Welcome to the 2016 PODS Blog page! NOAA Fisheries scientists will be conducting a survey for 20 days aboard the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada to help us understand where endangered Southen Resident killer whales go during the winter months, as well as to better understand their ecosystem. Follow us as we share interesting news and photos from our survey!
March 7, 2016
Upon entering the acoustics lab around 6:55am, Shannon Coats had that twinkle in her eyes again and proudly said, “We’ve got em!” Our team had successfully localized and tracked them on and off through the night again, which is no easy task. There was a positive buzz back in the air and we all seemed to be anxious to get up to the bridge and spot them. We gobbled our food, thanks to Cliff and Rory for all of their hard work in the galley. We are always greeted with sunshine smiles, hot coffee and the most delicious meals morning, noon and night. The mess hall, like most dining rooms or kitchens, is where people gather and tell stories of the day. The crew of the Bell M. Shimada work around the clock too. By 7:15am I had stopped by my state room before heading up to the bridge to grab my camera, rain gear, ski gloves, and my warm knit hat. Within minutes people pointed out our aft starboard windows and the whales were close together swimming slow. I hurried back down to the boat deck and my first three photos of the day were three separate breaches just off our stern within 5 minutes of being down there. What a welcome morning treat that was! The clouds like most days on this trip were low and ominous looking. We were right off Cape Flattery and little did we know that we would end up tracking these whales all day as they were scouring the deep canyons off the coast. Within minutes Candi Emmons had spotted the J11s and J14s, it wasn’t until later that she spotted J2, L87 and the others confirming that we were with all of J pod. The seas were rough again with swells well over 8-10’ and on and off rains and rainbows. The animals split off into groups and spread out as far as the eyes could track them and within hours they would be in close proximity again. We observed their behavior throughout the day and recorded their calls too. Around 1pm we noticed the whales surrounding a young Gray whale, it was hanging out at the surface, most likely some of the whales were giving it a hard time or messing with it. We did observe either the Gray whale pectoral fin or flukes sticking up out of the water even after the small group of J whales continued south. Oh how we wished we could see underwater to see the entire encounter, however it is not uncommon for the Southern Resident killer whales to mess around with other marine mammals such as porpoise, but it appeared that this encounter didn’t last longer than a few minutes. Around 2:30 we heard pulsed calls that were not J pod, but we were unable to spot this second group of killer whales and then it got quiet again. We picked up with J pod again, but we had one whale, J47, that circled our boat and went right over our array. We did have very loud pulsed calls at this time, but just because a call is faint or loud, doesn’t necessarily imply that it comes from the closest animal. See Figure below. We were able to hang out with J pod through the sunset, but as it grew darker we lost visual contact with them. In looking at the tracks of our day, we all giggled because we were with J pod all day but essentially made circles around them all day staying Just West of Cape Flattery, but nearly in the same location all day. The whales were traveling at very slow speeds, other times spread out and we observed that the animals were making long dives. The more we are with them, the more questions we have. Was the hunting good here? What were they feeding on and why was this location so successful? It seems like the last week or so we have found them in this general location. Until tomorrow!
March 5-6, 2016
Saturday we heard killer whales early in the morning and later in the evening, but no visual sightings of them during daylight hours. Everyone worked overtime looking and listening for the whales, but we kept ourselves in areas where we either last saw them or heard them. Sunday felt like a repeat of yesterday until FINALLY we picked up calls around 4pm. This late in the day meant that we had limited time due to daylight at best 2 hours. We were hearing pulsed calls and echolocation clicks, most likely J pod but we never saw them. Like many of our days out here, let me paint a picture of our ever so familiar sea state for you. Winds were blowing 30mph, white caps all around. The animals must have been spread out for it was nearly impossible to find them. It was quite frustrating to know that they were probably within 7 miles of us, but we still did not have any luck finding them. Soooo close! After dinner, Brad Hanson gave a talk to the crew about his research and explained why we were staying in this general area. He showed us previous maps of tagged Southern Resident killer whales from winter cruises and areas with high frequency of encounters. It was great to hear the crew ask such great questions and it honestly was another great reminder that “Science isn’t easy and doesn’t come fast” a quote from Brad Hanson, our fearless and optimistic chief scientist.
March 4, 2016
We woke up at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca again with choppy waters and a sea state of 7, winds blowing 30-40mph and no whales all morning, nor early afternoon. It was not until 2:45 that we detected Southern Resident killer whales in the Strait just North of Pillar Point. The visual team picked up the animals around 3:30 and around 3:44 we heard consistent echolocation clicks, buzzes, whistles, and pulsed calls. Candi confirmed that we were hearing S12 calls and by 4:15 the small boat was deployed with Brad Hanson, Jeff Foster, Candi Emmons, and one of the crew members of the Shimada, Skilled Fisherman, Joao Alves for nearly two hours. They were with J22s and J17s which offered a unique opportunity to record the vocalizations from these sub pods. We acoustically tracked this group until about 7pm. We were in the Straits so our sea state was a lot nicer than outside, yet these animals were very spread out and we struggled to keep up with all of the groups. Dawn Breese and Bob Hunt, our stellar observers had about 4 members of our acoustic help scan the horizon in case the small boat wanted to join another group. We always want to maximize our opportunities when we can get the small boat out in the water, however when we see them so late in the day we want to spend as much time with the whales as possible. My hat goes off to the team for their consistent efforts and all of this data is critical to better understanding their winter distribution, what habitats they are using, all to better support the recovery of this endangered species. Good job team!
March 3, 2016
Our night acoustics team heard faint killer whale calls around 4:30 in the morning and then again at 5:30 for a half an hour. We woke up near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, cloudy, raining and around 9am the winds picked up to nearly 30 mph which doesn’t help with our visibility. However as the afternoon continued we were inside the Strait in calmer waters, patches of blue sky and sun started peeking through. In this sea state (Beaufort 2) the water was very flat so spotting animals was quite easy. We saw a ton of Harbor porpoises, but the killer whales were not in the area. We made our way back out to the entrance of the Stait and sure enough the scientists up on the fly bridge spotted black fins in the distance, however at first we couldn’t detect which ecotype these killer whales were. Could they be a small group of Js, Ks, or Ls, or could they be transients, Northern Resident killer whales, or offshore killer whales? There were not a lot of vocalizations, but finally after about an hour we started hearing lower frequency pulsed calls, no echolocation clicks were picked up. However, these didn’t sound like J pod or our Southern Residents. We called up to Candi Emmons to have her listen and she confirmed that these were Transient (marine mammal eating) killer whales. She confirmed that these animals were a group of three whales, T19 and her two offspring. Based on their movements and vocal behavior, Brad believes they may have recently had a kill due to their bursts of movement, but we could not confirm this. We continued to look for J pod or other killer whales, but no luck off the Western entrance of the Strait. The acoustics team did pick up J pod from 10pm for four and half hours, but then they went quiet again. Below is a screen shot of the Transient call, look around 3 kHtz what looks like a white horizontal line. The white band between 4 kHtz and 20 kHtz is background noise, either ships or wave noise.
March 2, 2016
Today we had a nice break in the weather, gorgeous sunrise, calm waters and gray clouds that seemed to be out of reach all around us. The water was calm and visibility was great, so compared to yesterday this was ideal whale spotting weather. We have success tracking them acoustically throughout the night, but usually around 3-4 am they stop vocalizing. My hat goes off to Cory Hom-Weaver, Kerry Dunleavy, and Shannon Coates who take turns on the night shifts. They work with the captain to stay with the animals as long as they can. Our vessel needs to keep moving to keep the array from falling down in the water column, so we often travel between 3-4 knots when with the whales , if they are going slower we simply make a 360o turn so that we have them in front of us. It is a toss of the dice every night of which direction the whales will travel and we predict where they have a higher probability of being this time of year. We use our prior tag data and experience to put ourselves in areas where we think they will return. Well, our hunch was correct again today. We headed back out to the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and very similar to yesterday we found the killer whales around 1:15pm quite spread out. Again this was J pod, at first they were in small groups and not vocalizing and then they spread out very similar to what we saw with Ks and Ls down at the mouth of the Columbia River just last week. And just like the swells and wind we had down there, once we stepped out of the Strait we were rocking and rolling again. By about 4pm it had begun raining again and the animals became more and more difficult to follow. They also stopped vocalizing and before you knew it we were both heading back into the Strait. What will tomorrow bring? That is the million dollar question with these whales, but with increased knowledge of their winter habitat we strive to adapt our management strategies to recover these whales.
Rain and poor visibility didn’t stop this crew from finding J pod after 5.5 hours of scouring the horizon from all angles around the vessel. We finally found the whales around 1:30pm after covering as much territory at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We heard familiar calls including S3 calls and within minutes we heard that our scientist Candi Emmons had confirmed that we were with J pod. It is so fun to listen to her spout out…We have J2 and there is J27 he is swimming with L87. Within in minutes she has a pulse on which animals we are with. She is exquisite at noticing the small nuances of either the fin shape and/or the different saddle patches that are not only different on each whale, but also different on each side of every whale. She has more than 2 decades of experience identifying these animals and once she can identify one she looks for the whales around that animal to see often their closest relatives. Since calves stay with their mothers throughout their lives, these animals are often seen swimming in close proximity. We always have a competition of who is going to find the whales first, the acoustics team or our observers team up on the fly bridge. Arial Brewer and I heard a handful of echolocation clicks and pulsed calls, took a few bearings and tried to localize where they were in relation to our hydrophone array to share with our team upstairs. With the walkie talkie in one hand, we received word that they spotted them as well. Probably a tie, but satisfaction from both teams no doubt! The animals were just east of Neah Bay, heading into Inland waters. The animals were spread out and clicking and vocalizing like crazy, but only for the next 6 hours. It is tough when they get quiet and they have done so every night that we have been with the different pods. I was so surprised to see them close to land on the U.S. side. In the summer months we tend to see them on the other side. If you had been on a beach such as in Seiku or Clallam Bay you could have seen them swimming by with a pair of binoculars perhaps. After a soggy wet day and the light of day vanishing we all welcomed the calm waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and looked forward to seeing where J pod would be tomorrow. Every day is different and we had such good fortune to encounter these pods in rough seas, foul weather, and in different parts of their range than we do in the summer months. This information is vital to our recovery coordinators and will improve our understanding of their winter habitat use.
February 29, 2016
Quiet day overall, we left the Columbia River mouth and headed north, we were up off the Olympic Coast Sanctuary for a large part of the day and eventually traveled up the west side of Vancouver Island as far north as Barkley Sound and then started heading south. The seas were still rough and visibility varied throughout the day. For nearly 10 hours searching from the fly bridge, which mind you is a typical day, but hard conditions to find nearly anything. It was a reminder that these animals are wild and their range is quite large. We don’t have a lot of winter data because of conditions like these. If we knew where these endangered whales were and what food source they were utilizing in the winter we wouldn’t be out here putting in this effort to better understand their patterns and estimating how long they stay in certain area.
February 28, 2016
Today was a tough day spotting anything; the sea state was very rough throughout the day with a Beaufort varying between 6-8 and large swells between 10-15 feet. Our weather varied from low visibility, rain/hail, to patches of blue sky and short periods of sunshine. Our array has been doing great again; we had three detections all day. Two instances with unidentified small toothed whales possibly Pacific white sided dolphins or Risso’s dolphins, the other encounter was a brief acoustic encounter with the Southern Residents around 3am. However during daylight hours this was a non-killer whale day. We were able to spot gray whales migrating North, Harbor porpoise, and even a breaching Humpback whale. All of us working overtime in search for the whales, the bridge was inundated with our scientists staying dry and observing around the vessel. However, with the spray from the waves and constant crashing waves everything looks like a marine mammal surfacing. We will continue our efforts though.
February 27, 2016
Woke up to clouds in the morning and our forecast was supposed to be rain and miserable, but we had a pretty good sea state of 3, swells were less than the last few days around 5-6’ and visibility was probably a mile out from 8-9:30 and it kept clearing up throughout the day. By noon we had sunshine, however, finding the whales was a tough. We were spent a fair amount of time between Willapa Bay and the mouth of the Columbia. By early afternoon our visuals team spotted some whales from Ls and Ks. They were fairly quiet into the late afternoon and then about 4:30 the two groups started coming closer together and displayed a lot of surface active behaviors like spy hopping, partial and full breaches for nearly an hour. Then they started calling and we were able to record some great pulsed calls too and were able to acoustically stay with the animals until just after midnight the next day.
February 26, 2016
We were able to stay with L95 through most of the night, but the whales went into deeper waters and stopped vocalizing. We received a tag update early in the morning and headed towards the mouth of the Columbia which was his last position. We visually spotted them by 8am and they started vocalizing about an hour later. We were with parts of Ls and Ks they came close to the vessel a few times, but overall were spread out. However, around 1:30 we had technical difficulties with our array. We pulled it in and our stellar crew and scientists problem solved for nearly 4 hours pulling in the array, dismantling it, reconfiguring it. Out in the field you have to expect the unexpected, but I am proud to say that by 7pm we had the array back in and within minutes we were acoustically with the whales again until about 4:30am on Saturday.
February 25, 2016
Gorgeous day, we still had big swells, but the winds had died down compared to the last few days which gave a sea state of between 2-3 which was quite nice for viewing! The whales milled and stayed at the mouth of the Columbia River most of the day. L pod was close into shore in the morning and then spread out right in the middle of the shipping lane to the mouth of the Columbia River. We are thankful for our NOAA Corps who navigate us, keep us safe, and work with our team to be in the best possible position to be with the whales. However, today was difficult on many levels mainly because of our location. As you might expect the mouth of the Columbia River is shallow creating large swells. We need to keep the array in fairly deep waters and maintain a speed that keeps it from hitting the bottom. That with the complexity of vessel traffic coming and going in the shipping lane, and keeping our equipment off the bottom. We tend to be fluctuating our speed, direction, and headings at all times. All of that maneuvering affects the quality of our acoustic data, so we are in constant communications with the bridge to speed up or slow down, but it is definitely a give and take. We are constantly doing damage control, for instance we had to slow down and pull in the hydrophone array because we heard lots of strange noises and possibly dragging or caught on objects. We pulled it in, made adjustments, tested all connections and we were able to redeploy and get back to listening. Never a dull moment with technology let me tell you. During this time, the small boat was able to get out to L pod which happened to be just South of the shipping lane. They were pretty close together earlier in the day, but of course Murphy ’s Law kicks in and they were more spread out for the duration of our small boat encounters. Most of the animals were there except the L12s which we saw on our first day. They could have been around, but due to the conditions of the water and haze on the horizon they were not observed. Brad and his team were able to check up on L95 and the tag still looked good and they spent time trying to see as many of the groups as possible. We maximized our effort until late in the afternoon while still altering course in this busy part of the coast. First gorgeous sunset and can’t believe it is the end of February. However, the forecast looks like we are heading into more typical winter weather so we enjoyed being out in the nice weather but due to hustle and bustle of our location many of us were unable to leave our stations or come up for air. I am gaining a whole new appreciation for all of the officer’s duties and the scientists who are constantly juggling their equipment working, working on a vessel that is jostling around and are working around the clock!
February 24, 2015
So today I am going to start my blog at midnight to give you a snapshot of some of our shifts from our three different teams. The acoustics team literally works around the clock non-stop from sunrise to sunset guiding the captain where to go next, especially at night. They are listening to calls and echolocation clicks and localize where they are in relation to our array that is being towed about 300m behind our vessel. They communicate to the captain to best follow them. They also monitor the satellite tag updates from L95 and work with the captain and crew to anticipate where they will go next and in what direction. However, the tag doesn’t get transmitted in real time, we have to wait for updates that might take up to 4+ hours to receive. We can visualize the whale’s movements by going on line to see the track lines or movements of this whale. Sometimes the whales do not vocalize like today and we have to give our best estimate of direction and speed of the vessel and adjust and adapt as we go. We did hear echolocation clicks throughout the morning before the sun rose, but as daylight approached we wanted to tell our team definitively where they were so we could begin our visual observations and possibly get out in the small boat to collect samples. We did eventually find them off the coast of WA but they were really spread out and the sea state was quite rough. We can detect killer whales approximately 7 miles away, but there are windows when the animals are not vocalizing. So we face many challenges to find the whales, keep up with them, and track them over time. We woke up to gray skies around Grays Harbor today, 8-10 swells again and quite windy. If whales did surface their blows were hard to see and with the big rolling whales extremely challenging to use high power binoculars. So we had more people up on the flying bridge scouting for the whales. The animals were heading South and we did encounter them but they were spread out and weather conditions and visibility were poor viewing conditions.
February 23, 2016
We woke up to another gorgeous sunrise near La Push this morning. Our acoustics team heard a faint killer whale call just after 7am and by 7:40 our visuals team spotted them in the binoculars and the fun begins! Candi Emmons was able to positively ID the L11s and L12s right away. The whales were in two to three groups throughout the day sometimes in tight groups and then other times spread out and diving deep in search of food most likely. The small boat was deployed and we successfully were able to get a satellite tag on L95 and better ID the rest of L pod. We are always looking for foraging behavior, we do our best to collect feces, mucus samples, and possible prey samples such as scales, fish parts, or what have you. These samples are collected in vials, labeled, frozen here on the ship and brought back to our labs in Seattle. Our genetic team helps us determine species and sometimes specific runs that help us better understand their diet and where they go to find this food. Our team also is photographing the animals to confirm which whales we are with and looks at over all conditions of the whales. From the flying bridge perspective, our team in the small boat has such small windows of time with the whales and it is remarkable that in 10+ ft swells that they can even follow individuals or small groups. Our observers have a higher angle, but communicating with the scientists where other small groups are located in comparison to them, distance, and direction becomes challenging in rough waters. Our acoustics team was heads down and working overtime to help the captain and observers give locations to the scientists out with the whales too. While all of this is going on we also have an oceanographer aboard who is collecting surface water samples for temperature, salinity, Chlorophyll a, and nutrients. We want to capture a snap shot throughout the day (6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm). We also add an XBT sample for 3 of those times that give us temperature readings down to 100m. Understanding water temperature and ocean conditions can inform us about the basic ocean food web, especially in El Nino years we want to better understand and determine if there are prey shifts where animals might travel to different areas following their prey. So this data can be vital to interpreting data while out here and help create a snap shot of what is happening off our outer coast.
February 22, 2016
We all survived our first night at sea, very rough waters all through the night. On the hydrophones the acousticians heard lots of unidentifiable dolphins, most likely Pacific white sided dolphins and a faint sperm whale echolocating. During daylight hours, everyone was working overtime to spot either blows or to see dorsal fins of killer whales. Our crew on the bridge, observers on the flying bridge, and folks listing for clicks and calls in the acoustics lab were all maximizing their time and effort. My hat goes off to our acoustics staff who work 24 hours a day to track the locations of the whales. If they detect animals, they want to maximize as much information as they can from them. For instance, are the sounds echolocation clicks, calls, or whistles? Can they give us clues to which pods we are listening to? However, our oceans are never quiet. We hear our engines, other boats, echo sounders and a variety of other noises. Specifically, we are looking for pulsed calls, echolocation clicks and more importantly foraging clicks or click trains, and whistles. If we hear any of these, we immediately communicate with the bridge to possible change course, plus let the observers with high power binoculars know to keep their eyes out for the whales. Since our hydrophone array has multiple hydrophones and amps, if a whale calls that sound arrives at each of those hydrophones slightly at different times. We then have three programs inside our acoustics lab that computes the angles and detect if the signals are coming from which side of the array, hence localizing the sound. Ideally, of course. There are times when we know where a signal is coming from, we use a three different software programs to be able to localize those calls, but sometimes we can’t decipher if it is on the right or left side of the array. In those cases, we ask the captain to turn 30 degree and try to localize again. This often tells us which side of the boat to relay up to the bridge and our observers up on the fly bridge. Our lab is utilizing probably 7 computers at all times. We are recording, plotting, taking screen shots of good calls, and time stamping every encounter plus taking the latitude and longitude as well. Not only that we are constantly checking to see if the files are recording, batteries are charged, connections are still working, etc. Shout to all of these scientists who make it look so easy!