The Recipe for a “Perfect” Marine Mammal and Seabird Cruise

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Science—and fieldwork in particular—is known for its failures. There are websites, blogs, and Twitter pages dedicated to them. This is why, when things go according to plan, I rejoice. When they go even better than expected, I practically tear up from amazement. There is no perfect recipe for a great marine mammal and seabird research cruise, but I would suggest that one would look like this:

 A Great Marine Mammal and Seabird Research Cruise Recipe:

  • A heavy pour of fantastic weather
    • Light on the wind and seas
    • Light on the glare
  • Equal parts amazing crew and good communication
  • A splash of positivity
  • A dash of luck
  • A pinch of delicious food
  • Heaps of marine mammal and seabird sightings
  • Heat to approximately 55-80 degrees F and transit for 10 days along transects at 10-12 knots
The end of another beautiful day at sea on the R/V Shimada. Image source: Alexa K.

The Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) is a highly productive area that is home to a wide variety of cetacean species. Many cetaceans are indicator species of ecosystem health as they consume large quantities of prey from different levels in trophic webs and inhabit diverse areas—from deep-diving beaked whales to gray whales traveling thousands of miles along the eastern north Pacific Ocean. Because cetacean surveys are a predominant survey method in large bodies of water, they can be extremely costly. One alternative to dedicated cetacean surveys is using other research vessels as research platforms and effort becomes transect-based and opportunistic—with less flexibility to deviate from predetermined transects. This decreases expenses, creates collaborative research opportunities, and reduces interference in animal behavior as they are never pursued. Observing animals from large, motorized, research vessels (>100ft) at a steady, significant speed (>10kts/hour), provides a baseline for future, joint research efforts. The NCCE is regularly surveyed by government agencies and institutions on transects that have been repeated nearly every season for decades. This historical data provides critical context for environmental and oceanographic dynamics that impact large ecosystems with commercial and recreational implications.

My research cruise took place aboard the 208.5-foot R/V Bell M. Shimada in the first two weeks of May. The cruise was designated for monitoring the NCCE with the additional position of a marine mammal observer. The established guidelines did not allow for deviation from the predetermined transects. Therefore, mammals were surveyed along preset transects. The ship left port in San Francisco, CA and traveled as far north as Cape Meares, OR. The transects ranged from one nautical mile from shore and two hundred miles offshore. Observations occurred during “on effort” which was defined as when the ship was in transit and moving at a speed above 8 knots per hour dependent upon sea state and visibility. All observations took place on the flybridge during conducive weather conditions and in the bridge (one deck below the flybridge) when excessive precipitation was present. The starboard forward quarter: zero to ninety degrees was surveyed—based on the ship’s direction (with the bow at zero degrees). Both naked eye and 7×50 binoculars were used with at least 30 percent of time binoculars in use. To decrease observer fatigue, which could result in fewer detected sightings, the observer (me) rotated on a 40 minutes “on effort”, 20 minutes “off effort” cycle during long transits (>90 minutes).

Alexa on-effort using binoculars to estimate the distance and bearing of a marine mammal sighted off the starboard bow. Image source: Alexa K.

Data was collected using modifications to the SEEbird Wincruz computer program on a ruggedized laptop and a GPS unit was attached. At the beginning of each day and upon changes in conditions, the ship’s heading, weather conditions, visibility, cloud cover, swell height, swell direction, and Beaufort sea state (BSS) were recorded. Once the BSS or visibility was worse than a “5” (1 is “perfect” and 5 is “very poor”) observations ceased until there was improvement in weather. When a marine mammal was sighted the latitude and longitude were recorded with the exact time stamp. Then, I noted how the animal was sighted—either with binoculars or naked eye—and what action was originally noticed—blow, splash, bird, etc. The bearing and distance were noted using binoculars. The animal was given three generalized behavior categories: traveling, feeding, or milling. A sighting was defined as any marine mammal or group of animals. Therefore, a single sighting would have the species and the best, high, and low estimates for group size.

By my definitions, I had the research cruise of my dreams. There were moments when I imagined people joining this trip as a vacation. I *almost* felt guilty. Then, I remember that after watching water for almost 14 hours (thanks to the amazing weather conditions), I worked on data and reports and class work until midnight. That’s the part that no one talks about: the data. Fieldwork is about collecting data. It’s both what I live for and what makes me nervous. The amount of time, effort, and money that is poured into fieldwork is enormous. The acquisition of the data is not as simple as it seems. When I briefly described my position on this research cruise to friends, they interpret it to be something akin to whale-watching. To some extent, this is true. But largely, it’s grueling hours that leave you fatigued. The differences between fieldwork and what I’ll refer to as “everything else” AKA data analysis, proposal writing, manuscript writing, literature reviewing, lab work, and classwork, are the unbroken smile, the vaguely tanned skin, the hours of laughter, the sea spray, and the magical moments that reassure me that I’ve chosen the correct career path.

Alexa photographing a gray whale at sunset near Newport, OR. Image source: Alexa K.

This cruise was the second leg of the Northern California Current Ecosystem (NCCE) survey, I was the sole Marine Mammal and Seabird Observer—a coveted position. Every morning, I would wake up at 0530hrs, grab some breakfast, and climb to the highest deck: the fly-bridge. Akin to being on the top of the world, the fly-bridge has the best views for the widest span. From 0600hrs to 2000hrs I sat, stood, or danced in a one-meter by one-meter corner of the fly-bridge and surveyed. This visual is why people think I’m whale watching. In reality, I am constantly busy. Nonetheless, I had weather and seas that scientists dream about—and for 10 days! To contrast my luck, you can read Florence’s blog about her cruise. On these same transects, in February, Florence experienced 20-foot seas with heavy rain with very few marine mammal sightings—and of those, the only cetaceans she observed were gray whales close to shore. That starkly contrasts my 10 cetacean species with upwards of 45 sightings and my 20-minute hammock power naps on the fly-bridge under the warm sun.

Pacific white-sided dolphins traveling nearby. Image source: Alexa K.

Marine mammal sightings from this cruise included 10 cetacean species: Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, unidentified beaked whale, Cuvier’s beaked whale, gray whale, Minke whale, fin whale, Northern right whale dolphin, blue whale, humpback whale, and transient killer whale and one pinniped species: northern fur seal. What better way to illustrate these sightings than with a map? We are a geospatial lab after all.

Cetacean Sightings on the NCCE Cruise in May 2018. Image source: Alexa K.

This map is the result of data collection. However, it does not capture everything that was observed: sea state, weather, ocean conditions, bathymetry, nutrient levels, etc. There are many variables that can be added to maps–like this one (thanks to my GIS classes I can start adding layers!)–that can provide a better understanding of the ecosystem, predator-prey dynamics, animal behavior, and population health.

The catch from a bottom trawl at a station with some fish and a lot of pyrosomes (pink tube-like creatures). Image source: Alexa K.

Being a Ph.D. student can be physically and mentally demanding. So, when I was offered the opportunity to hone my data collection skills, I leapt for it. I’m happiest in the field: the wind in my face, the sunshine on my back, surrounded by cetaceans, and filled with the knowledge that I’m following my passion—and that this data is contributing to the greater scientific community.

Humpback whale photographed traveling southbound. Image source: Alexa K.

The Land of Maps and Charts: Geospatial Ecology

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I love maps. I love charts. As a random bit of trivia, there is a difference between a map and a chart. A map is a visual representation of land that may include details like topology, whereas a chart refers to nautical information such as water depth, shoreline, tides, and obstructions.

Map of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System)
Chart of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: NOAA)

I have an intense affinity for visually displaying information. As a child, my dad traveled constantly, from Barrow, Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. Immediately upon his return, I would grab our standing globe from the dining room and our stack of atlases from the coffee table. I would sit at the kitchen table, enthralled at the stories of his travels. Yet, a story was only great when I could picture it for myself. (I should remind you, this was the early 1990s, GoogleMaps wasn’t a thing.) Our kitchen table transformed into a scene from Master and Commander—except, instead of nautical charts and compasses, we had an atlas the size of an overgrown toddler and salt and pepper shakers to pinpoint locations. I now had the world at my fingertips. My dad would show me the paths he took from our home to his various destinations and tell me about the topography, the demographics, the population, the terrain type—all attribute features that could be included in common-day geographic information systems (GIS).

Uncle Brian showing Alexa where they were on a map of Maui, Hawaii, USA. (Photo: Susan K. circa 1995)

As I got older, the kitchen table slowly began to resemble what I imagine the set from Master and Commander actually looked like; nautical charts, tide tables, and wind predictions were piled high and the salt and pepper shakers were replaced with pencil marks indicating potential routes for us to travel via sailboat. The two of us were in our element. Surrounded by visual and graphical representations of geographic and spatial information: maps. To put my map-attraction this in even more context, this is a scientist who grew up playing “Take-Off”, a board game that was “designed to teach geography” and involved flying your fleet of planes across a Mercator projection-style mapboard. Now, it’s no wonder that I’m a graduate student in a lab that focuses on the geospatial aspects of ecology.

A precocious 3-year-old Alexa, sitting with the airplane pilot asking him a long list of travel-related questions (and taking his captain’s hat). Photo: Susan K.

So why and how did geospatial ecology became a field—and a predominant one at that? It wasn’t that one day a lightbulb went off and a statistician decided to draw out the results. It was a progression, built upon for thousands of years. There are maps dating back to 2300 B.C. on Babylonian clay tablets (The British Museum), and yet, some of the maps we make today require highly sophisticated technology. Geospatial analysis is dynamic. It’s evolving. Today I’m using ArcGIS software to interpolate mass amounts of publicly-available sea surface temperature satellite data from 1981-2015, which I will overlay with a layer of bottlenose dolphin sightings during the same time period for comparison. Tomorrow, there might be a new version of software that allows me to animate these data. Heck, it might already exist and I’m not aware of it. This growth is the beauty of this field. Geospatial ecology is made for us cartophiles (map-lovers) who study the interdependency of biological systems where location and distance between things matters.

Alexa’s grandmother showing Alexa (a very young cartographer) how to color in the lines. Source: Susan K. circa 1994

In a broader context, geospatial ecology communicates our science to all of you. If I posted a bunch of statistical outputs in text or even table form, your eyes might glaze over…and so might mine. But, if I displayed that same underlying data and results on a beautiful map with color-coded symbology, a legend, a compass rose, and a scale bar, you might have this great “ah-ha!” moment. That is my goal. That is what geospatial ecology is to me. It’s a way to SHOW my science, rather than TELL it.

Would you like to see this over and over again…?

A VERY small glimpse into the enormous amount of data that went into this map. This screenshot gave me one point of temperature data for a single location for a single day…Source: Alexa K.

Or see this once…?

Map made in ArcGIS of Coastal common bottlenose dolphin sightings between 1981-1989 with a layer of average sea surface temperatures interpolated across those same years. A picture really is worth a thousand words…or at least a thousand data points…Source: Alexa K.

For many, maps are visually easy to interpret, allowing quick message communication. Yet, there are many different learning styles. From my personal story, I think it’s relatively obvious that I’m, at least partially, a visual learner. When I was in primary school, I would read the directions thoroughly, but only truly absorb the material once the teacher showed me an example. Set up an experiment? Sure, I’ll read the lab report, but I’m going to refer to the diagrams of the set-up constantly. To this day, I always ask for an example. Teach me a new game? Let’s play the first round and then I’ll pick it up. It’s how I learned to sail. My dad described every part of the sailboat in detail and all I heard was words. Then, my dad showed me how to sail, and it came naturally. It’s only as an adult that I know what “that blue line thingy” is called. Geospatial ecology is how I SEE my research. It makes sense to me. And, hopefully, it makes sense to some of you!

Alexa’s dad teaching her how to sail. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa’s first solo sailboat race in Coronado, San Diego, CA. Notice: Alexa’s dad pushing the bow off the dock and the look on Alexa’s face. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa mapping data using ArcGIS in the Oregon State University Library. (Source: Alexa K circa a few minutes prior to posting).

I strongly believe a meaningful career allows you to highlight your passions and personal strengths. For me, that means photography, all things nautical, the great outdoors, wildlife conservation, and maps/charts.  If I converted that into an equation, I think this is a likely result:

Photography + Nautical + Outdoors + Wildlife Conservation + Maps/Charts = Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna

Or, better yet:

📸 + ⚓ + 🏞 + 🐋 + 🗺 =  GEMM Lab

This lab was my solution all along. As part of my research on common bottlenose dolphins, I work on a small inflatable boat off the coast of California (nautical ✅, outdoors ✅), photograph their dorsal fin (photography ✅), and communicate my data using informative maps that will hopefully bring positive change to the marine environment (maps/charts ✅, wildlife conservation✅). Geospatial ecology allows me to participate in research that I deeply enjoy and hopefully, will make the world a little bit of a better place. Oh, and make maps.

Alexa in the field, putting all those years of sailing and chart-reading to use! (Source: Leila L.)