BOEM Notes from the Field

Searching for Marine Mammals Offshore Hawaii

Hello, my name is Greg Sanders, marine mammal specialist from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's (BOEM) Pacific Region. I am joining a research team aboard the NOAA vessel “Oscar Elton Sette.” We leave Honolulu on September 11, 2017, for 30 days at sea to systematically survey for whales and dolphins (cetaceans) living in the waters offshore the Hawaiian Islands. The resulting data will be used to map species distribution and abundance. This information will help BOEM gain a better understanding of whale and dolphin populations around the Hawaiian Islands and will inform future decisions regarding possible offshore wind energy development offshore Oahu.

This is a journal of my time aboard the ship, brought to you live. I will share with you the experience of what it is like to be a member of the research team. This includes everything from getting underway and day-to- day life aboard the vessel to the challenges of collecting raw data in the field. I welcome you to join me in this voyage. Check-in every few days for updates. Communication from the ship may be interrupted from time-to- time but I will do my best to keep you up-to- date. For more information check out the Hawaiian Islands Cetacean Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS) website at https://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/hiceas/


Aloha Aboard the NOAA Vessel Oscar Elton Sette

Posted on September 11, 2017 by Greg Sanders

Aloha is a common greeting here in Hawaii. It is also often used when saying goodbye. How could one word stand for both hello and goodbye? Well Aloha means much more than hello and goodbye, it represents love, peace and compassion. More a way of life that you are reminded of each time you meet and leave each other. The spirit of Aloha was alive and well here on the Sette as we left port this morning. Everyone I met was friendly and helpful.

After boarding the ship, we got right to work. No lounging on the deck or waving to people as we left the harbor. The scientists first got together in a small room to discuss plans for the cruise and quiz ourselves on the counting techniques and procedures used to estimate the size of whale and dolphin groups. After a short lunch, the ship alarm rang and we all left our quarters to gather on the bridge deck for a fire drill. The bridge deck is also called the “Texas” deck because it is the deck with the most open space on the ship. This deck is certainly not the size of Texas but everyone fit comfortably while crew members put their fire-fighting gear on and simulated fighting a fire. Having a fire on a ship is very dangerous so it is good to be prepared. We also had to practice for what to do if we had to abandon ship. Another ship alarm rang out prompting us to evacuate the lower decks to meet near lifeboat stations and put on survival suits which would protect us if we found ourselves in the water for many hours awaiting a rescue.

With the safety drills complete, I had a quick refresher in using the computer program used to record whale and dolphin sightings, before we finally got to do some of the work we came out to do. Scanning the horizon with giant “big-eye” binoculars we found a few scattered groups of pilot whales and deployed two drifting acoustic buoys we use to listen for whales and dolphins. All in all, a good start for the trip. Only 29 days left to search from the main Hawaiian Islands to the furthest reaches of the northwest Hawaiian Islands.

So far the seas have been calm but as I type these notes the ship is starting to pitch and roll. About time to get some sleep. I’m scheduled to be up looking for whales and dolphins at 6:30am. So for now I will say Aloha and goodnight.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


A Day Following False Killer Whales

Posted on September 12, 2017 by Greg Sanders

Day two of my voyage aboard the Sette, I am on the first observer shift. I roll out of my bunk at 5:30am to meet two of my colleagues on the fly bridge, the highest deck on the ship. With the sun just starting to rise on the eastern horizon we uncover the giant binoculars that we call “Big Eyes” and get to work scanning the water in front of the ship as it moves along at 10 knots (nautical miles/hour).

When I am at home, I arrive to the office each morning, turn on my computer, check my email and sift through the papers lining my desk. One day, I received notice that false killer whales living in Hawaii were being listed as an endangered species. I didn’t know much about false killer whales at the time. Knowing that there are companies interested in offshore wind energy projects in Hawaii, I took some time to learn more about this species. I read scientific papers and species descriptions. This gave me a good foundation but it did not prepare me for what I saw today.

The seas were calm and we had excellent viewing conditions. About 10 minutes after we started, I saw a sleek black whale jump clear out of the water. Such an impressive sight! My first look at a false killer whale in the wild! He was not alone, the rest of the day was spent counting, getting photo identifications, listening for, and tagging false killer whales.

So what did I learn today?

- False killer whales often travel in small groups scattered across large areas. The groups are communicating with each other. When a school of tasty fish is discovered, several whales converge on the spot to share a meal

- False killer whales can be hard to see when they are traveling but when they are feeding it can be quite the spectacle! We came across several whales feeding and leaping out of the air. They stunned large Mahi Mahi fish with their tails then flipped over and grabbed the stunned fish in their jaws. False killer whales may also share some of a fish they kill with their friends.

- False killer whales “talk” a lot. This means that they are relatively easy to hear and track using hydrophones (underwater microphones).

Armed with this new information, I am better equipped to evaluate future offshore renewable energy proposals in Hawaii. How about you? Did you learn something new about false killer whales?

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Tagging Whales

Posted on September 13, 2017 by Greg Sanders

The false killer whale sightings continued into day three of the cruise. Again we launched a small boat (the “Steel Toe”) to get closer to the whales. This time I joined the small boat crew. There was just enough room on the small boat for four scientists and a boat operator. Everyone had a job to do. My job was to take pictures. Not just any pictures, I needed to get clear close pictures of dorsal fins (the ones on the top) at just the right angle so they could be used to identify individual animals. When we tagged an animal I also had to get pictures of where the tag was located on the dorsal fin and to see if the tag was going to stay on the animal.

Getting a tag on a whale is a little tricky. First, we have to get close enough to shoot the tag into the dorsal fin of the whale. Second, we have to hit the relatively small fin. And finally, the tag needs to be firmly attached so the whale can send us information over the longest time possible. Tags may stay on for hours, days or weeks. If we are lucky, they may stay on and transmit information for several months.

While we are out close to the whales we also try to get samples of skin and blubber (a biopsy). These we get by shooting an arrow with a small hollow tube on the end. The arrow bounces of the whale and floats so we can scoop it up with a long-handled net. If we are lucky, we may get a small plug of tissue about ¾ of an inch long and about the diameter of a pencil.

I’ve said lucky a couple of times now. There is certainly skill involved with tagging animals but ultimately the animals have to “cooperate.” Some whales really didn’t want us to get close. Others may come close because they are curious. At one point we had a group of five young whales following just behind the boat apparently fascinated by our propeller. We could hear their whistles through the metal bottom (hull) of the boat. On this day we also had several groups of rough-toothed dolphins join us right next to the boat. We did not put any tags on the dolphins but we did get several biopsies.

After four hours of sampling effort, we attached 2 tags on false killer whales, collected 18 biopsies, and I took more than 1,000 pictures (lots of pictures of about 50 animals to get the best shots). We came back to the ship well baked by the sun and a little hungry but we all were happy with the day’s work. Back at the ship, the biopsy samples were packaged and frozen. Later that night we processed and archived the photos. It looks like we may have many more animals to add to the false whale identification catalog!

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Getting Into the Routine

Posted on September 14, 2017 by Greg Sanders

On Day 4, weather continued to be very good as we left the false killer whales behind. We are now starting a more “normal” routine. There are six marine mammal observers and two seabird observers on board. While underway we have three marine mammal observers and one seabird observer on the flying bridge during all daylight hours.

The seabird observers rotate two hours on and two hours off throughout the day. They sit in one of the center chairs at the front of the flying bridge identifying and counting birds using regular binoculars.

The marine mammal observers also rotate on 2 hour shifts that are evenly divided into 40 minute segments. The observers start their shift on the left hand side (port) of the flying bridge using a pair of Big Eyes (the large binoculars) to look for animals. After 40 minutes they shift to a center chair and record data for the two other observers and look for animals close to the ship. This gives their eyes a much needed break from the Big Eyes. The Big Eyes allow the observers to see whales and dolphins many miles away but it is tiring to keep them steady as the ship rocks and rolls. Finally, for the last 40 minutes of the shift the observers use the Big Eyes on the right side (starboard) of the flying bridge to look for animals.

In general, the observers work two hours on the flying bridge and two hours off the flying bridge for about 12 hours each day, every day of the cruise effort. The time off the flying bridge is used to complete sighting reports, archive photos, and help with other tasks on the ship. We have to eat as well. With everything going on, we usually get about 20 minutes to eat any given meal. For most whale sightings, it is all hands on deck regardless of the shift you are on. Everyone helps to verify species identifications, estimate group sizes, and take identification photos if we can get close enough.

There is another team dedicated to listening for whales but I will describe what they do in more detail in another field note. Needless to say there is a lot going on in this small ship.

On Day 4, we did not see any false killer whales or rough-toothed dolphins. Instead, we saw a few groups of Pantropical Pacific Spotted Dolphins and Striped Dolphins along our route. None of them took interest in our ship and they swam away from us but not before showing off a bit with a few high flying leaps into the air. The acoustics team also heard some Beaked Whales but it was difficult for use to locate them on the surface because of their long dive times and low surface profile (they don’t tend to leap around a lot).

By the end of the day the weather started to get worse with increasing wind and choppy water. After some sleep, we’ll start all over again in a different spot.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Questions from the Schoolyard

Posted on September 15, 2017 by Greg Sanders

Questions from the Schoolyard (Submitted September 14, 2017) – Students from Pierpont Elementary School in Ventura, California, are following Greg’s science adventure at sea. Each week we will post Greg’s answers to students’ questions.

Below are questions from Ms. Paula Francis’ 4th/5th grade class in Room 3:

1. Did you take the picture of the false killer whale eating the fish?

Yes, I did. I was shooting pictures from the ship just as we were passing a group of false killer whales killing and eating fish. False killer whales hit fish like Mahi Mahi with their tail to stun them, then flip around and grab them with their teeth. I got lucky with this picture.

2. How many days have you been at sea now?

As of Thursday, September 14, I have been at sea 4 days. So far, so good. It is easy to lose track of the days at sea. We are working very hard and one day seems to blur with the next.

3. What is the most unusual mammal you have seen so far?

So far, the most unusual marine mammal I have seen is the false killer whale. We have a new mystery whale though. Late yesterday afternoon, we heard the new mystery whale as it was diving in very deep water but we could not see it on the surface before the sun set.

4. Do you miss your family?

YES, it is hard for both for me and my family. I really can't complain to much. We can occasionally communicate via e-mail and one month is not that long. Sailors traveling on ships a hundred years ago could be away from home for years and never hear from their family. So I will consider myself to be lucky.

5. How many more days left do you have on the boat?

I have 25 days, 18 hours, 4 minutes, and 14 seconds before we return to port in Hawaii.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


What Happens if a Ship Breaks?

Posted on September 18, 2017 by Greg Sanders

Shortly after sunrise on Day 5 we had unwelcome news. The crew had to stop one of the engines on the ship for repairs. Just like at home, things do break on a ship. Fortunately we have two engines so we were not “dead in the water.” We are a long way from port now so going back to fix the engine is not a good option. For times like these we have engineers and mechanics on board to fix things while we are underway.

The necessary repairs took a few hours to complete. In the meantime, we continued on course at a reduced speed, about 6 knots (nautical miles per hour) rather than the normal 10 knots. This meant that we could not do our normal visual whale counts. As luck would have it, the acoustic team started hearing some beaked whales nearby, including a new mystery whale/sound. While the ship limped along we searched for beaked whales.

Beaked whale are very deep diving animals. They search for food hundreds of feet below the surface. We are only recently learning more about this group of whales as we improve our ability to detect and find them. Because they dive so deep they can stay down a long time. On average, they can spend about 90 minutes (an hour and a half!) underwater. A ship passing overhead can miss seeing one quite easily so we have to slow down and listen for them. So, although we were slowed down by engine repairs, having beaked whales in the area was very convenient.

We searched and searched but could not see the beaked whales. Sea conditions were rough, making things even more difficult. We did see some Risso’s Dolphins (also called Grampus) though. Risso’s Dolphins are often easy to identify by all the white scars on their heads. They seem to bite and scratch each other a lot for some reason.

After lunch, the engine repairs were complete and we resumed our regular effort to look for whales and dolphins. The weather was getting rougher throughout the day. No more sighting of whales but we were hearing some Cuvier’s Beaked Whales and that new mystery whale that we think is a type of beaked whale. We’re continuing to travel northwest through the night.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Looking for Whales or Listening for Whales: Which is Better?

Posted on September 25, 2017 by Greg Sanders

What do you think, is it better to look for whales or listen for whales? The answer is both and it really depends on the type of whale you want to find. The people looking on the flying bridge (observer team) work closely with the people listening for whales (acoustic team) in the ship’s acoustic laboratory. When a whale is seen or heard (detected) one of these teams work with the ship’s crew to guide the ship to the whales. When I am talking about whales here I am including dolphins as well. Do you remember what we call this group of animals? They are all cetaceans.

There are many things (variables) that affect our ability to see whales. These include how high we are off the water, how good our eyes or binoculars are, whether the sea is rough or calm, if it is raining or not, what the angle of the sun is (are we looking into the sun, is there a lot of glare?), how much the boat is rocking back and forth, how tired the observers are, and how experienced the observers are. Also the amount of time a whale stays on the surface and what types of behaviors it has makes a big difference (jumping out of the water usually helps us see them).

Okay, we’ll just listen then. Listening is great but it only works if the whales are “talking” or, in some cases, looking for food. All of the toothed whales use echolocation to find food. They produce a sound then listen for the echo bouncing off fish or squid to locate and catch them. When they are feeding we can sometimes hear them echolocate using clicking sounds. All the very large whales do not have teeth and they filter sea water to collect their food (small fish and/or shrimps) using baleen. These whales do not use echolocation to find food and when they “talk” they use a very very low “voice” that can be difficult for us to hear without specialized equipment. I’ll give you a couple of examples of how we are detecting whales using both the observer and acoustic teams.

We often travel along our survey lines and the acoustic team hears a beaked whale. Beaked whales dive very deep to find food. While they are in deep water they are almost always echolocate as they look for food. They can be down for more than an hour so it is easy for the observers to miss seeing them. When beaked whales come to the surface they stop making sound and become “silent.” This is the observers cue to start looking for the whales at the surface. The acoustic team lets the observers know when to look. Even then we have a hard time seeing these elusive whales and if the conditions are not right, we may not see them at all. So our only detection may be from the acoustic team. The acoustic team can often identify the type of beaked whale in the area but it is very difficult for them to determine how many of the whales were there just by listening.

On another day, I was on the flying bridge when I saw a series of whale blows on the horizon. They were far away but I could get a reasonable estimate of how many whales could be there. We moved in the direction of the blows and we could not see them anymore. Could they be diving? Could they be beaked whales? We called the acoustic team and they were listening. No whales making sound there. What could these whales be? The blows I saw appeared to be large. In Hawaii might expect these to be sperm whales. Sperm whales are also deep divers and echolocate when they dive. Still there was no sound to be heard, these whale were probably not sperm whales. That left us with the suspicion that these whales were large baleen whales. The low sounds of baleen whales are not picked up on our towed acoustic array. So as we approached the area where we saw the whales blow, we dropped two sonobuoys. The sonobuoys are instruments that can “hear” in the range of the baleen whales and transmit what they are hearing to the ship. We never saw this group of whales again but the sonobuoys detected sounds made by fin whales. Fin whales are almost as big as blue whales and the can travel very quickly. Sometime they are called the greyhounds of the sea. So, we would not have detected the whales without the observers and we would not have known the species without the acoustic team.

So this may sound a little complicated and it is. The real message here is that by working together using different ways of detecting whales we are getting a much better picture of where whales live, about how many of them are out there, and how they live their day-to-day lives.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.

 


Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes: Humpback Whales in Hawaii

Posted on October 1, 2017 by Greg Sanders

The HICEAS cruise is a systematic search for whales and dolphins. What does this really mean? Well, for one, we try to do the same thing (method) each time we look for animals. This way we can compare information collected from different places and times. We are not only trying to count animals (abundance) and see where they are (distribution), we also want to know if there are changes over time.

Let’s use humpback whales as an example. During the month of September, no humpback whales were seen on HICEAS cruises in 2002 or 2010. During this cruise (2017), we have seen two humpback whales in September. It is far too early to tell whether this means anything but these new sightings become a reference point for future surveys and provoke new questions. Up till now, we have been thinking that September is a little too early to see humpbacks in Hawaii.

Now let’s look at humpback whales from a broader perspective. Through tagging studies, tail (fluke) identifications and family relationships (genetic work) we know that the most of the humpback whales we see in Hawaii spend their summers feeding in the north Pacific off the coasts of Russia, Alaska and Canada. Thousands of humpback whales migrate south each winter to the warm shallow waters off Hawaii to have babies and mate. If you come to Hawaii in winter, you could have the chance to see one of the greatest spectacles on earth (Hint: I’ve heard February is the best time to come). You may see humpback whales breaching (jumping out of the water), spy-hopping (raising their heads out of the water), tail slapping, pec slapping (slapping its side fin on the water) or you may even get “mugged” by a whale. Mugging is when a curious whale circles closely around you and may even nudge your boat.

We have come to expect this great migration of humpback whales every winter. There is even a National Marine Sanctuary dedicated to protecting habitat for humpback whales in Hawaii. What you may not know is that it looks like humpback whales only started coming to Hawaii in the last 200 years or so. Two hundred years may sound like a long time but it is not very long when we consider a migration of this size. So what caused this sudden interest in coming to Hawaii? We don’t know. There is little evidence to suggest that native Hawaiians saw humpbacks in great numbers before Europeans started visiting their waters. The Hawaiian whaling stations that were set up in the 1800’s focused their effort on hunting sperm whales and there is little to no mention of humpbacks. Perhaps the hunting of humpback whales in the 1900’s in the north Pacific forced a shift in migrations. Another possibility is that the large battles fought in the Pacific during World War II may have influenced whale movements. Changes in the oceanographic conditions or seasonal wind patterns are also important factors to consider.

So for now, we are monitoring the environment and the whales that live in it for clues as to what will change next and why. Surveys like HICEAS are an important contribution to our knowledge and help us plan for our future activities in the ocean.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Weather Watch

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Greg Sanders

If you have been looking at some of the pictures from the cruise you may think the weather is good all of the time. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So far, we have had about as many good days as we have had bad days. The last three days have been especially bad. As I write this, the wind is blowing hard (30 knots+) and the swells are rolling by at a height of about 7 feet. We have had to change course to make our ride a bit easier and we cannot effectively search for whales and dolphins from the flying bridge. We are also not listening for whales at the moment because we may damage the cable for the acoustic equipment as the ship is tossed about in the waves. Only the bird observers are working. At least the birds are a little more visible as they fly about in the high winds. So for now we are watching the weather (weather watch) to see when we will get a chance to search for whales again.

Large swells, generated by storms far away from us, make it more difficult for us to see because things on the surface (like floats, whales and dolphins) are hidden by the water when they fall behind each swell. The wind is a bigger problem though. The wind blowing near us creates choppy waves making the surface of the sea rough. As wind speeds increase, we get more and more white caps – those places where the swells and wind waves peak creating a foamy mix of air and water. We use something called the Beaufort scale (pronounced like Boo-Furt) to describe the sea state. The scale ranks wind conditions from 0-12. Beaufort 0, is what we really like. In Beaufort 0 conditions we have no wind and the sea surface is so smooth that it looks like a mirror. Beaufort 12 is a hurricane. We are now in Beaufort 7 conditions; the wind is blowing between 28-33 knots with waves 13-19 feet and white foam streaming from the peaks of the waves.

Now don’t get me wrong. If we had no wind and calms seas all of the time the world would be a very sad place indeed. The wind mixes the water at the surface of the ocean making oxygen available to many of the animals that live in the sea. The mixing of the seas also captures carbon dioxide in our atmosphere allowing microscopic plants (diatoms) to flourish and become the beginning of complex food web. In many places, the wind creates upwelling bringing cold nutrient rich water from the ocean depths to the surface making for cooler weather for the areas of the coast nearby.

Wind is without doubt critical for all life on earth but we are only beginning to appreciate what other things it has to offer. We are now using wind to provide a reliable supply of renewable energy for our communities. Wind turbines convert the energy in the wind into electricity that we use every day. Today, nearly all of the wind turbines in the United State are built on land but the prospects for offshore wind development are very promising. The winds are very consistent over the ocean and wind turbines are more efficient offshore where bigger turbines may be installed. Many countries in Europe are already taking advantage of offshore wind.

Ultimately, I am here on this research cruise to seek information that will help us make decisions about offshore wind energy development in Hawaii. We want to know more about the offshore environment so that we may avoid or minimize impacts to animals like whales and dolphins. We will be looking closely at the information gathered during this cruise to make decisions for our future energy needs.

So for now I am happy to wait for the wind speed to drop and for our whale viewing conditions to improve because without the wind we would have no whales or dolphins at all.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Questions from the Schoolyard

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Greg Sanders

Questions from the Schoolyard (Submitted September 28, 2017) – Students from Pierpont Elementary School in Ventura, California, are following Greg’s science adventure at sea. Each week we will post Greg’s answers to students’ questions.

Below are questions from Mrs. Robinson’s and Mrs. Lawson's Kindergarten classes in Rooms 9 & 12:

1. Have you seen many dolphins?

Yes, I have seen a lot of dolphins on this research cruise but not as many as I am used to seeing at home in California. So far I've probably seen a few hundred dolphins of five different types: rough-toothed dolphins, spotted dolphins, striped dolphins, spinner dolphins and today I saw some bottlenose dolphins. You may have seen bottlenose dolphins in California but the other dolphins like the warm water offshore Hawaii.

2. How many whales have you seen?

I would guess I have seen more than 100 whales so far on this cruise. These include false killer whales, pilot whales, humpback whales, Bryde's whales, and three differnt types of beaked whales.

3. Have you seen an Oarfish?

No oarfish have been spotted but I will keep and eye out for them.

4. Have you heard any sounds?

We are hearing underwater sounds all the time, day and night. Sometimes it sounds a little like a jungle down there.

5. What do harbor seals eat?

Harbor seals eat fish and other animals that live near the bottom. An octopus would be a special treat for a harbor seal.

6. What do regular seals eat?

Well, that's a good question. There are a lot of different kinds of seals (including the harbor seal) and then there are also sea lions. Some prefer to eat fish and others like squid or octopus. There is even a seal in Antarctica that likes to eat penguins! Here in Hawaii there is only one type of seal, the Hawaiian monk seal. I hope to see one of these if we get close enough to one of the islands where they rest on the beach. Monk seals eat many different kinds of fish as well was squid, octopus, and crabs.

7. What do fish eat?

Many fish eat other fish. Some fish eat algae (kind of like plants). Here in Hawaii, tiger sharks look for sea turtles and even young birds that are just learning to fly. The biggest sharks of all, basking sharks and whale sharks, filter very small things like shrimp and fish eggs floating in the water.

Now I have a question for you. There is one large fish that likes to eat seals. Do you know the name of that fish?

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.


Rats!!!

Posted on October 10, 2017 by Greg Sanders

We made a stop at Tern Island, one of several islands in French Frigate Shoals. We needed to pick up several scientists that had just spent the last 5 months observing monk seals and sea turtles. They were counting the number of seal pups, helping those pups avoid getting eaten by sharks, and documenting sea turtle nesting. French Frigate Shoals is an important pupping area for monk seals. For sea turtles, it is even more important. Up to 95% of all green sea turtles in the Hawaiian Islands nest here. Four satellite tags placed on sea turtles this nesting season showed that the tagged turtles swam hundreds of miles to the Pearl Harbor area on the island of Oahu, within weeks of burying their eggs on sand beaches of French Frigate Shoals.

There was some excitement on board the Sette when we arrived. We hoped to land on the island to help move equipment and do a little exploring. To prepare for this, we all had to have a brand new set of clothes and shoes. The new clothes had to be frozen in plastic bags for a minimum of 48 hours before we would be allowed on the island. Why all the fuss? The Fish and Wildlife Service is working very hard to avoid introducing new plants or animals to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Clothes can carry seeds (if you have you ever gotten seeds stuck in your socks, you know what I am talking about) and/or insects and their eggs. Something as small as an ant can cause huge changes in the island ecosystems that may affect nesting birds and the vegetation they depend on for nesting.

As it turned out, after the first landing party arrived on the island the weather got so rough that the rest of us were stranded on the boat. We made the best of the situation and helped to offload equipment arriving by small boats shuttling back and forth to the island. It took two days to recover the equipment and scientists (it takes a lot of supplies to support a field research camp on a remote island). After the first day of equipment transport, a rat was seen scurrying across the back deck. Then there was another seen running on one of the upper decks of the ship. We were being invaded by rats. Or so we thought.

Rats can crawl onto ships when they are in port becoming stowaways, unwelcome guests for a ship’s crew. They can hide in containers that are transferred to other places including remote islands like Tern Island. Rats are a big problem for nesting sea birds. With limited food on remote islands, the rats eat eggs and chicks. An entire seabird colony may vanish if rats are inadvertently transported to a colony. There is some hope, if the rats can be removed and seabirds are allowed to nest again.

Rats, ants and non-native plants can all be considered “invasive species.” They are new to an area and multiply to a level that may affect the animals and plants that form the basis of the native ecosystem. So back on the ship, we have rats. The researchers on the island had not seen any rats there. So where did these rats come from? Were they stowaways that had been onboard since we left Honolulu? Or did they come aboard when we brought equipment from Tern Island? We don’t know but we’re all hoping that researchers returning to Tern Island next year will not find the island infested with rats.

To see photos of Greg's experiences on the research cruise, click on Greg's Photos at Sea.