The SEAPLEX cruise has reached their destination in the gyre, so now they will be sampling pretty much continuously for the next 4 days. So far, they aren’t having negative impacts from Hurricane Felicia. Let’s hope that the weather holds out so that they can get as many gyre samples as possible.
Hello followers of SEAPLEX, my name is Andrew Titmus and I am a graduate student at Hawaii Pacific University. On this cruise I am serving as the seabird observer, which entails conducting daily surveys for seabirds as we travel out and back from the gyre. Along with seabird observations, I am also observing for visible macro-debris (large pieces of plastic). The main goal of my study here is to examine where different seabird species are located and which species are spatially associated with marine debris. Particularly, I am interested in the tubenose (procellariiform) seabirds, which includes the albatrosses and petrels. These birds are amazing because of their ability to navigate over vast distances, traveling thousands of kilometers to find food. They usually breed on remote islands, yet they forage in productive shelf break areas such as off the coast of Alaska or California. Out here in the gyre we have been seeing mainly two seabird species, the black-footed albatross, a huge bird with a wingspan of 7 feet, and the Cook’s petrel, a smaller bird, which is here all the way from its breeding colonies in New Zealand. These truly are fantastic birds!
My larger research interests are in studying plastic ingestion in these tubenose seabirds here in the North Pacific, and in particular, the patterns in the amounts and types of ingested plastic in two species of albatross which breed in Hawaii. This cruise is an important component of my work because it highlights the overlap between tubenose seabirds and the plastic debris that they are ingesting at sea.
Here on the ship, my day lasts from just after sunrise to just before sunset, where I spend the day up on the observation deck watching the ocean and recording all the seabird species and marine debris fragments that I see. As we moved further from land, the number of seabird sightings dropped off significantly. I might have to observe for hours just to get a single sighting, and then it is only a fleeting glimpse as the bird soars by purposefully on its way to somewhere with the promise of food. The thing that makes observing for these types of birds hard is that they travel by soaring close to the water, using the air moving off of the waves which means that they are easy to lose sight of, not to mention that sometimes they seem to appear out of nowhere.
The albatrosses and petrels with their long wings are particularly suited to soaring and being able to fly long distances with little energy expenditure. The one thing that they require for their long haul flights is wind. These birds are master aviators and masters of the wind. They seem to be able to use every available bit of it to power them across the ocean. What this means for use observers when we go looking for them is that we will find them where the wind is. For the last three days we have been traveling through an amazing patch of ocean, the weather has been sunny and warm and the ocean a stunning blue. However the wind has been non existent. Great weather for enjoying a day on the ocean. Not so great if you are looking for seabirds. After suffering through only the occasional glimpse of an albatross on the horizon I woke up today to the roll of a decent swell and a stiff breeze. Whitecaps were back on the ocean surface and I knew it was going to be a good day. Sure enough, the albatross were back, and this time not having to flap and struggle to pull their large bodies along.
Today they were in their element, soaring from side to side and following the ship. We got our first good look at a black-footed albatross up close. As we slowed to tow the manta net, one of the ship-following birds alighted on the water close to the stern of the boat. After moving slowly away the albatross unfolded its long wings and started running along the surface of the water to get airborne, just like a jet plane roaring down the runway. Once in the air an aerobatics display showed us every graceful trick this bird had to offer. And then as soon as it had started, the display finished and the albatross turned north, soaring away into the distance, once again on its long quest for food. I look forward to seeing many more albatross in the coming days.
Andrew Titmus a graduate student researcher from Hawaii Pacific University is documenting plastic observed in the ocean using the same techniques he uses when spotting birds while on the SEAPLEX voyage.