NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 29 – August 15, 2013
Weather Data from the Bridge:
GPS location: 55°02.642’N, 159°57.359’W
Sky condition: Overcast (OVC)
Visibility: 7 nm
Wind: 180° true, 8 kts
Water temperature: 8.3°C
Air temperature: 12.0 °C
Science and Technology Log
In my last post I talked mostly about the science needed for safely navigating the ship to our survey area in the Shumagin Islands. Now that the surveying has begun, I’d like to use this post to talk about the actual logistics of the surveys that are being completed. These surveys are the reason that we are in Alaska, and it takes quite a bit of planning and coordination to make sure that accurate data is collected. The hydrographers are looking for features to put on the chart (map) such as depth, rocks, shoals, ledges, shipwrecks, islets (small islands), and kelp beds.
The last time most of this area was surveyed was back in the early 1900s. Lead lines were used in order to gather data about the depth of the sea. While accurate, this method only gave information on discrete points along the ocean floor. This resulted in charts being left with large amounts of white space which represents areas that have never before been surveyed.
The sonar technology on the ship allows us to gather data which can be classified as full-bottom coverage. That means that we have data on every inch of ocean floor that we cover rather than just one point along the way.
Now let’s get to the heart of survey! The overall survey area here in the Shumagins is broken down into what the team refers to as sheets. The Commanding Officer (CO) informed me that the reason they call them “sheets” is because back before the use of computers in surveying, hydrography would be done on a small boat and all the positions would be hand-plotted on a sheet of fine cotton paper. The size of this “sheet” of paper and the scale of the survey dictated how big the survey would be. Anyways, each sheet has a sheet manager that is responsible for the data collected in that area. Each sheet is then broken down even further into several polygons which represent specific areas to be surveyed on that sheet. Meghan McGovern, the Field Operations Officer (FOO) on this ship, explained to me that while the ship itself is running sonar to collect data 24 hours a day only two launches can be sent out at a time to do additional surveys. This is because the ship does not have the manpower to run the entire ship plus all four small survey launches. However, it is hard on the crew to run continuous 24 hour operations on the ship, so every so often the ship will anchor and four survey launches can be sent out to gather data during the day. I asked which method is preferred and Megan told me that it really depends on the area that needs to be surveyed. Sometimes it can be more beneficial to anchor and send out all four launches if a lot of data needs to be collected on areas close to the shore. In that case, the ship is not able to navigate as closely to the shoreline as the small launches are.
Before the launches can be sent out to gather data close to shorelines, benchmarks must be set and tidal gauges must be taken in order to measure the actual water level based on the varying tides. This has not been done during my time in the Shumagins because they were done on the previous leg. (For more information visit TAS Marvin’s blog to understand how she helped set-up benchmarks in the Shumagins.) Shoreline verification must also be completed by the small skiff (boat) in order to visually mark any dangers that may be hazardous to the launches while they are surveying. I am hoping to do shoreline verification while I am here, but for now this area has already been done.
After the shoreline verification has taken place the actual data collection can begin. I have been out in a launch two times since we reached our survey area. The first time we were surveying polygons V (Victor) and X (X-ray) on the west coast of Chernabura Island. I learned a great deal from the crew about the survey system on the small launch. While I was on this launch I was allowed to drive. It turns out it is hard to drive a boat in a nice, neat line. Yesterday I was able to go out for a second time on a survey launch, and this time we collected near shore data on the east side of Near Island.
The launch runs a system that is very similar to the ship in order to collect bathymetric data. The screen, that is projected to the Hydrographer in Charge (HIC) and the coxswain (driver), shows a swath of the area where data has been collected.
On the screen it looks as though the ship is driving back and forth coloring in the lines as data is collected. Once all of the data has been collected on the launch, it is saved to an external hard drive and brought back to the ship for night processing. I haven’t observed night processing yet, but I plan to do that in the upcoming days.
I will hold off on more detail now and wait until next time to give you the science behind the detailed sonar that is being used during these surveys.
Yesterday was one of my favorite days on my adventure so far. I went with three other people on one of the small launches called the RA-6. While I was on the launch I had the responsibility of doing the radio communication back to the ship for a check-in each hour to let them know our position and what we had accomplished up to that point. The sun was peeking through the clouds, and I was finally able to see the majestic islands that are surrounding us. These islands have no trees, but their sharp cliffs and the mystical lenticular clouds that hovered above them captured my attention each time we drove close.
The birds out here are the only animals that can be observed and they include gulls, muirs, and puffins. Each time we drove near a puffin I couldn’t help but laugh as they scuttled quickly away in the water. Some of them seemed to have eaten too many fish to be able to lift themselves into the air.
My free time on the ship has been mostly spent at meals and in the wardroom. Each night the ship shows three different movies that run on the cable channels throughout the ship, and a mix of people tend to gather in the wardroom to sit and watch the shows together. I have also had the unique experience of using the elliptical machine several times while on board.
If you have ever used an elliptical machine, you know that normally when you step off the machine it feels like you are still in motion. Add that feeling to the swaying of the ship and it makes for a strange type of vertigo!
Laura McCrum, a past student of mine, told me in a recent email to remember that knowledge is not confined to age…and she made sure to clarify that she wasn’t calling me old! I am so grateful for this unique experience where I am able to continue my education each and every day in order to expand my knowledge base. I hope that this experience will not only benefit me but also my students, coworkers, and community members as well.
Just Another Day at the Office
I wanted to start this section of my blog as a way to highlight a different member of the crew during each post. These people go to work each day in such a unique environment that I thought it was important to share a piece of their stories.
Carl VerPlanck, 3rd Mate
The first time I saw Carl was on the bridge while the ship was departing from port. He is the navigation officer responsible for creating routes, updating charts and publications, and maintaining a certain decorum on the bridge. Carl also helps to train junior officers in the art of navigation. He conducts underway watches and drives the launches while helping to train others to do the same.
When asked about how he got to be in the position that he holds today, Carl told me that he grew up in Indiana and received his GED when he was 18 before moving to Alaska to work on a fishing boat. Having no prior experience on boats, he worked in a fish processing plant in Naknek, Alaska until he was able to start as a General Vessel Assistant (GVA) with NOAA. He eventually worked his way up the rank as an Ordinary Seaman (OS), followed by an Able-bodied Seaman (AB) until he received his 3rd Mate certification. He currently holds his 2nd Mate certification, and he plans to hold this position in the future.
While I was talking with him, Carl told me that the best part about his job was that he loves working in Alaska. He has a sense of exploration while doing these surveys, and he likes the feeling that anything could be down there on the sea floor. I asked him to share the advice that he would give a young person trying to break into the field of an ocean related career and he said that you shouldn’t be afraid to broaden the scope of what you might be good at or what your interests are. Never miss a chance to take hold of an opportunity, and don’t be afraid to consider a non-traditional pathway.
I ended our conversation by asking Carl what he would be doing if he wasn’t currently working for NOAA, and he said he was sure he would still be in the maritime community in some way. Besides working for NOAA I found out that Carl enjoys taking flying lessons and he is currently working toward getting his pilot’s license. He has a home in Seattle where he lives, when not underway, with his wife and his 1 1/2 year old son.
Your Questions Answered!
I love getting questions via comments and emails, and so I wanted to do these questions justice by providing prompt answers. So here we go…
My first question was from Kirsten Buckmaster, a fellow teacher at INMS. She asked me if I have any specific duties from day to day on the ship. As a Teacher at Sea it is really up to me to insert myself into the everyday schedule of the ship. The Field Operations Officer (FOO) and the Commanding Officer (CO) sat down with me at the start of the leg and asked me what I was interested in doing while on board, and I told them that I was eager to do a little bit of everything. Each day the FOO posts the Plan of the Day (POD), and this tells you what specific tasks are going to be done for the day. Each day I look for my name on the POD to understand if I have any specific responsibilities. Some days it is up to me to go observe on the bridge or in the plot room. I am hoping to help with the deck department before my time is over, as well as try to better understand what the engineers do.
Next I had a question from one of my students Mr. Zachary Doyle. Zach asked me if I was getting seasick. Luckily, it turns out that I am not prone to sea sickness…yet. The POD gives the weather forecast, and the FOO makes sure to let the crew know if we are going to have any inclement weather. If I know the ship is going to be rockin’ and rollin’ I will take Dramamine which helps to prevent sea sickness. Also, the launches get shaken around a bit more so if I know I’m going out on a launch I will take some medicine the night before just in case.
Finally, my grandmother-in-law Liz Montagna asked me about the waves. I’ve learned out here that we need to be aware of two important things: sea wave height and swells. In simple terms, a swell is a wave that is not generated by the local wind. They are regular, longer period waves generated by distant weather systems. The wave height can be measured from the waves caused by the wind in the area where they are created. Luckily we haven’t had waves breaking on the deck. Liz also asked about who does the housekeeping. In my stateroom the answer is my roommate and I. We are responsible for keeping our living quarters neat and tidy. The deck department is mostly in charge of the rest of the ship. Each day I have met people in the passageways (halls) sweeping, mopping, and doing other necessary tasks to keep the ship looking good.
I love questions so please keep them coming! Remember you can post a comment/question on the blog or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
All is well in Alaska!
Did You Know…
I didn’t know how the Shumagin Islands got their name so I did some investigating. It turns out that Vitus Bering was the man who led an expedition to the islands in 1741. Nikita Shumagin was one of the sailors on this mission, but he unfortunately died of scurvy and was buried on Nagai Island.