed 'Cachalot' are still out here enjoying their breakfast morsels and taking in the brilliant unimpeded sunrises!

Having headed far south trying to outrun to a high-pressure zone currently sloshing the proverbial bathtub near Hawaii, we're now far outside of our planned study area. Interesting the last few days have shown a marked upswing in the number of sightings; we had six today (including a new species for me, the rough-toothed dolphin!). Our leading hypothesis (as objective government scientists) is that the animals have all coordinated to form a big line just on the outside of our study area. Batten down the hatches and ready the Dramamine my friends - we can't run any more - 14-foot swells predicted for tomorrow!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran’s Daydreaming (guest starring the Bryde's whale)

One of my many roles as the illustrious 'visiting scientist' out here is to sight whales. You guessed it: glorified whale watching! This job usually entails many lonely hours searching the horizon line for that distant whale spout, desperately trying to hold binocular still on an ever rolling ship, while squinting into the sun ... somehow we're always facing into the sun when I'm on watch! Sounds grueling, I know, but it's one of my favorite things to do. For better or worse, it affords a lot of time to think. Usually after about 2.3 seconds my mind starts to wander.

Nestled amongst some of the tiny blips of sand that held great strategic importance during the Second World War (ie., Wake Island, Midway Atoll and Pearl Harbor), I imagine what it would have been like to be out here as a young man seventy years ago. Out here among the sunshine, waves and wispy clouds of the great Pacific, but instead of searching for whales and seabirds, I'm looking for Japanese warships and aircraft. I would not be naive to the fact that the enemy aircraft are instructed to take down my ship at any cost. My ship is my only lifeline. We are SO far from anything; I haven't seen land in weeks. Would help even come if my ship went down? Even if they new where we went, it would be weeks if not months before they could get here! Sunburn, thirst, starvation, sharks, misery!

As my eye catches a far off splash, my mind snaps back to the job at hand, "BLOW at 30 degrees left!” I yell. I look down; I feel Goosebumps rise on my arms.

I'm sure some of those boys must have had short attention spans too. I bet they used to think frustratedly, "why do we always seem to face into the sun when I'm on watch?" I'll even bet that one of them saw a whale spout on the distant horizon and daydreamt of what it would be like to be a whale biologist. Maybe they got Goosebumps thinking of a peaceful world where people could devote time to studying instead of killing.

At the end of this long day, we were greeted by a feeding Bryde's whale. The bait ball on which our whale fed was immense and the scene featured the whole cast of usual characters: tuna, mahi mahi, marlin, droves of seabirds, and even a colossal whale shark!!

On this veteran's day, I thank the men and women of our armed services, especially those that fought in these waters some 70 years ago, many of whom paid the ultimate price. They fought and died so that I, two generations removed, could study instead of fight.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

New Blog While My Office is Out at Sea

Hello from the R/V MacArthur II! We're out here west and north of the Hawaiian islands surveying for marine mammals and seabirds. Believe it or not the government pays for us to do this as part of compliance to the Marine Mammal Protection Act!! Check out the HICEAS website if you want to know what we're up to out here... officially speaking anyway.

Here's the "Mac" before she pulled out of Maui 13 days ago. She's a sturdy girl at about 240 feet from stem to stern, and more importantly she's outfitted with a gas grill and an electric smoker (I didn't even know there was such a thing) for some mean smoked Mahi Mahi! Stay tuned for updates on that.