Allan Phipps: Teacher from South Florida to Test the Waters in Alaska! June 29, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Allan Phipps
Soon to be aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 23 – August 10, 2012

Mission:  Alaskan Fisheries Walleye Pollock Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise:  Bering Sea Shelf
Date:  June 29, 2012

Introductory Log

Greetings from Washington, D.C. and from South Florida!  My name is Allan Phipps and I am a teacher from South Plantation High School’s Everglades Restoration and Environmental Science Magnet Program in Plantation, Florida (part of the greater Fort Lauderdale metropolis area).  I teach Advanced Placement Environmental Science, a course entitled Solar & Alternative Energy Honors, and serve as a senior research advisor.

Allan Phipps at Capital Building in DC

Einstein Fellow Allan Phipps at the Capital Building in DC

This year, I have had the distinct pleasure to serve as an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow here in Washington, D.C. at the National Science Foundation.  While at the NSF, I have worked with both the Noyce Scholarship Program and the Math Science Partnership, both of which focus on improving the quality and quantity of highly qualified new STEM teachers in high-needs school districts across the country.  It has been a wonderful experience working at the NSF and with pre-service teachers.  I have also worked with the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching program that is operated through the NSF.  As a former PAEMST awardee, it was great to be able to work behind the scenes to reward outstanding teachers!  A highlight of my experience here in D.C. was when I spoke at the White House Environmental Education Summit!  I discovered the NOAA Teacher at Sea opportunity while here in Washington, D.C. working with the Einstein Fellows.

Solar Knight III racing at the Texas Motor Speedway

At South Plantation High, I am the sponsor of our Solar Knights Racing Team that has won 1st place in the nation twice in the past six years at the high school level Solar Car Challenge (see video below)!  We have been building and racing solar cars at the high school level for six years!  Two of the races we have competed in were cross-country, the latest of which went from Fort Worth, Texas to Boulder, Colorado over 7 days in July 2010.  Last year’s race was a track race at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Here I am with students helping deploy reef balls in south Florida.

I also sponsored our school’s Project ORB (Operation Reef Ball) and deployed thirty 500-1,500 lb concrete reef balls off the coast of

South Florida to encourage coral colonization and propagation to offset some of the damage done to our beautiful South Florida coral reefs.   Recently, I had the privilege of presenting a poster session about our Project ORB at the European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna, Austria!

One of my students, Carson Byers, takes the solar kayak out for a test drive.

One of my favorite senior projects was a solar-powered kayak, which would improve accessibility to the Florida Everglades as well as other coastal environments for persons with disabilities.  I really enjoyed this project as it blended my passion for alternative energy with my love for getting out on the water.  This project won the WOW Award at the Florida Solar Energy Center’s Energy Whiz Olympics!

Now, I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to sail aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska!  This will officially be the furthest north I have ever traveled!  As we experience climate change, particularly in areas near the poles where the effects of climate change are more dramatic, it is important to study these changes and how they affect economically important species such as the Alaskan or Walleye Pollock (Theragra chalcogramma).  Walleye Pollock is said to be the largest remaining supply of edible fish in the world, and is the fish used in high quality breaded and battered fish products, fish sticks, and surimi (also known as “imitation crabmeat”).  Many fast food restaurants commonly use Walleye Pollock in their fish sandwiches.  It is important that this fishery be monitored and maintained so that harvest remains sustainable.  I hope that I may enlighten my students about their impacts on the environment when they decide what they will eat so they may become more conscientious consumers.

What’s Next?

I am getting ready to head out to sea and am really looking forward to working with the scientists on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson!  While my blog will be geared towards my AP Environmental Science students, I hope that people of all ages will follow me along my journey as I learn about the science behind maintaining a sustainable fishery.  I also hope to inspire my own students, and others, about the career opportunities in STEM associated with NOAA.  Stay tuned!

Valerie Bogan: The Journey Ends, June 20, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Valerie Bogan
Aboard NOAA ship Oregon II
June 7 – 20, 2012

Mission: Southeast Fisheries Science Center Summer Groundfish (SEAMAP) Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
: Wednesday June 20, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Sea temperature 28  degrees celsius, Air temperature 26.4 degrees celsius.

 Science and Technology Log:

Well we have come to the end of the cruise so now it is time to tie it all the pieces together.  The Gulf of Mexico contains a large ecosystem which is made up of both biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) factors.  We studied the abiotic factors using the CTD which records water chemistry data and by recording information on the water depth, water color, water temperature, and weather conditions.  We studied the living portions of the ecosystem by collecting plankton in the bongo and neuston nets.  The health of the plankton depends on the abiotic factors such as water temperature and water clarity so if the abiotic factors are affected by some human input then the plankton will be unhealthy.  The trawl net allowed us to collect some larger organisms which occupy the upper part of the food web.  Some of these organisms eat the plankton while others eat bigger creatures which are also found in the trawl net.  Despite what they eat all of these creatures depend on the health of the levels below them either because those levels are directly their food or because those levels are the food of their food.

The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem

An illustration of how the food web in the gulf works. (picture from

The ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico has taken a couple of large hits in the recent past, first with Hurricane Katrina and then with the Deepwater horizon oil spill.  When an ecosystem has undergone such major events it is important to monitor the species in order to determine if there is an effect from the disasters.  Hurricane Katrina left its mark on the people of the Gulf coast but did minimal damage to the biotic parts of the ecosystem.  The effects of the deepwater horizon oil spill are still unknown due to the scope of the spill.

Today’s portion of the ship is the engine room.  I was recently taken on a tour of the engine room by William.  The ship is powered by two diesel engines which use approximately 1,000 gallons of fuel per day.  The ship obviously uses the engines to move from location to location but it also uses the energy to power generators which supply electrical energy, to air condition the ship and to make fresh water out of sea water.

The engines.

The twin diesel engines.



There are two vital positions on the Oregon II that I have not discussed, deck worker and engineer.  We could never have collected the samples that we did without the immense help of the deck workers.  They operated the winches and cranes that allowed us to deploy and bring back the nets which captured our samples.  The engineers kept the ship’s engines running, the electricity on, and the rooms cool.  Some of these men started out their careers as merchant marines.  A merchant marine is a person who works on a civilian-owned merchant vessel such as a deep-sea merchant ship, tug boat, ferry or dredge.  There are a variety of jobs on these ships so if you are interested in this line of work I’m sure you could find something to do as a career.  A few merchant marines work as captains of those civilian ships, guiding the ship and commanding the crew in order the get the job done.  More of them serve as mates, which are assistants to the captains.  These people are in training to one day become a captain of their own ship.  Just like on the Oregon II there are also engineers and deck workers in the merchant marines.  Engineers are expected to keep the machinery running while the deck workers do the heavy lifting on the deck and keep the ship in good condition by performing general maintenance.

During this cruise I have met a lot of people who have different jobs all of which are related to collecting scientific data.  The bridge is wonderfully staffed by members of the NOAA Corps.  These men and women train hard to be able to sail research ships around the world.  To find out more about a profession with the NOAA Corps go visit the Corps’ webpage.  There are a large number of scientists on board.  These scientists all specialize in the marine environment and there are many wonderful universities which offer degrees for this field of study.  Go here to get some more information on this scientific pursuit.  The engineers and deck crew keep the ship running. To learn about these professions go to The United States Merchant Marines Academy.  The stewards are instrumental in keeping the crew going on a daily basis by providing good healthy meals.  To learn more about working as a steward read about the Navy culinary school.  The ship could not continue to operate without each of these workers.  Nobody is more or less important than the next–they survive as a group and if they cannot work together the ship stops operating.

Personal Log

Well my journey has come to an end and it is bitter-sweet.  While I’m happy to be back on land, I’m sad to say goodbye to all of the wonderful people on the Oregon II.  When I was starting this adventure I thought two weeks was going to be a long time to be at sea, yet it went by so fast.  Although I’m tired, my sleep and eating schedule are all messed up, and I have some wicked bruises, I would do it again.  I had a great time and in a couple of years I have a feeling I will be once again applying for the Teacher at Sea Program.

It should be no surprise to those that know me best that I love animals which is why I volunteer at the zoo and travel to distant locations to see animals in the wild.  So my favorite part of the trip was seeing all the animals, both those that came out of the sea and those that flew to our deck.  So I’m going to end with a slide show of some amazing animals.


This pelican decided to stop and visit with us for a while.

angel shark

An angel shark

Moray eel

A moray eel

Bat fish

Two bat fishes of very different sizes.

Sand dollar

A sand dollar


A group of sea birds decide to hitch a ride for a while.

Andrea Schmuttermair: Tows Away! June 26, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Andrea Schmuttermair
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 22 – July 3

Mission: Groundfish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 26, 2012 

Ship  Data from the Bridge:
Latitude:  2805.26N
Longitude: 9234.19W
Speed:  10mph
Wind Speed:  5.86 knots
Wind Direction:   E/SE
Surface Water Salinity:  35.867 PPT
Air Temperature:  28.8 C
Relative Humidity: 86%
Barometric Pressure:  1010.51 mb
Water Depth:  96.5 m

Science and Technology Log


Sunrise on the Oregon II

Opisthonema oglinum, Lagadon rhomboides, Chloroscombus chrysurus…..yes, I have officially started dreaming about taxonomic names of our fish. It’s day 4 and I now have a much better grasp at identifying the variety of critters we pull up in our trawls. I am always excited to be out on deck when they bring up the trawl to see what interesting critters we catch. Surprises are great!

Do you want to know where the Oregon II is headed?

Check out Ship Tracker at

If you click on the link above, you can see the path that our ship is taking to hit all of our stations for the survey. We often have station after station to hit- meaning as soon as we are done sorting and measuring, we have to bring in the next catch. Because some stations are only 3-5 miles apart, we sometimes have to do “double dips”, where we put in the trawl for 30 minutes, pull it up, and put it right back in again.

It’s been interesting to note the variety of our catches. Croakers, bumperfish, and shrimp have been in high abundance the last 2 days as we were in shallower water. Before that we had a couple of catches that had a high abundance of pinfish. When we take our subsample, we typically enter data for up to 20 of that particular species. We take length measurements on each fish, and on every fifth fish. We will also weigh and sex it (if sexing is possible).

Shrimp in the Gulf

A comparison of the various sizes of shrimp we pull up from our trawls.

Shrimp waiting to be measures

A relatively small catch in comparison to the 200+ we’ve been pulling up recently.

When we were in shallower waters, we had a significant increase in the number of shrimp we brought up. Tuesday morning was the first catch that did not have well over 200 shrimp (this is because we’ve been moving into deeper waters).  For the 3 commercial shrimp, white (farfantepenaeus setiferus), pink (farfantepenaeus duorarum), and brown (farfantepenaeus aztecus), we take 200 samples, as opposed to our high-quantity fish, where we will only take 20 samples. For each of the commercial shrimp we catch, we measure, weigh and sex each shrimp. I’ve gotten very good at identifying the sex of shrimp- some of the fish are much more difficult to tell. The information we get from this survey will determine the amount of shrimp that boats can take during the shrimping season in Louisiana and Mississippi. During the first leg of the groundfish survey, the data collected determined the amount of shrimp that could be caught in Texas. The groundfish survey is crucial for the shrimping industry and for ensuring that shrimp are not overfished.

Students- think of the food chain. What would happen if we overfished and took out too many shrimp? (Hint: Think of predators and prey.)


The trawl net at sunrise

We’ve now started doing 2 different tows  in addition to our trawls. Some of the stations are trawl stations, whereas others are plankton stations.

The trawl on deck

Alex, Alonzo and Reggie unloading the trawl net.

At a trawl station, we lower the trawl from the stern down to the ocean floor. The trawl net is meant for catching larger critters that live at the bottom of the ocean. There is a chain, also known as a “tickler”, which moves lightly across the ocean floor to lure fish to leave their hiding spots and swim into our net. The trawl is down for 30 minutes, after which it is brought back on deck to weigh the total catch, and then brought back into the wet lab for sorting.

Another important mission of the groundfish survey is to collect plankton samples. To do this, we use a Neuston tow and a bongo tow.

neuston tow

The Neuston tow about to pick up a lot of Sargassum- oh no!

The Neuston tow has a large, rectangular frame with a fine mesh net attached to it. At the end of the net is a large cylindrical bucket, called a codend, with a mesh screen meant for catching the organisms. In comparison to the trawl net, which has openings of 41.4mm , the Neuston’s mesh is only 0.947mm. This means the mesh is significantly finer, meant for catching some of the smaller critters and plankton that would otherwise escape the trawl net. The Neuston tow is put on the surface of the water and towed for 10 minutes. Half the tow is in the water while half is out. We end up picking up a lot of Sargassum, or, seaweed, that is found floating at the water’s surface. When we gather a lot of Sargassum, we have to sift through it and spray it to get out any of the organisms that like to hide in their protective paradise.

Bongo tow

The bongo tow on deck waiting to be sent down to about 3m from the ocean floor.

After we’ve completed the Neuston tow, we do the bongo tow.  The bongo’s mesh is even finer than the Neuston tow’s mesh at only 0.333mm. The bongo has 2 parts- a left and a right bongo (and yes they do look a little like bongo drums- hence their name). The top part of the bongo is a large cylinder with an open bottom and top. The net is attached to this cylinder, and again at the bottom of each side is cylindrical tube  called codends meant to catch the plankton. The bongo tow is meant to take a sample from the entire water column. This means that instead of riding on the surface of the water, it gets sent down to about 3 meters from the ocean floor (there is a sensor at the top that is 2m from the bottom of the net)  and brought back up immediately.

Sifting through the sieve

The remnants from our Neuston tow. This is the sieve we use to weed out what we want and don’t want.

bongo leftover

Here are our 2 samples from the bongo tow. The left one is preserved in ethanol and the right is preserved in formaldehyde (10% formalin and sea water)

Neuston tow samples

Here is a sample from the Neuston tow. Carefully camouflaged are thousands of crab megalops, aka juvenille crabs.

For both tows, it is important to rinse the nets to get any lasting organisms we might not see with our own eyes into our sample. Once we’ve done this, we bring the tubes back into the wet lab where we continue to rinse them through a sieve so that only certain items are leftover. In the Neuston, we often find small fish (usually less than 3mm), baby shrimp, crabs and Jessica’s favorite, the Sargassum fish. Most recently a few flying fish got caught in our Neuston tow. Prior to pulling it up, I was enjoying watching them flit across the water- they were about all we could see in the water in the middle of the night. After being rinsed thoroughly through the sieve, we preserve them by placing the sample in a glass jar with either ethanol or formaldehyde solutions. They are preserved in ethanol for DNA work and in formaldehyde for long-term preservation. These samples are then saved to send to a lab in Poland, which is the sorting center for the SEAMAP samples.

Flying fish

Flying fish we pulled up in our Neuston tow at nighttime.

Personal Log

My stateroom

My sleeping quarters (top bunk), also known as a stateroom. My roommate is Kristin, one of the scientists on board.

Well, I think I am finally getting used to the schedule of working the night shift. I am thankful that my bunk is on the bottom floor of the ship- which means it is completely dark- so that I can sleep during the daytime. Yesterday was probably one of the least busy days we’ve had so far, and because we were in deeper waters, our trawls were much smaller. This means I had a little more time to work on my blogs, which at times can be hard to fit in. It amazes me that we have internet access on the ship, and it’s not even as slow as I expected. It goes down from time to time, especially when the waters are rough. We’ve been fortunate to have pretty calm waters, aside from the first day.

You may have heard about Hurricane Debby on the news as it prepared to hit the Gulf. On Sunday, we were heavily debating heading back to Galveston to “bunker down” and ride out the storm. However, the storm that was forming seemed to dissipate and head in a different direction, thank goodness.  I was not thrilled about the possibility of heading back to port!

We had our first drills the day after we set sail. The drills- fire and abandon ship are distinguished by different types of bells, similar to using Morse code. The abandon ship drill was fun. We got to put on our survival suit, which is like a big orange Gumby suit. It not only protects you in cold water, but also makes you highly visible. I remember reading some of the former TAS blogs, and this picture was always in. Of course, I’ve got to add mine as well.

Survival Suit

Here I am in my survival suit. Judd also decided to be in the picture. 🙂

I’ve been having fun exploring different areas of the ship, even though there is only so far you can go on the ship. Yesterday, I went up to the bridge, which is the front of the ship where the captain or the NOAA Corps officers steer the ship from. You can think of it like a control center of an airplane. There are navigation charts (both computerized and paper) and radars that help guide the ship so it knows what obstacles are out there. There is a great view from the bridge that you don’t get anywhere else on the ship. It’s also fun to watch the folks down on deck when they are deploying the CTD or either of the 2 tows.

We’ve caught such an abundance of critters, I thought I’d share some of my favorite catches thus far:

cownose ray

Here I am holding a cownose ray (Rhinoptera bonasus)- my favorite catch yet. He weighed about 25lbs! This one was the highlight of my day as rays are some of my favorite ocean critters!

Atlantic sharpnose shark

One of the 4 Atlantic sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) we’ve caught so far.

A sharksucker (Echeneis naucrates)- these guys hang onto sharks to catch a ride- he’s still alive so is able to hang onto my arm!

Critter Query Time!

Critter Query #1: What is a fathom (in your own words please)?

Critter Query #2: What are the differences between skates and rays?

Talia Romito: Preparing to Sail!, June 28, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Talia Romito
Onboard NOAA Ship R/V Fulmar
July 24– July 29, 2012

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Date: June 28, 2012

 Personal Log:

Here I am!

Here I am!

Greetings from Monterey, CA!  My name is Talia Romito and I teach Physics and Biology at Trinity Christian High School in Monterey, CA.  The upcoming school year will be my first year as a Warrior and I am really looking forward to it.  The students and staff are amazing and I hope to make a lot of new friends.

I applied to the NOAA Teacher At Sea program so I could get a first hand look at how scientists gather data to better understand the Earth’s environment, and more specifically conserve and protect the plentiful resources our oceans have to offer.

R/V FulmarOn my voyage I will be joining the crew and scientists aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Fulmar.  Click the name of the ship  to find out more about this amazing vessel and the work it allows NOAA to accomplish with the help of the crew and scientists.  We will be monitoring the ecosystems in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Cordel Bank National Marine Sanctuary

The Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary is collaborating with the PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory) Conservation Science and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in a monitoring effort called ACCESS (Applied Califronia Current Ecosystem Studies).

This monitoring program is amazing and I’m so excited to be a part of this work.  I’ve been preparing for a few months to go on this cruise; everything from a very comprehensive online training to increasing my daily workout routine to ensure I am well prepared for the adventure ahead.  The next time you hear from me I’ll be onboard the R/V Fulmar in the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries.  I plan to create some awesome lesson plans from my experience to teach students about what oceanography is all about! Cheers!

Lesley Urasky: Goodbye science team, Hello, Puerto Rico! June 25, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 25, 2012

Latitude: 18.4607
Longitude: -66.0921

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 29°C (84°F)
Wind Speed:   17 knots (20 mph), Beaufort scale:  5
Wind Direction: from NE
Relative Humidity: 73%
Barometric Pressure:   1,014.2 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 29°C (84°F)

Personal Log
Today I said goodbye to the scientists.  They are either flying home today or early tomorrow morning.  This particular research cruise is over, although each of them have several cruises  in the upcoming months.  I am continuing on with the ship to their next port at Mayport, Florida.
Originally, the ship was going to be in port in San Juan, Puerto Rico for two days.  Now, because of a DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) buoy retrieval in the Atlantic, only one day is planned.  The crew members are planning a variety of activities for this one day that range from catching up on much needed sleep (many of the night crew will be transitioning back to day shift), shopping, and sightseeing/adventure tours.
We arrived in San Juan around 9:30 last night.  We had to wait at the sea buoy for a cruise ship to come out of the harbor before we could proceed to our berth.  We docked at Navy Frontier Pier, or pier 14.  The next morning, I set out to explore Old San Juan.  Because we had docked further down the harbor than initially expected, I had about a mile long walk to get to Old San Juan.  As I neared the town, the buildings began to change from modern to an older style.  The first sign I was approaching Old San Juan was sighting the Castillo San Cristóbal.  It is one of the two fortresses that make up the San Juan National Historic Site.

San Cirstobal guard house overlooking the ocean

The San Juan National Historic Site is managed by the United States National Park Service and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Due to its location on the western edge of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico was key to Spain’s West-Indies claim.  It is sometimes referred to as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean”.  The larger fortress is called Castillo San Felipe del Morro.  If you’ve ever seen pictures of the San Juan and the fortress on the ocean, most likely, you’ve seen this one.  El Morro was designed to protect the city of San Juan from threats coming from the ocean, while San Cristóbal protected the city from land attacks.

Here I am at El Morro with San Juan in the background.

Drawing of a ship on the wall of the dungeon in San Cristobal

I spent some time touring San Cristóbal before walking along the remains of the fortified wall linking the two fortresses.  El Morro was very busy and the grounds were filled with kids at summer camp flying their kites on the grounds.    This, too, was a brief stop since I only had 4 hours to explore Old San Juan before my afternoon adventure.  After the fortresses, I was making my way down the hill to the town, and stopped to visit with a San Juan resident, Luis Serrano-Lugo.  He volunteered to show me his town and tell me some of the history; of course, who could refuse a local tour guide!?

Original ballast from Spanish ships make up the streets in Old San Juan

Old San Juan is a very colorful town – houses and buildings are painted in bright pinks, greens, yellows, and blues.  They are tall with ornate wrought iron balconies and heavy wooden doors and shutters.  The most interesting part to me, were the blue bricks making up the streets.  These bricks came over on Spanish ships as ballast (weight to keep the ship stable in the water and at the desired draft) and upon their return, when they were loaded with gold, they left the bricks behind.

Cemetery and houses of Old San Juan viewed from the battlements of San Cristobal

After my delightful tour with Luis, I headed off to my next adventure, ziplining in the rainforest!  The tour company I had booked for the tour picked me up at Plaza Colon in Old San Juan and off we headed to pick up other participants on our way to the rainforest.  The tour I took consisted of four components: a short kayak through a water lily laden lake, hiking through the rainforest, six canopy bridges, and five ziplines.  Along the way we saw termite mounds, birds, iguana, and my favorite – a millipede!  It was an unforgettable experience to be able to travel through the air looking at the surrounding rainforest.  There’s nothing like whizzing through the rain 205 feet above the ground to make you feel alive!

Iguana and bottle of Iguana-rid used to keep them off the canopy bridges and zipline platforms.

Here I am, coming in for a landing on the zipline in the rainforest outside of San Juan

Millipede in the rainforest

This evening, Kevin Rademacher, the Chief Scientist, and I went to dinner in Old San Juan at Raices for a traditional Puerto Rican dinner of mofongo.  This is a very traditional dish of green plantains fried up with lots of garlic and fried pork skin.  It is mashed together in a pilon (wooden mortar and pestle).  When the pestle is pulled out of the mortar, the depression left behind is filled with some type of meat, usually in a gravy sauce.  I had mine filled with shrimp in a mojo isleno style.  Again, thank you Kevin for helping me have such a memorable trip!

Mofongo served in a traditional pilon

After a short walk around Old San Juan to help digest our dinner, we headed back to the ship.  It was a jam-packed day with many new sights and experiences for me.  There’s only one way to sum up my experiences so far:

My thoughts exactly!

Lesley Urasky: Get that fish outta here! The invasive lionfish, June 24, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 24, 2012

Latitude: 19.8584
Longitude: -66.4717

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 29°C (84°F)
Wind Speed:   16 knots (18 mph), Beaufort scale:  4
Wind Direction: from SE
Relative Humidity: 76%
Barometric Pressure:   1,015.3 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 28°C (82°F)

Lionfish in its native habitat. ( Source: National Geographic; Photograph by Wolcott Henry)

Science and Technology Log

One of the species the scientists are continually scanning for in their videos is the appearance of the Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles); this is one fish they’re hoping not to see.  It is not native to these waters and is what is known as an invasive or exotic  species.

An invasive species is one that is not indigenous (native) to an ecosystem or area.  Many times these organisms are able to exponentially increase their populations because they may have no natural predators, competition for resources, or they may be able to utilize those resources not used by native organisms.  Most invasions are caused by human actions.  This may involve intentional introduction (many invasive plant species were brought in to create a familiar environment or crop/foraging source), accidentally (rats travelling on ships to distant ports), or unintentionally (people releasing pets that they can no longer take care of). Invasive organisms are problematic because:

  • They can reduce natural biodiversity and native species.
    • Push other species to extinction
    • Interbreed, producing hybrids
  • Degrade or change ecosystem functions
  • Economically:
    • They can be expensive to manage
    • Affect locally produced products causing a decline in revenue (decline of honey bees due to a mite infestation which, in turn, decreases pollination rates)

Within its native habitat, the Indo-Pacific region, the Lionfish  (Pterois volitans/miles) is not a problem because that is where they evolved.  It is in the family Family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes). They inhabit reef systems between depths of 10 m – 175 m.  During the day, they generally can be found within crevices along the reef; at night they emerge to forage in deeper waters, feeding upon smaller fish and crustaceans.

Native range of the Lionfish

Lionfish are venomous and when a person is “stung” by the spines on the dorsal fin, they experience extreme pain, nausea, and can have breathing difficulties.  However, a sting is rarely fatal.  Despite the hazards of the spines, Lionfish are a popular aquarium species.  The problem arises when pet owners irresponsibly get rid of the fish in their aquariums.  Instead of giving them away to pet shops, schools, organizations, or other fish enthusiasts, or contacting a local veterinarian about how to humanely dispose of them, they release them into a nearby marine body of water.  It’s important to realize that even the smallest, seemingly isolated act can have such large consequences.  Remember, if one person is doing it, chances are, others are too. The responsibility of owning an organism is also knowing how to manage it; we need to realize how to protect our marine habitats.

This is where the problem in the Atlantic began.  The occurrence of Lionfish was first noticed along the southeastern coast of Florida in 1985.  An invasive species is considered established when a breeding population develops.  Since their establishment in the waters off of Florida, they have rapidly spread throughout the Atlantic as far north as Rhode Island/Massachusetts , throughout the Caribbean, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Animated map depicting the spread of the Lionfish

While on our cruise every sighting of a Lionfish was cause for further examination.  There was one Lionfish that exhibited a behavior that Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist) had never seen before.  The fish was on the bottom and moving himself along instead of freely swimming.  Videos like this are instrumental in helping scientists figure out Lionfish behavior in their “new” environment as well as their interactions with the surrounding organisms and environment.  Hopefully, as this database continues to grow, scientists will develop new understandings of the Lionfish and its effect on the waters of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

Divers are encouraged to kill any Lionfish they encounter.  The only safe way to do this is from a distance (remember, their dorsal spines are venomous); usually, this is accomplished by using a spear gun.  The Commander of the Pisces, Peter Fischel,  was doing a final dive off the pier before we left St. Croix.  He saw three Lionfish, speared them, and brought them to the scientific crew for data collection.  These were frozen and placed in a Ziploc back for preservation.  They will be examined back at the lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Three Lionfish caught along the Frederickstad, St. Croix pier. (Notice the 6″ ruler for scale.)

Personal Log

The science portion of the cruise is coming to a close. Today was our last day of sampling.  As with yesterday, no fish were caught by the day crew, so we were able to begin cleaning and packing throughout the day instead of waiting until the end.  A few days after we arrive in Mayport, Florida, the Pisces will be going out on another cruise along the east coast.  On Sunday, July 1st, Joey Salisbury will be arriving in Mayport with a trailer to unload all the scientific equipment and personal gear from this research cruise.

Bandit reel with St. Thomas in the background

In addition to packing, the wet lab and deck have to be cleaned.  This entails scrubbing down the tables, coolers, and rails along the deck where we baited our hooks to remove all the fish “scum” that has accumulated over the past three weeks.  Between the four of us, we were able to make quick work of the job.  There is only one task left for me to do, and that is to take all of our leftover bait, Atlantic Mackerel, and throw it overboard once we are away from the islands.  (The bait has been used over the course of the past two years, and has essentially outlived its freshness.)

Day operations crew on the Pisces Caribbean Reef Fish Survey (left to right: Ariane Frappier, Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist), Joey Salisbury, and myself).

I want to thank all the scientists on the day operations crew and the deck hands for making me feel so welcome, being ever so patient as I learned how to bait hook, load the bandit reel, remove otoliths, sex  the fish, and answer every type of question I had.  They’re all amazing people and are passionate about their jobs.  Kevin was not only great at thoroughly answering any and all questions, but anticipated those I might have and brought interesting things to my attention.  Thank you everyone for an amazing experience that I’ll never forget!

Another incredible person that helped make my trip memorable is my roommate, NOAA Operations Officer, Kelly Schill.  She was very welcoming and made me feel immediately at home on the ship.  She gave me a thorough tour and introduced me to the crew.  I interviewed her briefly about her job in the NOAA Corps.

Kelly Schill, Operations Officer aboard the NOAA ship Pisces. (Source:

LU: Kelly, what is your job title and what do you do?

KS: I am a Lieutenant junior grade in the NOAA Corps.  The NOAA Corps is one of the 7 uniformed services and I serve as the Operations Officer aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces.

LU: How long have you been working with NOAA?

KS: I have worked for NOAA a total of 4 years; 3 of which were aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces as a NOAA Corps Officer. My first year, I was a physical scientist and developed geospatial visualizations to assist in the generation of navigational warnings and maritime safety information for Dangers to Navigation for the NOAA and contractor surveys.  I assisted NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson in the field with the acquisition, converting and cleaning of multi-beam and side-scan sonar data.

Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces, my responsibility is to be the liaison between the ship’s crew and scientific party to ensure the mission is carried out smoothly and efficiently.  A big part of my job is to handle the logistics and transportation, such as project planning and setting up dockage at different ports from Texas to the Caribbean up to Massachusetts. Most importantly, to continue to learn the intricacies of the ship, effectively operate, and practice safe navigation at all times.

LU: What background and skills are necessary for your job?

KS:  A Bachelors Degree of sciences.  You must complete a year of chemistry, physics and calculus.  Geographic information System (GIS) is equally important. To be well-rounded, internships or field research experience is highly recommended.

Kelly Schill showing off the otolith she just extracted from a Red Hind.

LU: What type(s) of training have you been through for your job?

KS: Being in the uniform service, I was sent to Basic Officer Training Course (BOTC) to learn military etiquette, terrestrial and celestial navigation, safety aboard ships, search and rescue, fire prevention, hands on experience in driving small boats up to larger vessels, etc.  Once out of BOTC and on an assigned ship, I was able to attend further training:  hazardous material courses, dive school, rescue swimming, and medical. There are many more opportunities that were offered. I have only touched on a few.

LU: Have you worked on other ships not associated with scientific research?  If so, what was your job and what type of ship was it?

KS: No, all my experiences were on ships regarding scientific research:  NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson (hydrographic ship) and the NOAA Ship Pisces (fisheries ship).

LU: Does being on a science research ship bring any specific/different expectations than being on another type of merchant ship?

KS: I am unfamiliar with the expectations on a merchant ship.  Generally, the research vessels are used to support studies intended to increase the public’s understanding of the world’s oceans and climate. Research vessels are not set on a point A to point B system. Various operations are conducted from fisheries, bathymetry, oceanographic, to marine mammal data collection.   These various research projects dictate operation area.  Contrary to research vessels, merchant ships usually have a set destination, from point A to point B transporting cargo of one type or another.

LU:  We are in the middle of a huge ocean, and our destination – a specific sampling site – is a pinpoint on a map. What has to be considered to make sure you get to the exact location?

NOAA ship Pisces ECDIS map. This is a nautical map that is updated monthly.

Closeup of navigational maps showing the location of our sampling sites.

KS:  We use a number of tools: ECDIS, Rosepoint, paper charts, GPS, Dynamic Positioning, and of course manual operation. The scientists will provide a location where they want the ship to be for operations to take place. We use all navigational tools to navigate to that position by creating a route, based on a good GPS feed. Navigational tools include: ECDIS (shows an electronic vector chart), Rosepoint (shows an electronic raster chart), and paper charts.  Multiple navigational tools are for redundancy to ensure safe navigation.

All routes are created on the side of safety to avoid collision with shoals, wrecks, land, neighboring ships, platforms, buoys, obstructions, etc. Once, we are close to our sampling station, the ship is set up into the wind or the current (whichever force is stronger), reduce propulsion, turn rudder hard over to one side to assist in the reduction of propulsion and to line up on a heading in favor of wind or current. The bow thruster can assist in turns as well. Depending on how strict the mission is to hold an exact coordinate, the dynamic position is dialed in and activated.  Otherwise, the watch stander will manually control the engine speed, bow thruster, and rudder to maintain position utilizing outside forces, such as wind, swell, wave state, and currents.

The ship’s radar. The yellow objects at the bottom are St. Thomas and its surrounding small islands, while other vessels will appear in green.

LU: Once we reach a site, what do you need to do to maintain that position during the sampling process?

KS: Every ship has its perks and not all are the same in maintaining a position during the sampling process. Our ship has dynamic positioning (DPS) which uses the rudder, propulsion, and a bow thruster simultaneously to hold position. However, just like any software system, it only works as well as the operator.  The parameters have to be just right to accomplish this goal.  Parameters are set up based on wind speed, swells, sea state, and currents.  All must jive for a positive outcome. Our ship works more efficiently facing into the wind or current; whichever force is the strongest. If both are strong, we split the difference. Should either the bow thruster, main engine, or steering fail, the dynamic position will not properly compensate.

Dynamic Positioning System (DPS) screen. This instrument helps hold the ship at a precise location.

Kelly, thanks for the interview as well as being a great role model for women!  Remember, girls, if you want it, go get it!

Susan Kaiser: Introduction: A 7th Grade Memory, June 26, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Kaiser
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 24 – August 4, 2012

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical area of the cruise: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Date: Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A California coast tide pool.

A California coast tide pool.
Can you find the Sculpin fish?

My first ocean encounter happened while on an overnight field-trip to San Francisco in 7thgrade. Our Science Club traveled from Reno, Nevada by school bus to visit a museum, the Fisherman’s Wharf, and the tide pools on the coast. I had no idea how this experience would eventually impact my life. Our teachers, who were our guides, lead the group to a steep drop off where the land ends and the beach lies below.  Carefully we picked our way single file down a worn path cutting through a sea of ice plants descending slowly to the sandy shore. Outcroppings of rocks trapped the cold ocean water, forming small natural containers for water AND living sea organisms.  We had to step carefully to be sure of our footing and to avoid crushing the live inhabitants of these rocks. California mussels closed tight to preserve their moisture, and slippery seaweed covered most of the rock surface. They were waiting for the sea level to rise again. Peering into the sparkling pools revealed spiny purple sea urchins, colorful sea stars and tiny crabs, betrayed by their movement across the pool bottom. Seeing these organisms up close was amazing to me and created a lifelong memory.  It awakened a curiosity about living things that inspired me to study biology in college and become a science teacher.

I am Susan Kaiser and I teach 7th grade Life Science at Pine Middle School in Reno, Nevada. Soon, I will be embarking on a voyage that combines all of these elements: biology, sea organisms and teaching. It promises to be even more memorable than my first trip to a tide pool.  Best of all, I get to bring my students at Pine along with me! Well, at least through this blog…read along and see what is in store.

Since, 1990 NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has been including teachers on board their research vessels through a unique program called Teacher at Sea. Each year teachers apply from across the county and about 25 are selected to participate. After several years of wanting to apply, I finally mustered my courage and completed an application. I am proud to have been selected and will sail aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster leaving from the port of Key West, Florida.  I will have the opportunity to observe and learn about organisms in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with the help of the crew and scientists led by chief scientist, Scott Donahue. Their research includes monitoring sensitive marine organisms over a long period of time. In this way, scientists can detect population changes that may occur due to extreme events such as hurricanes, harmful algal blooms (HAB) or more recently, impacts of possible oil spill contamination. You can see that I have some homework to do to prepare for this adventure. I am reading the websites you can click on and learning all I can to contribute to the success of the mission.

Kaiser Family snorkeling in 2005

Here we are snorkeling and meeting a ray in 2005! That is me on the left. Then my sons, Nathan and Stefan, my daughter, Rachel, and my husband , Phillip.

If it could get any more exciting, I saved the biggest news for last. In addition to working alongside the scientists and living on an ocean-going vessel for two weeks,  I may also have the opportunity to snorkel in the coral reef study areas. To be truthful, my snorkeling skills are a little rusty. Living in the desert makes it a challenge to stay in practice! The last time I snorkeled was on a family vacation in 2005. But not to worry, I have a plan. I have been spending time at the pool practicing with the snorkel equipment I borrowed from my friend and colleague at Pine Middle School, Jencie Fagan. It turns out that Ms. Fagan is SCUBA certified and willing to help me build my skills before I set sail next month. Thank you Ms. Fagan, you rock!

My snorkeling tutor

Me and my snorkeling tutor, Jencie Fagan.
Photo by Larissa Hirning

It is time for my practice session at the pool. The next time you read my blog I will be writing from the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. Join me on this  adventure of ocean learning. What memory will you make of your 7th grade year in Science?