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Dispatches from the field

Cook Inlet beluga whale acoustic monitoring


 

Cook Inlet Chart and the final locations of the 11 moorings
Cook Inlet Chart and the final locations of the 11 moorings (red dots) deployed this field trip to monitor beluga and any other vocalizing marine mammals, as well as human generated noise, over the 2017-2018 winter period in Cook Inlet. 

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Cook Inlet beluga whale acoustic monitoring
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The Formula for a Successful Field Project

Manolo Castellote makes sure his o-rings are clean and free of debris.
Manolo Castellote makes sure his o-rings are clean and free of debris. Photo by Justin Jenniges, ADF&G

Following four glorious days spent camping and working on the mud flats among the black bears of Chickaloon Bay, we turned our attention to the “beluga real world”- the marine environment. After many sleepless days and nights spent building, obsessing over, modifying, and testing 8 acoustic moorings, we were finally ready to send them out into the underwater world. They would be scattered throughout Cook Inlet from Goose Bay 10 miles north of Anchorage, all the way down to Chinitna Bay 60 miles west of Homer. Chinitna Bay is thought to be the southern extent of the Cook Inlet beluga range and is over 150 miles from Goose Bay as the crow flies, which is closer to 200 miles as the beluga whale swims!

In a fit of delusional optimism during the planning stages, some of us thought that we might be able to deploy these moorings over the course of 4 days using 2 different vessels and 3 boat launches. However, prior experiences working in Cook Inlet had shown us the myriad means of failure that can alter our well laid plans at a moment’s notice. The thing is, when you're planning your field season you want to be certain that you don't underestimate the amount of time you will need to get all your work done or you’ll find your personal and professional lives to be over booked and your study underfunded. So, we’ve come up with a pretty sound methodology for estimating how much time we’ll need. And of course being scientists and all, we’ve written it as a mathematical equation:

Days allocated = 1.5 (2n + 2)

Translated, this formula basically says take how long you think you need (4 days), double it because you're being ridiculously overoptimistic (4 days, really?), add a couple days for travel to/from the field sites, then add another 50% to account for Mother Nature and Murphy’s Law. In our case, this works out to 15 days in which we hope to get 4 good chunks of weather that allow us to get out, drop our gear, and get back safely. Seems doable.

ADF&G vessel “Diversity”, can best be described as our Super Duty pickup of the sea. At 28’ in length, she dwarfs the Ford 1-ton used to haul her.
ADF&G vessel “Diversity”, can best be described as our Super Duty pickup of the sea. At 28’ in length, she dwarfs the Ford 1-ton used to haul her. Photo by Manolo Castellote

We used the Alaska Department of Fish and Game vessel “JR”, a 21’ SAFEboat with a proven track record of being a good research platform throughout Alaska, which was operated by Tom Gage and Greg Snedgen (both from ADF&G). Upper Inlet sites were accessed from the small boat launch at Ship Creek in Anchorage. Two moorings went to Knik Arm and two more went to the Susitna Delta. These locations and the skiff may seem familiar to folks following our blogs because they were featured prominently in the hexacopter photogrammetry blog posts back in August. Scientists have always known that these areas are heavily used by belugas targeting eulachon and salmon in ice free spring/summer/fall, but only recently discovered that they can sometimes be found when these area are entirely covered in pack ice. Our acoustic moorings should help us better understand what the whales are doing when they are here in winter.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game vessel “JR”, a 21’ SAFEboat used to deploy 4 moorings near Anchorage.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game vessel “JR”, a 21’ SAFEboat used to deploy 4 moorings near Anchorage. You can see 3 of our mooring packages happily sitting on deck, and our invincible crew Tom Gage (left) and Greg Snedgen (right) aft of the console. Photo by Manolo Castellote

The study sites in the lower inlet were 60 miles or more from the safety of civilization and conditions there can be unexpectedly treacherous, especially in the fall/winter. Needless to say, 21’ open cockpit “JR” is not the boat for the job. It was imperative to have a larger vessel with an enclosed cabin to protect the crew and provide overnight shelter if necessary. Enter M/V “Diversity,”a 28’ Almar with accommodations for up to 6 passengers, albeit small ones, that gets about 1 mile per gallon with her mighty 200hp outboard motors. “Diversity” is piloted by Mike Harrington (ADF&G) who also prepares all the food and does all the dishes - pretty swanky for us! We filled the pantry with jerky, stocked the mini freezer with store-made lasagnas, and stuffed the mini fridge with soda, meats, and cheeses, then head south from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula. We followed the Seward and then Sterling Highways for 5 hours until we literally couldn’t drive any further because we had reached the end of the road. Homer Alaska. Home to huge halibut, a world famous singer, reality television stars, and the Salty Dawg Saloon.

Knowing the distances involved and that our heavy vessel was a thirsty girl, we loaded a couple drums of extra fuel onto the aft deck. It’s far better to have copious amounts of fuel than to have to propel the boat by paddle - I’ve always said that (note from Manolo: Justin typing here). We balanced all that extra weight with the anchors for the moorings we would be deploying, and then splashed the “Diversity” at the end of the Homer Spit. We tied her off in transient parking and headed back to our hotel room to rest up for a planned departure at first light. And by rest up, I mean “obsess over gear, weather, tides, and ocean conditions all night until the hotel’s free breakfast is mercifully ready.” Justin’s had some rough crossings to the far side of the inlet during the first beluga acoustics project in 2008-13 and it seems his deep respect for the power of Cook Inlet have rubbed off on the entire sleepless crew.


Justin and Manolo finish assembling one of our mooring packages just before deploying it within sight of the oil platforms north of the Cook Inlet forelands.
 
Justin and Manolo finish assembling one of our mooring packages just before deploying it within sight of the oil platforms north of the Cook Inlet forelands. Photo by: Tom Gage, ADF&G

As the saying goes, “even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut…” The nut in our case came in the form of light winds, flat seas, and a small by Cook Inlet standards 20’ tidal exchange. We were able to make the crossings at >25 knots which is close to 30mph. Before we knew it, Mike was asking where he should be dropping anchor so we could get our mooring in the water. Manolo offered something super specific and helpful like “over there somewhere I guess” and suddenly we’re there already. After dropping anchor, we spent some time deploying a new sonar unit that allowed us to get a 3D perspective of the local bathymetry. Manolo looked it over and quickly gave his official approval for the site so then we disassembled the sonar and moved on to the mooring.

We did the final mooring assembly and 50-point safety inspection, then started running lines and readying for deployment. This was the first deployment in the lower inlet for most of the group and it had been 4 years since the last deployment for Justin, so we were cautious and deliberate in our methodology. Nobody wants the first thing to end in tragedy, after all.


Tom Gage installs a multibeam transducer so that Manolo Castellote can visualize the seafloor to decide where to deploy his acoustic mooring.
 
Tom Gage installs a multibeam transducer so that Manolo Castellote can visualize the seafloor to decide where to deploy his acoustic mooring. Photo by: Justin Jenniges and Mike Harrington, ADF&G

We tied off a short line to the boat, ran the free end through the anchor, wrapped it around a cleat, and held onto it. Another much longer line was passed through the top of the acoustic mooring, tied off to the boat, and then the other end was looped around the aft cleat. We carefully slid the 150# anchor out the side door so it was held vertically against the boat, placed the foam sandwich containing the acoustic instruments into the water, then lowered the anchor until it was suspended taut under the floats. We then lowered the whole package using the long line. Once it was safely on the bottom we checked the orientation of the acoustic release, recorded pertinent info on our data sheets, and marked our location on the GPS before untying the long line from the boat and retrieving it. Easy peasy.

We pulled anchor and tucked into Chinitna Bay for a victory sandwich and soda while taking in the stunning Alaskan scenery. Our cheap cameras and cell phones failed to capture the bright fall colors adequately. The relief of a successful first deployment meant that the run back to Homer was a sleepy blur. Back in the harbor, we pulled the boat, secured our load, and planned our next move. We had a short weather window approaching that would let us get our remaining 3 moorings out, but we’d have to be completely ready and already in Kenai for it to happen. Tom, Mike, and the boat headed north in search of lodging while Justin and Manolo did a side trip in Homer. The local college had asked us if we had time to stop by to talk to their marine biology class about the work we’re doing in the inlet. We brought one of our moorings into the classroom for the students to look at while Manolo spoke without interruption for nearly an hour, seemingly without taking a breath. We left the now sleepy college students and headed north, arriving at the hotel just as it was getting dark.


M/V Diversity at the boat launch in Kenai.  Note the acoustic moorings and extra drums of fuel secured on the aft deck.
 
M/V Diversity at the boat launch in Kenai. Note the acoustic moorings and extra drums of fuel secured on the aft deck. Photo by: Justin Jenniges, ADF&G

The next day was spent doing more of… you guessed it- obsessing over the moorings, weather, tides, etc. We visited the Kenai boat launch to familiarize ourselves with what we had in store and were surprised to find a handful of belugas feeding in the area. A number of harbor seals were also chasing the same coho salmon and we saw several successful feeding events. As far as boating goes, we needed a fair amount of water to make the launch useable for our massive boat and trailer, lest we risk getting stuck in mud and muck, so that meant we wouldn’t need to be on the water until mid-day tides brought enough water. A late departure, unfortunately, means an overnight on the boat, so we prepared ourselves for that scenario. We also spent some time exploring further up the Kenai Peninsula looking for vantage points that showed us what the current conditions were like on the inlet, on the off chance we could sneak out and deploy one of our moorings. They were terrible. All we could do now was go back to the hotel and obsess over the moorings, weather, tides, etc…

Many oil and gas production platforms are found in Cook Inlet.
Many oil and gas production platforms are found in Cook Inlet. Photo by Justin Jenniges, ADF&G

The next morning we launched the Diversity in perfect conditions. Sunny, flat calm, and not another boater anywhere. Crossing the Kenai River bar was uneventful, as was the several miles of slow motoring while we laid down a track line in the shallows to the west. This being the first run, it was important to know where we would have sufficient water so we could travel on step when we returned. Crossing northwest to Trading Bay could best be described as smooth sailing. This was the first time for Tom, Mike, and Manolo to see the oil production platforms up close so they were duly impressed by their immensity. We dropped anchor at our selected deployment site, fiddled with the sonar, then moved on to the mooring prep and deployment. Soon it was safely on the bottom, coordinates and metadata recorded, and all lines retrieved. After a round of high fives, it was time to head to the next site. Except that our anchor was so firmly set we couldn’t get loose. With the acoustic mooring somewhere below us, we’re limited in how we can retrieve our boat anchor lest we accidentally entangle it. We figured it out, retrieved our anchor, and headed down to Kalgin Island.

While underway, the conversation shifted to what we could do to try and speed up the deployment process. Deploying without anchoring would offer significant time savings, as would having the moorings already assembled when we arrived on site. If things went off without any hitches, we might be able to get back inside the river during daylight. Maybe, dare we say it, we could even pull the boat before the tide left us stranded? Justin had deployed moorings in the lower inlet while drifting so we knew it could be done. We just needed to be extra vigilant that we were following all our safety procedures so that everything would go as planned without any side trips to the emergency room.

We soon found ourselves over our target area in Redoubt Bay. No time to spare so the sonar would have to wait for another time. We were practically (but not really) sliding all the gear over the railing before the boat came to a stop. We were so in the zone, we barely spoke as we worked. Everything went textbook perfect. And they did at the final site near Kalgin Island too. Oh man, things just got real- we might just make it back in time!


Manolo regales the next generation of marine biologists with beluga acoustics stories accompanied by photos and props.
 
Manolo regales the next generation of marine biologists with beluga acoustics stories accompanied by photos and props. Photos by: Justin Jenniges, ADF&G

Off we went, rounding the invisible shoals hiding north of Kalgin, across the tide rips starting to set up mid inlet, back to the safety of the Kenai River. The excitement of “we did it!” was quickly dashed when we saw another skiff tied off on the only useable portion of the boat launch, the very side we needed to use in order to get Diversity out of the water, threatening to keep us in the river for another entire tide cycle. But we were not going to be denied. Mike nosed to the dock then Justin jumped off and literally RAN up the launch to get the truck. The tide was falling extremely fast but there was still a chance. Justin raced back to the launch and backed the trailer into the water at the middle of the launch, leaving the dockside launch open for the other boater who was still trying to figure out what was going on. The trailer barely submerged before Tom already had Diversity onboard while Mike worked the winch and safety chain. All the parts and pieces came together seamlessly, like a well-oiled machine, and we were rumbling up the launch as the muddy lower reaches of the launch were just being exposed. We really did it, and with almost an entire week to spare!!

We left Anchorage for home the following day and winter quickly closed the inlet after our departure. All that’s left now is to wait. Wait out the fall storms. Wait out the winter pack ice. Wait until the migrating birds return in spring. Wait until the increasing daylight melts all the snow that gets dumped on the boat launch during winter. After 7 or 8 months of waiting, we’ll head back out again to retrieve our moorings and see what they can tell us about where the whales go and what they do during the long dark winter months. We can’t wait!


This collage depicts the steps for deployment perfection.  Photos by Mike Harrington, ADF&G.
 
This collage depicts the steps for deployment perfection. Photos by Mike Harrington, ADF&G.



Meet the Bloggers

Manuel Castellote
Manuel Castellote
Photo courtesy of Lori Quakenbush/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Manuel Castellote, NOAA affiliate, is a bioacoustician at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory. Manuel joined the Lab’s Cetacean Assessment and Ecology program in 2010 after completing his Ph.D. in Spain, where he studied the effects of shipping and seismic survey noise on fin whale singing behavior.












Mandy Keogh
Mandy Keogh

Mandy Keogh earned her Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2011 following which she was a research Scientist at Mystic Aquarium and conducted research on belugas maintained at the aquarium as well as with the Bristol Bay beluga population. Mandy returned to Alaska as a Wildlife Physiologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Marine Mammal Program in 2015. Mandy's current research focuses on Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, and Cook Inlet belugas.









Justin Jenniges
Justin Jenniges

Justin Jenniges is a Fish & Wildlife Technician with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.  He has been assisting Scientists from a variety of Federal, State, and Non-governmental organizations with west coast marine mammal research since 2002.  His interests include eating bacon, watching television, and coloring books.












This project is part of two 3-year projects being conducted with annual funding by the NOAA Endangered Species Act Section 6 Program. Georgia Aquarium and John G. Shedd Aquarium have provided matching financial support and will develop education programs based on both projects. Department of Fish and Game marine mammal scientists will lead the research in collaboration with Alaska Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal Laboratory, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Washington, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, and the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project (at LGL Alaska Research Associates, Inc). Samples and data were also provided by the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

 


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