Joan Le, Touchdown for TowCam, August 8, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Off the coast of Assateague Island, Virginia
Date: August 8, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 24° C
Wind Direction: 320° at 5 knots
Weather Conditions: Partly Cloudy
Latitude: 37° 49.460′
Longitude: 74° 03.380′

Science and Technology Log

Recording “zero winch” time (when TowCam splashes down). Photo credit Dr. Martha Nizinski.

After arriving at our first dive location yesterday at 16:00, we successfully completed our first dive. In the water for almost 8 hours, we collected 2,946 high resolution pictures and lots of data.

Deployment is a team effort, and everyone is on high alert. With steel toe shoes, hard hats, and life vests in place, the crew carefully raises TowCam off the deck by a winch wire and gently into the water below. Though I’m getting used to it, the bobbing of the ship while it holds position for deployment is noticeable. Keeping an eye on the horizon goes a long way to settle the stomach.

Because shorter wavelengths can’t reach our eyes through the moving water, you can see the yellow net on TowCam appear to turn green as it submerges.

As TowCam descends into the water, it is hard not to be impressed by the depth beneath us. For almost half an hour, the winch pays out cable at a rate of 35 meters per minute. Fuzzy images of the water column begin to arrive, and adds to the abyssal sensation of the water below.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen monitors the location of TowCam as images stream back to the lab

Finally, TowCam sends visual of the bottom, and logging of observations begins. At first, only a few images of soft sediment appear–one after the other, 10 seconds apart. And then, a red crab. Then a fish. I felt not unlike an astronomer receiving those first black and white images from Mars’s Curiosity. It was that exciting. We note the time, location, features of the seafloor, and tentative ids of the organisms we see. Later, we’ll match these up with the high-res images inside TowCam.

Chief Scientist Dr. Martha Nizinski monitors low resolution images as they stream from TowCam.

After about 8 hours, TowCam returns the way it arrived–slowly back up the water column. It’ll stay on deck just long enough to charge batteries and download the precious images while we make our way to the next dive location. Then, back to the drink it goes.

"Burping" TowCam's batteries.
“Burping” TowCam’s batteries to remove excess air. Photo credit Matt Poti.

An Unlucky Passenger

The TowCam is a pretty amazing instrument, but we didn’t know how alluring it might appear to the fish that come and go. Unfortunately for this little guy, he never did manage to leave until it was too late. Evolved to withstand life under pressure, this unlucky swimmer lost his innards while TowCam returned home.

Personal Log

The Moon rises over the water at the beginning of my shift at midnight.
The Moon rises over the water at the beginning of my shift at midnight.

The first watch was pretty exciting. It was strange to wake up at 11 PM and get ready for work, but the commute was sweet! Instead of my usual hour-long metro ride (okay, I usually just drive) I simply walked downstairs and greeted the folks that had just spent the previous 12 hours logging and monitoring the submerged TowCam. They were in surprisingly good spirits.

I also must say that not much can top the wonderfully eerie feeling of moving steadily along through the ocean in a moonlit night. The light from the deck makes the water a velvety blue, and if you’re lucky you can see dolphins slipping quietly by as the Sun begins to peek up over the horizon.

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