NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 8–25, 2013
Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Shumagin Islands, Alaska
Date: July 9, 2013
Current Location: 54° 49.6 N, 159° 46.6 W
Weather data from bridge: Broken clouds, no wind, 12° C
Orientation to Ship Life: NOAA Ship Rainier motto: “Teamwork, safety first.”
Science and Technology Log
Greetings from the NOAA Ship Rainier! It has been a whirlwind two days since we departed from our docking station at the Coast Guard base in Kodiak, AK and Philadelphia seems a world away here in the remote Shumagin Islands. The trip over took roughly 32 hours and during this time we had the chance to see the many facets of ship life. The crew on board the Rainier have been incredibly welcoming, enthusiastically answering even the most basic questions (of which we Teachers at Sea have many), and have made both myself and the other Teacher at Sea onboard, Avery Marvin, feel very comfortable.
In this blog post, I’d like to talk about getting acquainted with life on a ship. The Rainier is a complex operation, and each person on the ship wears many hats (which is very much like being a teacher) depending on what is happening on the ship each day. One person might man the bridge (front command center of the ship) in the morning, be part of the dive team in the afternoon, and at night, take the role of the on-call medical officer.
Avery and I have both spent considerable time on the bridge in the last two days, watching the navigation process, from “threading the needle” between the red and green buoys in Woman’s Bay where our ship was docked to plotting out the course many hours ahead. We both noticed how important communication is in this process, specifically making sure that everyone is on the same page all the time. Thus there is specific ship language that is used and repeated for every activity. For example: when acknowledging a change of duty, everyone on the bridge responds with “Aye.”
Being a newcomer on a ship can be daunting. My first day on the ship, before we set sail, the only thing I could reliably find was my own stateroom (which has our bunkbed, or “rack”, and bathroom, or “head”). One of the many things the Rainier crew has done for us is to take us on a very thorough tour of the ship, showing us everything from the engine room to the flying bridge (the highest point on the ship outside of the mast, which offers a great view of what is going on). It is important to know how to get around in case of an emergency, so you can get to your assigned “muster” point quickly, and take an alternate route if necessary.
This actually came up not long after we got underway! In the spirit of safety, the whole ship regularly does emergency drills, so once we were in open water, we had a fire drill which was signaled by one loud long horn. Since we’re on a ship, this isn’t like a school fire drill where everyone leaves the building as fast as possible and waits for the experts to show up. The ship is a self-contained community and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the ship afloat and functional. Therefore, when the fire drill sounds, everyone heads to their muster station, is checked in (to make sure you are not trapped in the fire!), and then either carries out or is assigned a fire fighting duty such as: attending to the injured, manning the fire hose, preparing to mop up the water, “de-smoking” the area etc. Shortly after the fire drill, we had an abandon ship drill, which again involved us meeting at a specific “muster” station. In this case, we were preparing to abandon ship, so we quickly slipped into our bulky, waterproof, self-inflating “immersion” or “survival” suits and then prepared to exit the ship. We didn’t actually exit the ship but envisioned such a next step. After the two drills, the crew met in the “galley” (eating area) for a debrief of the two drills led by the XO (Executive Officer) where we discussed what had gone well, what hadn’t and what we should improve upon for next time. It made me feel like I am in very good hands here on the Rainier. In the end, this complex ship operation relies on a dedicated crew who works and communicates well as a team, keeping safety as the number one priority.
Our Geographical Area
While on board, we will be working primarily as part of the Survey Team, the people taking the hydrographic measurements. I will get into much more detail about how this all works once we delve into our first project, but for today, I want to focus on why this work is important and why we are in the Shumagin Islands specifically. When navigating, ships use charts, either electronic or paper, to plot a safe course through an area. In open ocean, you typically don’t have to worry about navigational hazards (rocks, shoals, ship wrecks), but as you get closer to land, these are more and more common, and ships need to be able to avoid them.
If you look at a chart of the Shumagins, you can see that there is a lot of “white space”: empty areas with no depth soundings. Most often, we see a string of measurements in a straight line, fairly regular but also fairly sparse. Our CO (Commanding Officer) said that these were most likely done with a lead line, where someone literally took a lead weight on the end of string and dropped it down to the seafloor over the side of the ship, and measured how deep it was in that spot. While very accurate, it is hard to collect a lot of data about one entire area, and therefore there are many blank spaces.
In deciding where to survey, NOAA creates a priority list. You can find the complete list and list of factors on the Nautical Charts site, but our CO said it comes down to three main factors: age of the last survey, commerce in the area, and recent natural disasters (like Hurricane Sandy, for those of you on the East Coast: the shoreline and sea floor look very different now). As I said earlier, the Shumagins have very sparse data, and it’s old (the most recent survey in the area we are looking at was 1969, at best). Some of the measurements could be from when the Russians surveyed the area, 100+ years ago. Because the Shumagins are en route from Asia to some North American ports, updated nautical charts are vital for safe mariner travel.
Speaking of remote, the CO said that it might have been 20 years since someone set foot on one of the Shumigan islands. That seems incredible to me! Living in a big city, there are always people around. What about you? What’s the most remote place you’ve ever been? Leave me a comment below to let me know.
As might be expected from my introduction, I spent most of my first day thinking (and saying), “I’m so excited”. Between the tour of the ship, where we stopped into just about every major room and department on the ship, watching the ship leave the cove on Monday morning, and talking to various survey techs about what they do, I was overwhelmed by the number of new and interesting things to learn about. When I first got on board, I was a bit fidgety, because I didn’t feel like I had a specific job yet like everyone else, but now I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable just sitting down next to someone and asking about what they’re doing.
Thus far, the scariest thing about the trip was the plane ride from Anchorage to Kodiak. It wasn’t the smallest plane I’ve ever been in, but I was definitely a bit anxious. We were very fortunate on our crossing to the Shumagins in the Rainier to have very little in the way of weather and I luckily have not gotten sea sick yet (although I did worry about rolling off my top bunk as the ship was rolling last night).
One of the things that has struck me about this experience so far is how much I enjoy experiential learning. I love learning about science regardless, but learning about a ship by participating in the drills or activities, or learning about hydrographic surveys by participating in the process, incessantly asking questions as I go, takes on a whole new meaning. It has also reminded me of the importance of humility and asking questions if you don’t understand something. I can’t wait to see what I get to learn about next!
Have any questions about life at sea or the research I’ll be doing? Leave me a comment below!