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Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program

National Marine Mammal Lab Participates in 10 Years of NOAA Science Camp

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Scientists at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) prepared for the 11th-annual NOAA Science Camp at the NOAA Western Regional Center (WRC), in Seattle, Washington, when middle-school students visit labs all over the WRC campus to learn first-hand how NOAA scientists chart oceans; study oceanography, watersheds, weather, fisheries, and marine mammals; conduct diving operations; restore habitat; and respond to hazardous spills. Campers visiting NMML labs participate in hands-on activities that demonstrate how NMML scientists study the abundance, movements, diet, individual identification, acoustics, and genetics of marine mammals.

As coordinators of NMML’s Science Camp program, we have worked with NMML scientists to develop hands-on activities that illustrate the research methods and techniques they use to study populations of marine mammals. The activities have been revised and updated over the years, based on feedback from campers, Science Camp staff, and the NMML scientists who lead the activities each year. Since the first NOAA Science Camp in 2003, 49 scientists have participated in NMML’s Science Camp sessions—some for one year and some for many years—and in the process have had the opportunity to share their enthusiasm and research experiences with many future scientists.

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Jim Thomason explains how scientists identify bones in seal scat to determine what the seals ate.  

A Junior Leadership Program for high-school students was added to NOAA Science Camp in 2011 to offer high-school students hands-on experience in leadership and communication skills and give them the opportunity to learn more about NOAA careers by interacting with NOAA scientists and working with them to teach marine science to the middle-school campers. As part of this program, NMML scientists have worked with Junior Leaders in NMML’s telemetry, diet, acoustics, and genetics activities; participated in interview sessions and job shadows; and conducted tours of NMML’s labs and osteological collection.

During NMML’s sessions for the middle-school campers, small groups of campers rotate through approximately four activity stations to try their hand at different research techniques we use to answer some basic questions about marine mammal populations:

How many are there? Campers watch video from aerial surveys of Cook Inlet belugas, use a computer program to track and count the number of belugas in a video clip, measure the size and determine the color (white adults vs. dark juveniles) of individual animals, and discuss how video counts can be used to calculate correction factors (to account for animals that were missed or were below the surface during aerial counts) to determine the abundance of different populations of marine mammals.

Where do they go? To explore how radio telemetry can be used to monitor the presence or absence of pinnipeds at rookery sites, campers are given radio tags and corresponding numbered tags to wear while rotating through all of NMML’s activity stations. At the telemetry station, they use a receiver to detect signals transmitted by the radio tags and visually check for numbered tags on other campers. Scientists also use a variety of time-depth recorders, radio tags, and satellite tags, as well as maps of marine mammal tracks, to discuss the development of telemetry and how NMML uses the information collected by the instruments to study the movements and behavior of marine mammals.

What do they eat? Campers study pinniped diet by examining and identifying the prey remains (fish bones, fish otoliths (ear stones), and squid beaks) found in pinniped scats. By identifying and measuring one of the otoliths and using a regression formula to determine the length and weight of the fish consumed, campers can compare the species and sizes of fish targeted by pinnipeds and fisheries.

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  Campers work with Heather Ziel to learn about radio frequencies and tracking marine mammals.

How do you identify individual animals? Campers examine photos of humpback whale tail flukes and aerial photos of bowhead whales, discover how natural marks (pigment patterns) and scars can be used to identify individual animals, practice matching different photos of individual whales, and discuss how identifying individual animals in different areas, seasons, and years enables scientists to study the life history and movements of whale populations.

What sounds do they make? Campers learn to identify several species of marine mammals by listening to recordings of their vocalizations, practice navigating to a vocalizing whale in real time by using information from two sonobuoys (floating underwater listening devices that transmit sounds via radio waves) to determine the whale’s position, and learn how NMML uses bottom-moored passive acoustic recorders to determine the presence of marine mammals in different seasons and years in locations and environments that are difficult to monitor in real time.

Who is related to whom? Campers determine the paternity and maternity of northern fur seal pups by matching a pup’s DNA to the DNA of a male and a female fur seal. DNA from several locations (loci) on the genome are considered during the matching process. Campers then discuss with scientists how genetic studies can provide information about pinniped rookery structure and the reproductive success of individual animals.

A culminating Science Camp activity that demonstrates how different NOAA offices work together to respond to environmental events presents campers with an environmental mystery (a fish kill in Puget Sound). Campers come up with questions to determine the cause and effects of the fish kill and return to the NOAA offices to carry out their investigations. At the NMML session, campers research which marine mammals are found in Puget Sound at the time of the fish kill, learn more about pinnipeds and cetaceans in the area, and discuss the possible effects of the fish kill event on marine mammals. After gathering information from each of the NOAA offices, the campers compile and analyze their data, draw conclusions, create posters to illustrate the scientific process they used in their investigations, and then present and explain their posters to their families, Science Camp staff, and NOAA scientists during a poster session on the last day of camp.

Thanks to the efforts of all of the NMML scientists who have created and led Science Camp activities, NMML is consistently recognized—by campers and staff—for providing engaging, hands-on activities that illustrate marine mammal research methods and objectives, for giving campers and staff the opportunity to meet and interact with many different scientists, and for increasing the campers’ knowledge of and interest in NOAA science.

Many scientists have been instrumental in creating NMML’s Science Camp activities, including Christy Sims (abundance), Carolyn Gudmundson (diet), Sally Mizroch (humpback photo-ID), Julie Mocklin and Kim Shelden (bowhead photo-ID), Jessica Crance (acoustics), Bobette Dickerson (genetics), and Janice Waite and Kim Parsons (killer whale ecotypes).

By Marcia Muto and Lisa Hiruki-Raring


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