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The Right Kind of Lessons

View slideshow Teacher at Sea Angela Greene on the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, with a right whale splashing in the distance. 02_tasrightwhale.jpg 03_tasrightwhale.jpg 04_tasrightwhale.jpg

Take a Closer Look: Greene's Blog on Spotting a Whale

May 9, 2013

Wednesday was beautiful. The air was cold, the skies were blue, and the sea was calm. Most importantly:  no fog. Sei whales seemed to be popping up everywhere. Then I saw it. The classic “V” shaped blow, a North Atlantic right whale. Not our first one of the trip, but the first in a few days.

I sighted the blow at about 345° off the bow of the ship, and she was swimming toward us. The frenzy began. Our chief scientist, Allison Henry, grabbed the Canon Digital Camera with the 500 mm fixed zoom lens and began capturing images of the right whale. Remarkably, she could (unofficially) identify the whale through the lens of the camera. It was a female named Columbine. She was not alone. Columbine had a calf with her!

The calf swam very close to its mother and seemed to be rolling over on its back, flapping its flippers in the air. The whales don’t seem to be bothered by our large ship being near them.

The small boats were not launched in pursuit of Columbine for two reasons. Allison knew that both animals had already been biopsy sampled, so no need to repeat that process. Also, it is not wise to tag and follow a whale that is raising a calf.

Allison contributes photos collected in the field to The North Atlantic Right Whale Catalogue that is maintained by the New England Aquarium. The aquarium maintains a searchable public database of right whale photos, sightings, and body descriptions. There is also a quick whale identification activity to practice photo identification of right whales.

I was dazzled by the flips and turns of Columbine’s calf. Giving a whale an official name is a complicated process that is the responsibility of The New England Aquarium and The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. However, I would like to unofficially name this baby “Arrow”.

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, take a look at NOAA’s research on one of the nation’s most critically endangered marine species: the North Atlantic right whale. This past May, Teacher at Sea Angela Greene joined NOAA scientists on the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter for the North Atlantic right whale survey. Greene tells
us more about what she learned and what she’s sharing with her students at Tecumseh Middle School in New Carlisle, 

Why is it important to study right whales?
While aboard the Gordon Gunter, I learned the current population estimate for the species was 400 individuals. Monitoring large mammal populations in our world’s oceans gives scientists an indication of how human activities affect our global ecosystem.

What did you learn about how whale research at sea?
I was surprised to learn that whale research at sea relies heavily on cues provided by whales and by the ocean. It requires patience and long hours of ocean watching. Although whales are large mammals, the sea is much larger, and the words “needle in a haystack” comes to mind. Scientists use “Big Eyes”—extremely large binoculars—to scan the surface of the ocean looking for cues such as splashes, blows, and fluke prints. 

Scientists input raw data into a laptop as it is being collected. The laptop is actually connected to the ship’s Global Positioning System (GPS). Coupling the data reported by the observer using the "Big Eyes" with GPS data provides an exact location and time of a whale sighting. This enables the scientist to record the exact position on the planet where a North Atlantic right whale is located. Other data indicate the whale’s behavior at that location, helping the scientists determine mating territories, feeding grounds, and social locations.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on your cruise?
Definitely seasickness. I wasn’t the only one aboard the Gordon Gunter that was sick. My crew was from the Gulf of Mexico, and our trip was their first time on the Northern Atlantic as well. Seasickness set our work back by about a day and a half.

How have you integrated what you learned into your class lessons?
“Hands on” whale work is obviously not an option for a land-locked group of eighth graders, so I created our first biannual “Pond Day” at Tecumseh Middle School. My inspiration for this event came from the concept I learned during my time at sea using “cues” to collect wildlife data. I think the use of cues is an important concept to help young scientists develop an acute sense of observation.

One of the most valuable concepts I took away from my experience was seeing the relentless drive of a scientist collecting field data. When I sense passion and rugged determination in my studentsas they collect field data, or even as they finish a simple lab, then I know I have successfully integrated what I learned as a result of being a NOAA Teacher at Sea.