Eyes in the (Washington and Oregon) Skies

By Sierra Fullmer

Many beach goers love to watch coastal animals resting, playing, and swimming along the shoreline, including my typical study species, the southern sea otter. However, some species are much harder to find and require extensive efforts to see them, even for the experts! During the months of August and September I worked with a small team of scientists from NOAA and the affiliated organizations Upwell Turtles and Moss Landing Marine Laboratory to survey the Oregon and Washington coastline and locate, capture, and gather valuable information on the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

Aerial survey team in front of the Twin Otter observation plane. People from left to right: Sierra Fullmer, Nick Toth (NOAA pilot), Katherine Whitaker, Karin Forney, Scott Benson, Priti Bhatnagar (NOAA pilot), Garrett Lemons. Not pictured: Vicky Vasquez and NOAA pilots Conor Maginn and Kennieth Brewer. Photo credit: Garrett Lemons

As a part of the aerial team, I assist with locating these five- to six-foot, 800- to 1400-pound leatherback turtles, but it’s not as easy as it may seem!

My role as an aerial observer involves scouring the seas for any signs of turtle habitat, food, and other associated species - plus on our very best days the turtles themselves! The Western Pacific leatherback sea turtle population has declined by approximately 80 percent since the 1980’s1,2. Leatherbacks face challenges all throughout their lives. Although they are largely protected at their primary nesting beaches, they still face threats at secondary nesting beaches, where adults are occasionally still harvested, and eggs poached. Upon leaving their nesting grounds, juvenile and adult leatherback turtles face a maze of fisheries as they pass through the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of many fishing nations and international waters while traversing the entire Pacific Ocean to reach the western coastline of North America. Once in North American coastal waters, adult leatherbacks spend the summer and fall months feeding on blooms of jellyfish that annually occur with upwelling events of cold, nutrient-rich water being drawn to the ocean surface1. How these leatherbacks select and re-locate these patches year after year is still unknown, and part of what we hope to investigate with our surveys. But fear not, we have figured out some clues to help us in our search.

 

On “fly-days” our lead researchers Scott Benson and Dr. Karin Forney have undergone intense weather monitoring and decided we face good wind and cloud conditions that should provide calm, white-cap-free waters. In our ideal weather days, the waters are so calm that we can see the airplane’s reflection on the water from 650 feet in the air! Once we get the go-ahead, we pile into our cars, head to the airport to meet our NOAA pilots, and prepare our recording equipment before strapping in and taking off!

On our first few flights, we hoped to get a coarse understanding of the environment along the Oregon and Washington coastlines and to identify areas where we might have the best luck turtle-spotting. Over the course one week, we spent 28 flight hours flying transect lines that extended from Newport, Oregon to just south of La Push, WA. With these long flight days, we collected data on water conditions, jellyfish blooms, and marine species presence within 25-30 miles of the coast. Our initial transects were spaced every four miles of latitude, which narrowed to a more fine-scaled 1-mile spacing as we focused in on the main target area. Non-turtle species data we collect not only assists with our project but can also be used in other studies such as harbor porpoise population surveys.

But how did we get this information? We stuck our faces (almost) out of the plane of course! But not how you might think...

For these surveys we are flying a specially modified Twin Otter plane owned by NOAA that has a large “bubble window” on either side just behind the pilots and an additional belly window in the back of the plane. These windows combined allow our observers an almost 180-degree view of the water below! While surveying, each observer spends approximately 45 minutes sticking their entire head and shoulders into the windows and calling out every species of animal they see. Then when you finally start to feel a kink in your neck and think you may never make it out of the window, you rotate! My personal favorite spot in the plane is the belly window, where you lay in the back of the plane, stick your head into the small window, and watch the water, algae, and animals as you fly by. If you’re lucky enough to be in the belly on a perfect day, you can even spot your own reflection hundreds of feet below!

Lead scientist Karin Forney looking out through the belly window mid-survey.

An external view of aerial observer, Sierra Fullmer, looking through the belly window. Image was taken from below while the plane was parked on the tarmac.

Although these views sound glamorous, much of our time is spent looking through sun glare, counting tens to hundreds of animals (sometimes in the span of a few minutes), and making sure you don’t lose focus waiting to find the elusive turtle hidden amongst the algae and ocean sunfish (Mola molas).

Over the last several years of leatherback research, a trend has appeared that leatherbacks are often found in association with dense aggregations of large Mola mola, or ‘molas’, as we call them for short. Large molas are typically four to eight feet in diameter or longer and feed on the same food as leatherback sea turtles: blooms of jellyfish species including brown sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) and moon jellies (Aurelia spp). While flying over the water, when we hit an area of ‘Mola mayhem’ it’s a period of excitement, focus, and a little bit of insanity – especially for the data recorder. I had the eye-opening experience of data recording through my first section of ‘Mola mayhem’ during this field season, where every observer was calling out mola sizes and numbers every second and my entire job was to record them on our digital data log as fast (and accurately) as possible. My fingers were flying so fast I even knocked a key off the keyboard! Don’t worry though, I replaced it at the end of the mayhem.

To get an idea of the mayhem picture this, you’re standing in the middle of an auction house where three different auctioneers are calling out their bids at the same time and your job is to write down everything each auctioneer is saying simultaneously and correctly. Mayhem is the only description. However, it’s extremely important data to collect to really narrow down where our turtle habitat may be, as this helps us find the few leatherbacks that are still making it through the maze of fisheries to our coastlines each year. The proof is in the results.

At the end of our third survey day, with only an hour of fuel left, our team was flying through Mola mayhem calling out large molas left, right, and center when the belly observer calmly called out “turtle” and all chatter stopped for what felt like the longest second. In this time, our pilots and data recorder marked the coordinates as fast as possible, and everyone instantly went on high alert. This was our chance. The pilots circled back, once more flying over the area while every observer was trying to look past the glare of the sun sitting low on the horizon. The pilot started a count down, “You should see it in three…two… one…” and to our amazement the turtle popped out of the glare. The entire crew erupted with excitement and started calling out directions, “turtle at your nine-o’clock, just under the wing!” We managed to circle it for approximately 15 minutes, relocating it between shallow dives and getting a good look to confirm there was no tail (which means it was not an adult male). It was a large, round female and our first aerial sighting in the Pacific Northwest since 2011!

It was the perfect ending to what had been my longest day of flying so far, and a sense of hope for the rest of our survey efforts. Now that we know where to find ‘turtle water’, we have our zone of Mola mayhem, and we know there’s still turtles out there, we hope we can find more turtles for Stage 2: boat capture and tagging. Hopefully I’ll have more updates for you all at the end of the field season, until then I’ll be one pair of the eyes in the sky!

Aerial observer, Sierra Fullmer, looking out the bubble window during a survey, watching the glassy ocean surface passing below. Photo credit: Karin Forney

References

  1. Benson SR, Eguchi T, Foley DG, Forney KA, Bailey H, Hitipeuw C, Samber BP, Tapilatu RF, Rei V, Ramohia P, Pita J, Dutton PH. 2011. Large-scale movements and high-use areas of western Pacific leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea. Ecosphere. 2(7):art84. doi:10.1890/ES11-00053.
  2. Benson SR, Forney KA, Moore JE, LaCasella EL, Harvey JT, Carretta J V. A long-term decline in the abundance of endangered leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, at a foraging ground in the California Current Ecosystem. Glob Ecol Conserv. 2020;24:e01371.
  3. Tapilatu RF, Dutton PH, Tiwari M, Wibbels T, Ferdinandus H V, Iwanggin WG, et al. Long‐term decline of the western Pacific leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea: a globally important sea turtle population. Ecosphere. 2013;4:1–15.

Lauren Hearn

Lauren Hearn

 

 

I'm a recent graduate from Florida State University (2022), where I studied marine biology and chemical oceanography. I completed an undergraduate thesis there on biogeochemical cycles in the Southern ocean and the role that phytoplankton play in them. I collected seawater samples in the Southern ocean and analyzed the data in Ocean data view for the ongoing GEOTRACES project, which helped fuel my thesis.

I've started volunteering in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab this fall to assist with recording marine mammal strandings and completing bi-monthly surveys. I look forward to continuing to assist members in the lab and widening my exposure to marine mammal research. Broadly, I'm interested in how chemical oceanography and marine populations interact, and how studies of the two can overlap to benefit each other. I hope to narrow down my research focus and continue my education by pursuing a master's thesis.

Elephant Seal Field Season Wrap Up!

Greetings from the Vertebrate Ecology Lab

You may not know this, but much of research here in the Vert Lab is on the ever charismatic Northern Elephant Seal! Each year, we get to work with colleagues from institutions such as UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, Sonoma State, and many more, to investigate the lives of these incredible animals. There are dozens of research topics from biologging studies, foraging ecology, sleep studies, reproductive success, dive behavior, stress responses, and more being investigated by our little research group here at MLML and by our colleagues elsewhere.

Currently we are wrapping up a very successful field season, which typically runs from November to early June. This year we investigated the feasibility of new physiological biologgers including testing non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) dataloggers to measure arterial blood oxygenation and MOxyLog sensors for measuring muscle oxygen (National Science Foundation Grant #: 1656282). These loggers will aid in future physiological studies that improve our understanding of how these animals perform long deep dives and how they are impacted by anthropogenic stressors

This year, we got to do all of this in addition to our yearly participation in the field efforts out at Año Nuevo State Park including: helping with daily resights, deploying and recovering tags at the colony, and yearly weaner weighing (All work performed under NMFS permit #: 23188).

(Take a look at this video to see more of what goes on up at Año Nuevo State Park, note this video was shot prior to the COVID-19 pandemic)

The seals are finishing up their yearly molt and soon the adult females, many of whom are pregnant, will head out to sea for their long nine month migration out into the North Pacific. We will have a reprieve from field work until they return in December. Happy Trails!

Penguin Team Field Updates: OCT. 28th

Camp Set up at Crozier also known as “Camp Huddle”

Gitte’s penguin team successfully arrived at Cape Crozier on October the 28th. Our field notes may be a little behind as they are being carried out by gracious visitors who are kind enough to carry our messages back to civilization. Early in the morning the penguin team took flight in a helicopter piloted by Heff a stoic man with many years of experience flying in Antarctica. The flight from Scott Base to Cape Crozier took about 30 minutes and we had incredible views of Mt. Erebus (12,448 ft, 3794 m). We started to gain elevation as we flew over a glacier and wrapped around a bend. Heff agilely redirected the helicopter as we dropped off the glacier and back onto the sea ice. That is when Parker and David saw their first Antarctic penguin: the mighty Adele. The land side of Cape Crozier happens to be the location of one of the largest Adele colonies. I would love to google the exact number maybe those of you reading this blog can fill that bit of information for me (my best guess is ~250,000). We also saw our first emperor penguins walking and tobogganing on the ice (more information will follow with regards to how amazing these penguins are in future updates). I digress, Heff quickly turned the helicopter and the location of our Camp was first seen. Camp Huddle is located in a “finger” (a small cove located between where fast ice and sea ice meet) of fast ice. This location is relatively protected compared to other areas but the surrounding deep blue ice indicates that this area does receive heavy winds but not on a nice day like today. The weather was perfect for setting up our camp with high visibility and relatively warm temperatures at -7 degrees Celsius.

We set up camp five polar haven tents for each of five members of the crew including Sam who is helping us establish a safe camp and walk way to the colony. We erected a medium “Polar Haven” which has a heater and is the area we will be spending most of our time when it is cold. We a great kitchen set up and a nice table that serves multiple uses such dining table and data entry portal. We also set up a bathroom tent which is a classic Scott Tent. Since we are camping on sea ice all of the structures we have at Camp Huddle required us to drill holes on the ice and anchor each corner via “V thread” method as Gitte is demonstrating in the adjacent image. The basic concept of V threading requires two drill holes that connect in the ice. A rope is then place through the opening of both drilled holes and is fastened to the corner and sides of each structure. If you thought setting up a tent was difficult on land, consider drilling 230 V thread and hand tying each knot. Luckily the weather was great and we did not have to set up camp in the wind. Cape Crozier is notoriously experiencing some of the most extreme weather on the planet. Camp Huddle is fasted to the ice at Cape Crozier and we are ready to start our penguin captures within the next few days. We had a wonderful first dinner and headed to bed exhausted and excited to finally arrive at our destination.

 

#Natgeoexplorer #NIWA

Huddled Up,

Penguin Field Crew

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Flight to Scott Base Postponed: 10/16/19

Flight to Scott Base Postponed: 10/16/19

Fingers crossed for a Friday departure to Scott Base

The Cape Crozier Penguin Team arrived safe and sound in Christchurch New Zealand where we are waiting for our flight to Scott Base, Antarctica. We were scheduled to fly today, however we have been delayed due to a cracked windshield on the plane. Currently our flight has been postponed until Friday Oct. 18th as we are waiting for a new windshield to arrive from the USA.

In the meantime, the penguin team has been busy planning our field logistics so that we may hit the ground running on Friday. Today we are setting up our data-logging tags that will measure the GPS location, acceleration and fine-scale foraging behaviors of chick-rearing emperor penguins. Stay tuned for more information about the tags we will be using this season.

Proactively in standby,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

C-17 Aircraft
Penguin Crew Datalogger Huddle

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Arrived in Christchurch New Zealand: 10/14/19

Arrived in Christchurch New Zealand: 10/14/19

Emperor Penguin Crew Lands In Christchurch New Zealand

The Penguin Team has landed in New Zealand after a 12 hour long flight from San Francisco to Aukland and a quick (1.5 hr) connecting flight to Christchurch. While in Christchurch we visited the International Antarctic Center where we were issued our clothing field gear for this season. A New Zealand rep "Lou" helped us out with our clothing selections that include warm marino wool base layers, 6 pairs of gloves, 4 hats, two pair of boots, fleece pants and down jackets, and incredibly warm survival gear. We are ready for our trip scheduled to leave at 9am on Wednesday October 19th.

Warm and ready for the Ice,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

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Daphne Shen

Daphne Shen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I graduated from Cornell University in 2015 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences (Marine Biology concentration). During my undergraduate studies, I assisted with various research projects including acoustic analysis of elephant calls with the Bioacoustics Research Program and analysis of corals to determine prevalence and severity of pathogens in the Caribbean sea fan. It was a field course that I took about the anatomy and function of marine vertebrates that convinced me that I wanted to work with marine megafauna and contribute to wildlife conservation efforts.

After graduating, I worked with the National Park Service at Fire Island National Seashore primarily monitoring piping plovers and other threatened and endangered species, collaring deer with radio collars, and conducting surveys of horseshoe crabs and colonial waterbirds. I spent several years as a stranding technician at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, doing rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine mammals and sea turtles in New York. I gained a lot of hands on experience doing husbandry and clinical work with various species of cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sea turtles during this time. Most recently, I worked with the NPS at Padre Island National Seashore's Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery, documenting/tagging nesting females, excavating nests and protecting hatchlings, and rescuing stranded sea turtles.

I joined the Vertebrate Ecology Lab under the guidance of Dr. Gitte McDonald in Fall 2019 and am excited to work with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and learn all about west coast marine life.

 

Antarctica Preparations II: 09/15/2019

Antarctica Preparations II: 09/15/2019

Building a cost effective time-depth recorder to track fine-scale penguin Foraging Behavior

We developed our own animal-worn datalogging tags that measure the fine-scale diving behavior of marine predators. Datalogging tags are an integral tool to studying marine predator diving behavior because they allows us to document animals where we are unable to follow them on their foraging trips.   These tags measure an animal's precise location, fine-scale movement and acceleration, temperature of the water, and the depth the animal dive (down to 1000 meters). These tags will be used to document emperor penguin diving behavior and track their movements while they forage at-sea. Emperor penguins are known to dive to great depths (564 meters) and for long durations (>27 minutes) in search of prey. Once the penguins return to the colony to feed their chick we will remove the tag and download the data from their journeys.

Datalogging tags can be purchased however they are very expensive and can be a barrier for many students and researchers. In collaboration with Dr. Birgitte McDonald, Katie Harrington, James Fahlbusch, and Parker Forman we developed a cost-effective and open source datalogging tag that is one third of the cost of current tags on the market. This open source datalogging technology will put high resolution, low cost, and customizable tags in the hands of more researchers.

Dive On,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

Custom Built Datalogging Tag: "Tapered Flipper TDR".
Attaching the pressure sensor to the tag.

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Sierra Fullmer

Sierra Fullmer

 

 

I graduated from the University of Miami in the winter of 2017 with BSMAS degrees in Marine Science and Biology. While there, I had multiple unique opportunities, including leading acoustic research working to determine the vocal repertoire of the nocturnal owl monkey and studying while living in the Galapagos Islands with locals for 3 months. Much of my free time was spent coordinating trainings and stranding responses as the Stranding Coordinator for their Marine Mammal Rescue Team. These experiences drove my interest in the marine mammal field and led me to pursue many internship and learning opportunities in animal care. I had the opportunity to work alongside a diversity of species, including beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, river otters and multiple species of alcids. With each new species, I became more interested in the specialization required to survive within their different environments.

My desire to study and contribute to new knowledge of marine mammals led me to an internship with the UCSC Joseph Long Marine Laboratory’s Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab. There I gained more hands-on, dual experience in both animal care and cooperative research and gained an even greater interest in the research field. I knew that in order to be better equipped to find answers to my questions, and share this information with others, I needed to improve my background in research and scientific writing by returning for my graduate studies.

I joined the MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab in the fall of 2019, and spent my first semester working with Gitte to develop a thesis project studying sea otters. I am currently investigating the effects of human activity on sea otter group behavior and dynamics within several central California sub-populations. Additionally, I am actively supporting the Marine Mammal Stranding Network as a stranding responder, assisting my fellow lab members with their areas of research, and involved in many other marine mammal job opportunities around Monterey Bay.

Field Season Preparations: 08/30/19

Field Season Preparations: 08/30/19

Shipping our field gear to Antarctica

Although our field season is still 6 weeks away, preparations are in full gear. This last month we have been busy ordering research supplies.  We somehow managed to fit all the gear into 4 boxes that are now waiting to be shipped to Antarctica. One thing that is a little different, is we have to separate gear into items that can and can not be frozen so when they get to Antarctica they are stored properly for our arrival.  Students in the Lab are happy that we are sending this gear out so that they may have a little more room.

Signed Sealed and Awaiting Delivery To Antarctica,

Emperor Penguin Field Crew

 

 

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