Elizabeth Nyman: First Day at Sea, May 28, 2013


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Elizabeth Nyman
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 28 – June 7, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: May 28, 2013

Weather Data:
Surface Water Temperature: 23.84 degrees Celsius
Air Temperature: 23.90 degrees Celsius
Barometric Pressure: 1017.8 mb

Science and Technology Log

So I’ve known for about two months or so that I was going to be taking part in one leg of an ongoing reef fishery survey. I even had an idea that it involved surveying fish that lived on reefs. But after our first full day at sea, and many hours of helping take part in the scientific work, I now begin to understand how exactly one surveys reef fish.

There’s a couple of different things that the scientific crew is doing to observe and understand the reef fish population. First, there is an ongoing video recording process throughout the day, from just after sunrise to just before sunset. For this, the ship and scientific crew lower a large, 600 pound camera array off of the starboard side of the ship. The cameras will go and sit on the sea floor and record all the fish that pass in front of it, for a total recording time of 25 minutes. After this time has passed, plus a little extra time, the cameras are pulled back up, the recordings are downloaded, we move to a different spot and the process begins again.

Underwater Camera Array

Hauling the camera array back on deck. I said it was big, didn’t I?

The video is reviewed the next day. Since this is our first day at sea, I didn’t get much of a chance to see any reef fishery footage, though I’m told that’s on the agenda for tomorrow. What I spent most of my time doing was helping out with another part of the survey process, something called the bandit reels. They’re used for good old-fashioned hook and line fishing.

Bandit Reel

It looks like a nice day to go fishing, huh?

There are three bandit reels on the Pisces, and each one can hold 10 fishing hooks. Each reel has different sized hooks, and the hook sizes are changed every drop. The line has a weight at the bottom to bring the hooks down to the sea floor, which have been baited with mackerel bits. After five minutes, the line is reeled back in, and you have fish…or you don’t.

My first drop, which had the biggest hooks, had a whole bunch of nothing. As did everyone else’s, though, so it wasn’t a testament to my poor fishing skills.

The second drop, however, was luckier.

Eel on hook.

I caught a moray eel!

A spotted moray eel! I was excited, anyway. But morays aren’t one of the fish that we’re looking for out here, so it wasn’t a particularly useful catch.

Our third drop was the most successful. Our bandit reel hauled in seven fish, one of whom got away (the biggest one, of course, one the size of a killer whale…yeah, just kidding!). The other six were brought into the wet lab, where they joined the other fish caught on that drop and would be measured and dissected.

Fish on a measuring board.

We caught a big one!

The fish are measured three different ways. The first, by total length, examines exactly that, the total length of the fish from the nose all the way to the tip of the tail. The second measure goes from the nose to the fork in the tail, so it’s a shorter distance. The third, standard length, goes from the nose to just before the tail fin, where the fish’s vertebrae end, and is the shortest of all. They’re also weighed at this time as well.

After that, we start cutting into the fish. Two things are of interest here: the ear bone and the sex organs. The ear bones are removed from each fish, because they can be tested to determine the age of the fish. The sex organs will reveal gender, obviously, but also are examined to see how fertile each specimen is. We don’t do this kind of analysis on the ship, however. The ear bones and sex organs are sent back to the NOAA lab in Panama City, Florida, where they will conduct all those tests.

Personal Log

The best part of my first day at sea was definitely the ship safety drills.

Wait, what?

No, seriously.  The absolute highlight of this one was my chance to try on what’s known as the Gumby suit. The Gumby suit is a nickname for a immersion survival suit – if we have to abandon ship and float around in the water, the suit will protect us from the elements. Now, we’re down here in the Gulf of Mexico, so that seems a little crazy, but think about how you’d feel if you were stuck in the water for hours on end. In really cold waters, that suit may be the difference between life and death.

The drills are important, and they’re mandated for a reason. In an emergency, all of this stuff can save lives.

Why do I like the drills so much? We’re required to have safety drills by law, and so as someone who studies and teaches international law, I always enjoy taking part in these things. It’s a chance to see the stuff in action that I talk about in class. And that’s kind of what this program is all about – the chance to experience things firsthand as opposed to just having to read about them.

Gumby suit

I guess you kind of have to take my word for it, but that’s me in there.

Did You Know?

You’re supposed to be able to put on a Gumby suit in under a minute. They wouldn’t do much good if they took too long to put on.

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