August 28, 2005
Shaky start today...cloudy...rainy...poor visibility. I was wondering if we were going to be rained out for the first time this leg. However after a couple of hours, there was a glimmer of hope when a little bit of blue sky peaked though the clouds. Chief Scientist Susan Chivers consulted with Captain Alexandra Von Saunder about the weather conditions. They could see on the radar screen that the clouds were heading southeast, the direction we needed to go to stay on the transect line. But luckily for us, the clouds were traveling faster than the ship. So they decided to slow the ship down to 3 knots to let the squall go by. It was great planning because we soon had a clear horizon and were back on effort!
It would have been a bad day to miss because we had nine cetacean sightings by sunset! The activity started soon after lunch with our first whale sighting of the day. I was the first to see the blow, but I couldn't say a word. I had to wait for one of the mammal observers to see it, or wait for it to pass 90°. I am sure you can imagine how difficult it was to keep quiet! After a few blows, it was picked up by one of the observers. I had noticed the slanted blow from the start and was thinking that it could be a sperm whale. I was right! It blew a few more times and then fluked before its terminal dive.
The next sighting we had was one that I will never forget! It was a fin whale. It wasn't the first fin whale we had seen on the cruise, but it sure had the friendliest behavior. It gave us plenty of great photo opportunities by surfacing immediately off the ship's bow, right in front of our eyes! A few minutes later it surfaced on the starboard side, and then the port side. It was almost as if it was bow riding! Cornelia and Annie were snapping pictures left and right. The whale stayed within twenty feet of the boat for several surfaces. It was simple to track this huge animal while it swam right below the water's surface. As it cruised alongside us, I could easily see its white lower jaw and long, slender head. What a beautiful animal!
Cornelia Oedekoven is one of the primary photographers and one of the two team leaders on CSCAPE. As a team leader, Cornelia is in charge of what is going on the flying bridge. She is responsible for directing/overseeing the cetacean approaches for species identification and group size estimates. Last year, Cornelia worked on NOAA's SPLASH project. That project focused on photo identification of humpback whales in Alaska. The objectives were to obtain fluke photographs and biopsies. She said many times they were in areas with 30-50 humpbacks. The scientists spent 12-15 hours a day in the zodiac. That must had been a phenomenal experience! Cornelia has also done oceanography work on cargo ships for Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego.
One of the other photographers/mammal observers, Holly Fearnbach, will also be on the rest of the CSCAPE legs. Prior to this trip, Holly did a killer whale cruise in Alaska for the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle, Washington. She explained that there are two types of killer whales - transients and residents. The transients usually are in smaller groups, there are some differences in their physical characteristics (dorsal fins and saddles), and scientists have found genetic differences as well. Transient killer whales are mammal eaters, while the diet of the resident killer whales is primarily fish. She will soon be starting her PhD program on resident killer whales in Alaska. Holly also worked on the humpback SPLASH project for NOAA. On the east coast, Holly has also done a great deal of work with bottlenose dolphins. Some coastal bottlenose dolphin stocks spend the summer from New Jersey to Virginia and winter in the North Carolina area. Holly's main interest in marine mammal research deals with photo id and social structure. With photo id, individuals can be identified through features such as dorsal fins and flukes. Through the analysis of today's fin whale sighting, Holly determined there may have been two fins whales instead of one! Digital photography allows the scientists to quickly evaluate sightings for species id and number of species sighted.
The remainder of today's sightings were unidentified cetaceans. This means that blows were observed but no body parts were seen, making it difficult to correctly identify the species. Most of them were also out of our turning range. If a cetacean is spotted on or past the horizon or too far off the trackline, we will not go off effort to track it down. On clear days like today, the horizon is about seven miles away.