Caitlin Thompson: A Calm Day at Sea, August 9, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Thompson
Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
August 1 — 14, 2011

Mission: Pacific Hake Survey
Geographical Area: Pacific Ocean off the Oregon and Washington Coasts
Date: August 9, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge

Bringing in the net
Bringing in the net

Lat. 47 degrees 42.4 N
Long. 125 degrees 51.3
Present weather: cloudy
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind direction: 322
Speed 18 kts
Sea wave height: 3-4 feet
Swell waves – direction: 320
Swell waves – height: 4-5 feet
Sea water temperature: 16.7 degrees C
Sea level pressure: 1019.7 mb
Temperature – dry bulb: 14.9 degrees C
Temperature – wet bulb: 13.2 degrees C

Science and Technology Log

Mola Mola
A mola mola, like the one I saw from deck.

Today the ocean was crystal clear and the sky partly clear. I saw amazing creatures floating on the still surface of the water — salps, mola mola, and jellies. Mola mola, also called sun fish, are flat and float on the surface of the water, seeming to sun themselves, eating jellyfish. The water was speckled with salps, identifiable by their small, jelly-like bodies and dark center. When Jennifer saw the salps, she groaned, explaining that their presence suggests a relaxation in the winds that drive upwelling. Less upwelling means fewer nutrients for the whole marine system. I spent the whole day trying to wrap my head around the fact that the slight winds I feel every day drive such an enormous system as coastal upwelling, and that one peaceful day could cause so many salps to be floating on the surface.

Black-footed albatross, like the one I saw
Black-footed albatross, like the one I saw

Usually there are enormous black-footed albatross all around the ship. Albatross, one of the biggest birds in the world, spend most of their lives at sea, coming to shore only to breed. The albatross I see may be nesting on remote Pacific islands, traveling many days to gorge themselves on fish off the West Coast before returning to their nests. They come to our waters because of all the fish here due to upwelling. An albatross can be away from the nest as many as seven days, returning to regurgitate fish from its stomach, which the chicks will eat. Like many seabirds, albatross fly extremely efficiently. They rise and sink repeatedly as they fly to use the energy from the wind. They also use the rising air that comes off of waves for more lift. I see them soaring without moving their wings, so close to the water that they disappear from view behind small waves. Before flapping, they seem to tilt upward, and even so, their wings appear to skim the water. A windless day like today is a hard day for an albatross to fly, so they stay on the water. I saw very few, all in grounded groups.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Instead of albatross, I saw many small diving birds, especially when we came close to the beautiful, jagged coast of the Quillayutte River and La Push, Washington. I saw tufted puffins in bright breeding plumage, surfacing on the water for a few minutes before bobbing back under for surprisingly long times. The day before we set sail, Shelby and I visited the Newport Aquarium, where we saw tufted puffins in the arboretum. We saw the puffins swim through the water in the arboretum, wings flapping as if they were flying. We told a volunteer we were headed to sea. She said to look for single puffins close to shore. This time of year, puffins are nesting in pairs, making nests in burrows in cliff faces this time of year. While one puffin stays in the nest, its mate goes to sea, eats its fill of fish, stuffs about another seven fish in its beak, and returns to feed its chicks. The puffins I saw certainly looked like they were hard at work hunting for fish.

Deploying the Tow Fish
Deploying the Tow Fish

Today I helped deploy two sonar devices that I haven’t seen before, a sub-bottom profiler called a tow fish, and an Expendable Bathythermograph (XBT). The tow fish is a sub-bottom profiler, meaning that it sends a signal to map the bottom of the ocean. The scientists on the acoustics team are using it to look for fish. We backtracked over a section where we fished yesterday and dragged the tow fish alongside the ship. The data from the tow fish will be analyzed later, and proofed against the information from the haul and the other sonars. As usual, the goal is to be able to use the data to identify specifies with more and more accuracy.

XBT
Alicia showing me how to launch the XBT

The XBT is a probe that measures the temperature of the water. Falling at a known rate, it sends the temperature back through two small copper wires, which can be graphed as a function of temperature vs. depth in order to find the temperature profile of the water. Because the XBT looks vaguely like a gun, Larry left earplugs and a mask out for me, warning me about the explosion I was about to make. However, Alicia was in charge. She said, “There’s a hazing that happens with the XBT. I’m a bad liar. You don’t need this stuff.” So I went out on deck in just a life jacket and hardhat, which are required when doing any operation on deck. Once the technology tech radioed that the XBT had fallen to the necessary depth, I broke the copper wires. They were so thin I could cut them by rubbing them between my fingers.

Shelby
Shelby taking algae samples

Shelby, my roommate and a student Western Washington University, showed me her work measuring harmful algal blooms (HAB). While algae and other phytoplankton are essential to marine ecosystem because as primary producers, some algae produce domoic acid. Domoic acid is toxic to marine life and humans. Using surface water collected outside the boat and pumped into a hose in the chemistry lab, Shelby filters the water and saves the filter paper for further analysis of domoic acid and chlorophyll. A NOAA scientist will compile her data in an effort to map HAB along the West Coast. Shelby is a volunteer, one of four college students who each collect the data for one leg of the journey.

Personal Log

Fish Prints
Rebecca teaching me to make fish prints from the yellow-tails we had caught

Life aboard the Shimada seems to suit me very well. Every time I ask a question, which is often, I learn something new, and every time I look outside, I see something I never saw before. Yesterday, I ran into Rebecca in a hallway. Excited, she said, “There’s a P3 about to launch a sonobuoy!” I asked her to repeat. She said, “There’s a P3 about to launch a sonobuoy!” I stared at her. She said, “A plane is dropping stuff. Go outside and watch.” We both had to laugh about that one. Outside, I quickly learned that a marine ship had called the bridge to ask if we would help with a mission to drop a sonobuoy. A sonobuoy is a  listening device. With a parachute attached, it drifts into the ocean, where it floats, using passive sonar to report the location of objects like submarines. The day was shockingly beautiful, so a number of us stood on the very top deck of the ship, called the fly bridge or, jokingly, the beach. We watched the airplane circling us and watched the drifting clouds and diving birds. Several people declared it the flattest water they had ever seen in these parts.

I am happy to say that, with beginner’s luck, I won the first match of cribbage, placing me in semi-finals, and have started staying up in the evenings playing cards with other people on board.

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