NOAA Teacher at Sea
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005
Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 22, 2005
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus
Science & Technology Log
Today the divers explored Lobster Rock, collecting a total of 23 lionfish for the flow through aquarium aboard the ship. Water from the ocean flows into and out of the tank yhrough pipes on the deck to simulate the ocean environment. This brings the total laboratory aquarium at Beaufort.
Today I also interviewed the Chief Scientist, Paula Whitfield. Most amazing to me was how her life story evolved from a childhood fascination with Jacques Cousteau to her current passion for lionfish research. Paula grew up watching the underwater videos of Jacques Cousteau, and it was at that point that she knew she wanted to become a diver. “I was a diver first, but the more I dove, the more I was formulating questions in my mind…I was curious about everything that had to do with water and marine life.” She worked for a sea grass ecologist for many years, not running the show, but she saw how the scientific process worked. Her desire to become a marine biologist grew stronger, and that’s when she decided to return to school to get her graduate degree.
So how did Paula become one of the leading scientists in lionfish research? She responds: “It stemmed from my recreational diving – I was diving constantly in my spare time, and working for a charter boat business that attracted recreational divers from all over the world.” And then one day she began seeing lionfish off the coast of North Carolina, which was very unusual for this area. Paula knew they were Pacific fish, but she needed proof that lionfish were now in the Atlantic. “From that point on, I collected evidence was finally able to convince NOAA when a world-renown scorpion fish expert confirmed that her collected specimens were lionfish.
Once Paula was aboard a diving ship, and she was ordered to do a routine dive to the ocean bottom. The first thing she saw was right angle patterns, which hardly exist in nature. All of the sudden Paula saw a porthole lying in the sand. Back then she wasn’t a technical diver with all the fancy gear she has today. So she clutched the porthole with her knees and climbed up the anchor line. When Paula reached the surface, everyone aboard the ship stared at her in disbelief when she said: “I think it’s a wreck. I have a porthole.” She fondly remembers feeling “excited to be the first person to dive a virgin shipwreck.”
What Paula finds most fascinating about lionfish is how they established themselves in such large numbers in the Atlantic within a short period of time. Because of this she calls lionfish the “ultimate survivors.” But overall, she feels very affectionate towards all sea creatures, including “everything from sea spiders and feather dusters to larger fish because it’s such a different world down there. It’s important for us to know how we’re affecting that world in order to make a positive change.”
Paula’s words of advice for those who want to become marine biologists: “I think it’s important if you can become a diver – just to be able to put your head in the water to see what’s going on is more rewarding than just dropping sensors into the ocean. It opens more doors, and by seeing the environment firsthand you are able to formulate more questions about it. All this helps you become a better marine biologist, even if you don’t dive all the time.”