Crystal Davis, When Science Goes Wrong, July 6 2014

Preserving Plankton
Preserving Plankton

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Crystal Davis

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 23 – July 7, 2014

Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey

Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Sunday July 6, 2014

Weather: Clear and Sunny

Waves: 1-2 feet

Science and Technology Log:

The title of this post should actually be, “when science doesn’t go exactly as planned,” but that doesn’t sound quite as dramatic.

If you have ever written a lab report, you know that there is a section for procedures (what you did). The procedures need to be explicit so that they can be replicated by another individual who will obtain the same results. If your experiment cannot be replicated, your experiment is not valid and is useless. While it is okay for your hypothesis to be different than your expected outcomes, you always have to follow your procedure.

But . . . what if you’re in the middle of the ocean potentially hundreds of miles away from shore and on a deadline? You can’t go back to shore. There are at least thirty people on your boat and a lot of money invested in this data collection. Yet you still have to come up with a way to complete your survey. The events that follow are incidents that occurred on the Oregon II from July 26-July 6 and how the scientists coped with these situations.


Juvenile Hammerhead Shark
Hammerhead Shark, Courtesy of Robin Gropp

In August, NOAA conducts a Longline Survey surveying sharks. Sharks are captured, identified and many are tagged with tracking devices to monitor the location and population density of sharks. Other sharks are sampled to determine age, analyze growth, sexual maturity and study stomach contents.

When sharks are captured in the trawl net on the Groundfish Survey, Robin (the intern) has been releasing them back into the Gulf after collecting data. However, not all of the sharks survive being pulled up in the net. The picture to the left is of a juvenile Hammerhead that did not survive. While this saddens me, he has been frozen and will be used to educate students in the outreach programs that NOAA participates in.

Nature vs Science

Waves crashing on the bow of the Oregon II
Waves crashing on the bow of the Oregon II. This picture was not taken on my survey, but this is what the weather felt like to me.

Sometimes mother nature interferes with the survey and things don’t go exactly as planned. For the first week of my trip we ran into some bad weather. There was a series of storms that came off the coast bringing rain, thunder, lightning and waves that were five to seven feet high. The weather conditions were so bad that the day shift couldn’t immediately collect data at a number of stations. They spent a lot of time waiting for the squalls to pass until it was safe to collect data. In fact, the weather in the Fall Groundfish Survey is so bad that there are a few extra days built in to run from hurricanes.


This morning we were trawling off the mouth of the Mississippi River and brought up a net full of sargassum (seaweed). The entire net, all 42 feet of it, was completely full of sargassum and very little marine life. No one on the boat had seen this much sargassum in the net before. This catch had to be thrown back overboard because the data is not usable. Basically, with that much sargassum in the net, the scientists are not sure if the trawl was fished properly. There is the possibility that because the net was so heavy, it was bogged down, uneven or not scraping the bottom of the ocean floor evenly.



Plankton preserved in Formalin
Plankton preserved in Formalin

On the Oregon II, plankton samples are preserved in Formalin (40% Formaldehyde). Formalin is a clear substance that stops cells from breaking down. A few days ago we noticed that the Formalin was no longer clear, it was in fact opaque. You can see this in the picture on the left. My night shift crew was worried that it was no longer useful and that we could not bring planktons samples back to the lab in Pascagoula. However, our chief scientist assured us that we could still use the Formalin and that it would be effective. The color change indicated that the base in the mixture was breaking down but since we only have a couple more days of plankton sampling, that it will be fine.

Personal Log:

I arrived back home last night and let me tell you it is strange to be back on land. I was never seasick on the Oregon II, but I am 100% landsick now. I find myself swaying from side to side anytime I’m standing still (Dock Rock is the official term). And when I woke up last night to get a glass of water, I fell over because I was swaying so much. It’s actually pretty funny but I will be glad once this goes away.

I’m still taking in my experience from the last two weeks but I am so grateful for the people I met and was able to work with. Everyone on the Oregon II was helpful, accommodating, friendly and made me feel at home. They took time out of their day to answer my questions, give me tours, tell me stories about their history and adventures on board, go over their research and they were genuinely interested in what I do in my classroom. XO (Executive Officer) LCDR Eric Johnson spent a good chunk of his time telling me about the NOAA Corps and made me want to sign up. Although I’m not too old to apply, (I have too many attachments at home to do so) if I could do the last ten years over I would apply to their program. I will definitely make sure my students know that the NOAA Corps is an option for them and am hoping to make a trip down to San Diego to take them on one of the boats next year.

I’m particularly grateful to the Chief Scientist Andre DeBose and Watch Leader Taniya Wallace who made sure I knew I was not going to die at sea. As the boat was leaving Galveston I could not stop crying because I was 100% certain I was never coming back ( I may have watched The Perfect Storm too many times). Andre and Taniya were so reassuring and comforting and I can never thank them enough for that.

I’m looking forward to using the knowledge, pictures and data from this trip in my classroom next year. I’m also excited because I heard that I can apply to be a volunteer on a NOAA cruise and am looking forward to this in the future.


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