Marine mammals of the Northern California Current, 2020 edition

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Clara and I have just returned from ten fruitful days at sea aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada as part of the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey. We surveyed between Crescent City, California and La Push, Washington, collecting data on oceanography, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and marine mammals (Fig. 1). This year represents the third year I have participated in these NCC cruises, which I have come to cherish. I have become increasingly confident in my marine mammal observation and species identification skills, and I have become more accepting of the things out of my control – the weather, the sea state, the many sightings of “unidentified whale species”. Careful planning and preparation are critical, and yet out at sea we are ultimately at the whim of the powerful Pacific Ocean. Another aspect of the NCC cruises that I treasure is the time spent with members of the science team from other disciplines. The chatter about water column features, musings about plankton species composition, and discussions about what drives marine mammal distribution present lively learning opportunities throughout the cruise. Our concurrent data collection efforts and ongoing conversations allow us to piece together a comprehensive picture of this dynamic NCC ecosystem, and foster a collaborative research environment.  

Figure 1. Data collection effort for the NCC September 2020 cruise, between Crescent City, CA, and La Push, WA. Red points represent oceanographic sampling stations, and black lines show the track of the research vessel during marine mammal survey effort.

Every time I head to sea, I am reminded of the patchy distribution of resources in the vast and dynamic marine environment. On this recent cruise we documented a stark contrast between  expansive stretches of warm, blue, stratified, and seemingly empty ocean and areas that were plankton-rich and supported multi-species feeding frenzies that had marine mammal observers like me scrambling to keep track of everything. This year, we were greeted by dozens of blue and humpback whales in the productive waters off Newport, Oregon. Off Crescent City, California, the water was very warm, the plankton community was dominated by gelatinous species like pyrosomes, salps, and other jellies, and the marine mammals were virtually absent except for a few groups of common dolphins. To the north, the plume of water flowing from the Columbia River created a front between water masses, where we found ourselves in the midst of pacific white-sided dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, and humpback whales. These observations highlight the strength of ecosystem-scale and multi-disciplinary data collection efforts such as the NCC surveys. By drawing together information on physical oceanography, primary productivity, zooplankton community composition and abundance, and marine predator distribution, we can gain a nearly comprehensive picture of the dynamics within the NCC over a broad spatial scale.

This year, the marine mammals delivered and kept us observers busy. We lucked out with good survey conditions and observed many different species throughout the NCC (Table 1, Fig. 2).

Table 1. Summary of all marine mammal sightings from the NCC September 2020 cruise.

Figure 2. Maps showing kernel densities of four frequently observed and widely distributed species seen during the cruise. Black lines show the track of the research vessel during marine mammal survey effort, white points represent sighting locations, and colors show kernel density estimates weighted by group size at each sighting.

This year’s NCC cruise was unique. We went to sea as a global pandemic, wildfires, and political tensions continue to strain this country and our communities. This cruise was the first NOAA Fisheries cruise to set sail since the start of the pandemic. Our team of scientists and the ship’s crew went to great lengths to make it possible, including a seven-day shelter-in-place period and COVID-19 tests prior to cruise departure. As a result of these extra challenges and preparations, I think we were all especially grateful to be on the water, collecting data. At-sea fieldwork is always challenging, but morale was up, spirits were high, and laughs were frequent despite smiles being concealed by our masks. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this ongoing valuable data collection effort, and to be part of this team. Thanks to all who made it such a memorable cruise.

Figure 3. The NCC September 2020 science team at the end of a successful research cruise! Fieldwork in the time of COVID-19 presents many logistical challenges, but this team rose to the occasion and completed a safe and fruitful survey despite the circumstances.

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.