NOAA Teacher at Sea
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
June 14 – July 2, 2010
Nicolle von der Heyde
NOAA Ship Pisces
Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, June 14 2010
Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 2000 hours (8 pm)
Position: latitude = 29.46.02 N, longitude = 088.08.4 W
Present Weather: some cumulus clouds
Visibility: 9 nautical miles
Wind Direction: Variable Wind Speed: Light
Wave Height: 0 feet
Sea Water Temp: 32.6 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: Dry Bulb = 31 Celsius, Wet Bulb = 30.8 Celsius
Science and Technology Log
This portion of the log will be written by me and my fellow Teacher at Sea, Melinda Storey from Birmingham, AL. Since we will be cruising for a couple of days to reach our first destination off the coast of southern Texas, we thought we would briefly describe our mission on board Pisces and our first observations of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. We are participating in the first leg of the SEAMAP (Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) Reef Fish Survey along the continental shelf from Brownsville, TX north to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. The Chief Scientist on this mission is Paul Felts. Our task will involve sending video cameras down into the water column and onto the ocean floor to record the abundance and relative size of reef fish associated with various geographical features. The video cameras will be submerged for about 45 minutes at a time, starting one hour after sunrise and continuing until one hour before sunset. If conditions are good, Mr. Felts believes we can submerge the cameras about 7-8 times a day. We will view some of the recorded data on the ship to make sure the equipment is working properly, however the analysis will take place back in the laboratory in Pascagoula, MS.
The Pisces left the port of Pascagoula at around 1130 hours (military time, aka 11:30 am) but did not leave the bay until about 1730 hours (5:30 pm).
During this time, the ship was cruising back and forth in the bay as engineers conducted tests of the acoustics on the ship. The Pisces, just commissioned in November of 2009, is the quietest vessel in the NOAA fleet and has some of the latest technology on board. Making a ship quiet may not seem like a big deal, but when you are trying to research marine life in an undisturbed natural environment, silent observation is everything. When the engineers finished their testing, a small boat arrived to take 4 of the engineers back to shore. Three other engineers and one intern remained on board to join us on our voyage.
The signs of oil extraction in the Gulf were apparent the moment we boarded the Pisces in Pascagoula. Across the channel from our ship were two old oil rigs no longer in service, one damaged from Hurricane Katrina and destined to be returned to the bottom of the sea to be made into an artificial reef. This is often done with old military battleships as well as they are sunk to the ocean floor and fish begin to use the vessels as a habitat and to hide from predators. Oil booms were placed around the Pisces and other ships in the channel for protection in case oil made its way into the port.
As we headed out to sea, we were surprised at the great number of ships and oil rigs that dotted the horizon. We saw lots of huge tankers that were just anchored, waiting in line to off load their oil into the Chevron refinery. One of the crew told us there are around 43,000 oil wells in the Gulf. Some wells just have pipes attached and pump oil directly through pipes into the refinery. Some wells have rigs that drill deep into the ocean floor. The Deepwater Horizon that exploded in the Gulf was this type of rig. We also saw one rig that had a flame coming out at the very top of the rig. This was the burning off of natural gas. Our Commanding Officer told us that they “burn off” natural gas for two reasons – safety and economics. All rigs let off a certain amount of excess gas and it’s more economical to burn it off rather than pipe it all the way back to the mainland. Also, burning off the excess gas keeps it from building up pressure, which is very dangerous.
It wasn’t until a few hours after leaving the bay that the officers on the bridge notified us that we were traveling through the oil slick. As we looked over the deck of the bridge, we saw a rainbow of sheen on the surface and even some reddish “emulsified” oil. On the map on the next page, you can see the ship’s route (labeled PC in red) as we passed through the oil slick shown in blue.
Sunday, June 13: After months of anticipation and possible cancellation of the Reef Fish Survey altogether, I arrived in Pascagoula, Mississippi and got the first glimpse of my new home for the next 19 days, the NOAA Ship Pisces. I flew into Mobile, AL and was picked up at the airport by my fellow Teacher at Sea, Melinda Storey. Ensign (ENS) Kelly Schill met us at the ship and showed us to our staterooms to get settled in. Knowing that space on the ship is limited; I was expecting to share a small, cramped room with Melinda and had already resigned myself to taking the top bunk.
I was surprised when ENS Schill said we each had our own staterooms. I later found out that some of the scientists scheduled to be on this cruise had been reassigned to other missions related to the oil spill in the Gulf. In addition, some of the tasks in our original mission, like longlining for sharks and rays, had also been cancelled due to the oil. At first, I was somewhat disappointed that we would not be capturing sharks or hauling in large amounts of fish to sample, then I snapped out of it as soon as I reminded myself that I was about to set sail on the trip of a lifetime on board a research vessel with NOAA! We met and had dinner with the Operations Officer (OPS) of the ship, ENS Kurt Karpov, before turning in for the night. Much to my surprise, the ship is equipped with DirectTV satellite, so I was able to watch TV before going to bed! The ship was set to sail at 1000 hours (military time, aka 10:00 am) the next day.
Monday, June 14: Melinda and I woke up early as breakfast began at 0700 hours. We introduced ourselves to Chief Steward Jessie Stiggins and Second Cook Michael Sapien who would be responsible for ensuring we received three hearty and nutritious meals a day on the ship – so far they have not disappointed. After breakfast, the scientists had not yet arrived so I walked around taking pictures, getting familiar with the ship, and introducing myself to the deckhands, engineers, and crew members with whom we would be sailing for the next few weeks. I met the Commanding Officer (CO) of the ship, LCDR (Lieutenant Commander, comparable to the same rank in the Navy or Coast Guard) Jeremy Adams, the Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Jessie Stark, and the ship’s Navigator, ENS Laura Gibson. From the moment we arrived, everyone has been very welcoming and friendly, making me feel very comfortable in my new surroundings. The morning was busy as crew members hauled in equipment and supplies and while I offered to help, there was not much for me to do and I simply tried to stay out of everyone’s way. The officers did allow me to conduct a test of the ship’s rudders to make sure that when a dial was turned to a particular setting, like 30 degrees to the right, that the rudders were actually moving 30 degrees to the right. The picture on the right below shows me conducting this test while the Operations Officer communicates with the engineers who are observing the rudders.
I was really grateful to have another teacher with me so we could discuss and ask questions together about what we were observing around us. After a busy morning, we finally set sail at 1130 hours. Shortly after we left port, we heard the exciting call of “Dolphins!” Looking over the bow (front) of the ship we saw one dolphin after another racing towards us and turning around under water so they could race along with the wake from the bow. At one point I believe there were close to 20 dolphins including a baby dolphin or two!
Later in the afternoon, we had a “Welcome Aboard” meeting run by ENS Gibson and ENS Schill to inform us of the facilities on the ship and the emergency procedures in case of fire, man overboard, or a need to abandon ship. We were also told there would be drills conducted for each of these emergencies – just like school fire and tornado drills! We met the Chief Scientist Paul Felts and three other scientists we would be working with. For now, there was not much for the science party to do because it would take about two days to reach our first destination about 30 miles off the coast of Southern Texas, near South Padre Island and the US/Mexico border.
In the early evening I decided to go up to the bridge to remind the officers on watch to inform us if they observed any oil. Shortly after, the CO entered the bridge and announced that there was oil sheen on the surface of the water. Melinda and I looked over the deck and began taking pictures. The sheen seemed to go on forever and my thoughts turned to what was happening beneath the surface that we could not see. As we watched the sun set on our first day out at sea, the oil sheen created an ironically beautiful and tranquil setting in the midst of an environmental tragedy. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the ship was sailing in cleaner waters.
Much to my surprise, after the ET (Electronics Technician) Bob Carter did a check of my laptop, I was able to log onto the internet and send emails while on board. After dinner, I spent the evening catching up on emails and reading before retiring as the soft rolling of the ship rocked me to sleep.
Animals Seen Today
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis)