HICEAS seabird observers: Not just winging it

By Rachel Holton and Amanda Bradford
PIFSC Young Scientist Opportunity Intern and HICEAS Cruise Leader

While the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) focuses on determining the size, structure, and habitat of cetacean (whale and dolphin) populations in Hawaiian waters, we have our eyes on more than just marine mammals. Specifically, we are also keeping track of seabirds in our study area. The occurrence, diversity, and abundance of seabirds are important indicators of ocean conditions, which we can use to better understand not only cetacean habitat but also ecosystem health.  How do we survey for seabirds, and what is life like for a seabird observer?  To find out, we sat down with HICEAS Seabird Observer, Dawn Breese, who kindly shared her expertise and experiences with us.

HICEAS Seabird Observer Dawn Breese is welcomed to Tern Island (French Frigate Shoals) by a line of Red-footed Boobies. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

How long have you been a bird observer?
I’ve been watching birds pretty much forever. My parents instilled a love of animals in me at a very early age. My first NOAA research cruise was as a volunteer seabird observer in 1986 on the NOAA Ship David Starr Jordan. We went from San Diego, CA, to Manzanillo, Mexico, and many of the seabirds were new to me.

Have you been on any research cruises like this before? How many? Do you enjoy them?
Yes! I love them! This is my third time participating in HICEAS (2002, 2010, and now 2017). I have also worked in the Antarctic, Alaska, the Eastern Tropical Pacific, and the California Current. I’ve probably done 30 or so seabird cruises.

Why are YOU interested in birds and why should WE (everyone else) be interested in them? How are they beneficial to the environment?
I have always been attracted to birds because of their beauty and grace. Some are outrageously colorful, and, they can fly! Their behavior is fascinating, and they are fun to watch. Being outside, be it on land or at sea, makes us feel good. Watching birds in our yard, a city park, a wilderness area, or on the water helps us gain knowledge by simply observing. Land birds are beneficial to the environment most notably by eating insects that destroy crops and invade trees. Seabird colonies provide fertilizer from their guano (poop) that enriches the marine environment all the way up the food chain.

A juvenile Gray-backed Tern flies gracefully over the open ocean. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

Has climate change affected seabirds in any way? How?
As the ocean warms, prey species and seabird distribution changes. A stark example of this was “The Blob” of warm water that affected the eastern North Pacific in the fall of 2014. By October 2014, the entire Northeast Pacific from Alaska all the way down to Mexico had temperatures that were 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. Concurrent with the temperature increase, was an influx of Brown Boobies, a tropical seabird with a normal range in the eastern Pacific north to Mexico. In the fall of 2014, this species was found in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia – one was even found all the way up in Sitka, Alaska! Locally, the effects of sea-level rise on hundreds of thousands of seabirds nesting in the low-lying atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument could potentially be devastating. The habitat of birds that nest in burrows, such as Bonin Petrels and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, could be flooded. Even the Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, which nest on the limited space available on the atolls, are vulnerable to shrinking habitat as sea levels rise.

A Wedge-tailed Shearwater chick in its burrow on Tern Island (French Frigate Shoals). Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

How do you prepare for a research cruise of this size?
As mundane as it sounds, automatic bill pay and a mail hold are among the most important things I set up before going on a long cruise. I’m going to another project immediately after HICEAS, so I will be away from home from July to mid-November. We have email on the ship, so we can be in contact with family and friends while away for such a long time. In terms of packing, both projects are in warm areas so clothes and other essentials are the same for each area. The ship has laundry facilities so a week’s worth of clothes is about right. The most weight in my gear is definitely books. I like to have field guides of all types, as well as history books of the area. One huge area of preparation falls on HICEAS Co-Coordinator, Annette Henry, at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. She takes care of sending all the computer equipment and supplies the seabird observers need.

What kind of equipment do you use on the ship?
The most important piece of equipment we use is a pair of binoculars. My personal binoculars are 10-power, the project provides handheld 20-power binoculars with an image stabilizer we call the “Little Eyes,” and mounted on hydraulic stands are four pair of 25-power “Big Eyes” that are used by the cetacean and seabird observers. We use the Big Eyes to count flocks that are far from the ship. All of our data are collected directly on a computer in real time. So, our next most important piece of equipment is our computer! Being in the elements means we have to be very conscious to protect it from sun, salt spray, and rain. We have a waterproof box the monitor, keyboard, and track pad live in, and they are connected to the main computer down in the ship’s lab. We have bird field guides handy for reference. And two must haves are sunscreen and plenty of water!

Dawn hard at work on the flying bridge of the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

What are your responsibilities on the ship? What do you do on a daily basis on the ship?
In terms of responsibilities, I share my job with another seabird observer. We both make sure that we cover the seabird observation duties from sunrise to sunset, weather permitting. We alternate the early shift each day so no one has to always start at sunrise. My daily “commute” is up a few decks to the flying bridge, which is the deck above the bridge. The strip transect we cover daily is 300 meters from the bow to 90 degrees on either the port or starboard side, whichever has the best viewing conditions. Glare from the sun has the most impact on the side we watch. We are each “on effort” for 2 hours at a time, and then get a break to rest our eyes and refresh our energy! Meal times are fixed, so our shift change works out so we can each get meals.

Dawn uses the “Big Eye” binoculars to observe one last feeding flock before the sun sets. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

When the cetacean observers have a sighting, we typically go “off effort” and help them locate animals and take photos and biopsy samples. Once the sighting is complete, we go back to our seabird transect duties. As the cetacean observers scan with their Big Eyes, they let us know when they see feeding flocks of seabirds. We then look through another pair of Big Eyes and count the individuals and species in each flock. Sometimes, the flock is associated with a cetacean sighting so we coordinate our time, GPS position, and flock birds to match the cetacean sighting exactly so that these data can be analyzed together. Some cetaceans and seabirds are regularly found together (for example, False Killer Whales and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters), and some are not associated at all. At the end of the day, we head down to the lab to edit and back-up the data. The sunsets at sea are the best, and if I am on the closing shift, I enjoy the sunset and watch for the green flash before heading down to do the nightly data edit.

Dawn and fellow HICEAS Seabird Observer Chris Hoefer work on editing and backing up a day’s worth of data. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ernesto Vásquez

What did you see and learn during your time participating in HICEAS 2017?
From the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, we saw a total of 45 bird species, including 23 seabirds that breed either in the main or Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Twenty-one were migrants that spend time feeding in Hawaiian waters, are transiting through, or, in the case of shorebirds, spending the winter. And last but not least, on our very first day, we saw one of our oddest sightings of all, 22 miles southwest of Ni`ihau, we saw a very lost Japanese Quail, a species introduced to Hawaii in the 1930s. We learned that seabirds are highly mobile creatures, and their at-sea distributions in Hawaii are not as well understood as we think. Questions will always remain about the mysterious realm of the ocean and its inhabitants!

A White (Fairy) Tern in flight over French Frigate Shoals. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

A Red-footed Booby perched on the jackstaff of the Sette – endless entertainment! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

What were some highlights or favorite moments of the survey?
Seeing one of the most amazing bird migrations on the planet, the flight of tens of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters headed to their breeding grounds in Australia! The spectacle of the sky being darkened with clouds of birds harkened back to the days when nature writers described wetlands with clouds of waterfowl blotting out the sun! At one point, we averaged 1.5 birds per second going through our 300 meter survey strip!

Our entertainment on the flying bridge is watching Red-footed Boobies. They perch on the jackstaff (a very tall pole on the bow of the ship) or glide just above our bow and watch with their incredible eyes for flying fish kicked up by the ship. It is a treat to watch them chase and sometimes catch these fish. They’ll also perch on the jackstaff and jockey for position to roost. It’s not unusual to have four or five of them perched at a time. They spend hours and sometimes days with us! We enjoy it, but the ship’s crew thinks otherwise as they are the ones that have to scrub the decks of guano.

Also, flying squid! For years I’ve read about flying squid being one of the principal food items for seabirds in Hawaiian waters, yet I had never seen one. This cruise changed that completely! We are used to seeing flying fish flush away from the ship, but one day they looked really different. There were “wings” in the front and the back! Looking closer, we could see the back “wings” were spread tentacles! Sheets of squid were being flushed up and chased by Red-footed Boobies! At last, the elusive flying squid! It was truly an honor to participate in HICEAS 2017. Wonderful people with exceptional skills. Thanks all around to the scientists, the birds, the marine mammals and the crew of the great Oscar Elton Sette!

A single flying fish (left third of image) in the midst of a spectacular sight – flying squid! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Chris Hoefer

Is there anything you’d like us to know about birds that we haven’t asked you about? Any fun facts?
White (Fairy) Terns have long been present in small numbers in Honolulu. If you see a pure white bird in Waikīkī, Kapiolani Park, or downtown, look carefully. There’s a good chance it’s not a pigeon, but is in fact a native Hawaiian seabird! This year, a pair was found nesting on the Honolulu Museum of Art building, and a long-scheduled painting project was halted until the young were fledged! You can see seabirds from shore at many places in the main islands. On O`ahu, Makapu`u Point, Lānai Lookout, and Ka`ena Point are good places to look. On the Big Island, if you have a spotting scope, Kēōkea Park in North Kohala is a good place to watch for rarer seabirds. It’s always a good idea to investigate your local Audubon Society. Hawai`i Audubon Society has field trips (sometimes to places closed to the general public), service projects, and talks by local bird experts.

Thank you so much for your time and insight, Dawn. We appreciate the countless hours you and your fellow HICEAS Seabird Observers (Chris Hoefer on the Sette, Michael Force and Andy Bankert on the Reuben Lasker) have spent in observation!

What’s happening next on HICEAS: find out!

All photos taken under research permit.

The HICEAS adventures continue: Two ships join forces to search for whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters

By Amanda Bradford and Jeff Moore
HICEAS Cruise Leaders

When we last checked in on the progress of the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS), the first leg of HICEAS 2017 aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette had been completed.  A lot has happened since then!  To begin with, the Sette finished its second leg while the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker joined the survey and accomplished its first HICEAS leg.  The Lasker traveled to the Hawaiian Islands study area from its home port in San Diego, CA, a journey that took almost 9 days and spanned approximately 2,000 nautical miles.  Here, we fill you in on our respective trips as HICEAS Cruise Leaders, Amanda on the Sette and Jeff on the Lasker.

Sette’s Second Sail

After a brief in-port following the first leg, the Sette set sail again on August 8 for a 29-day journey that ended on September 5.  Sette Leg 2 focused on the northern portion of the study area, from above the main Hawaiian Islands in the east to the far northwestern reaches above Midway and past the International Dateline.  We were pretty lucky with weather during this leg, with a majority of our 2,315 nautical miles of daytime visual effort occurring in Beaufort sea state conditions of 4 or less, which is atypical thanks to our persistent trade winds.  With the improved sea conditions, we were better able to visually detect groups of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), which is reflected in a relatively high number of cetacean sightings – 70 groups in total.  Nevertheless, we had several days with great weather when we did not see or hear any cetaceans.  On these days, we were far from land and in-between the seamounts that dot the region.  We were reminded that parts of our study area are often referred to as a “tropical desert” because the nutrient-poor waters make it difficult to support high densities of cetaceans.

Lucky 13! That is, the 13 scientists who worked tirelessly to collect data on cetaceans and seabirds during Sette’s Leg 2 of HICEAS 2017. From left to right: Rory Driskell, Ali Bayless, Erik Norris, Adam Ü, Chris Hoefer, Amanda Bradford, Joe Fader, Allan Ligon, Amy Van Cise, Jennifer Keating, Dawn Breese, Andrea Bendlin, and Paula Olson. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hung “Doc” Tran

The 70 sightings made by the cetacean observers included at least 13 species, ranging from the small spinner dolphin to the large Bryde’s whale.  The most frequently sighted species was the striped dolphin, seen a whopping 14 times, followed by the short-finned pilot whale, which was seen 10 times.  Most other species were seen only 1-2 times.  Our most exciting sightings were of beaked whales, which are elusive and difficult to detect.  First, we had 2 sightings of Longman’s beaked whales, including a group with almost 100 animals, a rare and poorly-known species.  Then, we had a small group of Blainville’s beaked whales approach the ship very closely multiple times during an extended period at the surface, seemingly as curious about us as we were about them.  We took almost 10,000 photos during these cetacean sightings, from both the ship and 7 launches of the small boat.  We collected 33 biopsy samples (small tissue plugs used for genetic and other analyses) from 4 species (spotted, rough-toothed, and bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales) and deployed satellite tags on 3 short-finned pilot whales to study the movements of these individuals.

Daytime survey effort (white lines) and cetacean sightings (see legend) made within the Hawaiian EEZ (blue line) during HICEAS 2017 Leg 2 aboard the Oscar Elton Sette. The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands, and the area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with slightly darker shading showing where the Monument was expanded in 2016.

The acoustics team was also busy, detecting 127 vocal groups of cetaceans.  They also kept our Drifting Autonomous Spar Buoy Recorder, aka DASBR, project going.  During Sette Leg 2, we released 7 DASBRs to listen for vocalizing cetaceans in our absence and picked up 3 others from Leg 1 that were full of data!  We also deployed 43 sonobuoys that allow us to detect vocalizing baleen whales that may be in the area.  The seabird observers recorded thousands of bird sightings from at least 35 species, with the Herald/Henderson’s Petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Parasitic Jaeger, and Pacific Golden Plover all new species for HICEAS 2017.  The Pacific Golden Plovers were returning to their wintering grounds in Hawai’i after spending a summer in Alaska.  Named Kōlea in Hawaiian, these shorebirds are known to return to the exact same location year after year, even the same yard!  Although seabirds tell us a lot about ocean productivity in our study area, we also conducted 35 CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) casts to learn more about the physical properties of the waters we surveyed.  Finally, while we rarely saw the species we were targeting for health assessment using an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS aka drone) when the winds were light, we were able to make 6 hexacopter flights over short-finned pilot whales.

Lasker’s Leading Leg

The Lasker left San Diego on August 17 bound for the HICEAS study area.  To get there as quickly as possible, the cetacean observers worked in what we call ‘passing mode,’ when the ship does not leave the trackline to investigate sightings.  As the days passed, we could tell we were approaching the tropics as air and water temperatures got higher, sightings of tropical seabirds increased, and the trade winds made their presence known.  We arrived in the study area in the pre-dawn hours of August 26, conducting our effort from that day forward in ‘closing mode,’ when the ship “closes” on a sighting to have better looks and more time to obtain species identification, group size estimates, and other information.  Our effort focused on the area south and east of the main Hawaiian Islands, where we surveyed until September 5, ending our 20-day leg.  All told, we completed 1,844 nautical miles of daytime visual effort, with 696 nautical miles in Hawaiian waters.  We sighted 53 cetacean groups – 34 of them were in the HICEAS study area.

Fabulous 14! The ace scientific complement during Lasker’s Leg 1 of HICEAS 2017 (sending birthday greetings to two members of Team Sette). From left to right: Mark Cotter, Heather Colley, Andy Bankert, Jenny Trickey, Jim Gilpatrick, Shannon Coates, Jeff Moore, Suzanne Yin, Seth Sykora-Bodie, Megan Slack, Juan Carlos Salinas Vargas, Marie Hill, Bernardo Alps, and Mike Force. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/PJ Klavon

The 34 sightings of cetaceans in the study area were from 10 identified species – all species seen during Sette Leg 2, with the exception of the pygmy killer whale.  We collected 2 biopsy samples, one from a spotted dolphin and another from a rough-toothed dolphin.  Like the Sette, we saw Longman’s beaked whales (although 3 times!), which was a highlight for us also.  However, our other exciting cetacean detections occurred acoustically.  One night, at about 10 pm, a few of us were gathered in the acoustics lab.  The hydrophone array was still in the water recording, but no one was actively monitoring it, as is usually the case once the sun sets and the observers go off effort.  At just the right moment, faint calls appeared on the computer monitor, and we decided to put the headphones on to listen. Good thing, because killer whales were in the area and gave us quite a performance.  We were treated to a vocal repertoire that sounded somewhat Shamu-like and lasted for over an hour.  If only there had been light left outside to see the animals because it would have been a spectacular encounter.

Daytime survey effort (white lines) and cetacean sightings (see legend) made during HICEAS 2017 Leg 1 aboard the Reuben Lasker, including its transit to the Hawaiian EEZ (blue line). The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands, and the area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The most memorable moment of Lasker Leg 1 took place when the acoustic team began detecting the Cross Seamount beaked whale an hour before dusk.  This beaked whale, first heard at Cross Seamount, is known only from acoustic recordings and sounds unlike any known beaked whale species with acoustic recordings.  With the long, upswept vocalization clicks, there was no doubt that we had found this mystery beaked whale.  We acoustically tracked the animal(s) for over an hour hoping to at long last visually identify the species making these clicks.  As the sun went down, we were losing hope.  Darkness set in, but right before it did, our amazing Lead Cetacean Observer, Suzanne Yin, caught a glimpse of a cetacean that might have been our unknown whale.  Unable to get a good look and confirm the species, we at least got one step closer to identifying the mysterious Cross Seamount beaked whale!  Overall for acoustics, there were 106 detections of cetacean groups during Lasker Leg 1, and we picked up 2 DASBRs.  Finally, the seabird observers encountered 4,916 birds (of at least 15 species) in 28 feeding flocks and recorded 1,830 birds (of at least 42 species) during their strip-transect survey effort.

The Sette Leg 2 and Lasker Leg 1 teams appreciated the help of their visiting scientists, Duke University graduate students Joe Fader (Sette) and Seth Sykora-Bodie (Lasker), who wrote a great blog post about their experiences.  The Sette and Lasker went back to sea for their respective third and second legs on September 11.  Keep checking the HICEAS website for more information on what happened next!

All photos taken under research permit.

HICEAS Hilite: Close encounters of the rare kind, the Longman’s beaked whale aka Indopacetus

By Suzanne Yin and Andrea Bendlin
HICEAS Lead Cetacean Observers

Disclaimer: Biologists, like other groups of people, have a lingo that we use in our daily work.  Just like “a slice to go” means a piece of pizza to take away to eat, and a “pick-6” is an interception and touchdown in football, biologists use terms meant to make our communication as clear and efficient as possible.  All animals have a scientific name in Latin and a common name, whether it is Homo sapiens (human), Phoebastria nigripes (Black-footed Albatross), or Gorilla gorilla (no explanation necessary).  Common names can sometimes be confusing.  For instance, the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and the long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis) are indeed common in some locations.  But Delphinus are not so common in other parts of the world (they’re not even found in Hawaiian waters), where another species of dolphin may be the ‘common’ dolphin.  In Hawaii, the most commonly seen dolphin is the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris).  Additionally, we are an international community of scientists, and a common name in English may not directly translate in another language.  Thus, we often use scientific names, even in our casual everyday conversation, so that we can speak about animals using a shared language.

Indopacetus?!  That was my question to the other Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) observers after I raced up to the flying bridge of the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker.  The visual team had called on the VHF radio, informing the acoustics team and everyone who had a radio that they had a sighting.  I wasn’t on watch, but I climbed the 31 stairs from my room up to the flying bridge to find out more.  They described what they had seen through the 25-powered binoculars that we call “big eyes”—quite a few animals, all together, puffy blows, light in color, big size even though they were still distant.  And so I said it again, “Indopacetus?!”  A fellow observer nodded his head and said, “I think so.”  And I smiled.  You could feel a frisson of excitement from everyone on the flying bridge.  Most of the scientific party on the Lasker had not seen this species before.  This was going to be good!

The setting sun highlights the puffy blows characteristic of Indopacetus. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amanda Bradford

Indopacetus pacificus, or the Longman’s beaked whale, is one of the most rarely seen species of beaked whale.  In fact, we have seasoned colleagues who have sailed in tropical waters for years and have never seen them.  If you ask a cetacean observer working in Hawaii what species is at the top of their “to see” list, for most, it’s Indopacetus.  For those of us who have seen them, you can feel the sense of awe (and envy?!) when someone asks, “You’ve seen Indopacetus?”

Until about 20 years ago, we only really knew about these toothed whales from two skulls, one from Somalia and one from Australia.  They were a mystery species, which is surprising because they aren’t small in size or particularly cryptic once you find them (which of course isn’t easy)!  For years, scientists had reported sightings of a tropical bottlenose whale (a toothed whale with a bulbous melon, which is sort of like having a big forehead).  But, it wasn’t until 2003 when scientist Merel Dalebout and colleagues, using genetic samples from stranded animals, determined that the tropical bottlenose whale and Indopacetus were the same animal.

The face of an Indopactus, a rare and exciting sight! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Paula Olson

Indopacetus can be found in large groups, from a handful to upwards of 100 individuals.  They are large in size (up to 20 feet) and have a visible blow.  They can be tan to light brown in color and have a very distinct rostrum (beak).  They can often be found associating with short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and several species of smaller dolphin.  In one of our recent HICEAS sightings, they were mixed with a large group of short-finned pilot whales.  From stranding and sighting data, we do know that they seem to have a vast distribution, inhabiting tropical waters in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Yet, we know next to nothing about their diet, diving capabilities, or reproductive behavior.  Are they more active during the day or night?   Or are they a crepuscular species that is more active at twilight?

This Indopacetus surfaces quickly and moves through the water even faster, giving us few chances to uncover their secrets. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

So far during HICEAS, both the Lasker and the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette have each had a few sightings and acoustic detections of Indopacetus in various parts of the study area, with some of the sightings and detections over a thousand nautical miles away from each other.  During the last HICEAS in 2010, there were only three Indopacetus sightings, but one of them involved a large group of approximately 100 animals in the northwestern reaches of the study areaWe were all hoping we might have a sighting like that again this year, and sure enough, we sighted from the Sette a similar-sized group of animals just 150 nautical miles from where they were seen in 2010.  Was it the same group?  Unfortunately, we were unable to collect genetic samples in 2010 or 2017, so we may never know.  Have we found an Indopacetus hot spot?  Perhaps.  Only further research will tell.  We can only hope the remainder of HICEAS will bring more sightings.  There is one thing we do know for sure–for those of us lucky enough to have an Indopacetus sighting as part of our HICEAS 2017 experience, it is something we will always remember!

This map of the Hawaiian Islands shows all of the HICEAS survey effort (white lines) through September 5, 2017, with Indopacetus sightings shown as orange squares. The area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with slightly lighter shading showing where the Monument was expanded in 2016.

What else will the remainder of HICEAS bring?  Find out on the HICEAS website!

All photos taken under research permit.

From graduate studies in Beaufort, North Carolina, to measuring seas in Hawaii with the Beaufort scale

By Joe Fader and Seth Sykora-Bodie
HICEAS Visiting Scientists

 Joe and Seth are 3rd-year PhD students at Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, and each participated on a leg of HICEAS 2017 as visiting scientists.

Entering the third year of a PhD is an exciting and anxious time. The first two years focus on exploring our fields of research and developing a foundation for a dissertation, which requires reading countless papers, taking (too) many classes, and generally just thinking a whole lot about what we want to do with our lives/careers. In the third year, it is finally time to wrangle data, conduct analyses, and eventually spend every waking moment writing a dissertation! Needless to say, we were thrilled to escape the office to join the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS): Joe on the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette’s 2nd leg from August 8 to September 5, and Seth on the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker’s 1st leg from August 17 to September 5.


It wasn’t just the welcome respite from coursework and paper reading that drew us to participate in the Pacific Islands and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers’ cetacean population and ecosystem assessment survey. It was also an incredible opportunity to meet and interact with NOAA scientists, learn techniques for studying marine mammal populations in the wild, and better understand the unique challenges to studying cryptic, migratory, and sometimes seemingly invisible marine mammals. In addition, we each had our own reasons this experience would enrich and complement our particular dissertations.

Joe Fader

My dissertation focuses on depredation, an interaction between odontocete cetaceans (toothed whales, including dolphins) and commercial fisheries in which some odontocete species remove fish from commercial fishing lines before the fishermen are able to bring the catch aboard. It’s pretty clever and an easy meal for the whale. Unfortunately, the animals can get themselves hooked or entangled and of course cause problems for the fishermen that pull up empty lines. False killer whales are the main depredators in the Hawaii-based longline fishery for tuna and are a focus of my PhD studies. They are also a top-priority species for the HICEAS expedition, making it a perfect opportunity to see these animals in nature and develop a richer understanding of their behavior as it might relate to fisheries management. It was also a great opportunity to understand the science that goes on behind the assessment of a human-impacted cetacean population.

Our leg was 29 days all told–not a short period of time and surely one with ample opportunity for many enriching sightings of my coveted false killer whales. Indeed, it was a fantastically exciting leg. Our transect lines were mostly north of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands through some areas that are not expected to have very high densities of cetaceans, or even good conditions for sighting in the first place. Yet, we had amazing encounters with a variety of species. Many of these species were new to me, such as the sperm whale and two incredible sightings of the rare Longman’s beaked whale. We also had quite a few interactions with my other focal species, the short-finned pilot whale. All incredible and memorable, but where were my false killer whales??


As the days ticked by, I started to worry. The other scientists and I had talked about seeing false killer whales so many times on the flying bridge of the Sette that we probably jinxed ourselves. Perhaps the more you hope to see a cetacean species, the more Poseidon will conspire against you to hide them? I grudgingly resigned to my fate, reminding myself these were wild animals, and there are no guarantees in the field. Indeed, that’s part of the excitement of studying these cryptic creatures.

We spent the last day on one final transect line southwest of the island of Oahu. The next morning would be an early arrival to port in Honolulu. With only a few hours of daylight left, I was reflective of this amazing experience, sure that nothing major would happen on this last quiet afternoon. I certainly didn’t expect that, with literally hours of observation left to spare, Cruise Leader Amanda Bradford would calmly bring me over to the acoustics station to inform me that we were entering “Phase 2” of the false killer whale protocol, in which we visually search for false killer whales that were acoustically detected. It was really happening, we had finally had them!

Finally, on the last full survey day of the month-long trip, Joe gets to see false killer whales! Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

The next few hours were spent truly learning the ways of the false killer whale. That is, in perfect conditions, with acoustic detections of them all around the vessel, we spotted just a couple of individuals and for only a brief period of time. I loved every second! Our experience shed light on why, with depredation being a fairly common occurrence in Hawaii fisheries, the fishermen themselves very rarely see the animals responsible. This is exactly why many species of cetaceans are so poorly understood and efforts such as HICEAS are vital to improving our understanding of them. As someone interested in working at the intersection of cetacean ecology and human impacts on protected species, I had an eye-opening experience and incredible privilege. Thanks to all the Sette scientists and crew who made it so memorable!

Joe (second from left) assists with Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

Seth Sykora-Bodie

My doctoral research is focused less directly on marine mammals and more broadly on using various ecosystem management techniques to conserve, protect, and recover threatened and endangered species such as whales and dolphins. As biodiversity conservation has become a key issue on the global agenda, scientists and managers alike have focused on improving methods for reducing human impacts to marine ecosystems—one of which is through the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) such as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM). MPAs such as PMNM can offer protection to vulnerable wildlife from fisheries interactions, pollutant accumulation, and other human impacts. Understanding how to design MPAs or other management actions requires understanding the population status and trends of the focal species, emphasizing the importance of surveys like HICEAS that focus on population assessment.

The Lasker steams west from San Diego to join the search for whales and dolphins around Hawaii. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Seth Sykora-Bodie

Past efforts to design and manage MPAs have in many cases resulted in limited benefits to wildlife and ecosystems, while reducing economic opportunity for fishing communities and others; addressing these dual challenges is the goal of my research. To do so, I am situating my work at the intersection of conservation biology, spatial ecology, and environmental politics because environmental stewardship requires an intimate understanding of both natural and social system dynamics. As a result, I spend days in meetings negotiating the boundaries of new marine reserves, but I also spend them outdoors (often with NOAA colleagues!) trying to better understand the structure of the cetacean (or other focal) population at the center of conservation efforts.

Joining HICEAS was particularly special to me for a few different reasons. First, I had never been on a cetacean survey in the Pacific, so it was a chance to see new species like the false killer whale. For someone like me, whose research is more motivated by the concern for wildlife than by theoretical and technical questions, I need to see something swimming around in the ocean at least a few times a year.

Seth (far right) assists with visual observations from the flying bridge of the Lasker. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzanne Yin

Besides the species we expected to see, we also spent a day searching for the elusive Cross Seamount beaked whale. Scientists from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center have previously recorded sounds from a beaked whale near Cross Seamount that are unlike the sounds from known beaked whale species. As a result, our tracklines south of the main Hawaiian Islands traversed Cross Seamount in an attempt to identify what has mystified scientists up until this point. On several occasions, our acoustics team heard clicks that resembled what we were searching for, and we were even able to catch a quick glimpse of a diving animal, but we were unable to identify it before night fell. The fact that a potentially unidentified whale species still exists reminds us that we still have so much to learn about marine ecosystems.

On top of this, I had never been on a ship with seabird observers! Having the chance to sit on the flying bridge of the Lasker asking our bird team about species like Hawaiian petrels and sooty shearwaters was fantastic. Although I have always known that these species are highly migratory, just discussing the distances they fly and how they pinpoint rookeries in the middle of the Pacific Ocean piqued my interest even more. Like migratory cetaceans, the home ranges of seabirds are so vast that conservation measures need to consider the migratory corridors between foraging and breeding areas. Drawing that parallel was important and helped me consider how seabird data might contribute to conservation planning.

A red-footed booby soars overhead, looking for flying fish displaced by the path of the Lasker. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Seth Sykora-Bodie

Although Joe and Seth have returned to their studies, HICEAS 2017 is ongoing. Stay tuned to the HICEAS website for the latest updates!

All photos taken under research permit.

HICEAS Hilite: Diving into the secret lives of short-finned pilot whales

By Amy Van Cise
HICEAS Cetacean Observer

It didn’t take many days into the ongoing Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) to see short-finned pilot whales. They came, during our second sighting of the cruise, as they so often do–meandering slowly through, seemingly unbothered by the flurry of melon-headed whales that were darting around them. You would never guess they are called the “cheetahs of the sea.”

Once underwater, though, they sprint down to the darkness of the deep ocean, up to 800 meters, to hunt for squid and other deep-water prey. Short-finned pilot whales hunt and live their lives in stable social groups of 15-30 animals. When they hunt, half of the group will dive while the other half stays at the surface. The whales will make social calls while they’re separated, so they can find each other when they return to the surface.

Short-finned pilot whales spend most of their lives in pairs, or dyads, and in close companionship with a small group of other animals. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

Behaviors like these have made scientists take a closer look at how important sociality is to short-finned pilot whales. Scientists have found that animals in Hawai‘i spend most of their lives in small groups of close relatives. Those small groups are very selective about what other groups they will associate with, and where they will spend their time. This selective behavior has led to three separate communities in the main Hawaiian Islands–a western community around O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, a central community extending from O‘ahu to Maui, and an eastern community around Hawai‘i Island.

While we know a lot about the eastern and western communities–which families live there, who they associate with, when they dive and hunt–we know very little about the central community. So we were very excited to run into a group of short-finned pilot whales off Maui on August 1, 2017, at the end of HICEAS leg 1 aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Using photos we collected during that sighting, we’ll be able to determine if the group we encountered is from the central community, and then use this sighting to increase what we know about that community.

Little is known about the community of short-finned pilot whales that lives around Maui, but by comparing the dorsal fins from animals we encountered on August 1, 2017, to a photo ID catalog of animals around the Hawaiian Islands, we can learn more about where these animals spend their time and with whom they choose to associate. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amy Van Cise

Short-finned pilot whales are found throughout the tropical and temperate oceans of the world, and for centuries, scientists have thought that all short-finned pilot whales were a single species. But in the last couple of decades, a new picture is beginning to develop: scientists have described two different body types, and then shown that animals with different bodies also have different distributions, vocalizations, and DNA codes. They have called these two types “Shiho” (Shee – hoe) and “Naisa” (Nye – sa) type short-finned pilot whales, and think that they might be separate subspecies or even species. The Naisa type lives in the western Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands, and is easily distinguishable by its square melon (or head).

The square heads above are a dead giveaway for Naisa type short-finned pilot whales, but you don’t have to worry about telling them apart from other types in Hawai‘i, because we only see the Naisa type. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Amy Van Cise

All short-finned pilot whales that live in Hawai‘i are the Naisa type, but not all are the same. Short-finned pilot whales in the main Hawaiian Islands are genetically distinct from those in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or in the open ocean surrounding the islands. And while, with an overall abundance of nearly 20,000 individuals, short-finned pilot whales seem like they are everywhere in the main Hawaiian Islands, they are very difficult to find once you leave sight of land. Once we ventured northwest into the expanded portion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (or Monument), we spent weeks without seeing our predictable neighborhood short-finned pilot whales.

On August 20, 2017, during HICEAS leg 2 on the Sette, we finally caught sight of a group of short-finned pilot whales in the far northwest reaches of the Monument, and it was nothing like what we had seen in the main Hawaiian Islands–these guys were fast. They practically sliced through the water, coming up for only a few breaths before diving again. We launched a small boat from the ship to get better photos and biopsy samples from this group, since we knew it might be one of the few times we ever see them in this remote area. But between their speed, the 6-foot waves, and the impending sunset, we were only able to get a few photos before the whales swam away into the night.

This map of the Hawaiian Islands shows all of the HICEAS survey effort (white lines) through August 22, 2017, with pilot whale sightings shown as blue dots. Most sightings of pilot whales have been close to the main Hawaiian Islands; so far we’ve only found one group of pilot whales far from land. The area shaded in green is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, with the expanded portion of the Monument shown with slightly lighter shading.

One of the greatest challenges of studying marine mammals is having the patience and perseverance to collect data. Each sighting of a species or population gives us just a little more information about their behavior, abundance, or ecology, but some species can take days, weeks, or even months to find. We still have so much to learn about short-finned pilot whales in Hawai‘i–so we will keep looking!

For updates about short-finned pilot whales and all the other species we are seeing, keep following us on the HICEAS website!

All photos taken under research permit.

Off to a Great Start: the First Leg of HICEAS is Complete

By Erin Oleson
HICEAS Chief Scientist

The Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) of 2017 is a huge effort. The study area covers over 1.8 million square nautical miles (the entire Hawaiian Exclusive Economic Zone). To comprehensively survey that expansive space, from Hawaiʻi Island in the east to Kure Atoll in the west, takes 2 NOAA ships–the Oscar Elton Sette and the Reuben Lasker–and 187 days at sea over a 5-month period; a total of 7 trips to sea between the 2 ships. This effort began July 6th on the Sette, and the first leg finished up August 2nd. A prolonged effort like HICEAS starts with lots of planning and is maintained by keeping goals front and center and having a little fun along the way. Leg 1 of HICEAS felt a bit like the end for a few of us–so many months of planning and we’re finally at sea–this is the reward. But really, leg 1 was just the beginning.

The HICEAS leg 1 science party—an intrepid group of 15 scientists including mammal and seabird observers, acousticians, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots, and our NOAA Teacher At Sea. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Hung “Doc” Tran

In many ways, the prospect of spending several months on a ship was a bit daunting. As we set sail, the excited, and perhaps nervous, energy was poured into ensuring all the gear and software was working as expected, that the early-survey electronic gremlins were vanquished, and that all of people that make up this effort, from the scientists to the ship’s crew and officers, were working as a team. The early HICEAS jitters were quickly allayed as the data began to stream in, and the natural comraderie of those that have sailed before and those that were new to this adventure. This process was facilitated with the aid of several dozen cans of fizzy water–the ever-present thirst quencher and morale-boosting libation of the HICEAS science team. By the end of the leg, everything was running like a well-oiled machine, ready for the adventure to resume after a short respite on land.


It’s all hands on deck while the visual survey team counts sperm whales. Sperm whale counts continue for 90 minutes to ensure that all animals are counted over the course of the prolonged deep dives. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ernesto Vásquez

A normal day during HICEAS starts before dawn with a CTD (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth) Rosette lowered to 1000 meters depth to measure salinities and temperatures of the ocean in the survey area. Before sunrise, the acoustics team deploys the towed hydrophone array and then, just after sunrise, when there’s enough light to reliably sight groups in the distance, the mammal and seabird visual survey teams begin their effort as we transit along one of many tracklines in our survey design. Throughout the day, as cetacean groups are sighted or heard (using underwater acoustic microphones, or hydrophones), the teams work to identify species, estimate the number of animals in the group, and when conditions are right and the animals allow, collect photographs and tissue samples to support more detailed analyses of population distribution and structure. When sunset comes, the visual and acoustic teams end their searches, and while the onboard Survey Technician casts another CTD, the teams check and summarize the day’s data, process and archive the photos, clean and prep the sampling gear, and prepare to start again the next day. For the acoustics team, the evening CTD just means a shift in operations. As part of the team works to check and archive the day’s data, the other part deploys sonobuoys to listen for baleen whales during the CTD cast. Once the CTD is back on deck, the acoustics team redeploys the towed hydrophone array to listen for chatty cetaceans overnight. At night, many whales and dolphins increase their vocalizations as they forage on a cornucopia of plankton rising from the depths, or on larger fish and cephalopods that follow. While the team sleeps, our gear continues collecting data, never wasting a moment of this effort.

The Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) is a focal region of the 2017 effort, and where we kicked off our HICEAS adventure. The MHI special focus area includes a higher density of effort in our survey design, carried out both along ‘standard’ tracklines–those that extend from the ESE to WNW reaches of the Hawaiian Archipelago–and along random ‘fine-scale’ tracklines that begin or end where we deploy or retrieve Drafting Acoustic Spar Buoy Recorders (DASBRs). The MHI area is home to several island-associated populations of cetaceans, as well as several human activities that may affect those populations. The additional visual and acoustic survey effort in this region is designed to better assess the distribution and density of those island-associated populations and examine the impacts of human activities in their habitat. HICEAS is funded by a multi-agency coalition of partners with interest in ensuring the sustainability of Hawaiʻi’s cetacean populations, including NOAA Fisheries (that’s us!), the agency responsible for assessing Hawaiʻi’s cetaceans under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, and the U.S. Navy and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agencies responsible for evaluating whether and to what extent the activities they conduct or regulate might impact Hawaiʻi’s cetacean populations.  The multi-agency partnership makes an effort like HICEAS possible, and the joint interest of these agencies in the MHI has spawned the MHI focus area for 2017.

The acoustics team gets ready to deploy a DASBR south of Lanai. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Staci DeSchryver.

The early efforts of the first leg aboard the Sette included several special passive acoustic projects in the MHI focus area. Over the first 12 days, we deployed 8 DASBRs in both leeward and windward waters of the MHI focus area. The DASBRs record ocean sounds, including those produced by cetaceans, for four weeks, providing a rich dataset that can be used to evaluate cetacean distribution and density at a finer scale of time and space than the ship-based portion of the survey could provide alone. The DASBRs are also uniquely suited to locate beaked whales, a clade of deep-diving cetaceans that are often difficult to see in typical Hawaiʻi weather, but also potentially vulnerable to anthropogenic sound. We also recovered and redeployed a High-Frequency Acoustic Recording Package (HARP) off Kona, the location of a long-term acoustic monitoring site that is part of the Pacific Islands Passive Acoustic Network. Redeployment will allow monitoring through the fall, continuing a nearly 11-year record at this location, which has proved invaluable in examining seasonal and inter-annual patterns in cetacean occurrence in this unique Hawaiʻi region. Finally, the Sette crew expertly recovered and redeployed an Ocean Noise Reference Station north of Oʻahu, bringing home two years of calibrated low-frequency ambient noise and cetacean occurrence data that form the beginning of the Hawaiʻi dataset for NOAA’s long-term commitment to monitor and measure ocean noise throughout US waters. The newly-deployed hydrophone will record for another two years.

Aerial images, like of this pair of short-finned pilot whales, are valuable for studying group composition and individual body condition. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Kym Yano and Amanda Bradford

The early portion of the mission also included two days of shake-down flights in predictably calm waters off Kona for our newly-minted hexacopter pilots. The PIFSC Cetacean Research Program has recently invested in the hexacopter as a powerful platform to collect aerial imagery of cetaceans. The images can be used to assess group composition (number of adults, juveniles, and moms with calves) for insights into population demographics, and to measure individual size and shape as a metric of animal health. Our hexacopter team made 14 successful flights, including a number of calibration and practice flights, and several over groups of spinner dolphins and short-finned pilot whales. With these flights, the pilots honed their ability to fly over a group from a distance, evaluate image quality from a small monitor in the boat, and keep up with moving groups while keeping track of parts of the group that have already been photographed. Unfortunately, after leaving Kona, encounters with our target species were never in suitable weather conditions for flights.  We hope for more opportunities to collect images of pilot whales, sperm whales, false killer whales, and Bryde’s whales throughout HICEAS.


HICEAS is designed to survey the entire Hawaii EEZ (light blue line), including the area of the original Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (purple area) and the recent Monument expansion (green area) over 187 days. The red shading is a focus area around the main Hawaiian Islands. Leg 1 aboard the Sette included daytime effort from east of Hawai’i Island to south of Lisianski (white line) and included 46 cetacean sightings (see legend). The remainder of the HICEAS study area will be surveyed over the next six legs.

Cetacean sightings during the first leg of HICEAS aboard the Sette.

All told, during the first 28 days at sea aboard the Sette, we visually and acoustically surveyed 2,330 nmi of daytime trackline extending from east of Hawaiʻi Island to south of Lisianski in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Our visual team sighted 46 groups of cetaceans, while the acoustics team detected 129 vocal groups. Our seabird observers tallied 35 species during the effort, including 148 flocks of feeding seabirds, an important indicator of ocean productivity and ecosystem health. We recovered 3 DASBRs, and (sigh) spent a few days chasing DASBR ghosts–those that got away when their Iridium transmitters stopped telling us where they’d gone [this was likely due to unintended water leaks into the spar buoy (we’ve vanquished that gremlin, and still hope a charitable boater may find our wayward DASBRs and give us a call)]. We lent a hand to our monk seal and marine turtle colleagues with a brief stop at French Frigate Shoals to deliver fuel and supplies for another several weeks of their seal and turtle research on this remote atoll. We were supported by (in our opinion) the most capable crew and supportive command in the NOAA fleet. Apart from the Sette’s usual excellence, we were especially lucky to be supported by LCDR Emily Rose (aka Master Survey Tech) and Electronics Technician Patrick Trevethan who stepped in and kept our CTD operations running smoothly when our original Survey Tech had to leave the ship early. We were also fortunate on leg 1 to have sailed with an excellent NOAA Teacher at Sea, Staci Deschryver, who chronicled her adventures on HICEAS in a fantastic blog series.

The HICEAS adventure resumed August 8 on the Sette for leg 2 and was enhanced on August 17, when the Lasker began its journey west to join the HICEAS effort.  Both ships will continue surveying until September 5, when they will take a short break before departing again. Stay tuned to the HICEAS website for updates from both ships!

Sometimes there’s more to look at than animals. After dodging rain squalls, the visual team is rewarded with a beautiful rainbow. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Adam Ü

All photos taken under research permit.