Caitlin Fine: Flexibility! August 6, 2011


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Fine
Aboard University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith
August 2 – 7, 2011

Mission: South Florida Bimonthly Regional Survey
Geographical Area: South Florida Coast and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 6, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 4:24pm
Air Temperature: 31.6°C
Water Temperature: 32.6°C
Wind Direction: Southwest
Wind Speed:  4 knots
Seawave Height: calm
Visibility: good/unlimited
Clouds: partially cloudy (cumulous and cirrus clouds)
Barometer: 1013nb
Relative Humidity: 62%

Science and Technology Log

Many of you have written comments asking about the marine biology (animals and plants) that I have seen while on this cruise. Thank you for your posts – I love your questions! In today’s log, I will talk about the biology component of the research and about the animals that we have been finding and documenting.

We have another graduate student aboard, Lorin, who is collecting samples of sargassum (a type of seaweed).

Sargassum sample from Neuston net tow

There are two types of sargassum. One of those types usually floats at the top of the water and the other has root-like structures that help it attach to the bottom of the ocean.

Lorin is filtering a sample from the Neuston net in the web lab

We are using a net, called a Neuston net, to collect samples of sargassum that float. The Neuston net is towed alongside the ship at the surface at specific stations. This means that the ship drives in large circles for 30 minutes which can make for a rocky/dizzy ride – some of the chairs in the dry lab have wheels and they roll around the floor during the tow!

Towing the Neuston net along the side of the ship

Lorin and other researchers are interested in studying sargassum because it provides a rich habitat for zooplankton, small fish, crabs, worms, baby sea turtles, and marine birds. It is also a feeding ground for larger fish that many of you may have eaten, such as billfish, tuna, and mahi mahi.

Small crab that was living in the sargassum

The net not only collects sargassum, but also small fish, small crabs, jellyfish, other types of seaweed, and small plankton.

Small fish from the Neuston net

Plankton can be divided into two main categories: zooplankton and phytoplankton. As I  said in my last post, phytoplankton are mostly very small plants or single-celled organisms that photosynthesize (they make their own food) and are the base of the food chain. Zooplankton are one level up on the food chain from phytoplankton and most of them eat phytoplankton. Zooplankton include larva (babies) of starfish, lobster, crabs, and fish.

Small zooplankton viewed through the dissecting microscope

We also use a Plankton net to collect samples of plankton. This has a smaller mesh, so it collects organisms that are so small they would fall through the Neuston net. Scientists are interested in studying the zooplankton that we catch in the Plankton net to understand what larger organisms might one day grow-up and live in the habitats we are surveying. They study the phytoplankton from the Plankton net to see what types of phytoplankton are present in the water and in what quantities.

Washing off the Plankton net

Today we collected so many diatoms (which are a type of phytoplankton) in the Neuston net that we could not lift it out of the water! This tells us that there are a lot of nutrients in the water (a diatom bloom) – maybe even harmful levels. I am bringing some samples of the diatoms and zooplankton home with me so we can look at them under the microscopes at school!

Evidence of a diatom (phytoplankton) bloom in the Gulf of Mexico

The marine biologists on this cruise are mainly interested in looking at phytoplankton and zooplankton, but we also have seen some larger animals. I have seen many flying fish skim across the surface of the water as the boat moves along. I have also seen seagulls, dolphins, sea turtles, cormorants (skinny black seabirds with long necks), and lots of small fish.

Small flying fish from the Newston net

Personal Log

Working as an oceanographer definitely demands flexibility. I have already mentioned that we chased the Mississippi River water during our second day. After collecting samples, we had to find blue water (open ocean water) to have a control to compare our samples against.  We traveled south through the night until we were about 15 miles away from Cuba before finding blue water. All of this travel was in the opposite direction from our initial cruise plan, so we have had to extend our cruise by one day in order to visit all of the stations that we need to visit inside the Gulf of Mexico. This has meant waking-up the night shift so we can all change their airplane tickets and looking at maps to edit our cruise plan!

Changes to our cruise plan on the survey map

Many of you are writing comments about sharks – I have not seen any sharks and I will probably not see any. The chief scientist, Nelson, has worked on the ocean for about 33 years and he has sailed for more than 1,500 hours and he has only seen 3 sharks. They mostly live in the open ocean, not on the continental shelf where we are doing our survey. If there were a shark nearby, our ship is so big and loud that it would be scared away.

Playing with syringodium

Today I saw a group of about 4 dolphins off the side of the ship. They were pretty far away, so I could not take pictures. Their dorsal fins all seemed to exit the water at the same time – it was very beautiful. A member of the crew spotted a sea turtle off the bow (front) of the ship and I saw several different types of sea birds, especially seagulls.

Yesterday afternoon we passed through the Gulf of Mexico near the Everglades and there were storm clouds covering the coastline. The crew says that it rains a lot in this part of the Florida coast and that Florida receives more thunderstorms than any other state. It is strange to me because I always think of Florida as “the sunshine state.”

Grey sky and green water in the Gulf of Mexico

The color of the ocean has changed quite a lot during the cruise. The water is clear and light blue near Miami, clear and dark blue farther away from the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, cloudy and yellow-green in coastal Gulf of Mexico, and cloudy and turquoise in the Florida Bay. Scientists say that the cloudiness in coastal Gulf of Mexico is caused by chlorophyll and the cloudiness in the Florida Bay is caused by sediment.

It has been hot and sunny every day, but the wet lab (where we process the water samples and marine samples), the dry lab (where we work on our computers), the galley and the staterooms are nice and cool thanks to air conditioning! I can tell that I am getting used to being at sea because now when we are moving, I feel as though we are stopped. And when we do stop to take measurements, it feels strange.

Did you know?

NOAA does not own the R/V Walton Smith. It is University of Miami ship that costs NOAA from $12,000 to $15,000 a day to use!

Organisms seen today…

–       Many sea birds (especially seagulls)

–       2 cormorants (an elegant black sea bird)

–       10-12 dolphins

–       1 sea turtle

–       Lots of small fish

–       Lots of zooplankton and phytoplankton (especially diatoms)

–       Sargassum and sea grass

One response to “Caitlin Fine: Flexibility! August 6, 2011

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