We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco just before 11 a.m. on July 3. Anyone without immediate tasks to perform worked on finding their sea legs while we transited to our first location.
For me, this included several hours becoming one with my berth as this was the only place where I didn’t feel as if my stomach was planning on making our cabin’s head a permanent home. The bunks are incredibly comfortable with curtains for privacy and a mattress that envelops – something I genuinely appreciated when the ship really started rolling. We are zigzagging along predetermined paths from east to west, and then west to east. When traveling west, the going can get pretty rough because we’re moving against the swells.
I heard the waves slapping the side of the ship with a ferocity that made the vessel seem much smaller than she is. The seas were actually quite calm, but there were still moments when it felt as if we were perched on a cork, bobbing in a boiling caldron of water.
My queasy, but cozy respite was interrupted by an abandon ship drill before lunch. This required mustering in predetermined locations with our life vests and immersion survival suits. Each of us donned our own unwieldy orange neoprene “Gumby suit,” which is designed to keep the wearer floating and dry in cold water while awaiting rescue. The NOAA officer in charge of my assigned life boat, Lieutenant Jesse Milton, was kind and didn’t laugh at my ineptitude. Nonetheless, after attempting to stand and zip the suit on the back deck of the ship, I suspect I wouldn’t fare too well if anything were to actually go wrong.
The expedition is part of a project, now in its 15th year, to better understand and monitor the marine ecosystems off the coast of Northern and Central California. The Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS) cruises happen three to five times each year.
Each cruise returns to specific locations and travels along what are called transect lines; there are a total of 21 lines in the area being studied, which stretches from Northern to Central California. Jaime Jahncke is the California Current Director for Point Blue Conservation Science, the organization collaborating with NOAA to conduct the ACCESS work. He explains that repeat visits to the same locations help scientists assess change over time, from season to season and year to year.
With the data collected on these cruises, the team is able to compare warm years like 2014-2015 to previous warm periods and see that there were fewer krill, the preferred food source for many of the wildlife feeding here, and more gelatinous zooplankton, which are less nutritious. When appropriate food sources are less abundant, observers see wildlife feeding closer to shore and subsequently, closer to shipping lanes, which increases the chances of ship strikes and entanglement.
We completed our first transect by mid-afternoon. While traveling along these lines, a group of scientists stay on the upper deck of the ship, which is called the flying bridge. Each person has a specific job.
Kirsten Lindquist is the birder on this cruise and the ecosystem monitoring manager for the Greater Farallones Association (GFA). (You can read more about GFA’s efforts to support NOAA and the Sanctuaries here.)
Lindquist says, “Common murre, six, at three-two-zero, flying, zone two, with fish.” Then, Taylor Nairn, the data manager for GFA, logs the observations in a laptop.
Then, the Research Coordinator for Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Chief Scientist for this cruise Jan Roletto calls out mammal sightings, “Blow . . . unknown whale, traveling.” She is working alongside Dru Devlin, a wildlife observer with a long history conducting surveys for ACCESS and GFA’s citizen science program, Beach Watch.
The highlight for me was seeing my first Tufted Puffin, which was beautiful.
Spotted on July 3:
South Polar Skua
California Sea Lions
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about ocean health, technology, and climate change; she is a 2018 lead science communication fellow for the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. Her work can be found in Atlantic Monthly, IEEE Earthzine, and Ensia Magazine.
Pocket Guide to Beach Birds of California by Point Blue Conservation Science
52 Years of Conservation…and Still Counting by Point Blue Conservation Science
Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS) by Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary