Marine Mammal Observing: Standardization is key

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

For the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to be the marine mammal observer aboard the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada for 10 days in May. Both trips covered transects in the Northern California Current Ecosystem during the same time of year, but things looked very different from my chair on the fly bridge. This trip, in particular, highlighted the importance of standardization, seeing as it was the second replicate of the same area. Other scientists and crew members repeatedly asked me the same questions that made me realize just how important it is to have standards in scientific practices and communicating them.

Northern right whale dolphin porpoising out of the water beside the ship while in transit. May 2019. Image source: Alexa Kownacki

The questions:

  1. What do you actually do here and why are you doing it?
  2. Is this year the same as last year in terms of weather, sightings, and transect locations?
  3. Did you expect to see greater or fewer sightings (number and diversity)?
  4. What is this Beaufort Sea State scale that you keep referring to?

All of these are important scientific questions that influence our hypothesis-testing research, survey methods, expected results, and potential conclusions. Although the entire science party aboard the ship conducted marine science, we all had our own specialties and sometimes only knew the basics, if that, about what the other person was doing. It became a perfect opportunity to share our science and standards across similar, but different fields.

Now, to answer those questions:

  1. a) What do you actually do here and b) why are you doing it?

a) As the only marine mammal observer, I stand watch during favorable weather conditions while the ship is in transit, scanning from 0 to 90 degrees off the starboard side (from the front of the ship to a right angle towards the right side when facing forwards). Meanwhile, an application on an iPad called SeaScribe, records the ship’s exact location every 15 seconds, even when no animal is sighted. This process allows for the collection of absence data, that is, data when no animals are present. The SeaScribe program records the survey lines, along with manual inputs that I add, including weather and observer information. When I spot a marine mammal, I immediately mark an exact location on a hand held GPS, use my binoculars to identify the species, and add information to the sighting on the SeaScribe program, such as species, distance to the sighted animal(s), the degree (angle) to the sighting, number of animals in a group, behavior, and direction if traveling.

b) Marine mammal observing serves many different purposes. In this case, observing collects information about what species are where at what time. By piggy-backing on these large-scale, offshore oceanographic NOAA surveys, we have the unique opportunity to survey along standardized transect lines during different times of the year. From replicate survey data, we can start to form an idea of which species use which areas and what oceanographic conditions may impact species distributions. Currently there is not much consistent marine mammal data collected over these offshore areas between Northern California and Washington State, so our work is aiming to fill this knowledge gap.

Alexa observing on the R/V Shimada in May 2019, all bundled up. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki
  1. What is this Beaufort Sea State scale that you keep referring to?

Great question! It took me a while to realize that this standard measuring tool to estimate wind speeds and sea conditions, is not commonly recognized even among other sea-goers. The Beaufort Sea State, or BSS, uses an empirical scale that ranges from 0-12 with 0 being no wind and calm seas, to 12 being hurricane-force winds with 45+ ft seas. It is frequently referenced by scientists in oceanography, marine science, and climate science as a universally-understood metric. The BSS was created in 1805 by Francis Beaufort, a hydrographer in the Royal Navy, to standardize weather conditions across the fleet of vessels. By the mid-1850s, the BSS was standardized to non-naval use for sailing vessels, and in 1916, expanded to include information specific to the seas and not the sails1. We in the marine mammal observation field constantly collect BSS information while on survey to measure the quality of survey conditions that may impact our observations. BSS data allows us to measure the extent of our survey range, both in the distance that we are likely to sight animals and also the likelihood of sighting anything. Therefore, the BSS scale gives us an important indication of how much absence data we have collected, in addition to presence data.

A description of the Beaufort Sea State Scale. Image source: National Weather Service.


  1. Is this year the same as last year in terms of weather, sightings, and transect locations?

The short answer is no. Observed differences in marine mammal sightings in terms of both species diversity and number of animals between years can be normal. There are many potential explanatory variables, from differences in currents, upwelling strength, El Nino index levels, water temperatures, or, what was obvious in this case: sighting conditions. The weather in May 2019 varied greatly from that in May 2018. Last year, I observed for nearly every day because the Beaufort Sea State (BSS) was frequently less than a four. However, this year, more often than not, the BSS greater than or equal to five. A BSS of 5 equates to approximately 17-21 knots of breeze with 6-foot waves and the water appears to have many “white horses” or pronounced white caps with sea spray. Additionally, mechanical issue with winches delayed and altered our transect locations. Therefore, although multiple transects from May 2018 were also surveyed during May 2019, there were a few lines that do not have data for both cruises.

May 2018 with a BSS 1
May 2019 with a BSS 6






  1. Did you expect to see greater or fewer sightings (number and diversity)?

Knowing that I had less favorable sighting conditions and less amount of effort observing this year, it is not surprising that I observed fewer marine mammals in total count and in species diversity. Even less surprising is that on the day with the best weather, where the BSS was less than a five, I recorded the most sightings with the highest species count. May 2018 felt a bit like a tropical vacation because we had surprisingly sunny days with mild winds, and during May 2019 we had some rough seas with gale force winds. Additionally, as an observer, I need to remove as much bias as possible. So, yes, I had hoped to see beaked whales or orca like I did in May 2018, but I was still pleasantly surprised when I spotted fin whales feeding in May 2019.

Marine Mammal Species Number of Sightings
May 2018 May 2019
Humpback whale 31 6
Northern right whale dolphin 1 2
Pacific white-sided dolphin 3 6
UNID beaked whale 1 0
Cuvier’s beaked whale 1 0
Gray whale 4 1
Minke whale 1 1
Fin whale 4 1
Blue whale 1 0
Transient killer whale 1 0
Dall’s porpoise 2 0
Northern fur seal 1 0
California sea lion 0 1
Pacific white-sided dolphin. Image source: Alexa Kownacki

Standardization is a common theme. Observing between years on standard transects, at set speeds, in different conditions using standardized tools is critical to collecting high quality data that is comparable across different periods. Scientists constantly think about quality control. We look for trends and patterns, similarities and differences, but none of those could be understood without having standard metrics.

The entire science party aboard the R/V Shimada in May 2019, including a marine mammal scientist, phytoplankton scientists, zooplankton scientists, and fisheries scientists, and oceanographers. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki

Literature Cited:

1Oliver, John E. (2005). Encyclopedia of world climatology. Springer.



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.