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Surprising Sights and Wondrous Wildlife in the Gulf of Maine

January 03, 2024

Field Biologist Emma Fowler shares some of her favorite moments from the fall 2023 Cooperative Gulf of Maine Bottom Longline Survey.

wo commercial fishermen wearing foul weather gear, blue rubber gloves, and baseball hats smile ear-to-ear while one holds a large golden tilefish. The golden tilefish has a white underside and its dorsal side, head, and dorsal fin are flecked with yellow and gold tones. Captain Phil Lynch and mate Danny DeRose proudly displaying a golden tilefish they caught onboard the F/V Mary Elizabeth. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Jacob Wilson

This season’s Gulf of Maine Bottom Longline Survey started off feeling a bit different than previous years. We had prepped all the gear two weeks before sailing, so there wasn’t the usual mad dash to set up. The weather was unseasonably warm. I often found myself working out on deck in just a t-shirt in mid-to-late October. We started working the closer-to-shore stations in the western Gulf of Maine first and did the farther easternmost ones last. We usually try to avoid this because it takes longer to get to the farthest stations and the “good weather” window for sailing starts to shrink later in the fall. Everything just seemed a bit backwards. That didn’t stop it from being one of the most interesting surveys I’ve worked on yet. Below are some of my highlights.

Weird and Wonderful Fish

Top-down view close up of the left side of a fish head. Its left eye is clouded white with a cataract.
A haddock head with a prominent cataract in its left eye. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler
A woman scientist wearing orange foul weather pants, blue rubber gloves, sunglasses and a life jacket stands near the back of a boat at sea. She is holding a large fish that is about three-quarters as long as she is tall.
Field Biologist Emma Fowler holds up large cod onboard the F/V Tenacious II. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Giovanni Gianesin

Having seen most of the fish in the Gulf of Maine, catching a golden tilefish was a first for me! It was also a first for the crew of the F/V Mary Elizabeth and everybody was thrilled. It is a beautiful fish, with a massive head and bright yellow spots all over its body.

Another highlight for me was catching the biggest Atlantic cod I’ve ever seen. While they can get much bigger, this female was still quite large (I’m 5 feet 4 inches for reference). Look at its head in comparison to my own! Another interesting catch was a peculiar looking haddock. I don’t really like haddock but was quite enamored with this one. Why? Because, like me, it had a cataract in its left eye. Who knew I would find a kindred spirit in a fish?

Feathered Friends

 A small gray-bodied bird with tan brown wings is perched on some rope that is wrapped around a series of metal pipes. The bird’s beak is black and it has a black stripe that runs from its beak to just past its eye. It also has a yellow streak of feathers ringed with back feathers that resembles a mohawk.
A golden-crowned kinglet sitting pretty on top of a highflyer, using the vessel as a rest stop before continuing on its trip. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler
 Two birds sit on top of the ocean’s surface. One is dark gray with black patches on its wings while the other is white with a gray patch on its wings.
A dark morph Northern fulmar sitting in front of another fulmar with the more common white plumage. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler

I am a self-proclaimed bird nerd. In between hauls you might find me outside snapping pictures of seabirds and any land birds that seek refuge on the vessel. This time around I basked in the presence of a golden-crowned kinglet—a bird I’ve only seen once before.

I also managed to snap numerous Northern fulmar pictures, something I do every time I’m at sea. My camera is flooded with fulmar pictures because they are so beautiful—it’s like they have built-in eyeliner. Plus, I was lucky enough to spot a dark morph with gray plumage instead of the usual white.

Large Visitors

A man wearing yellow foul weather pants and a blue sweatshirt stands at the side of a boat and looks out to a pod of small whales next to the boat. The whales are at the surface of the ocean with their dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water.
Mate Steve Kenny looks on as a small pod of pilot whales swim quite close to the stationary vessel at the end of a haul. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler

Charismatic megafauna—called so because you can’t help but be enamored with them. Their size and their curious nature have captured the hearts of many, including myself. All of us on the survey, scientists and fishermen, were quite taken with the pilot whale and bottlenose dolphin pods that visited us. I also may have snorted when I realized I photographed a dolphin looking like a hovercraft.

A dolphin leaping out of the water.
A bottlenose dolphin in mid-air, wake-riding behind the vessel. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler

Big White Ships

 View of a large white ship at sea from the back. The sun is shining and there is a little chop to the ocean.
NOAA Ship Pisces conducting research on harmful algal blooms. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler

We usually don’t see any other vessels where we fish. This time we were close to two very large white ships. The first was the NOAA Ship Pisces, one of the larger survey vessels, conducting research on harmful algal blooms.

The other was a bit more unexpected—a U.S. Coast Guard ship. Some of its crew hopped in a smaller vessel and beelined right for us. They boarded our vessel to perform a routine safety inspection. We were worried the boarding might take a long time and impact our time-sensitive survey gear fishing protocols, but it was a friendly and speedy encounter.

A large white vessel at sea.
U.S. Coast Guard fast response cutter Warren Deyampert sits waiting for its boarding crew to return from the safety inspection onboard F/V Tenacious II. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Emma Fowler

While the survey may have started warm, it finished with a cold snap. We returned from the last trip to find frost on the dock. As exciting as this survey was, I was glad it ended when it did. It’s now time to wrap myself in a blanket cocoon all winter and emerge just in time for the spring survey.

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