Wednesday, 29 February 2012

COTF3 Day 5 & 6: Beaked Whales and Black-browed Albatross

Cetaceans were thin on the ground for most of today and yesterday, however those few sightings that we did have were quite exciting. Towards yesterday evening, we encountered yet another group of Bottlenose Dolphins, about 30 strong with plenty of juveniles. We broke track to attempt some photo IDs from the ship as it was too choppy to safely launch the RIB. These dolphins were associating with 17 Pilot Whales. Unfortunately, they were not very approachable - a recurring theme with bottlenose dolphins in offshore waters it seems. The day finished off nicely with close views of a large whale, most likely a Fin Whale, traveling steadily southward. The increasing swell and fading light made species ID impossible, but Sperm Whale and Humpback were discounted with confidence.

Today we saw our first probable beaked whale sighting. Conditions were tricky when a large cetacean was seen lob-tailing and breaching amongst some Common Dolphins. The unidentified whale had a creamish-yellow tinge and was far too large to be any of the dolphin species. The sighting was recorded as probable beaked whale. Just 2 hours earlier, the ship broke track to pull alongside a floating whale carcass. On close inspection we were confident that this was a Cuvier's Beaked Whale (and very evidently a male...), sporting fist-sized cluster of stalked barnacles on each tooth. A biopsy dart lashed to a boat hook served as a handy sampling device and a skin sample was taken for genetics. 

Dead Cuvier's beaked whale, c150nm southwest of Ireland (c) Randal Counihan

Careful maneuvering of the ship allowed to take a skin sample for genetic analysis (c) Randal Counihan

Bird activity slowed right down today for the most part with very few Gannets & just a steady trickle of Kittiwakes. Small numbers of Great Skuas were still to be found however & 2 Puffins provided further interest. A group of c.60 Fulmars seen scavenging on the Cuvier's Beaked Whale carcass was the largest single total of that species recorded on the trip to date whilst 4 'Blue' birds were also noted throughout the day.

This increase in Fulmar action might have been the ornithological highlight of the day if it wasn't for the sighting of an immature BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS that made a pass in front of the bow of the R.V. Celtic Explorer at 11:40am before tearing off West (our position at the time of sighting was approx. 160 nautical miles SW of Mizen Head, along the northern edge of the Goban Spur).

For those of us that were below deck during the initial sighting, some tantalising views were had as it arced high over the horizon at a distance of over 1km away. Fortunately the bird re-appeared close in (at tremendous speed!) and made another venture right alongside the vessel for all to see at no more than 100m!!! After trailing for a few minutes it departed once again & slinked off into the distance.

Black-browed Albatross is an extremely rare vagrant in the North Atlantic & are normally found cruising around the sub-Antarctic seas. There have only been 14 previous records of this species from Ireland, most of which were seen passing west coast headlands in autumn. Truely a once in a life time experience...unless you're Conor, who has now seen two in this area!

Black-browed Albatross (c) Conor Ryan

Black-browed Albatross (c) Conor Ryan

Black-browed Albatross (c) Conor Ryan

Black-browed Albatross (c) Derek McLoughlin

Black-browed Albatross enthusiasts (c) Joanne O'Brien

Black-browed Albatross enthusiasts (c) Joanne O'Brien

Today's blog contributors: Conor Ryan & Niall Keogh

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

COTF3 Day 5: Basking Sharks on Ireland's Frontier

A basking shark, the second largest shark in the world, was spotted today just 50m off the Celtic Explorer's bow at 11.30 in the morning (approx. 330km SW of Ireland)! This early in the season, a basking shark sighting this far offshore is rather unusual and provides invaluable data on basking shark distribution patterns. From archival tracking studies we know that basking sharks show extensive migrations across the Northeast Atlantic, thereby frequently moving along the Continental shelf edge. However, being a seasonal visitor to coastal waters around the British and Irish coasts (Irish Sea, Clyde Sea, Hebridean Sea, Celtic Sea and the English Channel)  in late spring, surface sightings are usually not reported until the sharks move closer to shore.

Illustration of basking shark dorsal fin tagging and a non-invasive mucus sampling technique: a scourer attached to an extendable pole (c) Emmett Johnson, 2010

Basking sharks are filter feeders and often surface-feed when plankton is brought up to the upper water column, therefore, a basking shark out here is great news and we are now hoping to come across more sharks to deploy number tags to monitor movement, and to collect mucus scrapings for seascape genomics of this highly mobile shark.

Today's blog contributor: Lilian Lieber (Basking Shark PhD student)

COTF3 Day 5: Birds on Ireland's Frontier

We were going to tweet on our progress so far, but after a flying start, things have taken a tern for the worse...

Here's a brief overview of the trip:

Of the seven seabird species recorded, Gannet and Kittiwake have been the most abundant, as expected. The greatest concentrations appear to occur at the top of the shelf edge where upwellings create productive feeding zones. At some of these points we have been lucky enough to observe the birds associating with groups of Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins & Pilot Whales.

An oiled adult Kittiwake (c) Derek McLoughlin

An immature Kittiwake (c) Lilian Lieber

All this activity has not gone unnoticed, with Great Skuas making themselves surprisingly well known. Up to 185 of these pelagic pirates have been ever present & have been noted chasing unsuspecting Kittiwakes. Although this is the first survey in the general area, densities of Great Skuas are a lot higher than expected. Additional survey detections of particular note were a single early-season Manx Shearwater & several young (1st-winter) Gannets, both of which would normally be associated with warmer climes at this time of year.

Great Skua (c) Lilian Lieber

A young (1st winter) Gannet (c) Lilian Lieber

Fulmars have been rather scarce so far but the inclusion of 5 'Blue' birds from populations breeding in northern latitudes have been a welcome sight. Lesser Black-backed Gulls are currently making their way north from wintering grounds in The Mediterranean and a small number of adult birds have been recorded trailing the R.V. Celtic Explorer. Survey conditions have been exceptionally calm for February in the North Atlantic, allowing the perfect opportunity to detect Puffins, of which we have recorded 18 individuals.

'Blue' Fulmar (c) Lilian Lieber

The aim of the seabird element of the Cetaceans of the Frontier III expedition is to characterise seabird populations at the most southern part of Ireland's national territory & contribute towards the Irish national biological database. However, at almost 350km offshore & 3km deep, the call of aSkylark was certainly not expected. Two larks appeared alongside the vessel as well as a singleStarling & 2 Lapwing, all of which looked slightly out of their depth...migration in action!

Lapwing (c) Lilian Lieber

Skylark (c) Lilian Lieber

Today's blog contributors: Niall Keogh, Derek McLoughlin, Jackie Hunt & Eamonn O'Sullivan (Seabird survey team)

COTF3 Night 4: Exploring The Deep

Monday night 4 sampling stations were covered by the zooplankton team. The maximum depth that was reached was 2,916m. Similar species to the previous nights were found again including barrel salps (jellies), polychaetes (worms), isopods, amphipods, euphasiids (krill) and chaetognaths (arrow worms).

The only surface animals spotted on Monday night were two garfish.

Zooplankton sample (c) Lilian Lieber

An interesting CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth, oxygen and fluorescence sensor) profile was generated on Monday night on the final station which covered a depth of 2,916m. The profile showed the differences in surface waters and those at depth. These readings can be used to determine the origin of water masses. A low oxygen signal at 800-1000m corresponded to a peak in salinity values at the same depth. This is most likely the Mediterranean water signal, a water mass which originates in the Mediterranean and exits through the Straits of Gibraltar. 

CTD read out at 2,196m

Today's blog contributors: John Power, Catherine O'Sullivan and Fergal Glynn (zooplankton team)

Monday, 27 February 2012

COTF3 Day 4: Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin excitement!

Our current position is 158 nautical miles off Ireland, 196 nautical miles off Land's End, England and 240 nautical miles off France. A distance of 100 nautical miles was covered by the hydrophone today and it is this same trackline where the CTDs and plankton hauls will be launched tonight.

The weather conditions started off as overcast but later the sun came out to shine with a sea state of 4 and swell height of 2m+. The seabird team had quite a successful day with over 600 individual sightings recorded. These included 2 blue fulmars, approximately 87 great skuas, numerous gannets (including first winter birds, unusually far north for the time of year), kittiwakes, fulmars and lesser black-headed gulls. Last night the zooplankton team covered 5 stations with the deepest CTD launched to 2,187m. They reported a spectacular light show from a sample of deep-sea zooplankton biomluminescing in a dark room in the wetlab. They also saw 50+ garfish and a very large (as opposed to Giant) squid, estimated at 1 metre at the surface while hauling their nets - attracted by the ship's flood lights. The mauve stinger (Pelagia notciluca) remains elusive. Tonight the team hopes to conduct 4 more stations and reach the depth of 3,000m.

It was a relatively quiet morning for the cetacean team with only a few sightings of common dolphins, although one of these was of 60 individuals. These sightings were also acoustically detected by the PAM (passive acoustic monitioring) team. 

Excitement picked up big time later in the afternoon when Randal and Roisin spotted a large group of bottlenose dolphins at the shelf break.

Suveyors tracking bottlenose dolphins from the crow's nest

A quick decision was made to launch the RIB to attempt to obtain biopsy samples, one of the primary aims of the cruise.  Despite the swell, sharp eyes and clear direction from the mother-ship successfully led the RIB to the dolphins and the team managed to take the first ever bottlenose dolphin biopsy samples in Irish offshore waters (indeed to our knowledge, of any species). 

R.V. Celtic Explorer near the King Arthur Canyon (c) Joanne O'Brien

Additionally, 10 new individuals were added to the Irish bottlenose dolphin catalogue. This is a great accomplishment and shows that biopsy and photo-id using a rib launched from a research vessel in offshore waters is feasible in Ireland, even in February! The Marine Institute annual shiptime fund enables us to continue this research which helps Ireland to meet requirments under the EU Habitats Directive.  

Bottlenose dolphins surfacing at speed (c) Joanne O'Brien

R.V. Celtic Explorer as seen from the IWDG RIB Muc Mhara (c) Joanne O'Brien

Sunday, 26 February 2012

COTF3 Day 3: Canyoning...

The seabird team had the most sightings today including 2 skylarks, 2 lapwings, a Manx shearwater, 32 great skuas, numerous gannets, kittiwakes and some fulmars. The cetacean team had 20 sightings of common dolphins as well as 2 minke whales.
The zooplankton team was quite busy during the night hours launching CTDs to depths of 2,176m. An ostracod was found at 1,200m and there were 6 stations covered from 8pm-7am. The main findings included euphausiids, some copepods, planktonic polychaetes and a single starfish larva. The average rate of the CTDs launched were that of 40m/minute.
Today we traveled down the Whittard Canyon and then up King Arthur Canyon and our current position is approximately 160 nautical miles off Fastnet, Ireland and 210 nautical miles off Land's End, England. The zooplankton team plan to have 5 stations tonight over the same track line which was covered earlier by the cetacean and seabird Teams. 

Check back tomorrow for an overview on each of the teams and why their research is important for sustaining Ireland's oceans.

Today's blog contributor: Teresa Martin (Marine Mammal Observer)

Saturday, 25 February 2012

COTF3 Day 2: "Sighting!..."

The cetacean and seaird teams had one busy and successful day all round. The seabird team ended up with a species list containing gannets, kittiwakes, fulmar (including 2 'blue' fulmars), lesser black-backed gulls, 27 great skuas, 16 puffins and a rather unexpected starling that was heading West! The cetacean team had sightings of 2 minke whales, 1 fin whale, numerous common dolphins, 2 groups of bottlenose dolphins with one group associating with common dolphins and ended the day with 30 long-finned pilot whales.

We are currently 171 nautical miles off the Irish coast, 175 nautical miles off the English coast and 200+ nautical miles of the French coastline. The phytoplankton and jellyfish team are in full swing for the evening running CTDs off the same track line the cetacean and seabird teams covered earlier.

Here are some photo highlights from today and check back tomorrow for more updates.

Breaching common dolphin (c) Joanne O'Brien

Long-finned pilot whales investigating the R.V. Celtic Explorer (c) Joanne O'Brien

Today's blog contributor: Teresa Martin (Marine Mammal Observer)

Friday, 24 February 2012

COTF3 Day 1: Departure from Cork City to Labadie Bank

We are well underway now :) 

The R.V. Celtic Explorer disembarked from Horgan's Quay at 16:00 hours and made the trip down to Cork Harbour. Once in Cobh the crew launched the IWDG rib for a test run. We are now steaming SW to Labadie Bank where we will be deploying 2 C-Pods for acoustic detections of bottlenose dolphins

The first mammal sighting of the day was of a few curious grey seals just coming into Cork Harbour. The journey to Cobh kept the bird team quite occupied with sightings of kestrels, black guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, 2 Mediterranean gulls, 27 great crested grebes, black and bar tailed godwits. There was even a unusual sighting of a first winter ringed-billed gull spotted passing close by the bow of the ship near Cobh. These birds breed in North America and are a scarce but regular visitor to Irish shores. 

We have also had a couple cetacean sightings with the first being 5 bottlenose dolphins - one of which was a juvenile, who came and enjoyed a brief bow ride just before dinner. These dolphins are most likely part of the resident pod here in Cork. A single common dolphin was spotted just after sunset and enjoyed some quality time with the wake being created by the stern propellers a few kilometers off the coast. 

The last cetacean sightings tonight were 3 common dolphins chasing the aft light of the ship surfing the waves on a clear starry night. Our location at 22:30 hours is + 20 nautical miles offshore. 

Here are some of today's pics:

The IWDG RIB being loaded onto the R.V. Celtic Explorer Thursday evening (c) Conor Ryan

Students, scientists and crew undertaking a safety drill (c) Conor Ryan

R.V. Celtic Explorer as seen from the IWDG RIB during it's test run in Cork Harbour (c) Conor Ryan

R.V. Celtic Voyager on it's journey into Cork Harbour for another expedition starting tomorrow (c) Conor Ryan

R.V. Celtic Explorer in dock at Cork Harbour pre-departure (c) Teresa Martin

Passing by Cobh on our way out to the Atlantic Ocean (c) Teresa Martin

** Check back tomorrow for position updates and expedition highlights. **

Today's blog contributor: Teresa Martin (Marine Mammal Observer)

Thursday, 23 February 2012

COTF3: Preparations

Well tomorrow is the big day! 

Students and scientists are packed and more importantly the vans are loaded. Destination is Cork Harbour for a 10am meet and greet followed by moving into the R.V. Celtic Explorer

Once on board the research crew will go over final protocols, conduct safety tours, go through the emergency procedures, create a timetable for data collection and settle into our home away from homes. For now it is one more sleep in a stationary bed and praying for decent enough weather for the days to come.

~ Check back tomorrow for more updates and photos as we make our way out into the vast Atlantic Ocean :)

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Cetaceans on the Frontier 3: Introduction

The Cetaceans on the Frontier III survey team will depart Cork on Friday afternoon. The team consists of scientists and students from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, BirdWatch Ireland, University College Cork, Queens University Belfast, University of Aberdeen and MEER. The team aims to carry out a variety of scientific investigations over an 11 day period, including:

1.  Double platform cetacean visual surveys and simultaneous acoustic surveys on the slopes and canyon systems of the Goban Spur and Porcupine Seabight.

2.  To conduct a visual survey of marine megafauna including sharks, turtles, tuna and sunfish.

3. To deploy static acoustic monitoring devices (C-PODs) on acoustic release systems on Labadie Bank to investigate offshore dolphin activity.

4. To conduct a survey of seabird species and abundance according to ESAS methods in offshore waters.

5. To sample Mauve Stinger jellyfish Pelagia noctiluca to investigate the prevalence of the bacterium Tenacibaculum maritimum which has serious economic implications for fin-fish aquaculture, while providing further insight into biological factors influencing ecosystem functioning.

6. To sample the for phytoplankton, zooplankton and krill which form the basis of the food chain which supports cetaceans, seabirds and other marine megafauna in these habitats.

7. To carry out systematic CTD sampling stations in order to explore relationships between temperature,primary productivity and presence of marine mammals.

   This survey will be conducted on board the R.V. Celtic Explorer. For more information on the Explorer please view the following: