June 27, 2004
At 0900 hours, on a spectacularly sunny Seattle morning, the McArthur II left its berth at the NOAA Pacific Marine Center and proceeded to wend its way out of Lake Union, through the Ballard Lochs and out onto Puget Sound. After months of planning and preparation, the scientists and crew of the SPLASH project were embarking on a four-month journey to document the abundance of humpback whales in Western Canada, the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. For most of the officers, scientists, and crew, such a voyage was a way of life, with many seasoned marine mammal observers among the fifteen scientists on board. For me, my month-long participation in the first "leg" of the cruise, beginning in Seattle and ending on Kodiak Island, was my longest sea-going voyage to date and I was excited to begin this adventure.
For three days prior to our departure, I had the opportunity to participate in training with the SPLASH scientific team, focusing on marine mammal observation methods and techniques. In our training, Dr. Jay Barlow first outlined the goals of the project, and then gave a refresher course on the distinguishing physical features and behavioral characteristics of the marine mammal species that we might expect to see along our tracklines. For example, the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), the targeted species of our research, can be distinguished by several key features. Humpbacks are often first sighted by their characteristic blow, which is elliptical in shape and is approximately 10 ft. high. Once sighted, a humpback can be positively identified by a variety of physical features. One obvious physical feature of a humpback is inherent in its name, with a pronounced "hump" along the sloping back just before the dorsal fin. Two other features include elongated pectoral fins that are white in color and bumpy tubercles present along its snout. However, the physical feature of greatest interest on our cruise is the characteristic humpback fluke, which will be the focus of our photo ID efforts. An individual humpback can often be identified by the distinctive shape and markings of its flukes, which have recognizable patterns of ridges, barnacles, and, in some individuals, lingering scars from attacks by orcas. The primary goal of the project is to construct a catalogue of all individual flukes photographed on this cruise, and attempt to match these flukes to catalogues previously constructed by other humpback researchers. Using this technique of "capture-recapture," scientists can use the number of "resightings" to estimate the total numbers of the humpback population.
Tomorrow we will begin these cataloguing efforts in earnest, once we have motored beyond the protected waters of Puget Sound. For today, our primary goals are to conduct essential drills (small boat ops, MOB, simulated fire evacuations) to ensure the safety of scientists and crew. As we acclimate to life aboard the McArthur II, we are surrounded by the spectacular scenery of the Sound and Mt. Rainier and look forward to our adventures to come.
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