S.E.U.S. 2013

Closing out the season

Overall this season has been a resounding success. The number of right whale calves for the season has reached 20, with new mothers still being sighted in mid-February. We have collected behavioral and acoustic data from a good cross section of the population, got a glimpse into underwater behavior from a tag attachment and even have more than one follow for some mother-calf pairs, giving us insight into how the pair’s behavior changes as the calves mature.

I’m excited that I was able to return for the next to last week of the season to check in with the field team. I’m also excited to get another short break from the winter weather in Syracuse. It was 70 when I left Florida in January, and 7 degrees when I arrived in Syracuse. Although this past week has been relatively cool in Florida, the sun, sand and ocean are a nice break from clouds, salt and snow.

I managed to get out on the water for 2 days out of the 5 that I was in Fernandina, which is very unusual for me. For the past few years, I typically get out < 1 day every two weeks in the field. We had great luck out on the water. The aerial survey teams were able to direct us to mother-calf pairs both days, and we were able to collect behavioral and acoustic data. The entire field team is working together well and I was mostly an extra set of hands while they ran the show. Both mother-calf pairs approached the vessel when we were drifting with the engine shut down, recording both the sounds in the environment and the behavior of the whales. Here is Dana’s nice picture of one of the mothers approaching the boat that I photobombed at the last second.

lab member posing while whale breaches in backgorund
Photo taken by D. Cusano, under NMFS Permit #775-1875-02

Our time in Florida is winding down, the team will be packing up all the equipment and heading North soon, where the research will continue in Cape Cod Bay when the whales start migrating up the coast. Check out the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Service website to follow North Atlantic right whale sightings.


A lesson on sea state

Planning for a possible boat day last night, we of course kept a close eye on the weather forecast.The weather according to the NOAA national weather service forecast was still looking fairly decent: northwest winds 10 knots, seas 2 to 3ft, waters a light chop, etc. We are pretty restricted by the weather as I’ve said, and generally don’t go out in winds more than 10 knots or so. Anything stronger than that and we get a sea state that is unworkable for us, meaning we would have a very hard time keeping track of the whales, putting equipment in the water, taking it back out, recording video, collecting behavioral observations, etc. So 10 was a definite possibility. We all went to bed early and were up at 6:30 to check the weather again.

When we got up, the national weather service forecast was the same, but when we took a look at the real time readings from some of the nearby buoys they were telling us the winds were blowing 11 knots with gusts of 15…that is a bit out of our comfort zone. We decided to see if the winds would drop out a bit as the forecast said. Around noon, we decided it looked like it might be alright judging by our view of the ocean from the deck and some of the nearby buoys. Since we were ready to go, we had the boat in the water at 12:45. One quick glance around us though and we all began to question the readings and forecast…in the channel we were already in a sea state 4 and we hadn’t even left the dock!

For those of you unfamiliar with how sea state is measured, here is a brief overview. Mariners use the Beaufort wind scale to describe the conditions of the sea as it relates to wind speed. The scale runs from force 0 (wind speed less than 1 knot) to force 12 (wind speed 64+ knots). Wind speed obviously influences sea conditions a great deal. Force 0 looks something like this:

calm water no waves

Just for the sake of comparison, Beaufort force 12 looks a little something like this:

large waves crashing into ship
No thank you…

During my (albeit short) time on this project, I have discovered that the maximum sea state we can comfortably work in is about a 3. If we are out and on whales and it turns to sea state 4, we can manage, but it isn’t pretty. Here is what force 4 looks like (although now that I have shown you 12 it doesn’t seem like much):

ocean with slight waves
Sea State 4

So when we encountered that at the dock, we were skeptical that it would be nicer once we got out of the channel, but it has happened before so we gave it a shot. It was rough going I must say. When we finally got out of the channel, we were still in a sea state 4+ with 3-4 ft waves and a very short wave interval. In other words, it was nasty. We ventured out a little bit to see if maybe we were still just caught up in the currents from the channel, but it didn’t get any better. Looking at the horizon, it didn’t look any better anywhere…so that was that, we turned around and began to head in. Fortunately there was a dredge working right out of the channel, so we were able to ride in their wake back to the mouth of the channel, making it a much smoother ride than it would have been that’s for sure!

Now we are back at home waiting for our next weather opening (and watching the seas turn into a force 5 as we speak). Thursday looks like a possibility and Friday looks great, so now we just wait and hope for sea state 0!

The tagging

Well today marks the end of our good weather stretch, but with 4 great days on the water within a 5 day period we have very little to complain about! The past few days are a blur, but what I can tell you is that we got a little bit of everything. That is, everyday we got all the data we set out to collect! The only exception to that is the tag data…we have been trying very hard to get a tag on but it is just as hard as you might expect. So we have not had very good luck as of yet. Good news from yesterday though – we finally got our first tag on! Let me explain a little bit about how the process works so you can appreciate how much work goes into it and share in our feeling of accomplishment.

In the morning we have to load the batteries into the tag and use a Palm Pilot to program it to record the data how we want it (meaning the correct frequency and sample rate, etc. etc.). Then we have to clean the suction cups to make sure they are clear of dust or oils and ready to stick to a whale. Then they get placed inside a hardy Pelican case to protect them in transit.

Once we find a mom/calf pair we then need to assess if they are “taggable”. A taggable whale is one that is calm and resting, not travelling or excited in any way. We don’t want to chase any whales or approach them in any sort of aggressive manner, so we are very picky about what we deem a taggable whale. Yesterday we had a whale that was nice and relaxed and didn’t seem to mind us coming close. That was my cue: I had to get out a tag, use the Palm to tell it to begin recording, and attach the transmitter so we would be able to track it. While I was doing that, Pete was starting to put the tag pole together which consists of three long sections of a carbon fiber that need to be attached to one another using a very sophisticated method – wire and electrical tape. Once that was set I snapped the tag into the holder at one end, secured a line from the other end of the pole to the boat, and we were finally ready to tag!

Using our electric motor so as to be “discrete” and not spook the whales, we began to slowly approach. We finally got close enough and Pete ever so casually plopped the tag down. It stuck! Success! We began tracking the tag using a receiver that makes a clicking sound whenever the antenna at the top of the tag comes to the surface. After only about 15 minutes we began to hear a constant clicking but could see no whales, meaning the tag was off the whale and floating somewhere at the surface. Bummer! We quickly spotted the tag (which is bright orange to make it easy to locate) and brought it back on board. It was only on for a short while, but 15 minutes is better  than nothing and we were all pretty excited!

orange tag on back of whale
Photo: Will Cioffi

We are having a pretty successful season so far in my opinion; lots of data, a good amount of mother/calf pairs, and still three weeks left to get even more! Now I have quite a bit of work to do before our next boat day, but that is definitely a good thing! Before I go, here is another beautiful sunset photo taken from the boat. A brilliant way to end a great day!

deep red sunset over water
Photo: Pete Duley


Well it has been nearly a week since we last went out, and while it was useful in terms of getting our data organized and browsed, we are all ready to get back out on the water. When we went on Saturday there were at least 8 mom/calf pairs in the area, out of the 16 known pairs down here. That’s pretty amazing! The planes flew on Tuesday though (despite the fog and haze that prevented us from going) and they only came across two adult right whales…no mom/calf pairs. Hmm…hopefully they just moved offshore in anticipation of the storm that came across the area. Or maybe they were just staying down for extended periods of time. There is only one way to find out. We need to get back out there!

It looks like the next 3 or 4 days may be good weather days, so hopefully by this time next week we will have lots of sightings and new data to go through!

They say two is company and three’s a crowd

That may be true in some cases, but not for our project! Three is not so much a crowd as a bare minimum. It takes at least three people to go out and collect data on Selkie, but we have discovered over the years that the more people we have, the more data we can get (within limits of course…Selkie is by no means a large boat). For our project to be successful, we have a lot of data to collect each and every trip. We have photos to take, GPS coordinates to track, video and audio to record, behavioral data to sequence, and CTD casts to do. On top of all of that, we must be constantly watching the whales, driving the boat, and keeping track of the hydrophones. On top of all of THAT we also may have to biopsy and this season we are trying to deploy suction cup tags for acoustic and depth data right from the whale. 

Now that the grad students and Susan have returned to their duties in Syracuse, it is just me, Pete, and Grace. On Saturday we went out for the first time this season as a trio and it wasn’t easy! We worked hard and we worked together, and in doing so we were rewarded with two biopsies, acoustic recordings, video, photos, and behavioral sequencing. It wasn’t perfect, but we got a lot done and learned some things to do better the next time around…it doesn’t look like we are going to have good weather for a few days, so we are settling in to take a look at what we have collected thus far this season. More soon!

When roles are reversed…

Yesterday started out as a great day at only 7am. The weather was looking great for the day, we had Selkie back and all of our gear was packed up and ready to go by 8:30. Not long after we launched, the plane called and we were on a mother/calf pair by 10am! Now that is what a day should start like!

We started working our pair, taking photos and video, and soon another pair popped up to join the fun. After the initial confusion of who was who and what was what, we decided to follow #3294 and her calf. We were ready to start getting behavioral data, photographs, and video all by 10am. Our day was getting better and better, but it was soon about to get even better!

The best way to get the best behavioral data is simply to shut down the engine and drift. We hope that doing so will allow the animals to relax a bit and maybe forget we are there, even for a little while. So that’s what we did. With the whales still a couple hundred meters off, we turned off our engine and settled in to watch. Then we noticed the calf starting to swim our way…and he kept on swimming. Pretty soon we knew we were going to have what we call a “curious approach”, which is when a whale (usually a calf) comes close to the boat as if curious about what it is.

Well this calf was indeed very curious. He swam close to the starboard side, popped up his little head (like Leanna, I use the term little loosely), and took a look. He then proceeded to go around to take a look at our port side. Back and forth he went for a minute or so, doing some rolls on his side to take a better look at us. He was probably wondering what all these little orange things were doing on this big orange thing! Well conveniently for us, while he got a better look we also got to take a much better look at him. We even got to confirm that he was indeed a he, which is a pretty hard task for any right whale let alone a calf! We followed them for another 4 hours until it was time for us to head home with a lot of data and quite the story. Now THAT’s a good day!

sunset over water with flock of birds near surface
Heading home at sunset. Photo: Dana Cusano

It’s a wonderful day for pie!

…and not much else. So we have been grounded for a few days due to some very strong winds, but it wasn’t a total loss. I tried my hand at making Claudia’s key lime pie and it was a success! I wish Leanna and Jess were still here to share in my glory (plus I know they would’ve helped and maybe it wouldn’t have taken an entire afternoon…)!

But back to the whales. Wednesday and Thursday we borrowed the R/V Starbuck and continued our research. Being a smaller boat, we weren’t able to take all of our gear out, but we got most of it. We even attempted to tag a mom, but she wasn’t too keen on the idea so of course we didn’t push it. We were able to get some behavioral data on both days and some recordings on Thursday.

I also got to see my first biopsy, which I am very excited about. Peter Duley, down here for a couple of weeks to help out, was handling the crossbow and managed to dart a calf that multiple teams have been trying to dart this season. Despite the decent swell and a sea state 3, Pete pulled it off! When I grabbed the dart out of the water and took a look at the tip, there it was – a small chunk of skin and blubber. Neat! I got to help (watch and hold tweezers) as Pete and Grace cut it up and packed it away for future analysis.

Well the Selkie is back in the driveway and the weather is clearing  up, so tomorrow we plan to continue our adventure. Maybe we will get lucky and tag a whale! Oh, and because I am so proud of my pie, here is a picture of it. Don’t be jealous…OK, be jealous.

key lime pie
My first key lime pie! Complete with homemade graham cracker crust and whipped cream and using real key limes squeezed by hand of course.

To pull a boat

You guessed it—Dead in the water, Part II wasn’t the end of our troubles with R/V Selkie’s engine.  As Leanna’s and my last day on the water, we got to experience one of the more interesting aspects of marine fieldwork: when things go wrong (and get resolved in unexpected ways).

After our engine trouble the previous day, Grace took Selkie to the boatyard early in the morning, where they identified (as predicted) a problem with one of the electrical components deep in the belly of the beast.  Apparently this was a quick fix, and we were up and running later in the afternoon.  We set out from Fernandina and were traveling to a previous sighting of a mother/calf pair when a right whale popped up in front of our boat!  It was a lone juvenile, and it wasn’t particularly cooperative.  The choppy seas weren’t helping, but to our surprise, just as we were about to leave, the whale surfaced and spent some time logging at the surface, allowing us to “sneak up” and get some really good shots.  Since it’s so young, it doesn’t have an official catalog number yet.  When our whale went down again, we had just heard of a more recent mom/calf sighting not too far from our current position!

Soon enough we were skimming across the waves towards this new sighting when everything came to a sudden stop.  Again.  After the previous day’s adventure, we were all less than thrilled at the prospect of needing a tow from 7 miles offshore.  Luckily, Dana had the magic touch and was able to convince the engine to turn over.  Not wanting to risk being stranded, we headed back to Fernandina, foregoing the mother and calf sighting.

We were able to arrive safely at the dock, but the low tide and shallow launching area had other plans for our trip from the dock to the trailer.  Our engine managed to suck up a fair bit of mud and silt before dying again.  Since the water was too shallow, we couldn’t even use the electric motor.  So we went about it the old-fashioned way.  Brute force.

Susan, Leanna, and I grabbed some lines from Selkie and pulled.  And pulled.  Dana was waist-deep next to the trailer, ready to guide Selkie into position. We were making some progress when the team from the R/V Maverick showed up willing to help.  I, for one, was relieved to have extra hands to help with pulling, allowing us to divide and conquer where and how we pulled. 

At one point it seemed like the Selkie was a bright orange, 4000-pound marionette being strung up and maneuvered in every which way possible.  Little by little, we heaved her off the mud and towards the ramp.

Eventually, we had her on our trailer.  And it wasn’t even dark.  Job well done, everybody!

And thus, refreshed by the North Atlantic, good whale sightings, and the general camaraderie of marine folk, it’s time to (reluctantly…) go back to snowy Syracuse.

two team members standing on boat

 Jessica McCordic

Masters Student, Parks Lab

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 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 the things that worked well in the field and the 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.

And now it’s 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!

Leanna Matthews
PhD Student, Parks Lab

Dead in the water (Part II)

We woke up to clear skies and a forecast for calm seas, so we gathered all the gear, snagged a quick bite for breakfast, and were off in a flash to fuel the boat for a day offshore. About 10 minutes after launching, we passed a small boat with two fishermen who waved us down.  As we puttered over, I hoped they didn’t think we were Coast Guard (our vessel’s previous home).  Turns out all they needed was a tow—apparently their water pump had broken, leaving them dead in the water with a nearly overheated engine.  We were happy to help, and with Grace at the helm we brought them safely back to the boat ramp, made sure they were all set at the dock, and headed out for a second time.

Those fishermen were not our only experience with a disabled boat today.  We got about twenty minutes from the ramp this time, when Selkie’s engine suddenly stopped, lurching the boat forward.  We tried everything, but our poor Yamaha just wouldn’t turn over.  As it turns out, having an electric motor also serves as a great backup if the engine unexpectedly shuts down.

Now, the Selkie is a pretty heavy boat, so even with the electric motor, we can only make a few knots with no current or wind.  But the ocean had other plans. Our little electric motor spun its propellers as hard as it could, but alas, it was no match for the outgoing tide.  At one point, we were definitely moving backwards.

We succumbed to the irony of the situation and hailed a sport fishing vessel.  They came right over and wasted no time in getting us set up to tow.  They seemed in good spirits, admitting that they “didn’t really have a plan” for their day—they were just out to enjoy the weather and hopefully catch something.  They had, however, planned for lunch, and they brought out their sub sandwiches and Doritos.  Boy, did those look good.  After traveling at what seemed like lightspeed compared to our electric motor, we arrived safely at the dock and sent our new friends on their way.

Our adventure wasn’t quite over yet, though.  As we approached the dock, there was another vessel in our path.  The looks on their faces were priceless as we shouted that we lost our engine and had limited steering.  They moved fairly quickly, and we managed to commandeer an innocent bystander to catch lines.  As it turns out, the bystander was retired Coast Guard, and another man who came over to help was retired Navy.  So including our five fishermen from two vessels this morning, we made all kinds of friends today.

Apart from breaking down and needing a tow, it really was a lovely afternoon—we had gorgeous weather, met some interesting folks, and even saw a couple of dolphins.  We managed to get the boat back onto the trailer, dropped it off at the house, and ended our “day in the field” with ice cream in downtown Fernandina.


Jessica McCordic

Masters Student, Parks Lab

P.S. —  Be sure to read Dead in the water for an earlier adventure in boat malfunctions.