Marine Mammal Observer responsibilities

Patti Haase, Bridget Watts, and Julia O’Hern

“Shut down, shut down, shut down!” is the most important call
we make over the radio to the lab. When animals like the New
Zealand fur seal pop up off the side of the ship, our job is
to visually monitor and implement mitigation procedures to
minimize the possible effects on marine mammals and protected
species. The scientists in the lab reply “We are shut down,”
and we enter the time and animal sighting information in our
database.

The three of us (Patti, Bridget, and Julia, aka PB&J) maintain
a visual watch around the ship for any marine mammals or
protected species that come within 400 to 600 meters of the
seismic source. This “buffer zone” varies with water depth due
to the characteristics of sound propagation. If a fur seal,
whale, or group of dolphins is about to approach within 100 meters
of the seismic gear (into the “exclusion zone”), we make the
shut-down call. We are required to do this work by the National
Marine Fisheries Service, which is in charge of implementing the
provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. We are
a US ship funded by the National Science Foundation and are
therefore bound by that law even though we are working offshore
of New Zealand.

We use 7 x 50 binoculars and 25 x 150 fixed-mount binoculars
(“Big Eyes”) to continually scan around the ship. So far on this
cruise we’ve seen an impressive number of New Zealand fur seals,
several pods of pilot whales, several distant baleen whales, and
a brief look at a beaked whale, also too wily to identify (they
are known to avoid ships and are notoriously difficult to
identify at sea). Interestingly, the pilot whales were in the
northern study area while almost all of the fur seals have been
seen in the southern study area. We also got a notable look at a
pod of killer whales, although they too remained at a good
distance from our ship.

When the science team is using the heat probe (the seismic
source and the heat probe aren’t deployed together), we are
also watching for marine mammals. We collect these data to
compare sighting rates between seismic and non-seismic operations,
although our sample sizes are likely too small to make statistical
conclusions about the comparison. It also keeps us busy, and in
the fresh air, which we like!

Bridget-NZFurSeal

New Zealand Fur Seal (photo by Bridget Watts)

Bridget-pilot whales

Pilot whales (photo by Bridget Watts)

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