PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 169, Summer 2012: At-Sea Research With NOAA Marine Sanctuaries


Learning At Sea

Life’s Work

Dru Devlin

A Whale’s World
New Protection For Whales
Eyes Upon Our Marine Sanctuaries
Aboard a Research Cruise

I have loved the ocean, and have been fascinated by its creatures, for as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to know more about whales, tidepool invertebrates, jellies, plankton, and all sea life. The ocean is home to the largest, the smallest, the weirdest, the most abundant, and many undiscovered creatures of the world, with some of the most fascinating living right off our San Francisco coast.

Now, when I participate on research cruises to monitor the California Current ecosystem, I like to imagine what I can’t see but know is below the surface—the diversity of life in these very productive waters. Sometimes, ocean life erupts within full view of shipboard biologists.
Pacific white-sided dolphins. Photo by Michael Carver/NOAA.

On one memorable occasion, our vessel was surrounded by whales as far as we could see in every direction. So many humpbacks and blue whales were feeding on abundant krill that when they blew at the surface we could smell their breath, an unmistakable fishy sea smell. Dall’s porpoise, with their rooster-tail sprays, came and rode the wake from the bow of the boat, and several Risso’s dolphins swam within 50 meters of us. We could see the krill on the surface of the water, an obvious sign that there was much food in the water. Once we deployed our nets, they came up full of krill samples.

Conditions in the ocean are never predictable, as I’ve learned from experience, and our ACCESS cruise in June this year was a case in point. Rough weather and sea conditions prevailed for the first three days, with no possibility for plankton sampling, almost no wildlife sightings, and maximum discomfort for everyone aboard the research vessel Fulmar.

One thing I love about this work, though, is that every day is different. Day four was still stormy, but our work and life had taken on a solid routine. Then we made an exceptional discovery, the carcass of a dead fin whale on a remote beach north of San Francisco at Point Reyes. We contacted the Marine Mammal Stranding Network whose scientists would investigate the specimen and cause of death.

Day five was entirely new. The sky was blue, the wind was still, and the seas were calm. For the first time in many days there were no white caps, and visibility along our course was excellent. As soon as we arrived on the top deck to start our observations, someone spotted a shark—an exciting start to our morning! We all watched as a shark with a large dorsal fin swam in a zig-zag fashion just 20 feet off the port side of the boat. After a few minutes, it dipped underwater, only to surface again on the starboard side of the boat. Some of us had time to grab cameras and take photos.

That day we were able to deploy our sampling equipment, which brought up lots of large-sized krill with green phytoplankton in their bellies and many copepods. As we started on our line of observations, we noted a Laysan Albatross and another shark (later confirmed as a salmon shark and the same individual seen earlier in the day).
The research vessel Fulmar, here in port, is an ocean-going field station. Photo by Julie Howar/PRBO.

Our final day at sea was bittersweet. The weather was finally in our favor, we were comfortable and working like a well-oiled machine, and it felt as though we could continue for at least another week. Deployment of our trawl and net equipment revealed both small and large species of krill, and we observed abundant wildlife—35 humpback whales feeding on the continental shelf break, a Northern Fulmar, some Black footed Albatrosses, shearwaters, and several storm-petrels.

We headed toward port to repack and demobilize all our gear and return to our land homes. I considered just how much I love this work and what an honor it is to work with this team of scientists on a project that will lead to better understanding the abundance and distribution of marine wildlife and the physical oceanographic processes that affect them. I appreciate the ocean and her vast mysteries and beguiling beauty. I can’t wait until the next opportunity to go out to sea.

[back to top] [printable page]