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Ocean Cruises Sample Marine Life Near San Francisco

A humpback whale spotted off the research vessel. (Image credit: Sophie Webb/PRBO/NOAA-ONMS)

A research cruise left San Francisco Bay this week to collect data on its ocean creatures in an effort to piece together a better picture of how conservation efforts there are working.

"These cruises help us gather information, which will help better the marine sanctuaries in the area, and better observe how ecosystems are adjusting with climate change. They give us an idea of how we can better manage our marine resources," said Jaime Jahncke, director of marine ecology at Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO).

Scientists can assess the health of the ocean by conducting surveys for different marine organisms using a variety of methods.

"We use a series of transects to look at the ocean; we look at the water properties at depth, we deploy nets, and we have a crew on the bridge which manually counts birds and marine mammals," Jahncke told OurAmazingPlanet. "Already on this cruise we have seen minke, blue and humpback whales. We even saw a leatherback sea turtle, which is rare in this area."

The cruises have been going on for seven years, and researchers time them so they can observe life during each of the oceanic seasons.

California has three ocean seasons. The summer and spring are the upwelling season, when winds blow from the northwest and push cold, nutrient-rich water up to the ocean surface. As a result of the available food, heavy plumes of phytoplankton form, which increases overall productivity in the water. That means more fish and other marine creatures that consume the phytoplankton can thrive.

Researchers on their first day of the 10 day research cruise (Image credit: Sophie Webb/PRBO/NOAA-ONMS)

During the fall, the winds die down, and the water offshore warms and moves toward the coast. Finally, the winter brings the stormy season, where low-pressure atmospheric systems from the north cause conditions that mix the water column.

PRBO Conservation Science, Gulf of the Farallones and the Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries , along with other agency and academic partners, will undertake a series of cruises to continue monitoring ocean conditions in the waters beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. The organizations have partnered with the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies (ACCESS), an organization that supports marine wildlife conservation and healthy marine ecosystems in northern and central California, to carry out the survey.

"This collaborative monitoring program is vital for determining year-to-year changes in ocean conditions, and to better understand where the hotspots are to focus efforts in protecting these special areas," said Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Bodega, Calif.

Andrea Leontiou