Joan Le, Lost At Sea Without ‘Em, August 9, 2014

Before and after each dive, TowCam stats must be recorded. Then we can bring in the camera and see what's inside.
Recording TowCam stats. Photo credit Dr. Martha Nizinski.

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: U.S. Mid-Atlantic Canyons
Date: August 15, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 21°
Wind Direction: 277
Weather Conditions: Clear Skies
Latitude: 39° 33.1345′
Longitude: 73° 10.9734′

Science and Technology Log

On the morning of my second-to-last watch, I awoke to learn that many changes had taken place since I last saw my team. In the night, fishermen laid long lines from Hendrickson to Lindenkohl Canyons, leading to a flurry of new plans and a reroute of the night’s dive plan. Long line fishing involves one long line laid parallel to the ocean surface, with several shorter lines called snoods hanging off the main line with hooks on the ends. With these long lines in place, our existing dive route needed a change.

After multiple discussions among the science team and between the chief scientist and the bridge, we decided on an alternate location for our 4 AM dive. Dr. Brian Kinlan (of video-chat fame), quickly produced a new dive plan and rearranged our dive schedule to make the most of our last day at sea. Changes with such short notice are not easy on a ship, but I am learning that they are none-the-less commonplace as the environment is constantly shifting. As my Teacher At Sea guide suggested, flexibility is of utmost importance while at sea.

Matt Poti (left) and Dr. Brian Kinlan (right)

3D Models and Machine Learning

The ability to quickly adapt to changing situations can be attributed to the preparation that is done even before the ship left the dock. Dr. Kinlan and Matt Poti, both from the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Biogeography Branch in Silver Spring, MD, spent years before this cruise sifting through large repositories of data from NOAA, USGS, NASA and other government agencies to extract the specific environmental variables that may influence the distribution of deep-sea corals, including seafloor type, nutrients, temperature, salinity, currents and food particles.

These data came from a huge variety of scientific instruments ranging from satellites to underwater robots to sediment grabs and sensors attached to bottom trawls. They put these data together with information on where deep corals had been collected or observed in the past. When they had reached the limit of their human brains, they wrote a type of computer program called a “machine learning” algorithm to teach the computer to find corals.  This is a kind of predictive habitat distribution model often used as a tool for conservation. So far, Matt and Brian have written these models for the whole Atlantic coast of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the goals of this cruise is to test these models, and ultimately to improve them, so that they can be used to better protect and conserve deep-sea corals.

The deep coral model is basically a three-dimensional map that predicts the likelihood of coral based on depth, slope and other characteristics of the environment like temperature and salinity. Because deep-sea corals do not benefit from photosynthesis as shallow-water corals do, they tend to prefer areas with high currents that can deliver food particles and also keep sediments from clogging the coral’s delicate feeding structures.

On the ship, Brian and Matt use special 3D visualization software called Fledermaus to view the model results in 3D overlaid on top of very accurate maps of the seafloor collected by an instrument called a multibeam sonar, the same technology used to find and map shipwrecks like the Titanic. Fledermaus software allows scientists to explore to complex 3D environments. The software can also connect directly to the ship’s navigation system to help guide TowCam to the exact spot needed to test the coral models.

All models have their limitations, and their ability to predict coral habitats is only as good as the data they are given. “Machine learning” only gets us in the neighborhood of good coral habitat, not to the specific address. Multibeam sonar gives us a detailed 3D picture of the ocean floor, and without it, we’d be lost searching for coral in the deep ocean.


Multibeaming is a process used to gather data about the ocean floor. While you can certainly see many of the canyons we studied on Google Earth, the detail of its bathymetry (topography of the ocean floor) is still just an approximation and could not be used to locate the coral as we have done on this trip.

To build a more accurate chart of the ridges and valleys of the ocean floor, you would need to use the data generated by the Bigelow and several other NOAA ships with multibeaming capability. Much of this data is available to the public, and can be imported into the Geographic Information System (ArcGIS) software and even converted to KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files that can be used in Google Earth. I plan to create a lesson using this data, but the capabilities are numerous.

Tools of the Trade

Even with all this technology available, I was surprised to learn that paper charts and hand-held tools are still regularly used for navigation. While visiting the bridge one afternoon, I found Commander Miller in the midst of dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is a process that determines current position, and aids in the planning of future movements while in transit.

Straight pattern and one-handed dividers are tools used for dead reckoning.

Commander Miller first plotted our “fix” (or current location) directly on the paper chart with a pencil, then used the one-handed divider shown above along with known speed and heading to predict future locations along our path. Furthering my appreciation for the need for both preparation and flexibility at sea, paper charts are still used in conjunction with modern technology to ensure that unforeseen circumstances never interfere with navigation and safety.

Personal Log

During my online training for Teacher At Sea, I was also surprised to learn that the NOAA Corps is one of seven uniformed services of the United States. I was curious to learn more. The officers on the Bigelow were kind enough to take a few moments to talk with me about their experience and the path that led them to the NOAA Corps. After hearing their stories, I found myself wishing I had been aware of the NOAA Corps earlier as I am certain I would have applied myself.

I’d like to take a few moments to ensure that my own students know about this opportunity, and get a bit of advice for using their precious time in high school to set themselves up for success and a possible career in the prestigious NOAA Corps.


Commander G. Mark Miller was a Marine Science: Geology major. During college, he spent much time at sea through his participation in Semester At Sea, a research diving internship, and other opportunities. After calling the NOAA Dive Center, he learned of the corps. To any interested high school student, he recommends becoming well-rounded through participation in sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities, and to look for leadership opportunities.

Lieutenant Commander Chad Cary was an Environmental Science major, with a Master’s degree in Geography. He enjoyed science and was interested in a career that had an influence on sustainability. His advice to interested high school students is to “reach out to the NOAA Corps recruiting office, ” and to find opportunities to volunteer if near a NOAA port or office.

Lieutenant Jeff Pereira was a Meteorology major, and learned of the NOAA Corps through a college classmate. He states that he always wanted to work for NOAA, and thought that the corps “was the perfect combination of science and duty to country.” He recommends volunteering on a NOAA ship, because “more than likely, one of your first tours is going to be on a NOAA ship.

Lieutenant Kyle Jellison was a Mathematics major, and no stranger to the sea. Growing up in coastal Maine, Jellison worked as a deck hand on whale-watching ships while he was in high school and had his captain’s license by the time he graduated from college. “From all the ships I worked on, the research vessel was the niche I wanted.” The NOAA Corps was a perfect fit. To any interested high school student, he says, “Don’t be picky about the job you get, but be thoughtful about the job you get, because that job experience will help set the path of future job opportunities.”

Ensign Erick Estela Gómez was an Environmental Science major and spent time in the Peace Corps as well as working in ecotourism. Ensign Estela Gómez was drawn to the NOAA Corps through his love of science and the outdoors as well as his belief in public service. To any interested high school student, he suggests keeping up with math and science classes, and finding internship opportunities.

2 Replies to “Joan Le, Lost At Sea Without ‘Em, August 9, 2014”

  1. I would like to thank Drs. Martha Nizinski and Brian Kinlan for all their help and support in writing this post. Their patience and support in helping me understand the science behind all this fun was much appreciated! Thank you both.

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