Posts Tagged ‘Vertebrate Ecology Lab’

It’s Whale Soup Out Here!

June 5, 2012

Looking for whales in Monterey Bay

Ok, so it’s not literally whale soup out here, but Monterey Bay has been full of humpback whales for the past few weeks.  Casey Clark, a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Labs, has been taking advantage of this opportunity to investigate migrations and feeding behavior humpback whales in this region.  Each whale’s tail (known as a fluke) has a unique pattern of black and white markings and scars, which can be used to identify individual whales, much like fingerprints are used to identify humans.  As part of his research, Casey has been photographing the flukes of whales encountered in the bay and referencing them to a catalog to determine when and where they have been seen in the past.  Spring and summer are great times to see humpback and blue whales in Monterey bay, so keep your eyes out for a glimpse of these huge marine mammals!

Last look at a humpback whale.

Habitat Restoration: One Bird at a Time

October 5, 2011

by Angela Szesciorka, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

“The latest tool in wildlife biology is a garden spade,” says Ryan Carle, as he happily describes his work with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, a nonprofit working worldwide to improve biodiversity conservation and increase understanding of human impacts on marine ecosystems.

Ryan started this fall as one of Moss Landing’s newest students, but has been working with Oikonos as a project biologist for two years on seabird habitat restoration on Año Nuevo Island.

Ryan surveying the island. (photo: Oikonos)

Año Nuevo Island, part of Año Nuevo State Reserve, is located roughly half way between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. It is a critical breeding habitat for seabirds and marine mammals, including the Rhinoceros Auklet, burrow-nesting seabirds similar to puffins.

Auklet chick. (photo: Oikonos)


You’re Wearing a Red Fur Coat?

March 22, 2011

MLML student Elizabeth Mchuron is studying why some harbor seals develop rust in their coats.

By Elizabeth McHuron, Vertabrate Ecology Lab

This harbor seal was captured in San Francisco Bay as part of several students’ thesis projects.  One of these projects is looking at why harbor seals in San Francisco Bay are rusting (notice the red fur), and why some seals rust and others don’t.  Some of the samples collected for these projects include blood, hair, morphometric (body) measurements, and nasal/rectal swabs.  All seals involved receive two blue rear flipper tags and a PIT tag (microchip), so that they can be identified in the future.


How to Find a Dead Whale

February 2, 2011

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

STUNNING, isn’t it?


Humpback and Shearwaters, Unimak Pass. Photo: NMML


The magnificent power, the grace,  the vigor of truly giant life.  BUT, where do whales go when they die??

And, what about all those seals, sea lions, dolphins … heck, walruses, even?!


A Walrus carcass makes it into the 300m strip transect! Turns out even veteran at-sea researchers like USFWS Marty Reedy can still be surprised by new experiences. Photo: M. Reedy

What happens to them if they die at sea, as you might expect most of them would do?  To explore this question, we might think to ask a marine scientist (naturally!).  And, of course, there are scientists that are studying dead marine mammals (you aren’t surprised, are you?).  In fact, Moss Landing’s very own Gillian Rhett is focusing her MSc research on dead whales!  Turns out, studying the afterlife of marine mammals is every bit as intriguing as chasing them in the living flesh.  Scientists are  still learning about what happens to these animals after they die, and it’s a remarkable story.


Scientists and crew (Nate Jones, among them) encounter a dead Sperm Whale, seen from flying bridge of USFWS R/V Tiglax. Photo: N. Jones

Nate Jones first saw this whale at about 2 km distance; a mysterious, looming chunk of something, floating low in the water, unmistakably immobile in the snotty tumult that is a typical Bering Sea day.  Whatever this thing was, it was large.  And probably of animal origin; there were about half a dozen gulls swarming the area, looking for a free meal.  Sure enough, a Sperm Whale carcass.

You can see how tall tales are born on the high seas!  Some of them are true…

Fishing for seabirds II

January 6, 2011

How DO marine ornithologists catch the birds they study?  Sometimes, it’s just like catching fish!

Of course, first you’ve got to find the birds.  The oceans are HUGE expanses.  They can be difficult to navigate, and birds can fly literally hundreds of miles in a single day!  Luckily for biologists, the most predictable place to find seabirds is actually on land, on a breeding colony during their reproductive season.  So, how does a biologist catch a seabird while it’s on a colony?  Amazingly, many seabirds exhibit no instinctual fear of humans while on their breeding colonies, and if they nest on flat ground then researchers can simply walk right up and touch them!

Albatross census. Photo: USFWS

In many places where birds nest on cliffs they also exhibit little fear when humans lean over from the top, just a few feet above them.  This allows biologists to employ a modified “fishing” pole, with a slip-knot noose, to grab a bird (loosely!) by the neck, nudge it off its perch, and gently guide it through the air (as it flaps in a startled flurry!), back up to the cliff top where measurements, blood draws, and other work can be done.

M. Murphy, fising for kittiwakes! Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

How can it be that these animals, which routinely fly thousands of miles in a year, would just sit there and allow themselves to be captured on their breeding grounds?  Wouldn’t this lack of caution put the breeding birds at great risk of predation?  Yes, but… many seabird colonies are located on relatively small and terribly remote islands, and in prehistoric times, as the birds evolved their breeding habits and reproductive strategies, there were NO land predators whatsoever!  This is because many of these remote islands emerged as the tops of ancient volcanoes, which oozed and spewed and built their way straight from the depths of the oceans, and so were never associated with any parent land mass.


As such they remained for eons in isolation, free of any land predators.  Seabirds find these types of islands particularly suitable for breeding.  Without many foreign disturbances, they are left to partition the breeding habitat amongst themselves to a maximal extent.  Often, this means some VERY dense nesting aggregations!

Icy Spring Time

June 27, 2010

Author: Nate Jones

It’s early June, and there’s still ice in the Bering Sea!  This year the seasonal ice cover has persisted late into the “spring” time.  Much later than in recent years.  In fact, it hasn’t felt much like springtime here on the water; it’s snowed (or, is it frozen fog?) on many days, and the mercury in the thermometer outside pools listlessly at about the 32F mark, even at high noon.  To be sure, the ice is melting, breaking up into pancakes, jumbled, layered, and amalgamated by spring storm waves and wind… but, sloowwly, slowly…  the water is still cold; as cold as the ice itself.  A reluctant catalyst, at best.

(ice) pancakes, anyone? It's June 2nd...

We are surveying on the R/V Thomas Thompson, a University of Washington UNOLS ship.  This is an ice-reinforced vessel, so we can push (carefully!) through this kind of cold slurry in search of oceanographic data.  The scientists on this cruise are primarily interested in measuring the physics and chemistry of the spring ice retreat, and the rich plankton communities that tend to bloom and grow during this transition time.  Like the first spring buds and shoots of green in a garden, the explosion of microscopic marine algae, diatoms, and copepods forms the base of a food web that will sustain all the fish we eat, and the seabirds, seals, and sea lions that also depend on them.  So, this is a very important time of year in the Bering Sea!

Sea Ice

Bering Sea surveys resume

May 5, 2010

Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

The seasonal ice is breaking up, and it’s time once again for oceanographers to motor out into the Bering Sea to check the vital signs of the rich sub-arctic.  This summer Brian Hoover and I (from Dr. Harvey’s Vertebrate Ecology Lab ) will spend many weeks observing seabirds and marine mammals while on scientific research vessels that ply the waters of the Bering, Chukchi, and Arctic.  We are participating in a large, coordinated research effort led by scientists from across the country and funded through the North Pacific Research Board’s BEST-BSIERP science plan.

Humpbacks and shearwaters feeding on the north side of an Aleutian pass (photo: NMML)

This plan applies research to every aspect of the marine environment – from the flow of currents and micro-nutrients, through the growth and transport of plankton, and on across an interconnected food web to include fish, seabirds, seals, walrus, whales, and even humans and our species’ relationship to the oceans.

Brian and I focus on marine birds and mammals for our studies.  While on these ships we will be counting and describing the animals we encounter, entering information as we observe the activity from the wheelhouse, high above the water.  This is a good location from which to appreciate the dynamism of these productive regions.  In the following four months we will be posting more pictures and stories about our studies, brining you along with us as we push through ice, buck storm swells, and glide through the glassy bliss of calm seas between.  Can’t wait!

A view from on high

Safety at Sea

December 1, 2009

Author: Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

(still in the Bering Sea)   … Of course the bad weather I’ve been writing about was nothing compared to what happens on the Bering during the months of February or March, and the Gold Rush fishes regularly during that time of year, so I had complete faith in the seaworthiness of the ship and the judgment and skill of the crew.  I took comfort in that thought, and stumbled down to my bunk for what became a grueling 72 hours of bumps, rolls, and queasy stomachs.  During this stormy time the crew exchanged watches at the helm, keeping the ship pointed into the fury.

Bumpy Bering Sea

We all hoped for the best, but by the time the seas had calmed to (a more manageable?) 8-10’, the hungry ocean had damaged and ripped off much of our scientific equipment, snapping several ¼” steel bolts and ripping welds clean apart!

The Gold Rush itself weathered this storm in fine shape (wish we could say the same of our scientific equipment!), and there were no major injuries to anyone on board.  It really was quite a minor event in the context of the Bering Sea; just another blowy, bumpy day or two out on the water.

Another day at "the office" for a marine scientist

But, it impressed me and I couldn’t help contemplating darker scenarios – what happens when there is a true emergency?  What if someone had been swept overboard, or, worse yet, what if the ship itself had been damaged or taken on water and started to go down?  Such things do happen, although not as frequently now as they have in the past (coast guard regulations and improvements in technology and crew training have contributed to much increased safety).

In my next post I’ll put up some images from training exercises that are routinely undertaken to help prepare crew and passengers (scientists) for emergencies at sea…

Neal takes a dip in the Bering Sea

Into the storm

October 23, 2009
Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

…Our research cruise on the Gold Rush got off to a bumpy start.  We were delayed in leaving Dutch Harbor after working to attach the acoustic equipment, rig up our nets, and wire our electronic devices into the ship’s circuitry.  All this had to be done before hitting the seas to gather any data, but it was tough to know that the clock was ticking.

So, we were impatient when we heard that the ocean would be rough, and we decided to motor out anyway and get going on our course.  As it turned out, we probably should have stayed in port, gone for beers and a hotel room, and waited for the water to calm down; We did not collect much usable data during that first 72 hours anyway!

A good sign of our impending experience was the ship’s barometer.  Keep in mind that anything under 29.92 is considered, on average, a “low” pressure event, and is likely associated with stormy weather…

Photo: C. Waluk

Photo: C. Waluk

The waves and wind slammed us as soon as we rounded the last point of land and pushed into the open Bering Sea waters.  The ship pitched and plunged, leaving us weightless, even as we braced and grabbed with our hands.  Everything that was not bolted or strapped down began to slip, slide, and slam every which way.  The Gold Rush turned into the storm, facing torrents of spray and heaving mountains of slate gray water.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Up and up we would rise, pushing through choppy, liquid cornice crests, only to plunge steeply into dark troughs.

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

Even the captain, Bert Ashely, who has 30 years’ fishing experience in the Bering Sea, marveled at how unseasonably rough these waters were:  seas of perhaps 12-18’, and winds a sustained 40+ knots.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

And yet, it was the middle of summer…

This was how I spent my July 17th and 18th.

Bumpy Bering Sea Summer

September 29, 2009

Don’t trust that twinkle in Jacques Cousteau’s eye!

Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau


Photo: Amanda M.

And, don’t be fooled by the idyllic photo that my friend Amanda M. took at her field site on Palmyra Atoll…

I’m here to remind everyone that Marine Science is not always bikinis, cocktails, warm sand, and sunsets.

(hmmm… should I have read the fine print before signing up?  Shelby, do you need a field assistant in Panama?).

There is much to be studied in the cooler latitudes, and the abundance of marine birds and mammals truly defies description.

HUWH and Shearwaters_resized

Photo: NOAA / NMML

Perhaps the greatest challenge in working at high latitudes is the weather.  Specifically, what the weather can do to you while you’re working on the ocean!

Research time at sea is always an adventure, and usually it is a grand and engaging one at that.  But it can also be tiring, physically uncomfortable, and monotonous… or even a little too thrilling!  A friend of mine that sails frequently describes long ocean crossings as “days of boredom interrupted by moments of absolute terror”.

This summer I spent another 28 days out on the Bering Sea, studying the foraging ecology of seabirds and fur seals.  This was the second and final summer of data collection for my thesis work, which is funded as a component of the North Pacific Research Board’s Patch Dynamics Study

I spent my time on the contracted vessel R/V Gold Rush, which is a 99’ trawler that spends most every day of the year working in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Seas.


Photo: L. Whitman

As you might expect, this ship is sturdy, well-maintained, and operated by a very skilled and competent crew.  Nonetheless we did encounter some ocean conditions that slowed our progress and reminded us just how small we were…

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Nate Jones

Nate Jones


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