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.
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