Over the Ocean and Under the Bridges: STEM Cruise on the R/V Oceanus

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

From September 22nd through 30th, the GEMM Lab participated in a STEM research cruise aboard the R/V Oceanus, Oregon State University’s (OSU) largest research vessel, which served as a fully-functioning, floating, research laboratory and field station. The STEM cruise focused on integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into hands-on teaching experiences alongside professionals in the marine sciences. The official science crew consisted of high school teachers and students, community college students, and Oregon State University graduate students and professors. As with a usual research cruise, there was ample set-up, data collection, data entry, experimentation, successes, and failures. And because everyone in the science party actively participated in the research process, everyone also experienced these successes, failures, and moments of inspiration.

The science party enjoying the sunset from the aft deck with the Astoria-Megler bridge in the background. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki)

Dr. Leigh Torres, Dr. Rachael Orben, and I were all primarily stationed on flybridge—one deck above the bridge—fully exposed to the elements, at the highest possible location on the ship for best viewing. We scanned the seas in hopes of spotting a blow, a splash, or any sign of a marine mammal or seabird. Beside us, students and teachers donned binoculars and positioned themselves around the mast, with Leigh and I taking a 90-degree swath from the mast—either to starboard or to port. For those who had not been part of marine mammal observations previously, it was a crash course into the peaks and troughs—of both the waves and of the sightings. We emphasized the importance of absence data: knowledge of what is not “there” is equally as important as what is. Fortunately, Leigh chose a course that proved to have surprisingly excellent environmental conditions and amazing sightings. Therefore, we collected a large amount of presence data: data collected when marine mammals or seabirds are present.

High school student, Chris Quashnick Holloway, records a seabird sighting for observer, Dr. Rachael Orben. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

When someone sighted a whale that surfaced regularly, we assessed the conditions: the sea state, the animal’s behavior, the wind conditions, etc. If we deemed them as “good to fly”, our licensed drone pilot and Orange Coast Community College student, Jason, prepared his Phantom 4 drone. While he and Leigh set up drone operations, I and the other science team members maintained a visual on the whale and stayed in constant communication with the bridge via radio. When the drone was ready, and the bridge gave the “all clear”, Jason launched his drone from the aft deck. Then, someone tossed an unassuming, meter-long, wood plank overboard—keeping it attached to the ship with a line. This wood board serves as a calibration tool; the drone flies over it at varying heights as determined by its built-in altimeter. Later, we analyze how many pixels one meter occupied at different heights and can thereby determine the body length of the whale from still images by converting pixel length to a metric unit.

High school student, Alishia Keller, uses binoculars to observe a whale, while PhD student, Alexa Kownacki, radios updates on the whale’s location to the bridge and the aft deck. (Image source: Tracy Crews)

Finally, when the drone is calibrated, I radio the most recent location of our animal. For example, “Blow at 9 o’clock, 250 meters away”. Then, the bridge and I constantly adjust the ship’s speed and location. If the whale “flukes” (dives and exposes the ventral side of its tail), and later resurfaced 500 meters away at our 10 o’clock, I might radio to the bridge to, “turn 60 degrees to port and increase speed to 5 knots”. (See the Hidden Math Lesson below). Jason then positions the drone over the whale, adjusting the camera angle as necessary, and recording high-quality video footage for later analysis. The aerial viewpoint provides major advantages. Whales usually expose about 10 percent of their body above the water’s surface. However, with an aerial vantage point, we can see more of the whale and its surroundings. From here, we can observe behaviors that are otherwise obscured (Torres et al. 2018), and record footage that to help quantify body condition (i.e. lengths and girths). Prior to the batteries running low, Jason returns the drone back to the aft deck, the vessel comes to an idle, and Leigh catches the drone. Throughout these operations, those of us on the flybridge photograph flukes for identification and document any behaviors we observe. Later, we match the whale we sighted to the whale that the drone flew over, and then to prior sightings of this same individual—adding information like body condition or the presence of a calf. I like to think of it as whale detective work. Moreover, it is a team effort; everyone has a critical role in the mission. When it’s all said and done, this noninvasive approach provides life history context to the health and behaviors of the animal.

Drone pilot, Jason Miranda, flying his drone using his handheld ground station on the aft deck. (Photo source: Tracy Crews)

Hidden Math Lesson: The location of 10 o’clock and 60 degrees to port refer to the exact same direction. The bow of the ship is our 12 o’clock with the stern at our 6 o’clock; you always orient yourself in this manner when giving directions. The same goes for a compass measurement in degrees when relating the direction to the boat: the bow is 360/0. An angle measure between two consecutive numbers on a clock is: 360 degrees divided by 12-“hour” markers = 30 degrees. Therefore, 10 o’clock was 0 degrees – (2 “hours”)= 0 degrees- (2*30 degrees)= -60 degrees. A negative degree less than 180 refers to the port side (left).

Killer whale traveling northbound.

Our trip was chalked full of science and graced with cooperative weather conditions. There were more highlights than I could list in a single sitting. We towed zooplankton nets under the night sky while eating ice cream bars; we sang together at sunset and watched the atmospheric phenomena: the green flash; we witnessed a humpback lunge-feeding beside the ship’s bow; and we saw a sperm whale traveling across calm seas.

Sperm whale surfacing before a long dive.

On this cruise, our lab focused on the marine mammal observations—which proved excellent during the cruise. In only four days of surveying, we had 43 marine mammal sightings containing 362 individuals representing 9 species (See figure 1). As you can see from figure 2, we traveled over shallow, coastal and deep waters, in both Washington and Oregon before inland to Portland, OR. Because we ventured to areas with different bathymetric and oceanographic conditions, we increased our likelihood of seeing a higher diversity of species than we would if we stayed in a single depth or area.

Humpback whale lunge feeding off the bow.
Number of sightings Total number of individuals
Humpback whale 22 40
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 249
Northern right whale dolphin 1 9
Killer whale 1 3
Dall’s porpoise 5 49
Sperm whale 1 1
Gray whale 1 1
Harbor seal 1 1
California sea lion 8 9
Total 43 362

Figure 1. Summary table of all species sightings during cruise while the science team observed from the flybridge.

Pacific white-sided dolphins swimming towards the vessel.

Figure 2. Map with inset displaying study area and sightings observed by species during the cruise, made in ArcMap. (Image source: Alexa Kownacki).

Even after two days of STEM outreach events in Portland, we were excited to incorporate more science. For the transit from Portland, OR to Newport, OR, the entire science team consisted two people: me and Jason. But even with poor weather conditions, we still used science to answer questions and help us along our journey—only with different goals than on our main leg. With the help of the marine technician, we set up a camera on the bow of the ship, facing aft to watch the vessel maneuver through the famous Portland bridges.

Video 1. Time-lapse footage of the R/V Oceanus maneuvering the Portland Bridges from a GoPro. Compiled by Alexa Kownacki, assisted by Jason Miranda and Kristin Beem.

Prior to the crossing the Columbia River bar and re-entering the Pacific Ocean, the R/V Oceanus maneuvered up the picturesque Columbia River. We used our geospatial skills to locate our fellow science team member and high school student, Chris, who was located on land. We tracked each other using GPS technology in our cell phones, until the ship got close enough to use natural landmarks as reference points, and finally we could use our binoculars to see Chris shining a light from shore. As the ship powered forward and passed under the famous Astoria-Megler bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, Chris drove over it; he directed us “100 degrees to port”. And, thanks to clear directions, bright visual aids, and spatiotemporal analysis, we managed to find our team member waving from shore. This is only one of many examples that show how in a few days at sea, students utilized new skills, such as marine mammal observational techniques, and honed them for additional applications.

On the bow, Alexa and Jason use binoculars to find Chris–over 4 miles–on the Washington side of the Columbia River. (Image source: Kristin Beem)

Great science is the result of teamwork, passion, and ingenuity. Working alongside students, teachers, and other, more-experienced scientists, provided everyone with opportunities to learn from each other. We created great science because we asked questions, we passed on our knowledge to the next person, and we did so with enthusiasm.

High school students, Jason and Chris, alongside Dr. Leigh Torres, all try to get a glimpse at the zooplankton under Dr. Kim Bernard’s microscope. (Image source: Tracy Crews).

Check out other blog posts written by the science team about the trip here.

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.)