On a day that we are scheduled to fly, we wake up around 7:30 a.m. and check the board to see what the verdict for the day is; either fly, no fly, or standby. Jess wakes up before us to check all the weather reports and make the decision, see the environmental conditions post.
On a fly day, we get dressed in our flight suits, eat breakfast and pack a lunch in time to leave by . We wear flight suits because they are made of Nomex which is fire resistant and one of the many safety precautions we take (see team photo). We bring with us four things, a big black case with our digital camera and video camera in it; a backpack with our computer, binoculars, and clipboard with whale sighting sheets to take notes of what we see; a yellow case with our satellite phone to communicate with our ground contact; and an orange case with our GPS navigation system so the pilots can keep track of where we are and keep track of oncoming weather.
At the airport we load the equipment into the plane, put our lunch in the fridge, and use the restroom one last time before climbing into our small plane for hours; and no, there is no option for restrooms throughout our flight, so this is one of the most important aspects of our pre-flight preparations! The last thing we do before stepping into the plane is put on our life vests; another safety precaution.
During our flight, us aerial observers stare out the windows; focusing our eyes just under the horizon and scanning for whales. If we focused on the water closer to us, we would miss things that are farther away. During our flight we try so hard not to take our eyes off the water, it only takes a second to miss a whale! This season we have had some really far sightings (some 6 or 7 miles from our track line) and there have also been times on our survey line that we flew directly over whales. When we think we see a whale, we use our binoculars to verify and then we tell the pilots to either break track left or right, depending on which side of the plane the whale is on. Our primary responsibility is reporting these whales into the Early Warning System so we fly directly over the whales to get an exact position and closer look at each sighting to determine how many whales are there. Sometimes this is easy and in one pass we can determine the number and sometimes it takes a few passes, especially in the case of a Surface Active Group(SAG) where there may be a lot of rolling, and it can be difficult to figure out the exact number of whales right away. Each observer also has secondary roles; the observer on the right side will photograph whales, while the observer on the left side is responsible for taking data on each of the whales sighted. During each sighting this person is responsible for making sure there are no vessels posing an immediate threat to the whales, see Vessels use in the SEUS. Also this person is responsible for calling in our sightings to our ground contact via the satellite phone and also recording data on changing environmental conditions and anything else of interest during the flight.
In order to keep our eyes on the water as much as possible we take a position in the computer which is hooked up to the GPS using a mouse and then use a voice recorder, whose time is synced to the GPS time, to say what that data point is. At lunch we typically will switch seats so that we can face a different direction to stare out at the water (giving our necks a break) and also to share the different roles.
When our flight is over, our day isn't. When we get home we charge the satellite phone and camera battery, download images and review images and translate our voice recordings into our table with the GPS positions. We also write down a detailed summary of our day so that someone could look at the folder for the day and have a full idea of where we flew, what the weather was like, how many whales we saw, etc. We usually don't fully process our images, or do photo-analysis, on the days that we fly, because flying a full survey and processing just our data ends up being quite a full day. We will wait until a day where we are not flying or have a day off.
In addition to the roles mentioned above, we have one more job role; many times when we are not in the air we are our team's Ground Contact. This person is responsible for knowing where the plane is at all times (we watch the plane on an Automated Flight Following program) and paging out sightings of whales when the plane calls in the sightings to the entire EWS system. The sighting come across on emails, pagers, and cell phones to a wide variety of entities in near-realtime in the following format : "29MAR2009, 11:09(L), 30 47.4N 081 13.6W, 1 ADULT, 1 CALF, HDG N" with the subject line giving relative distance to the nearest sea buoy.
On some days, we can also do some photo-analysis (process our above mentioned collected data) while being ground contact, sometimes there are so many whale sightings all you do is talk to the plane, page out sightings, check on where the plane is, get a phone call, page out a sighting, check on the plane, and repeat until the plane lands. No matter what role we have for the day, our job definitely keeps us busy and can be very rewarding!