Patty McGinnis: Women Scientists on the Ocean Starr, May 27, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Patty McGinnis
Aboard R/V Ocean Starr
May 20 – 29, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Rockfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Point Reyes, CA
Date: Monday, May 27, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 38 09.465 ° N
Longitude: 123 01.204 ° W
Air Temperature: 10.2 Celsius
Wind Speed: 17 knots
Wind Direction: North
Surface Water Temperature:  9.8 Celsius
Weather conditions: clear

Science and Technology Log

If you had asked me ahead of time to predict the percentage of males and females aboard the Ocean Starr, I would have surmised that males would make up the majority. While it is true that most of the crew is male, my scientist co-workers are primarily female.

Lyndsey
Lyndsey is dressed to go out on deck

Lyndsey Lefebvre is a fisheries biologist who works for the Groundfish Analysis Team. Her primary job is to study the age and growth of rockfish and flatfish species such as sanddabs to support fishery assessments. Lyndsey ages fish by removing their ear bones, or otoliths. Otoliths contain annual rings, much like a tree. The ear bones are prepared by breaking them in half and holding them over an open flame to darken them; the rings are tiny so a microscope is required to count the rings. Lyndsey explains that this work is important because studying the age structure of a population over time can yield insights into the population’s health. Fish populations that are heavily fished tend to be smaller and younger. Lyndsey is also concerned with reproductive biology such as when and how frequently fish spawn. She studies the blackgill rockfish, a long-lived fish that has internal fertilization. Females give birth to live young once a year, but Lyndsey is trying to determine if a female’s health or environmental conditions impact the numbers of young produced. In contrast, the Pacific sanddab releases eggs on a daily basis for up to six months of the year. Lyndsey says that although she enjoys field work, that about 90% of her work is microscope work done in the laboratory. She likes to listen to audio books or music to help pass the time. Lyndsey says that being a fisheries biologist is a great career. If you think you are interested in such a career, try volunteering doing any type of naturalist work and make as many contacts as you can.

Amber
Amber shows a squid jig

One of NOAA’s better kept secrets is the NOAA Corps. The Corps, which is run by the Department of Commerce, consists of approximately 340 commissioned officers who are involved in operating one of NOAA’s ships or piloting a NOAA plane. Amber Payne has been in the NOAA Corps since she graduated four years ago with a degree in marine biology from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Amber first became interested in working on marine vessels through her involvement with a Search and Rescue extracurricular club while in college. She considered entering the Coast Guard, but was drawn to the NOAA Corps because it requires a science background. Amber enjoys the many opportunities the Corps has provided, including training and traveling. She recently obtained a 1600 ton Mate’s License which will enable her to work for a private company if she ever decides to leave the Corps. Amber is currently on shore duty as operations officer at the Fisheries Ecology Division which is part of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. In addition to running the Small Boats Program, Amber helps out Lyndsey in the fisheries lab. Recently Amber took a freshly-caught Humboldt squid to an elementary school where she dissected it for the students. She’s pictured above holding a contraption known as a “squid jig” that is used to catch Humboldt squid. Amber’s words of wisdom: always carry a knife and a flashlight with you when on a boat!

Jamie Lee works the day shift so I don’t see much her except at meals. She smiles delightfully as she tells me that her interest in oceanography sprang from watching “Finding Nemo” as a child.

Jamie
Jamie at work in her floating lab

Jamie is currently a graduate student at San Francisco State University; she attended Stonybrook University in New York as an undergraduate. This is Jamie’s first time on a boat and she is unfazed by its ceaseless motion. Her role on this mission is to assess chlorophyll levels. Chlorophyll is used as an indicator of primary productivity, which dictates how much food is available for ocean organisms. Jamie takes the water samples collected by the CTD and pours the water through a filter to extract chlorophyll from all the phytoplankton in the sample. Jamie tells me that this work must be conducted in subdued light to prevent the chlorophyll from degrading and giving an incorrect reading. The filter paper, which contains the extracted chlorophyll, is then stored in a glass tube or folded in half and put in aluminum foil until it is ready to be read by a fluorometer back at the university lab. I asked Jamie why she is interested in studying phytoplankton, rather than fish or marine mammals. She explains that phytoplankton, although tiny, are the crucial element upon which all the ocean relies.

Kaia
Kaia sorts krill

Kaia Colestock is a volunteer who free-lances as a wildlife biologist. Kaia has been assisting Lyndsey in the fisheries lab with counting fish eggs present in adult sanddabs. This reproductive ecology study will help to determine if the sanddab fishery is doing well. Kaia earned her undergraduate degree in fisheries wildlife from Michigan State University and her masters in ecology from Utah State. Kaia has participated in a number of wildlife studies over the years, but her favorite is when she had an opportunity to fly aerial surveys for wading birds in the Everglades with supplementary surveys via airboats.  Kaia recommends her career to anyone who likes spending their time outdoors and says that perseverance, motivation, dedication, and being a good critical thinker are important qualities for someone who works as a wildlife biologist. She recommends acquiring special skills related to math, engineering, or physics. Places that hire wildlife biologists such as Kaia include federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, and non-profit agencies. This is Kaia’s first time on a ship and she is enjoying seeing seabirds during the day and watching how the CTD is deployed.

Brianna
Brianna preserves krill for future studies

Krill biologist Brianna Michaeud earned her undergraduate degree in marine biology from the University of California Santa Cruz. Brianna plans to pursue a master’s degree beginning this fall at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Brianna enjoys working with krill because of krill’s vital function to the ocean’s food web. Brianna enjoys being on the ocean and seeing what is caught during the trawls. She works for the Long Marine Laboratories, which is affiliated with UCSC. All the data she is collecting will be shared with NOAA scientists. Brianna’s role on this trip is to collect and preserve samples of krill that are collected in both the bongo net and the trawl net. The bongo net is actually two nets that lie parallel to each other; they are designed to remove the effects of the bridles found on regular ring nets. For organisms as small as plankton, the pressure waves produced by the bridles, or connecting cables, can push them away from the net.  The bongo net is made up of a much smaller mesh than the trawl net, so it is capable of capturing the juvenile krill that tend to escape the trawl net. The entire haul from the bongo net is kept in a jar of preservative. Once back at the lab, Brianna will go through the jar to identify the various krill species and obtain a sex ratio for each species. Brianna also preserves 200 milliliters of krill from each of the trawls for later use. Once at the lab, she will count out 100 individuals of the dominant krill species and 50 individuals from the second most dominant.  She’ll then measure each individual, identify how many are gravid (contain eggs), and obtain a sex ratio. Brianna says that marine biology is a “great career” and recommends that students interested in this career take classes in statistics, biology, and chemistry. She also recommends volunteering in laboratories, assisting with beach clean-ups, and reading about oceanography.

sophie
Sophie scans the water and air for the presence of birds

The research conducted this week extends beyond the waters; biologist Sophie Webb is onboard to document sightings of seabirds and marine mammals. Sophie is one of only three scientists who work the day shift. One glance at Sophie informs you that her site is one where she is exposed to the elements. You’ll find Sophie on the uppermost level of the ship where she sits with her binoculars and a computer recording data all day. Her job is not for the timid; the wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean is cold and she has little company other than the wildlife she is documenting.  Sophie is no stranger to this type of work; she has conducted this research project seven or eight times previously and has also participated in several five month cruises in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (Hawaii,  Mexico and Central America). Currently Sophie is recording all birds seen in a 300-meter strip seen off one side of the ship. She records the species and basic behavior, such as whether the bird is flying, sitting, or feeding. The black-footed albatross is notorious for following the boat, necessitating Sophie to carefully observe so that the bird is not counted more than once. All the information Sophie collects is recorded into a computer program that is hooked into a GPS unit that updates several times a minute. Sophie shares with me that she is also an illustrator and has authored several children’s books such as Far from Shore, Chronicles of an Open Ocean Voyage and Looking for Seabirds. If you are interested in a career like Sophie’s, she recommends that students obtain advanced degrees in biology and volunteer as much as they can to obtain experience.

Personal Log

It has been amazing to see how quickly the night shift has formed into a team. Everyone works together when the trawl is pulled up to sort, identify, and record the information as efficiently as possible.  I find it interesting to see the variety of organisms we are obtaining in the trawls; tonight some of our catches mainly consisted mainly of shrimp and smelt.

Keith
Chief Scientist Keith Sakuma displays the results of a haul
shrimp and smelt
Shrimp and smelt

I also continue to be enthralled with the odd looking creatures that the trawls yield. Last night I saw an eel larva. Its body, almost impossibly thin, was gelatinous to the touch. A tiny eye and mouth were the only things that made it recognizable as an animal. When I held it up to the light its many bones became obvious. Even odder was the Phronima, a creature reported to have been the impetus behind the creature in the Alien movies. I also got to hold an octopus in my hand—I could feel the animal’s tiny suckers pulling on my skin. The octopus was returned to its home after the photo op.

eel larva
The bones are visible in this transparent eel larva
Phronima
This cool creature, Phronima, was the inspiration for the creature in the movie “Alien”
octopus
Check out this octopus

Did You Know?

That adult krill have the unique ability to actually shrink in size after a molt if food resources are scarce?

Authors

3 Replies to “Patty McGinnis: Women Scientists on the Ocean Starr, May 27, 2013”

  1. Love the octopus and eel larva! What a fascinating adventure you are having. Do the scientists return to the same area annually to compare their findings? Have there been any significant changes recently; chlorophyll levels, ocean temp and number of organisms?

    Janeen

    1. Hi Janeen,
      The rockfish survey has ongoing since 1983. This type of long term monitoring of populations is important for managing fisheries.There are, of course, seasonal variations in chlorophyll levels that coordinate with events such as upwelling and El Nino years. These events, in turn, impact the number of organisms in the ocean. Springtime is the time of upwelling off the California coast, which increases the amount of nutrients in the water column and leads to an increase in phytoplankton. Other organisms respond to this increase in food. Some, such as the humpback whales (which we saw) migrate through the upwelling areas annually because of the availability of krill.

  2. Hi Patty,

    Good for you. You now have an appreciation for life at sea. Try 10 months sometime. As you know, I oved every minute of it and would jump at the chance to go to sea again. But, that won’t happen. Keep up the good work. We all are proud of you.

    My computer is not getting a signal so I had t come into the shop in town to get your e-mail and to respond. Not sure when I will get my singal back; the trees are blocking it.

    Love,

    Dad

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