The weather is starting to become less predictable here in Barataria Bay, and the CARMMHA field team is working abbreviated hours to avoid thunderstorms.

We’re hoping we get a nice day on Friday, but the next few days look stormy. Luckily, we’re on a good pace for the number of dolphins we’re hoping to study. Today, despite the weather, we caught and released two juvenile females.

With the extra wind and waves, today is a good time to talk about the boats we use for our fieldwork, and the expert boat operators that make our work possible. For this Barataria Bay trip, our team of ~60 personnel is working from 8 boats that include special modifications for working with dolphins safely.

At 30 feet long, Megamouth (named after the deepwater shark) is one of NOAA’s research vessels. The Megamouth is a landing craft with a bow ramp that is used to “land” dolphins while we’re in the water. After we place a dolphin in a sling in the water, we can lower the ramp and carry the dolphin onto the padded deck of the Megamouth for additional out-of-water examinations. We can also weigh dolphins from the vessel’s overhead beam (rated at 1000#, which thankfully is much, much larger than any dolphins we will encounter). Our team of expert dolphin handlers use buckets of water and sponges to aid the dolphin in keeping cool, while the veterinarians monitor and assess the animal’s condition. In the stern of the Megamouth, the processing team receives a variety of samples (e.g., urine, feces, lesions) from the veterinarians and prepares them for shipment to laboratories. They also prepare and coordinate the variety of veterinary tools and materials used in the assessments. On this trip, several NMMF personnel have served as operator of the Megamouth, including Whitney, Nicky, and Kerry.

 

Our largest vessel is our processing boat. The research vessel, Lady Camille, has an enclosed cabin with (just enough) air-conditioning to help maintain the quality of the blood samples (see the 7/13/18 blog entry for more details). It houses 5-6 members of the processing team while they work with the blood, blubber, skin, and lesion samples, and prepare them for storage/shipment. Captains Bernie and Howard are operating the Camille during this field effort with first mate, Mike.

 

The Catch Boat, operated by our catcher, Larry, is a mullet fishing boat that would have been retired (when the Florida net ban took effect), but now has a new life as a critical piece of our health assessment operations. Larry is a commercial fisherman who has adapted both his boat and his knowledge of nets to an entirely new application of safely catching dolphins. The Catch Boat includes a small tower so that Larry has an improved vantage point for finding and keeping up with dolphins; the motor is located directly underneath the operator’s tower. At the stern of the Catch Boat is the net table, where our custom-made 400 yd long net is stacked. When setting the compass, the net spills out over the transom into the water.

 

We use three Rigid-hull Inflatable Boats (RhIB) vessels: the R/V Typhoon, R/V Orion, and R/V Hurricane II. These boats have air-filled sponsons running the length of their sides that are useful in protecting the dolphins during handling, especially in deepwater sets. The RhIBs carry the dolphin handlers, who respond to dolphins that swim into the net. In Barataria, Eric, Blaine, James, and Ross operated the RhIBs. The Orion and Hurricane II also have towers that can be useful for sighting dolphins when the boats are at idle. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) provides an operator and a vessel, the Pathfinder, which serves as the medical safety vessel. Team GSD provided rotating medical staff to ensure that our team had rapid medical treatment for any situations. Other than a lot of minor scrapes and cuts, the medics jumped into action for two stingray strikes during the first week. Thanks to their quick work, everyone has recovered well and will likely be back to work later this week. Our last vessel, the R/V Fearless, is a 25’ Cape Fear Cat, used as a platform for collecting footage from remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), carrying additional personnel, and running equipment/staff back and forth from the LDWF dock.

The health assessments require careful coordination to accomplish the variety of tasks involved.

The boat operators, and their vessels, are essential to making that communication as smooth and effective as possible. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about some of the work that will take place after the health assessments, including reproductive follow-up surveys and photographic-identification surveys.

Dolphins captured and released today

Today, due to the weather, we only worked with two dolphins: a pair of juvenile females. A thunderstorm moved in quickly after we got the dolphins in hand, so we performed a limited set of analyses before releasing the animals early and returning to the LDWF dock.

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About this field update

The CARMMHA Barataria Bay Health Assessment wrapped up last month! The team spent two weeks on Grand Isle, LA and had a very successful fieldwork effort. During the trip, CARMMHA Research Coordinator Ryan Takeshita (with plenty of help from others on the team!) kept a field journal to share here on the CARMMHA website. Over the next two weeks, we’ll post daily blog entries from that field journal. In some of the entries, we have a Question and Answer section with marine mammal veterinarians responding to questions from Evie, a four and half-year-old scientist in training from Ellicott City, MD. We hope you enjoy our field updates!