On a recent nine-day research cruise aboard NOAA’s Bell M. Shimada, we joined researchers from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Oregon State University (OSU) to collect a variety of samples and data off the coasts of Oregon and Northern California. Both of us were brought on as volunteers for the Seabird Oceanography Lab (SOL) at OSU to conduct seabird surveys.
Since 2013, SOL has conducted year-round, at-sea surveys off the Oregon coast of seabirds and marine mammals. Winter observations are typically the lab’s least robust data set, said SOL researcher Jess Porquez, as the lab’s primary survey vessel, the R/V Elakha, is sensitive to inclement weather. Sending surveyors aboard the 209-foot NOAA ship Bell Shimada is an opportunity to bolster those winter data sets. Because the Bell Shimada transects ran near shore to offshore on this cruise, SOL also hopes to capture near vs. offshore species presence/distribution and abundance.
It is humbling to see these birds in their element. Laysan and black-footed albatrosses glide low over the swells on six-foot wingspans, unflappable (and hardly flapping, at that) in the face of a roiling sea, their wingtips sometimes grazing the cresting waves. Red phalaropes, shorebirds hardly larger than sparrows, bob on the surface like bits of flotsam, utterly dwarfed by their surroundings. Yet these tiny birds, along with the similarly proportioned storm-petrels, are right at home dozens or even hundreds of miles offshore.
On stormy, overcast days (of which we saw many on this cruise), we learned to pay particular attention to pelagic birds’ flight patterns and general shape, as these were often the only field marks we could discern before the bird disappeared behind a wave. Shearwaters, for instance, are aptly named, slicing and arcing between wave troughs on long, narrow wings. Fulmars in flight are similar but not as sleek, with broader wings and shorter necks. Storm-petrels flutter like bats, alighting here and there to pluck plankton from the surface; phalaropes betray their shorebird bona fides with their sustained wingbeats and wavering flight paths. Kittiwakes, terns, and Sabine’s gulls dance in the wind like stunt kites, wheeling high above the water to drop recklessly into a dive toward the surface when some morsel presented itself. Thick skeins of bee-lining Common murres passed the ship like the shadows of clouds that raced across the ocean’s surface.
Perhaps owing to the less-than-optimal observation conditions, marine mammal sightings were sparse. Whale spouts were seen at considerable distance on the few calm mornings and evenings we encountered at sea, and a lone California sea lion was seen near the boat almost 180 miles west of Newport.
Our efforts mark the third consecutive year SOL has participated in a winter cruise of this sort. As such, it provides an opportunity to track changes in the seabird community in relation to large scale oceanographic phases observed over the last few years, including El Niño and the “Warm Blob” in the North Pacific. Warming seas affect the distribution of zooplankton and forage fishes that these birds depend on, causing shifts in prey abundance that leave some seabird populations struggling to find food. Warmer temperatures also exacerbate sea-level rise, which threatens seabird species that nest on low-lying islands and other vulnerable coastal areas. Add to this the prevalence of plastics in the ocean, and the fact that these plastics not only look like food to seabirds but smell like it, too, and the prospects for these birds look rather grim.
Seabirds range over an incredibly vast area, and some species are at sea for more than nine months out of the year. Outside of studying seabirds during the short period they spend nesting on land, much of their lives is a mystery to us. That’s why surveying for them on cruises such as this one is important: It allows us to glimpse how these birds fare while away from land, and helps us understand the potential risks they face in a rapidly changing world—one that we humans have an outsized influence on.
If you’ve walked the beaches in Newport Oregon lately, you have probably noticed the high tide line littered with the small red bodies of what look like tiny lobsters. These are Pelagic Red Crabs (Pleuroncodes planipes), also known as squat lobsters, or tuna crabs, since they are a prey item for these fish.
These organisms are a long ways from home.
These small squat lobsters normally live off Baja Mexico. During warming events, especially stronger El Niño events, these little squat lobsters can be found off Southern California to Central California, but they rarely venture much farther north than that. Pearcy and Schoener (1987) reviewed the occurrence of Pelagic Red Crabs off California and noted that they have occurred during or following major El Niño events from 1941, 1958-1960, 1969-1970, 1972-1973, 1979-1980 and 1983-84. However, none were observed during the 1997-98 El Niño (W. Peterson, personal observation).
Pelagic Red Crabs are not strong swimmers, so they are carried from place to place with the ocean currents. During our most recent trip aboard the NOAA ship Bell Shimada, we heard reports of Pelagic Red Crabs observed off Brookings Oregon, close to where we were sampling at the time. We never saw any at sea, but then they washed up on the local beaches a few days later.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that Pelagic Red Crabs have been observed on beaches off Oregon. How these crabs became distributed much farther north than previously reported is a mystery at this time. A closer look at the coastal currents might reveal the answers.
Pearcy, W. and A. Schoener. 1987. Changes in the marine biota coincident with the 1982-1983 El Niño in the northeastern sub-Arctic Pacific Ocean. J. Geophys. Res. 92, C13, 14,417-14,428, 15 Dec 1987.
At-sea research trips have some down time. In the distant past, a bored scientist with a sense of humor drew a picture with a Sharpie on a piece of Styrofoam and sent it way down into the abyss, securely attached to a piece of equipment. When he or she brought it back up, the object was shrunken to a tiny size. The reaction was joy among fellow scientists-- and a tradition was born.
My main job this trip is to run the beam trawls (a small bottom net) with video equipment when we are near shore to collect juvenile commercial flatfish. However, we spend some time offshore (out to 200 miles) collecting samples. While away from the coast, I don’t have much to do. I brought data to enter, but I can’t exactly head home after a day’s work. Fortunately, one thing that we do offshore is collect data on the water column by sending a CTD down to 1,000 meters.
I took this opportunity to teach some elementary students a little physics to spark their interest in science. This trip, we will crush some cups for science.
Before I departed on the research cruise, I sent 40 Styrofoam cups to kids in a 5th grade class with instructions to decorate them with colored Sharpies. Some kids are great artists, surpassing my own stick figure cup-coloring abilities. I have sent the cups down in 2 batches and plan to return them to the artists once I reach dry land, where I’ll explain the process.
How does this cup crushing thing work?
At sea level, the air that surrounds us presses on our bodies at 14.5 pounds per square inch. We don’t notice it because we are adapted to it, but it is happening… If that pressure was removed you would definitely notice as your blood would literally boil as many other bad things happen. The opposite is true as you go underwater. Dive down to the bottom of a swimming pool and you can feel increased pressure in your eardrums. This is due to an increase in hydrostatic pressure, the force per unit area exerted by a liquid on an object. The deeper you go, the greater the pressure of the water pushing down on you. For every 33 feet (about 10 meters) that you go down, the pressure increases by 1 atmosphere.
Styrofoam cups are mostly air, about 90%. When sent down to great depths in the ocean, pressure builds up all around them forcing the air out of the cup and causing it to shrink. We are sending these cups down 2,000 meters. This will result in an added 200 atmospheres of pressure or 2,900 pounds per square inch (PSI). 2,900 PSI would be like crushing a car down to a 1 inch cube. Imagine a bunch of cars getting crushed to 1” and being placed all around you. Without some very strong protection, say a submarine, a human would not be able to survive. However, many animals that live in the sea have no trouble at all with high pressure. For example sperm whales can hunt for giant squid at depths over 7,000 feet.
I could go on, but the CTD is coming back up and I need to go…