Cruising through space and time – a GEMM Lab’s journey in the Northern California Current

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Last month I had the privilege to participate in the 2023 September Northern California Current (NCC) cruise onboard the NOAA RV Bell M. Shimada. These cruises are part of a long-term NOAA/NWFSC effort to study the NCC ecosystem and they have been taking place every February, May, and September since 2002. Thanks to a collaboration with NOAA (and more specifically the NCC cruise chief scientist Jennifer Fisher), the GEMM Lab has been able to put marine mammal observers on these cruises since 2018.

As a postdoc working on the OPAL project, I have been the main person in charge of processing and analyzing the cetacean data collected across the 10 (now 11!) cruises that the GEMM lab participated in. These data have played a paramount role in improving our understanding of rorqual whale (e.g., blue, humpback, fin) distribution and habitat use off the coast of Oregon (Derville et al., 2022) and assessing the resulting risk of entanglement in fishing gear that they face while migrating and feeding in our waters (Derville et al., 2023). But while I have been very involved in the data analysis side of things, up to now I had never been able to contribute to data collection for this project. First, I was working remotely at the height of the COVID pandemic and second, because the NCC cruises are onboard a NOAA vessel, they have strict limitations on non-US citizens participation. So, you can imagine how excited I was (as a French citizen) to finally set foot on the famous Bell M. Shimada that I had heard so many stories about!

The NCC cruises illustrate how valuable long-term ecosystem monitoring is. Station after station, miles surveyed after miles surveyed, little by little, we learn about the complex ecological relationships and changing patterns that shape life in the ocean. The data, the experience, and the memories accumulated over the years are a true legacy that I have felt very proud to be part of. Finally, being on this ship, I felt like I was walking in the path of so many of my friends who had held those same binoculars before. Florence Sullivan, who pioneered the GEMM Lab’s NCC cruise observer effort in the harsh winter weather of February 2018. Alexa Kownacki (May 2018, May 2019), whose detailed field notes I read years later with emotion and appreciation as they helped me figure out how the Seebird software used to collect data back then (and abandoned since!). Dawn Barlow (Sep 2018, Sep 2019, Sep 2020, May 2021, May 2022), our master observer who is said to be able to detect a whale’s blow 10 miles away in a 10-foot swell and Beaufort sea state 6, all while sipping an Affogato coffee. Clara Bird (Sep 2020, May 2022), who abandoned her beloved nearshore gray whales (twice!) to sail all the way to the NH-200 station (200 nautical miles from land!). Rachel Kaplan (May 2021, May 2022, Sep 2022), our jack of all trades who concurrently studies krill and whales, and by doing so probably broke the record of numbers of times running up and down between the flying bridge and the echosounder screen room down below. Renee Albertson (Sep 2022), a Marine Mammal Institute research associate who shared observations with Rachel until the cruise was cut short by an engine issue that led them to the docks of Seattle. And finally, Craig Hayslip (May 2023), who swapped his usual observer work on the United States Coast Guard’s helicopters as part of the OPAL project for two weeks onboard the Shimada.

What a team!

From left to right and top to bottom: Florence; Alexa; Dawn; Clara; Renee, Rachel and the rest of the science team including Jennifer Fisher and Anna Bolm; Craig; Rachel; and I!

The 11th NCC cruise with GEMM Lab observers onboard was equal to its predecessors as it provided a perfect combination of camaraderie, natural beauty, Pacific Northwest weather, and unexpected change of plans.  After being delayed by one day, we discovered that a big storm system was coming upon us and would have us retreat to Yaquina Bay in Newport for 4 days! Overall, I spent 5 days surveying for marine mammals from the flying bridge, in conditions that went from a beautiful sunny Friday on September 22nd to an impressive Beaufort sea state 7 on the 29th. This experience was the king of weather in which it became particularly cool to be on a ship as big as the Shimada (63 m, 208 feet long!) that can withstand swell and wind better than any ship I had worked on before.

Overall, I observed 36 groups of cetaceans, including seven different species of dolphins and whales: one sperm whale, a possible Sei whale, several fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises and common dolphins. Among the highlights of this cruise was the observation of several blue whales and humpback whales that seemed to be feeding on the western slope of the Heceta bank. My personal favorite memory was also to observe common dolphins -a species that despite its name is not that common (at least not in the nearshore environment) and that I had never seen before in my life! How magnificent and graceful they were… and how lucky was I to be part of this voyage.

From left to right, top to bottom: a CTD deployment from the Bell M. Shimada; a whale’s dinner? Krill collected with a bongo net during a previous cruise; a very distant yet unmistakable sperm whale dorsal knob; a group of common dolphins; a marine mammal observer’s work tools; a blue whale surfacing at dusk.

More NCC cruise stories…


Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9, 868566.

Derville, S., Buell, T. V, Corbett, K. C., Hayslip, C., & Torres, L. G. (2023). Exposure of whales to entanglement risk in Dungeness crab fishing gear in Oregon, USA, reveals distinctive spatio-temporal and climatic patterns. Biological Conservation, 109989.