Nicolle von der Heyde, June 28, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Nicolle Vonderheyde
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: June 28, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 0700 hours (7 am)
Position: latitude = 28° N longitude = 089º W
Present Weather: storm clouds, thunder, lightning, rain
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Wind Direction: E Wind Speed: 29 knots
Wave Height: 3-5 foot
Sea Water Temp: 30.6°C
Air Temperature: dry bulb = 27°C, wet bulb = 26°C

Science and Technology Log

Tropical Storm Alex, which is a very strong tropical storm, has moved over the Yucatan Peninsula and continues to show signs of strengthening and organization. It was headed straight for us before we started steaming eastward to get out of its path. Our CO has monitored this progression carefully so he can make the decision to go into home port or not. Yesterday evening we started steaming east at 13 knots so we could be closer to Pascagoula if indeed he decided it was unsafe to stay at sea. When we woke this morning we found that Tropical Storm Alex had intensified overnight maintaining wind speed of 50-60 mph. An Air Force Reserve reconnaissance plane found that the atmospheric pressure was decreasing thus creating a very dangerous situation for the Pisces. The CO said that 12 foot waves crashing over the bow would not be fun so he made the decision to head back to Pascagoula today.

Track of Tropical Storm Alex
Track of Tropical Storm Alex

We’ve been traveling at 14 knots all night long. Since that is as fast as we can go, we know that the CO is anxious to get us safely in port. He told us that he has to make a decision to return to home port early enough to get a berth at the dock. With all ships in the area heading to shore, he needs to make a decision within 72 hours of the storm hitting so we can get a berth. If you do not get back before the port closes, you have to ride out the storm on water.

The swells have gotten much larger and deeper causing the ship to rock and roll. Walking down the halls is like being a ping pong ball bouncing everywhere. Taking a shower this morning and cleaning up was quite a challenge. When we came down to the lab, they were packing it in. The ship’s crew is busy cleaning the rooms, deck, and ladders (stairs). No more science.

View of Deepwater Horizon
View of Deepwater Horizon
View of Deepwater Horizon
View of Deepwater Horizon

On our way back to Pascagoula, we passed within 6 miles of the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster site. We saw 40 ships – pipeline boats, supply boats, a research vessel, tugs and barges that collect the oil, and the Stemstar, which is the ship that injects mud, steam, and concrete into damaged wells. On board the Stemstar are geologists and engineers who are working on solutions to stop the oil leakage of the well. We also saw a fire boat sending water toward a flame that was burning off oil from a rig. The CO thought this might be to keep the heat from damaging the rigs and ships. When oil is burned off the surface of the water, oil crystallizes and hardens much like obsidian rock. It then sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is much easier to collect and dispose of.

Personal Log

For most of the time on board Pisces I have not felt much rocking and rolling from sea swells, but that began to change two nights ago as winds from Tropical Storm Alex added energy to the surface waters off the coast of Mexico and made its way into the Northern Gulf. There had been talk of the cruise ending early but when I woke up this morning I did not expect to be headed back to port, putting an end to this amazing adventure and learning experience at sea. Since this will be my last log, I have a few more tales to tell before summing up how I feel about stepping onto solid ground and leaving my sea legs behind.

Two nights ago I was taken by surprise when our Commanding Officer (CO) Jeremy Adams invited us to come up to the bridge after our scientific work was complete to pilot the ship. That’s right – he was actually willing to hand over the reins of the Pisces to me! When we walked up to the bridge it was really dark and it took a minute for our eyes to adjust. The officers on watch need to maintain their night vision and use dim red light to see. They constantly watch the waters, even though the radar picks up most objects like oil rigs and other ships. The CO showed us the compass and how to turn the rudders to steer the ship, including making a complete 360° circle!

Melinda went first and it was so great to see her reaction as she piloted the ship in circles, probably knocking a few crew members off their feet! When it was my turn, I opted for a straighter path and attempted to steer the ship in specific directions that the CO commanded. Feeling the 208 foot steel ship turn on my command was a thrill. It was fairly easy to turn but not so easy to stay on course, fighting with surface currents and smashing into waves. We couldn’t take pictures because the flash would be too bright, but the picture below shows all the NOAA Corps Officers on the bridge as they steered through the channel that took us home to the port of Pascagoula. In addition to the scientists on board, I learned a tremendous amount from the officers on the ship.

NOAA Corps Officers on the Bridge
NOAA Corps Officers on the Bridge

Melinda made me laugh one evening when she was determined to “catch a shark”. She took a fish that we did not need to keep for Seafood Inspection, tied it to a thick rope, and dangled it in the water trying to lure a shark or a fish to the boat. She had no success, even trying again the next day. That evening, Melinda turned in after our work was done and some of the crew decided to go fishing off the stern. After waiting around for a while (remember, it’s called “fishing” not “catching”) one of the deckhands, Clint, got a bite and began reeling the fish up to the surface from the depths. You really have no choice in what decides to take the bait and usually hope for a decent sized fish rather than something with large teeth and a bad temper. It was obvious that Clint had caught something big because the fishing rod was bent down pretty far and the catch was putting up quite a fight. I watched the surface in anticipation of seeing what was on the line and eventually, I began to see the ghostly underwater image of what appeared to be a shark! The next task was to reel the shark close enough to remove the hook and release it back into the water – I did not volunteer for that task. This was a job for the experts.

Fishing from the deck fo the Pisces
Fishing from the deck fo the Pisces
Smooth Dogfish Shark
Smooth Dogfish Shark

On closer look at the shark, it was identified as a Smooth Dogfish (Mustelus canis), with a distinguishing feature being low, flat teeth rather than pointy, triangular teeth associated with most other sharks. This did not make removal of the hook any easier as another deckhand, Victor, handled the shark and threw it back into its water habitat. Believe it or not, after releasing the shark, Clint tried again to catch something a little tamer and found himself once more reeling a powerful fish to the surface. It was another Smooth Dogfish! Probably not the same one, but if it was, didn’t it learn its lesson? This one snapped the line before making it on deck. Boy was Melinda disappointed when she found out the next morning all the excitement she had missed. Fortunately I was there with my camera to capture the moment.

So now I have to say good-bye to the Pisces and all the scientists and crew who helped make this an experience of a lifetime. There are so many science concepts, skills, and life lessons that I will be able to show my students through the pictures, discussions, and resources that all of you contributed to. I can’t wait to share these with my students and help them see how valuable the oceans are to the health of our planet. I feel very fortunate that our cruise had so many unique and interesting qualities like sighting a dead sperm whale and seeing the food chain in action, catching a diversity of reeffish including a yellowmouth grouper, and experiencing a small fire that was quickly under control by a prepared crew. And let’s not forget the perfect weather with most rainstorms staying far enough in the distance to capture them on camera in entirety. Even Alex who cut our trip short can be used as a teachable moment on hurricane season.

Certainly the most significant event is still gushing into the Gulf waters and the effects are largely unknown and will be felt for quite a while. I wasn’t expecting to see the actual Deepwater Horizon sight during this trip and was surprised when I walked up to the bridge and saw it looming on the horizon. Appropriately, a cloud was hanging over the sight and rain poured down obscuring the view for a while. When the clouds cleared and we got within 6 miles of the sight, I was struck by having the opportunity to see this environmental tragedy up close. It was sad to see, but I know that we will learn from this tragedy and if anything, it draws attention to a serious debate in our society: the pros and cons of our dependence and use of oil based products. The countless working and abandoned oil rigs that consistently dot the horizon also provide habitat for numerous fish species and the corals that support them. My students will be able to analyze and discuss this problem from the unique perspective that I have been given while on board the Pisces. I also believe this tragedy emphasizes the importance of the scientific work that NOAA does and will continue to do in the Gulf of Mexico.

A final thanks to Chief Scientist Paul Felts, Dr. Christopher Gledhill, Joey Salisbury, Jeneane Davis, and the officers and crew of Pisces for being so patient with our questions and making us feel so welcome on board. And thanks to Melinda, my fellow Teacher at Sea, for experiencing this amazing adventure with me.

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