Marsha Skoczek: There’s No Place Like Home, July 17, 2012


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6-19, 2012

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of Florida.
Date:  July 17, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  30.4587N
Longitude:  80.1243W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  26.8C (80.24 F)
Wind Speed:  10.8 knots (12.43 mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SE
Relative Humidity: 79 %
Barometric Pressure:  1017
Surface Water Temperature:  28.9C (84 F)

Science and Technology Log

South Atlantic MPAs

During the thirteen days we have been out to sea doing research, we have sent the ROV down both inside and outside of five different MPAs  from Florida to North Carolina and back again.  This allows the scientists to compare fish populations and densities both inside and outside of the MPAs.  Since we left Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida, we have been averaging a distance from shore of between 50 and 70 nautical miles.  It will be fourteen days until we see land once again.  From this distance, the ocean seems to stretch on forever.  Gazing at the beautiful blue water, it is easy to forget an entire other world lies beneath us.  Not all of the ocean floor is flat, there is a small percentage that does have some elevation and structure.  The type of structures on the ocean floor determine what types of species will live there.

For this mission, we have mainly been studying areas within the mesophotic zone of the ocean ranging from 40 to 150 meters (130 – 500 feet) below the surface.  Temperatures here range from 12 – 23 degrees Celsius (50-70 F). Very little sunlight reaches the mesophotic zone, but zooxanthallae are still able to photosynthesize at this depth.  Corals and sponges will also filter feed using the abundant particulate organic matter drifting in the water column they will filter out and eat the plankton.

Tomtates hide in crevices.

The multibeam images help the scientists determine where to launch the ROV.  Areas with a change in elevation tend to indicate that there are rock structures below the surface.  It is around these rocks that the majority of fish prefer to live, so these are often the areas at which the scientists chose to collect data.

The ridges we have seen range in height from 1 meter to 5 meters.  The fish really like areas in the rock that have cracks, crevices and overhangs for them to hide.  Many times as the ROV approached the fish, they would scurry into a nearby hiding place.  I can’t help but imagine that the ROV with its bright lights and unnatural features must seem like an alien spacecraft to these fish that have never had contact with humans before.  But ROVs aren’t the only thing that these fish need to hide from.  I noticed that the larger fish that are toward the top of the food chain were not as skittish as the smaller reef fish.  Sometimes amberjacks and scamp would even follow the ROV as if curious about we were doing.  And lionfish never budged as the ROV passed unless it happened to be sitting in the ROV’s path.

Lobster hiding in rock. Notice how his coloring resembles the reef behind him.

Eel hiding under sponge

Scorpionfish against Diodogorgia

The fish are not the only living things that like these rocky habitats.  Usually when there are rocky surfaces, we find sponges, corals, hydroids and algae growing on top.  These creatures not only give the reef its beautiful appearance, but they also help to provide habitat as well.

Notice how the flounder blends in with the sand?

Sand tilefish make their burrows in the rubble under the sand.

Spider crabs on sandy bottom

Species that live in the sandy bottom habitat have their own set of adaptations. Animals such as the flounder and sea cucumbers have skin colorations that match the speckled appearance of the sand itself.  Sand tilefish carve out burrows from the rubble beneath the sand.  The spider crabs have a carapace that mimics the texture of the rocks it lives near.  The stingrays, with their low profile, sit on the sandy bottom and use their mouth to scour the sand in search of crabs and clams to eat.

Lophelia at artificial reef

Anemone at artificial reef

artificial reef

Artificial habitats are also full of life.  At the shipwreck we visited, not only did we see fish living here, we also saw anemone, tube worms, Venus flytrap anemone, hermit crabs, eels, Lophelia coral to name a few.  Other man-made habitats can help rebuild coral reefs.  John Reed has placed reef balls on the Occulina Reef in an effort to rebuild the original reef damaged by bottom trawling. These reef balls provide a structure for the corals to anchor themselves to and give the fish places to hide. Even oil platforms can be considered as an artificial reef structure giving a wide variety of species a sturdy structure to call home.

 

Personal Log

The Science Party

While aboard the Pisces I have learned to identify well over 100 different species of fish and invertebrates.   Andy and Stacey quiz me as we are watching the live footage, and I think I finally can tell the difference between a reef butterfly and a bank butterfly.  John frequently hands me a text book and challenges me to look up the species we see on the ROV live feed.  I am extremely appreciative of everyone being so helpful and sharing their knowledge with me.  Each of the scientists have taken the time to answer all of the question that I have.  The crew of the Pisces has also been wonderful to work with.  Everyone has done their best to make me feel at home. This has been such an amazing experience, I am excited to bring it all back to the classroom this fall!  I will never forget my time on the Pisces.

Ocean Careers Interview

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed John Reed and Stephanie Farrington.

John Reed

Mr. Reed, What is your job title?  I am the Research Professor in the Robertson Coral Reef and Research Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University (FAU).

Why did you decide to become a marine biologist?  I always knew that I wanted a career where I could do my work outside.  My biggest influence came when I was around 13 – 14 years old, I remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” every Sunday night with my family and thinking that’s what I want to do!

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  Currently I am studying deep coral reefs as part of the Robertson Coral Reef and Research Program and several NOAA grants. My focus is primarily off the Florida coast and up through the Carolinas.  My objective is to protect and conserve deep sea coral ecosystems.  Around Florida alone, our group has discovered over 400 individual deep coral mounds some over 300 ft tall.  We have calculated that the area of these deep water reefs may exceed that of all the shallow water reefs in the United States combined.  These reefs habitats are incredibly diverse with hundreds of different species of bivalves, crustaceans and fish just to name a few.  Deep water hard corals grow very slowly, only about half an inch per year, core sampling has dated deep coral mounds at over 1,000,000 years old.  It is vital that we protect these deep reefs from destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling or energy projects.

I also manage the archives for the biomedical marine division at Harbor Branch where we have over 35,000 deep and shallow marine specimens from around the world.  Each specimen has video footage of it in its natural habitat (in situ from the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible), still photos, museum samples as well as several smaller samples for our biomedical research.  We have discovered novel compounds from some of these marine organisms which may be future cures for cancer or other diseases.  Currently our chemists and biologists are working on the chemical compounds that we discovered in a deep water sponge that grows off Florida.  In the lab it is potent against pancreatic cancer which is a very deadly disease.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I earned my Bachelors Degree in chemistry and biology from University of Miami and my Masters Degree in marine ecology from Florida Atlantic University.  My Masters Thesis was on The Animal-Sediment Relationship s of Shallow Water Lagoons and took me four years to study and wrote.  While working on my thesis, the Smithsonian had a branch at HBOI, so I would ask the scientists there for help in identifying the animals in my study.  Working with these scientists helped me make the connections that eventually get my job with HBOI.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have been fortunate enough to travel the world visiting over 60 countries and collecting thousands of marine samples for biomedical research at HBOI.  I have been able to dive in the Johns0n-Sea-Link submersible to depths of 3000 ft and scuba dive to 300 ft.  My research on the deep water Oculina coral reefs off the east coast of Florida allowed me to use our submersibles as well as lock-out diving to study the growth rate and fauna associated with these deep water coral.  It is very humbling that my research on these reefs helped to establish the Oculina Marine Protected Area which was the first marine protected area in the world to protect deep sea corals, and more recently the 24,000 sq. mile deep sea coral habitat area of particular concern off the southeastern U.S.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  Even if people tell you there are no jobs in marine biology, find a way to do it!  Follow what you are passionate about.  Get experiences as an undergrad, do internships, build your resume.  Make the effort!  Do things that are going to set you above everyone else.

When looking at graduate school, compare the course offerings of several universities.  Research the Principal Investigators (PIs) at those same schools and make contact with them.  Get a position as a Teaching Assistant or Lab Aide to build on your resume.  All of these things will help you to get the job you want once you graduate.

 

Stephanie Farrington

Ms. Farrington, What is your job title?  I am a biological scientist for John Reed at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  I accompany John on his research expeditions and help collect data.  When we return to HBOI, I analyze the data and program everything into GIS maps to give us a visual layout of the different habitats we saw and the species that live there.

What type of education did you need to get this job?  I earned my Bachelors Degree in biology and marine science from the University of Tampa.  My Masters Degree is in marine biology from the NOVA Southeastern University Oceanographic Center.  My thesis was on the Biogeography of the Straights of Florida which gave me a solid background in the marine invertebrates of our region.  This is one of the reasons John hired me to work with him.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  I have been fortunate to travel in our Johnson-Sea-Link submersible six times, twice sitting up front in the bubble, one dive went down to 1700 feet below the surface.  I have also been on 8 research cruises since I started at HBOI two years ago.  I also had the opportunity to sail on the Okeanos Explorer for three weeks.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  Marine biology is about collecting and analyzing data and doing research and there is so much cooler stuff in the ocean than just dolphins!

11 responses to “Marsha Skoczek: There’s No Place Like Home, July 17, 2012

    • Zooxanthellae are the tiny single-celled algae that live inside of shallow water corals. , The corals provide the zooxanthellae with a safe home and the compounds needed for photosynthesis. In return, the zooxanthellae provide the corals with the products of their photosynthesis. Without the benefits of this mutualistic relationship, the shallow water corals would not be able to build their hard, calcium carbonate skeletons. When corals become stressed, the zooxanthellae might leave the coral causing “coral bleaching” which can result in death to the coral.

  1. I have noticed that a lot of the fish camoflauge into their surroundings, does this occur more often than not?

    • Species that live in the sand either have created a burrow within the rubble beneath the sand that they can rapidly escape into when threatened. Others have low profiles and coloration that helps to camouflage them such as the flounder or sting ray.

    • I don’t know that I have a favorite, each of the scientists that I worked with had their own stories about the amazing projects they have been a part of. I learned a tremendous amount from all of them.

    • All of the species we saw were so interesting. One of the favorites I saw on the cruise were probably the cornet and trumpet fish. They are so slender and long. How did they evolve into that shape? What factors of that environment made they that way? These are some questions that I have about those two fish. The scorpion fish were also very cool. They are masters of camouflage that I found hard to pick out at first, but once I became familiar with them, I could see them sitting right there on the rocks, totally blending in. The one sting ray that we saw swimming at us while we had the ROV down on the reef was incredible. From out of the blue it seemed as though he were flying. He was totally unfazed by our presence and just kept right on swimming by. Very cool!

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