Oscar Elton Sette provides support for the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), its remote field camps, and the Teacher at Sea Program

May 8, 2006

The NOAA Ship Oscar Elson Sette is at now sea in the North Pacific providing critical logistical support for scientists monitoring the status of the Hawaiian monk seal and conducting research on ways to ensure the recovery and sustainability of this highly endangered species. The ship's primary mission is to help establish and supply remote field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). These camps are the base of operations for monk seal scientists during much of the year. In ancillary projects, scientists and ship personnel aboard the Sette will conduct sighting surveys of whales and dolphins in waters along the cruise track and collect oceanographic data important to studies of climate change.

Monk seal field camp on Lisianski Island, NWHI

The research vessel will be at sea for 16 days in support of the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP), part of the Protected Species Division at NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. The primary aims of the MMRP research staff are to monitor the population status of Hawaiian monk seals, found only in the Hawaiian Archipelago, and to discover ways to enhance the recovery of the species. To collect the data necessary for population monitoring and recovery research, the MMRP establishes seasonal field camps at the six major breeding locations of the monk seal throughout the NWHI.

Under the direction of Chief Scientist Chad Yoshinaga, the Sette will transport MMRP researchers to French Frigate Shoals, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll, and will deliver all the equipment and supplies necessary to support field work over the next 3 months. Everything used in the field camps, including tents, stoves, solar power arrays, computers, food, water, clothing, and other materials must be transferred from the Sette into small boats, shuttled to the islands, and carried to the campsite. Offloading materials will be especially tedious at Kure Atoll, where the Sette must anchor approximately 6 miles from Green Island, the location of the field camp. The Sette will also resupply existing field camps at Laysan and Lisianski Islands, where the ship deployed biologists 2 months ago.

While the ship is en route between islands, MMRP biologists will systematically maintain a lookout for cetaceans and document any sightings for further study. The cetacean sighting survey is part of the PIFSC's expanding program of cetacean research in the Hawaiian Archipelago and other parts of the Pacific Islands Region. During the cruise, the Sette will provide support to other agencies conducting research in the NWHI. Supplies and water will be provided to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologists on Laysan Island, and a team of biologists from the State of Hawaii, Division of Forestry and Wildlife will be transported to Kure Atoll.

The scientific party is also being accompanied on this cruise by Kazu Kauinana, a Hawaii-based sculptor and an art instructor at the University of Hawaii, Kapiolani Community College, who is on board as part of the NOAA Teacher At Sea (TAS) Program . The mission of the Program is to give teachers a clearer insight into our ocean planet, a greater understanding of maritime work and studies, and to increase their level of environmental literacy by fostering an interdisciplinary research experience. Mr. Kauinana will incorporate his experiences in the NWHI into his class curricula to share with his students. The program provides a unique environment for learning and teaching by sending kindergarten through college-level teachers to sea aboard NOAA research and survey ships to work under the tutelage of scientists and crew.

Researchers and Sette Crew preparing for CTD operation

During the Oscar Elton Sette cruise, NOAA personnel on the ship will take advantage of the opportunity to collect oceanographic data as part of NOAA's continuing mission to observe and monitor the ocean environment. NOAA is actively involved in national and global partnerships to study the Earth's ocean and atmosphere and improve our ability to understand and predict climate change. At various locations during the cruise, Sette personnel will lower a 'CTD' instrument into the water, connected to the ship by a thick cable enclosing electrical wires. As the CTD instrument sinks, it measures the water's Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (hence the name 'CTD') and transmits the information over the electrical wires back to a computer on the ship. Sette staff will also deploy several Expendable Bathythermographs (XBTs) during transit. These disposable instruments, shaped like small projectiles, contain a coil of thin copper wire and sensors that measure water temperature. XBTs are 'shot' into the water from a launch tube on the ship. During their plunge toward the sea floor, they transmit temperature data over the wire to a shipboard computer. XBT temperature-at-depth data are used by oceanographers to determine the vertical thermal structure of the ocean, including the thickness of the upper-level, mixed layer of the ocean where many important pelagic species live.