NOAA Teacher st Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14th – 30th, 2013
Mission: SEAMAP Plankton Study
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, May 13th, 2013
Science and Technology Log:
I’m finally aboard the Oregon II!
Today I got a sneak preview from the lead scientist, Andy, of the labs and some of the equipment that we’ll be using to collect plankton once we’re underway. There are three labs where we’ll be doing science for the next 17 days: the dry lab, the wet lab, and the chem lab. The dry lab, where I’m sitting and typing right now, is a room with computers that are used to remotely monitor the depths of the nets once they have been dropped, and to record data about those drops. The wet lab is where samples of plankton are preserved in jars to be sent back to shore and studied. The chem lab is where chlorophyll is separated from plankton samples.
I got to see the CTD, which is a unit that collects water at specific depths in order to measure physical characteristics of the water, such as salinity, fluorescence, temperature, and dissolved oxygen. I’m looking forward to learning more about this physical data and why it is important once we are underway.
Andy also showed me the nets we will use to collect plankton. All of the nets are large and heavy and are raised and lowered by winches that are operated by the ship’s crew. The first is a Bongo net. If you’ve ever seen bongo drums, you can get a sense of what this unit looks like: two side-by-side nets with round openings. The nets themselves are shaped like cones, and we’ll attach a bottle called a cod end on the end of each to capture all of the plankton from the nets. Then there are two Neuston nets, which have large, rectangular openings. The regular Neuston net will be towed along the surface, and the Subsurface Neuston will be towed in a pattern at various depths, as will the Bongo. The unit that I am most excited about is the MOCNESS. This big frame holds up to ten nets, which can be opened and closed at certain depths; that way, we can collect samples from various depths and monitor plankton at separate locations and at specific depths in the water column. In the other nets, you know what you get and where it came from, but not how deep it was.
The water column is an idea that scientists use to think about and study the ocean from top to bottom, or from the surface to the ocean floor. When you think about the water column, imagine the ocean as an aquarium, and you’re looking into it and seeing the organisms that live at different depths and what the water is like at those depths.
The reason that the MOCNESS is so exciting to me is that it reminds us that the water in the ocean is not just a uniform mixture all throughout; different creatures live at different depths, and in different numbers at those depths. It’s easy to imagine that creatures that are benthic – meaning, they live on the ocean floor – will vary depending on where they are in the world and how deep the ocean floor is in that spot. It’s harder to imagine that pelagic organisms – those that live in the water column, neither at the very surface, nor at the bottom or at the shore – will also vary greatly depending on depth and location. The water itself is different as well; the temperature of the water and the amount of salt, light and oxygen changes with depth.
Challenge Yourself: Here’s a challenge for my Nature Exchange Traders: go on into the Nature Exchange and explain the terms water column, benthic and pelagic to earn some bonus points. Tell them Emmi sent you!
Flying over Alabama on the descent into Mobile on Sunday, I was struck by how much water there was everywhere below me. Everywhere I looked, there were slow, meandering rivers, sparkling ponds, lakes and streams. At times when I thought I was looking down on a forest, I saw the sun reflecting off of water blanketing the ground beneath the trees and shrubs. I was even struck by the number of puddles in parking lots and lining the streets. I kept thinking that, living in the desert, I’m just not used to seeing so much water – and I hadn’t even reached the harbor yet! It was as if I was being slowly introduced to the world that I’m about to live in for the next 17 days.
I’ve been aboard the Oregon II at dock for just a few hours now, and I’m already overwhelmed with fascination, excitement, curiosity, and anticipation. I started the morning at my hotel feeling very nervous, knowing that I was about to experience a rush of newness: new people, places, sights, sounds, rules, routines, you name it. I told myself just to take a deep breath and take it in one thing at a time, and that really helped me to enjoy the experience. Now the nerves are mostly gone and I’m just very much looking forward to the ship’s departure tomorrow afternoon!
To my great fortune, I’ve already found everyone I’ve met to be incredibly kind and friendly. I got to meet some of the NOAA lab scientists who study the plankton that is collected from the Gulf, as well as field scientists Alonzo and Glenn, with whom I’ll be working the night shift on the Oregon II. Last but not least is Andy, the lead scientist for this cruise, who helped plan logistics for my arrival, gave me a tour of the ship and helped me get situated on board.
The folks I’ve met on board are from all over the United States. Some of them came to Pascagoula to work for NOAA to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; some came as part of their graduate school studies. Everyone I’ve met either has or is pursuing an advanced degree, so the intelligence on board the ship is impressive. As challenging as it can be to for the scientists to be away from home for more than a hundred days out of the year, all of them have some level of appreciation for doing field work. Not all of the scientists who study plankton in Pascagoula are able to leave the lab to go on the cruises, so I am even more grateful that I have the honor of taking part. I’m also extremely grateful to learn that I will be of help to the team. Because of limited staffing and budgets, the science team depends on teachers, like me, to provide extra sets of hands during the field work.
I’ll be staying in Stateroom 5 for this cruise, which I’ll share with a volunteer scientist named Jana. “Stateroom” is the word used for a bedroom on a ship. The stateroom is small, as expected, but it actually feels like it’s the perfect size. All of my belongings are unpacked in drawers and cabinets, and they all fit just fine. There’s a bunk with two beds, a sink, and three storage cabinets. Two of the cabinets are entirely for our use, and one mostly holds safety gear and flotation devices. There is enough floor space that I could lay on the floor and do snow angels, so there will be plenty of room to move around. I don’t expect to be spending all that much time in the stateroom once we are underway.
Time has taken on a whole new meaning in the past two days. Yesterday morning I left Las Vegas in the Pacific Time Zone and flew to Atlanta in the Eastern Time Zone, then to Mobile in the Central Time Zone. It was almost like time travel. After we embark tomorrow, I’ll start my work schedule, which will have me on duty from midnight to noon every day. Work goes on around the clock on NOAA vessels. This schedule will take some getting used to, but as a morning person, I am excited that I’ll be awake and active for my favorite part of the day, and I’ll get to watch the sun rise. Right now, I’m attempting to stay awake for my entire first night on the ship so that I can get on my work schedule right away. To add another level of confusion to my sense of time, ship crews observe 24-hour military time instead of using AM and PM. Numbers are difficult for me and don’t come naturally, so this will take some getting used to.
Just being on the ship feels quite surreal. As I write this at 23:33hrs, there are just a handful of people on board, and we are still at dock. Every once in a while some subtle movement reminds me that this is a ship in the water, but mostly it feels like solid ground. I know that will change once we get moving. Aside from the obvious signs, there are other little reminders that this is a ship, where everything must be secured for rougher waters. Computers and monitors are strapped and bolted to the tables, there are gripper pads spread out on tables and in drawers, and every door, from drawers and cabinets to staterooms, has to be latched shut and unlatched to open, and open doors have to be secured with a hook so that they don’t slam shut when the ship shifts. There’s also a constant hum of noise on the Oregon II. I’m interested to see how loud it is when we’re actually moving!
The adventures in science begin tomorrow!
Did you know?
Bluefin tuna plankton are a type of ichthyoplankton, which comes from the Greek words for “fish drifters.” For those of you in Nevada, think of our state fossil, the ichthyosaurus, which means “fish lizard!”