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Dispatches from the field

Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM)


Fin whales feeding in the southeastern Chukchi
Fin whales feeding in the southeastern Chukchi. 
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

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Some Days are Diamonds, Some Days are Stone

Welcome back to our update on the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM). Luckily, after a few days of stone and a few days of cubic zirconia, we had a couple diamond days.

A Day of Stone

When we are in the field trying to fly aerial surveys in the Arctic those are the days we sit around monitoring the fickle weather patterns, hoping for an opening in our vast survey area with cloud ceilings of 1100 feet (our minimum requirement) and decent sea states (less than a Beaufort 5 please - that means not too many white caps!).

In the Arctic, weather isn’t predictable and often doesn’t follow the forecast. So, a “Day of Stone” can mean we start our day off with an optimistic outlook for a survey. The forecast tells us that the ceilings at our home base (Utqiagvik and Deadhorse for us) will lift and stabilize enough for safe launching and return of the survey airplane. Often times, we sit here waiting and watching as the fog rolls in and out of town, effectively grounding us for the day. This has been happening more than we would like.

A Day of Cubic Zirconia

We also have days when we launch a survey and are able to cover our entire survey area, but just have very few whale sightings. This August this happened quite a bit. Even though we get a big “COMPLETE” mark for covering those survey transect lines, the sightings of animals were few and far between at times. That is what I call a ‘cubic zirconia’, a very nice solid survey day that just lacks sparkle. A zirconia day that covered lots of transect miles over the course of 2 flights without even one sighting of a cetacean! These surveys are hard work, without much excitement, and too many of these types of survey days back to back are a bit hard on team morale.

ASAMM Chukchi Sea study graph

A “Day of Diamonds” is a combination of fully completed transect lines with the extra sparkle of interesting sightings!! See the difference in sighting markers in the map below compared to the zirconia flight map above. Those little red stars mark cetacean sightings - now that has sparkle!

On the 27th of August, we had a chance to survey the area immediately east of Utqiagvik and found 56 bowhead whales, most of whom were feeding at the surface. That was definitely a diamond of a day!

ASAMM Chukchi Sea study graph

Bowhead whale playing with a log!
Bowhead whale playing with a log! 
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Bowhead whales feeding at the surface.
Bowhead whales feeding at the surface. The whales are on their sides with their mouths open. 
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

On the 28th of August, we had another “Day of Diamonds” with two flights in the southwestern portion of our survey area. Look at all of those red stars clustered together!

So, as we wrap up August on the North Slope of Alaska, we head into the last half of surveys for ASAMM. I’ll be humming a little John Denver in the back of my mind as we sit watching the weather on those “Days of Stone,” knowing that just around the corner will likely be some “Days of Diamonds.”

ASAMM Chukchi Sea study graph
This diamond day included 131 gray whales, 6 humpback whales, and 11 fin whales.

Gray whale streaming mud from feeding in southwestern Chukchi.
Gray whale streaming mud from feeding in southwestern Chukchi. 
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Humpback whale in southeastern Chukchi Sea.
Humpback whale in southeastern Chukchi Sea. 
Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Post by: Christy Sims

Meet the Bloggers

Ameilia Brower
Ameilia Brower

Amelia Brower is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate with the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW).

Amelia began working with marine mammals in 2006. She has participated in marine mammal necropsies, seal, sea lion, and fur sea lion rehabilitation and diet and life history studies, bone preservation, monitoring for manatees and other marine life from dredges, oceanographic sampling, small boat surveys for toothed whales off Hawaii, and seal, sea lion, and North Atlantic right whale aerial surveys.

Amelia Brower joined the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project in 2009 as a seasonal observer and as a year-round core team member in 2010. Amelia is a team leader during the field season and spends the rest of the year error-checking and analyzing data and photos and assisting with and producing reports, presentations, and scientific publications. Amelia’s work within the ASAMM data has focused on gray whale feeding in the northeastern Chukchi Sea and humpback, fin, and minke whale distribution in the Chukchi Sea. She also serves as the ASAMM polar bear data liaison.

Christy Sims
Christy Sims

Christy Sims is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW).

Christy started as a photo-identification volunteer at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in 1998, and has been working with the Cook Inlet beluga whale project since completing her Masters of Marine Affairs at the UW in 2001.

Christy has worked as observer and videographer on the Cook Inlet beluga aerial surveys since 2003 as well as working on photo-id projects on humpback and bowhead whales. She has also participated in Aerial Survey of Alaska Marine Mammals (ASAMM) as a team leader since 2012.

When she isn't flying around in Alaska in a small plane, Christy is in Seattle analyzing data or designing and managing databases.

Amy Willoughby
Amy Willoughby

Amy Willoughby is a marine mammal biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Amy began her career on the sandy beaches of Florida’s Atlantic coast where she conducted sea turtle nesting surveys. She took to the skies in 2009 as an aerial survey observer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s North Atlantic right whale Early Warning System project.

Since then she has logged hundreds of flight hours searching for protected marine species in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters from New Jersey to South Carolina.

Amy has been involved in numerous field projects, conducting research on a range of species including salmon, marbled murrelets, bottlenose dolphins, ice-associated seals, and polar bears.

In 2014, Amy headed to the Alaskan Arctic for a seasonal position with the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project as a marine mammal observer and was fortunate to have the project invite her on as a full-time employee. Since then, she has worked for ASAMM year-round on fieldwork logistics, data management and analysis, and reports, and she serves as team leader and walrus data liaison during field operations.

Janet Clarke
Janet Clarke

Janet Clarke is a contractor with Leidos who supports the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project through a contract with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Janet began studying Arctic marine mammals in 1982, and her first project as a young naïve college graduate was as a biologist on these same aerial surveys. She logged about 1,500 aerial survey hours from 1982-1991, most of which were flown in Grumman Goose aircraft and often over large expanses of sea ice. From 1991-2007, Janet supported several Navy exercises as a marine mammal (and occasionally sea turtle) Subject Matter Expert, both in the field and as a co-preparer of environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. The Arctic remained her geographic area of interest, however, and she was delighted to return to the area in 2007 as the Project Lead for ASAMM.

As Project Lead, Janet’s responsibilities extend to field project management, data analyses, report and manuscript writing, formal and information presentations, producing garishly colored maps, being the keeper of ASAMM “corporate” knowledge, and (best of all) occasionally being a team leader on ASAMM surveys.

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