Julia West: Science Is About the Details, March 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1600; clouds 35%, cumulus; wind 170 (S), 18 knots; waves 5-6 ft; sea temp 24°C; air temp 23°C

Science and Technology Log

We have completed our stations in the western Gulf! Now we are steaming back to the east to pick up some stations they had to skip in the last leg of the research cruise, because of bad weather. It’s going to be a rough couple of days back, with a strong south wind, hence the odd course we’re taking (dotted line). Here’s the updated map:

sampling stations 3/29/15

Here’s where we are as of the afternoon of 3/29 (the end of the solid red line. We’ve connected all the dots!


I had a question come up: How many types of plankton are there? Well, that depends what you call a “type.” This brings up a discussion on taxonomy and Latin (scientific) names. The scientists on board, especially the invertebrate scientists, often don’t even know the common name for an organism. Scientific names are a common language used everywhere in the world. A brief look into taxonomic categories will help explain. When we are talking about numbers, are we talking the number of families? Genera? Species? Sometimes all that is of interest are the family names, and we don’t need to get more detailed for the purposes of this research. Sometimes specific species are of interest; this is true for fish and invertebrates (shrimp and crabs) that we eat. Suffice it to say, there are many, many types of plankton!

Another question asks what the plankton do at night, without sunlight. Phytoplankton (algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates – think of them like the plants of the sea) are the organisms that need sunlight to grow, and they don’t migrate much. The larval fish are visual feeders. In a previous post I explained that they haven’t developed their lateral line system yet, so they need to see to eat. They will stay where they can see their food. Many zooplankton migrate vertically to feed during the night when it is safer, to avoid predators. There are other reasons for vertical migration, such as metabolic reasons, potential UV light damage, etc.

Vertical migration plays a really important role in nutrient cycling. Zooplankton come up and eat large amounts of food at night, and return to the depths during the day, where they defecate “fecal pellets.” These fecal pellets wouldn’t get to the deep ocean nearly as fast if they weren’t transported by migrating zooplankton. Thus, migration is a very important process in the transport of nutrients to the deep ocean. In fact, one of the most voracious plankton feeders are salps, and we just happened to catch one! Salps will sink 800 meters after feeding at night!


Salp caught in the neuston sample. Salps are a colony of tunicates (invertebrate chordates for you biology students – more closely related to humans than shrimp are!)

Now it’s time to go back into the dry lab and talk about what happens in there. I’ll start with the chlorophyll analysis. In the last post I described fluorescence as being an indicator of chlorophyll content. What exactly is fluorescence? It is the absorption and subsequent emission of light (usually of a different wavelength) by living or nonliving things. You may have heard the term phosphorescence, or better yet, seen the waves light up with a beautiful mysterious light at night. Fluorescence and phosphorescence are similar, but fluorescence happens simultaneously with the light absorption. If it happens after there is no light input (like at night), it’s called phosphorescence.


An example of phosphorescence. We haven’t seen it yet, but I hope to! (From eco-adventureholidays.co.uk)

Well, it is not just phytoplankton that fluoresce – other things do also, so to get a more accurate assessment of the amount of phytoplankton, we measure the chlorophyll-a in our niskin bottle samples. Chlorophyll-a is the most abundant type of chlorophyll.

We put the samples in dark bottles. Light allows photosynthesis, and when phytoplankton (or plants) can photosynthesize, they can grow. We don’t want our samples to change after we collect them. For this same reason, we also process the samples in a dark room. I won’t be able to get pictures of the work in action, but here are some photos of where we do this.

chlorophyll lab

This is the room where we do the chlorophyll readings.

We filter the chlorophyll out of the samples using this vacuum filter:

chlorophyll filter

Each of these funnels filters the sea water through a very fine filter paper to capture the chlorophyll.

The filter papers are placed in test tubes with methanol, and refrigerated for 24 hours or so. Then the test tubes are put in a centrifuge to separate the chlorophyll from the filter paper.

filter paper for chlorophyll

Some of the test tubes for chlorophyll readings, and the filter paper. This box costs about $100!

The chlorophyll values are read in this fancy machine. Hopefully the values will be similar to those values obtained during the CTD scan. I’ll describe that next.


This fluorometer reads chlorophyll levels.

While the nets and CTD are being deployed and recovered, one person in the team is monitoring and controlling the whole event on the computer. I got to be this person a few times, and while you are learning, it is stressful! You don’t want to forget a step. Telling the winch operator to stop the bongos or CTD just above the bottom (and not hit bottom) is challenging, as is capturing the “chlorophyll max” by stopping the CTD at just the right place in the water column.

Bongo graph

This is the graph that comes back from the SeaCAT on the bongo. We are interested in the green line, which shows depth as it goes down and comes back up.

The dry lab

Here I am trying my hand at the computers. The monitor on the left is the live video of what is happening on deck (see the neuston net?). Photo by A.L. VanCampen


CTD scan

This is the CTD graph after it has been completed. The left (magenta) line is the chlorophyll, and the horizontal red lines are where we have fired a bottle and collected a sample. Notice the little spike partway down. That is the chlorophyll max, and we try to capture that when bringing it back up. The colored chart shows columns of continuous data coming in.

Here’s another micrograph of larval fish. Notice the tongue fish, the big one on the right. It is a flatfish, related to flounder. See the two eyes on one side of its head? Flatfish lie on the bottom, and have no need for an eye facing the bottom. When they are juveniles, they have an eye on each side, and one of the eyes migrates to the other side, so they have two eyes on one side! Be sure to take the challenge in the caption!

Larval fish 2

There is a cutlass fish just right of center. Can you find the other one? How about the lizard fish? Hint – look back at the picture in the last post. Photo credit Pamela Bond/NOAA

Personal Log

It’s time to introduce our intrepid leader, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt, known as CO around here. CO lives (when not aboard the Gunter) in Bellingham, WA. He got his start in boats as a kid, starting early working on crab boats. He spent 9 years with the US Coast Guard, where he had a variety of assignments. In 2001, CO transferred to NOAA, while simultaneously serving in the US Navy Reserve. CO is not a commissioned NOAA officer; he went about his training in a different way, and is one of two US Merchant Marine Officers in the NOAA fleet. He worked as XO for about seven years on various ships, and last year he became CO of the Gordon Gunter.

CO is well known on the Gunter for having strong opinions, especially about food and music. He loves being captain for fish research, but will not eat fish (nor sweet potatoes for that matter). A common theme of meal conversations is music; CO plays drums and guitar and is a self-described “music snob.” We have fun talking about various bands, new and old.

CO Donn Pratt

CO Don Pratt on the bridge.

One of the most experienced and highly respected of our crew is Jerome Taylor, our Chief Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”). Jerome is the leader of the deck crew. He keeps things running smoothly. As I watch Jerome walk around in his cheerful and hardworking manner, he is always looking, always checking every little thing. Each nut and bolt, each patch of rust that needs attention – Jerome doesn’t miss a thing. He knows this ship inside and out. He is a master of safety. As he teaches the newer guys how to run the winch, his mannerism is one of mutual respect, fun and serious at the same time.

Jerome has been with NOAA for 30 years now, and on the Gunter since NOAA acquired the ship in 1998. He lives right in Pascagoula, MS. I’ve only been here less than two weeks, but I can see what a great leader he is. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerome!

Jerome Taylor

Chief Bosun Jerome Taylor, refusing to look at the camera. No, he’s not grilling steaks; he’s operating the winch!


Challenge Yourself!

OK, y’all (yes, I’m in the south), I have a math problem for you! Remember, in the post where I described the bongos, I showed the flowmeter, and described how the volume of water filtered can be calculated? Let’s practice. The volume of water filtered is the area of the opening x the “length” of the stream of water flowing through the bongo.

V = area x length.

Remember how to calculate the area of a circle? I’ll let you review that on your own. The diameter (not radius) of a bongo net is 60 cm. We need the area in square meters, not cm. Can you make the conversion? (Hint: convert the radius to meters before you calculate.)

Now, that flow meter is just a counter that ticks off numbers as it spins. In order to make that a usable number, we need to know how much distance each “click” is. So we have R, the rotor constant. It is .02687m.

R = .02687m

Here’s the formula:

Volume(m3) = Area(m2) x R(Fe – Fs) m

Fe = Ending flowmeter value; Fs = Starting flowmeter value

The right bongo net on one of the stations this morning had a starting flowmeter value of 031002. The ending flowmeter value was 068242.

You take it from here! What is the volume of water that went through the right bongo net this morning? If you get it right, I’ll buy you an ice cream cone next time I see you! 🙂


Sunset from the Gordon Gunter as we are heading east.


Theresa Paulsen: Ship Navigation, March 28, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Theresa Paulsen
Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
March 16 – April 3, 2015

Mission: Caribbean Exploration (Mapping)
Geographical Area of Cruise: Puerto Rico Trench
Date: March 28, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Scattered Clouds, 26˚C, Wind speed 13-18 knots, Wave height 5-7ft

Science and Technology Log

Mapping of our first priority area is now compete and we have moved to the priority two area on the north side of the Puerto Rico Trench.  We are more than 100 miles from shore at this point.  Land is nowhere in sight.  Able-Bodied Seaman Ryan Loftus tells me that even from the bridge the horizon is only 6.4 nautical miles away due to the curvature of the earth.  At this point with no frame of reference other than celestial bodies, navigation equipment becomes essential.

The ship uses Global Positioning Systems, GPS units:

GPS Units

GPS Units aboard the vessel


Radar display

The radar display.


On the radar display, we are in the center of the circle. Our heading is the blue line. Since this photo was taken near shore, the yellow patches on the bottom indicate the land mass, Puerto Rico. The two triangles with what look like vector lines to the left of us are approaching vessels. On the right, the Automated Identification System displays information about those vessels, including their name, type, heading and speed.  The radar uses two radio beams, an S-Band at 3050 MHz and an X-band at 9410 MHz, to determine the location of the vessel relative to other vessels and landmarks within a 1% margin of error.


A gyrocompass

A gyrocompass

A standard compass points to the magnetic north pole rather than true north, therefore mariners prefer to use gyrocompasses for navigation.  Before departing, a gyrocompass is pointed to true north.  Using an electric current, the gyroscope in the device is spun very fast so that it will continually maintain that direction during the voyage.  Slight errors build up over time and must be corrected.  The watch standers post the necessary correction on the bridge.  Since the device is electronic, it can feed data into the system allowing for automated navigation and dynamic positioning systems to work well.

ECDIS Screen

The Electronic Chart Display Information System (ECDIIS) Screen

On the Electronic Chart Display Information System (ECDIS) screen, watchstanders can view the course planned by the Expedition Coordinator in charge of the science conducted on the voyage (in red), see the bearing they have set (thin black line), and see the actual course we are on (the black, dashed, arrowhead line).

The Dynamic Postioning System

The Dynamic Positioning System

The dynamic positioning system allows the vessel to remain in one spot in very delicate situations, such as when they lower a tethered device like the robotic vehicle they will be using on the next cruise or a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth probe).  It is also helpful for docking.

The electronics are able to control the ship due to the ingenious way the engine system is designed.  The diesel engine powers generators that convert the mechanical energy into electrical energy.  This way electrical energy can be used to control main hydraulic propellers at the stern as well as electric bow and side thrusting propellers.

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What happens if the power goes out and the electronic navigation devices fail?  There are back ups – no worries, students and family!!

The vessel can sail onward.  It is equipped with a magnetic compass and the watchstanders are well versed in reading charts, using a sextant, and plotting courses by hand – they often do that just to check the radar and GPS for accuracy.

The magnetic compass

The superimposed red arrow is directing your attention to the magnetic compass above the bridge.

Using Nautical Charts

Operations Officer, Lt. Emily Rose cross checking the radar and GPS with nautical charts.

Using a Sextant

Seaman Ryan Loftus teaching me how to use a sextant.

They also have a well-used copy of the “bible of navigation,” The American Practical Navigator written in 1802 by Nathaniel Bowditch.

The American Practical Navigator

The American Practical Navigator, The “Bible” of navigation for over 200 years.

They even let me take it for a spin – okay it was about a 90˚ turn – but hey, it feels pretty cool to be at the helm of a 224ft vessel!

At the helm

Steady as she goes! Mrs. Paulsen’s at the helm!

So where are we right now?

As I said we have begun mapping in our second priority zone, more than 100 miles north of Puerto Rico.  We are near the boundary of the Sargasso Sea.  It is not bordered by land, like other seas.  Instead it is bordered by ocean currents that keep the surface water in one area.

The Sargasso Sea

The Sargasso Sea. Image Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Remember the seaweed I wondered about in an earlier post?  It is called Sargassum.  It grows in rafts in the Sargasso Sea.  This is actually where the Sargasso sea got its name.  According to NOAA’s National Ocean Service, these rafts provide habitat for certain fish and marine life.  Turtles use them as nurseries for their hatchlings.  In recent years large blooms of Sargassum have been washing up on nearby coastlines causing problem along the shore.  (Oct 1, 2014, USA Today)  More research needed!  There are always more questions.  Is this caused by warming oceans, by oil spills, or by a combination?  Nothing lives in isolation.  All life forms are connected to each other and to our environment.  Changes in the ocean impact us all, everywhere on the globe.

A Sargassum Mat. Photo courtesy of NOAA.


Want to explore yourself?  Check out NOAA Corps to become ship officer!

Career Profile of a NOAA Corps Officer:

Acting Executive Officer (XO) Lieutenant Fionna Matheson is augmenting on this leg of the trip, meaning she is filling in for the XO currently on leave.  Otherwise, in her current “land job” she works at NOAA headquarters for the NOAA Administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.  Dr. Sullivan, a former astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space, reports to the Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker. Working on the headquarters team, LT Matheson learns a great deal about the breadth and importance of NOAA’s mission.

Lt. Fionna Matheson

Lt. Fionna Matheson

To become a member of the NOAA Corps you must have a Bachelor’s degree in Science or Math. It is a competitive process, so some sort of experience with boating is advantageous, but not required.  NOAA Corps officers are trained not only to drive and manage ships, but also to handle emergencies including fire-fighting, and follow maritime law.  They act as the glue between the scientists and the crew (wage mariners), making sure the scientific mission is accomplished and the safety of the crew and the vessel are secure.  Fionna has been part of the corps for 11 years.  She explains that NOAA Corps officers are stationed for about 2 years at sea (with some shore leave) followed by 3 years on land throughout their careers. During her NOAA career, Fionna has sailed in the tropical Pacific maintaining deep-ocean buoys, fished in the North Atlantic, collected oceanographic samples in the Gulf of Mexico, and now mapped part of the Caribbean. She has also worked as part of an aerial survey team in San Diego, studying whales and dolphins.

Fionna’s advice to high school students is this, “The difference between who you are and who you want to be is action.  Take the initial risk.”

Personal Log

What do we do for fun in our free time?

We read.

Jason Meyer, Mapping Watch Lead, reading on the Okeanos.

Jason Meyer, Mapping Watch Lead, reading on the Okeanos during his off hours.

We play games like chess, although I am not very good.  I try, and that is what is important, right?

Chess Tournament

Chief Steward Dave Fare and CO Mark Wetzler playing a warm up game before the chess tournament.

We watch movies – even watched Star Trek on the fantail one evening.   Very fitting since we are boldly going where no one has gone before with our high-resolution sonar.

Movie Night

Movie night on the fantail.

And we watch the sun go down on the ocean.


A view from the fantail of the ship.

Mostly, I like watching the water when I have time.   I would have made a great lookout – I should look into it after I retire from teaching.  I have been trying to use my Aquaman powers to summon the whales and dolphins, but so far – no luck.   Maybe on the way back in to shore we’ll catch another glimpse.

What do I miss?

My family and friends.  Hi Bryan, Ben, Laura, Dad, Mom, and the rest of the gang.

My family

My family

And my students and coworkers.  Go Ashland Oredockers!

Ashland Public Schools, Ashland, Wi

I am fortunate to have such supportive people behind me!  Thanks, guys!

I do not miss snow and cold weather, so if you all could warm it up outside in northern Wisconsin over the next week, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll see what kind of strings I can pull with these NOAA folks!   ¡No me gusta la nieve o el frío en la primavera!

Did you know?

Sky conditions on the bridge are determined by oktas.  An okta is 1/8th of the sky.  If all oktas are free of clouds the sky is clear.  If 1-2 oktas contain clouds, the bridge reports few clouds, 3-4 filled oktas equal scattered clouds, 5-7 equal broken clouds, and 8 filled oktas means the sky is overcast.

Question of the Day

Julia West: CTD and much more, March 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 27, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1300; clouds 10%, cirrus; wind 330° (NNW), 10 knots; air temp. 18°C; water temp. 22°C; wave height 1 ft.; swell height 2-3 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We had some high winds (25 knots) these past couple of days, and the seas got too rough to work. Last night we headed closer to shore to find calmer water, and all ops were called off. Today we are back on (a new) course! Here’s the map with our rerouted course on it:

Sampling stations 3/27

Plankton sampling stations covered through 3/27/15

I want to start off this post answering two really good questions that have come up. Why do we send the samples all the way to Poland, only to have the data and some specimens come right back here? Is that typical U.S. outsourcing? Well, I had heard a rumor, and now I have a definitive answer about that, and it’s rather interesting! I had no idea I’d be learning history lessons on this journey, but this post has two important events in history.

If you have studied World War II, you may have heard of the Marshall Plan, otherwise known as the European Recovery Program, where the U.S. provided grants and loans for the rebuilding of war-ravaged European countries. Poland needed to pay off their war debt to the U.S., and the U.S. had a need. Here’s what I learned:

“The ‘father of the Polish Sorting Center’, Ken Sherman, visited a number European counties participating in the Marshall Plan looking for one that would be interested in setting up a Plankton Sorting and Identification Center. Poland was the one that took him up on the offer. Actually the leader of the Province of Pomerania in western Poland saw the economic possibilities for his state and thus was born the U.S.-Poland Agreement. By the way, the agreement lasted the entire time Poland was an eastern block country under the domination of the old Soviet Union. That in itself is a remarkable tale!” Information courtesy of Joanne Lyczkowski-Shultz, renowned Plankton scientist.

There you have it. Who knew? I think debt is paid off, but we have a great working relationship with the Polish Sorting Center, and they are good at what they do, so we continue.

Another good question was, why do we sample every year? Do the samples change? The reason is because just like for so many things (think of climate change as an example), it is by monitoring long term that we get the big picture and see change, if it is occurring. I asked if the samples change over time, but the answer isn’t known among the scientists on this ship. There are other departments that analyze the data; these scientists specialize in collecting it.

Today I want to introduce the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) unit. This expensive (think $20,000 and up) piece of equipment provides a hefty amount of data about the water column in our 200 meter sampling range. This is the last unit we deploy when we get to a station, after the neuston net comes back on board. Here’s what it looks like (the actual CTD part is on the bottom):

Here are some close-up pictures:

niskin bottles

There are 3 niskin bottles on the unit now (one not visible). It can hold 12.

The niskin bottles collect samples of water at whatever depth we determine. They are lowered into the water with both ends open (see the top and bottom lids are cocked open), so water flows through them. When they get to a certain depth, we can “fire” a bottle, and an electric signal trips a little lever at the top, and the top and bottom lids spring shut. We collect samples at the surface, at the bottom of the photic zone (200 meters or the ocean floor if we can’t go that deep), and at whatever place in the water column there is the maximum amount of chlorophyll. How do we know that, you should be wondering? Well, that’s where this unit comes in. This is officially the CTD – the expensive part:

CTD unit

The CTD is the “brains;” it does all the technical work.

It’s hard to see because it is on a black mat. The CTD sends constant information back to our computers. Water is pumped through the unit (see the tubing?) It is recording temperature, depth (by water pressure), oxygen level, salinity, turbidity (water clarity) and fluorescence. The conductivity, or the ability to pass an electric current, gives a measure of the dissolved salts in the water, or salinity (there’s chemistry and physics for you!) Fluorescence is one indicator of chlorophyll content. If you have learned about photosynthesis, it is chlorophyll in plant leaves that absorbs the sunlight and makes a plant green. The chlorophyll, therefore, is an indicator of the phytoplankton, such as single-celled algae, that are in the water. Remember, some zooplankton (mostly the invertebrates) eat phytoplankton, and most of our baby fish eat the zooplankton, so it’s good to know what is going on at the base of the food chain.

All of these things create cool little lines on a graph as the CTD is lowered. After capturing water at the bottom, we bring it up to approximately what the chlorophyll maximum was on the way down, by watching the data feed as it comes in, and fire another bottle to grab a sample of that water. Then we do it again at the surface.

So far I’ve shared what we do on the deck – how we collect the samples. In another post I will share with you what all this stuff looks like in the lab on the computer screen. Remember I said there is constant communication between the lab, the bridge, and the deck? Well, in the lab (but not the deck) we know exactly where the bottom is, and we have to give the order to stop the descent of the CTD (or bongos). “All stop!” is the command on the radio. “All stop,” the winch operator repeats as he stops the winch. If conditions are not right, the bridge or the scientists can put off or call off a deployment. We had some strong winds and high seas these past couple of days, so working with flying nets can get dangerous. The neuston is the first to get cancelled – that’s a big net!

In the next few blog posts I’m going to share with you some micrographs (pictures taken through a microscope) of what we’ve been catching. It is awe-inspiring to see all these little specks that fill our sieves close up!

Again, here’s what they look like in a jar:

Bongo sample

This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!

And here’s what happens when they are sorted under a microscope:

Larval fish

These are all larval fish. Top left: lizard fish. The bigger one in center is cutlass fish. These are both 8-9mm long. Photo courtesy of Pamela Bond, NOAA.

Personal Log

The other day we saw pilot whales from the bridge. It was pretty cool – they were right in front of the ship. If it was a kind of slow moving whale, we would have slowed down to avoid hitting them, but pilot whales move fast, and got out of our way easily. I didn’t get pictures – sorry! But here is somebody who was taking refuge on the deck:

yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned night heron taking a rest.

Sometimes birds get blown off course, or get tired while crossing a big expanse of water. We had two big cattle egrets sitting up high on the deck a few days ago. And often songbirds land on deck, completely exhausted.

We had another fire drill and abandon ship drill; these happen once a week. This time we practiced crawling (because smoke rises) to the nearest exit with our eyes shut.

fire escape practice

Here I am feeling my way to the exit. Photo credit: A.L. VanCampen

abandon ship drill

Everyone gathers on deck with their survival suits (and hats required) in the abandon ship drill

Here’s a random picture that I took. Occasionally we get plastic in our nets, and all this is recorded, of course. But if a man o’war is plankton, and this mylar balloon acts like plankton, is it plankton?


No, it’s pollution!

I’d like to introduce Tony VanCampen, our Electronics Technician (ET). Without him, operations would come to a stop around here. Tony is in charge of all the electronics on the ship. That includes things like the SeaCAT, the CTD, the computers, the radar, radios, GPS, meteorology gear, the internet connection….to name a few. Tony says “ET” stands for “Everything Tech.”


Our internet! VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) – this is how I am posting to this blog.

Tony spent 20 years in the US Navy before joining NOAA. He spent 6 years on the USS Berkeley in the Pacific, followed by a couple of years of shore duty, during which time he went back to school to learn all the new equipment that was being used on the new ships. In 1994, Tony started a new tour on the brand new Navy ship USS Cole. He was on two deployments of the USS Cole. Where were you on October 12, 2000 – were you even born yet? Tony was on the Cole, in Yemen, when two men in a normal looking small boat came up to the ship, waved, and then blew themselves up, destroying a section of the Cole and killing 17 sailors and injuring another 40+. Tony was not visibly injured, but we now know that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a very real and serious affliction. Tony thought he was doing well until Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his wife realized he was not well at all. He credits his family and friends for seeking help and saving his life.

Why do I mention this? Because you never know, when you go to a new place, what the people you meet have been through. How important it is to remain sensitive and raise awareness of PTSD! Thanks to Tony for his willingness to share his story and thanks to those men and women who serve our country.

Lastly, here are a few pictures from our day with 5-7 foot seas. I have not been seasick – yay!

big waves

Big waves from the lower deck as we were trying to sample.

Gulf of Mexico


sunset on the Gulf

The day ends.

Julia West: Neuston! March 25, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 25, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 0900; mostly sunny, clouds 25% altocumulus; wind 5 knots, 120° (ESE); air 21°C, water 21°C, wave height 1-2 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We continue to zigzag westward on our wild plankton hunt. When we are closer to shore, navigation is tricky, because we are constantly dodging oil platforms, so we can never quite do the straight lines that are drawn on the chart.

Plankton stations 3/25/15

Here’s what we have covered through this morning. We’re making good time!

One of our Oak Meadow math teachers, Jacquelyn O’Donohoe, was wondering about math applications in the work that we are doing. The list is long! But don’t let that deter you from science – no need to fear the math! In fact, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt told me that he was never good at math, but when it came to navigating a ship, it all became more visual and much more understandable. I think it’s cool to see math and physics being applied. So, just for fun, I’ll point out the many places where math is used here on the ship – it’s in just about every part of the operations.

Today’s topic is neuston. As soon as we get the bongo nets back on board, the cable gets switched over to the neuston net. This net is a huge pipe rectangle, 1 meter x 2 meters, with a large net extending to the cod end to collect the sample. The mesh of this net is 1mm, much larger than the 0.3mm mesh of the bongo nets. So we aren’t getting the tiniest things in the neuston net, but still pretty small stuff! We lower the net to the surface, using the winch, and let it drag there for ten minutes. The goal is to have the net half in the water, so we have a swept area of 0.5 x 2 meters, or 1 square meter. (See, there’s some math for you!) That’s the goal. Sometimes with big waves, none of the net is in the water, and then all of it is, but it averages out.

Deploying neuston net

Here I am helping to deploy the neuston net. Photo credit: Kim Johnson

Neuston net

Neuston net in the water. Photo credit: Madalyn Meaker

Then we hose the net off thoroughly to get what is stuck to the net into the cod end.

Neuston net cleaning

Andy is hosing off the neuston net.

As I mentioned before, neuston is the array of living organisms that live on or just below the surface. Some of it is not plankton, as you can also catch larger fish, but mostly, the sample overlaps with the larger plankton that we catch in the bongos. There tends to be more jellyfish in the neuston net, so we sometimes wear gloves. Pam got stung by a man o’ war on the first day while cleaning out the net!


neuston sample

Pam is sorting an interesting neuston sample. See her smile – she clearly loves plankton!

Collecting neuston

Madalyn funneling the neuston into a jar with ethanol

Sometimes we end up with Sargassum in our nets. Sargassum is a type of brown “macroalgae” (seaweed) that grows in large clumps and floats on the surface. Have you ever heard of the Sargasso Sea? It is a massive collection of Sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, held in place by the North Atlantic Gyre.


Sargassum taken from a sample


Sargassum in the water








Sargassum often collects in our nets. Sometimes we get gallons of Sargassum, and we have to carefully hose the organisms off of it, and throw the weeds back. We get the most interesting variety of life in the Sargassum! It supports entire communities of life that wouldn’t be there without it. If you want to know a little more about Sargassum communities, check out this website.

Here are a few examples of some of the photographable organisms we have collected in the neuston net. I’m working on getting micrographs of the really cool critters that are too small to see well with the naked eye, but they are amazing – stay tuned. All of the fish, except the flying fish, are very young; the adults will be much, much larger. (If you click on one of these, you will see a nice slide show and the full caption.)

Lastly, here is a really cool neuston sample we got – whale food!


This sample looks like it is almost entirely made up of copepods; this species is a beautiful blue color.

Personal Log

Now let’s turn to the other life form on the ship – the people. There are a total of 26 people on this cruise. Everyone is really great; it’s a community of its own. First, let me introduce the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship.

The NOAA Corps, or NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States (can you name the others?). It seems that many have never heard of the NOAA Corps, so it’s worth telling you a little bit about them. Officers are trained to take leadership positions in the operation of ships and aircraft, conducting research missions such as this one and much, much more! NOAA Corps has all the career benefits of the U.S. military, without active combat. Our officers all have a degree in some kind of science, often marine science or fisheries biology.

The crew members generally keep 4 hour watches, twice a day. I really enjoy going up to the bridge to hang out with them. It’s a whole different world up there, and they have been gracious enough to explain to me (as best as I can understand it) how they navigate the ship. Conceptually, I get it pretty well, but even if I was allowed to, I wouldn’t dare touch one of the buttons and dials they have up there!

Our XO (Executive Officer) on the Gunter is LCDR Colin Little. Colin has been with NOAA for eleven years now, and his previous assignments include Sea Duty aboard Oregon II and Oscar Elton Sette, and shore assignments in Annapolis, MD and Newport, OR. His background is in fish morphology and evolution.  His wife and two sons are currently living in Chicago.

ENS Kristin Johns has been on the Gunter for almost a year. She joined NOAA after getting a biology degree at Rutgers. She is currently being trained to be the next Navigation Officer. Kristin is the safety officer, as well as the MPIC (Medical Person in Charge). Kristin is the one who suggested I use the word “thalassophilia” as the word of the day – something she clearly suffers from!

Our Operations Officer (OPS) is LT Marc Weekley. Marc is in charge of organizing the logistics, and coordinating between the scientists and the crew. He’s been with NOAA for ten years (on the Gunter for two years), and has had some interesting land-based as well as offshore posts, including a year at the South Pole Station (yes, Antarctica) doing clean air and ozone monitoring.

ENS Melissa Mathes is newest officer with NOAA, but spent 6 years in the Army Reserves in college, and then 6 years of active duty with the Navy. Melissa loves archery and motorcycles, and she has been rumored to occasionally dance while on watch.

Melissa and Marc

ENA Melissa Mathes and LT Marc Weekley

ENS (which stands for Ensign, by the way) David Wang, originally from New York City, is our Navigation Officer (NAV). He’s been with NOAA for two years. His job, as he puts it, is “getting us where we gotta go, safely.” He is the one who charts our course, or oversees the other Junior Officers as they do it. Dave used to be a commercial fisherman, and when he’s not on duty, those are his fishing lines extending out from the back deck. He’s also an avid cyclist and ultimate Frisbee player.

ENS Peter Gleichauf has been on the Gunter since November, but finished his training over a year ago. He is also an aviator, musician, and avid outdoors person. In fact, for all of the officers, health, fitness, and active lifestyle is a priority. Pete is in charge of environmental compliance on the ship.

Dave and Pete

ENS Dave Wang and ENS Pete Gleichauf

King mackerel

Lead fisherman Jorge Barbosa and a king mackerel caught today on Dave’s line! It took 2 deck crew men to pull it in!


Term of the Day: USS Cole – you can look this one up. Next blog post I will explain what in the world it has to do with a plankton research cruise. I promise it will all make sense!


Theresa Paulsen: Getting my Hands Dirty with Data, March 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Theresa Paulsen
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
March 16 – April 3, 2015

Mission:  Caribbean Exploration (Mapping)
Geographical Area:  Puerto Rico Trench
Date:  March 24, 2015

Weather from the Bridge:  Scattered Clouds, 26.6˚C, Wind 10kts from 100˚, Waves 1-2ft, swells 2-3ft

Science and Technology Log

Now that the interns have been trained in data collection and processing, it was my turn to learn.

Mapping Intern Chelsea Wegner taught me how to launch an XBT and how to process the data gathered by the multibeam sonar. It is a fairly simple procedure that requires diligent record keeping in logs.  I processed four “lines.” A line is about one hour of data collection, or shorter. Two of my lines were shorter because the sonar had to be turned off due to a whale sighting! This is bad for data collecting, but AWESOME for me! Again, I missed it with the camera, though.

Mapping Instructors

My Mapping Instructors: Intern, Chelsea Wegner; Expedition Coordinator, Meme Lobecker; and Mapping Watch Lead, Jason Meyer.

I have also been given the task of using a sun photometer to measure direct sunlight over the ocean as part of the Maritime Aerosol Network, a component of AERONET, a NASA project through the Goddard Space Flight Center.  Every two hours when the sun is shining and there are no clouds in the way of the sun, I use this tool to measure the amount of sunlight able to penetrate our atmosphere.

Using the Sun Photometer

Using the Sun Photometer

I use a GPS to determine our location and transfer that information to the sun photometer.  Then I scan the sunlight with the photometer for about 7 seconds and repeat 5 times within two minutes.  Keeping the image of the sun in the target location on the photometer while standing on a rocking boat is harder than it may look!

Sun Photometer

The little bright light in the dark circle above my right hand is the image of the sun.  It must remain in the center of the traget circle during a solar scan.

According to the Maritime Network, the photometer readings taken from ground level helps determine the Aerosol Optical Depth, meaning the fraction of the sun’s energy that is scattered or absorbed while it passes through the earth’s atmosphere. The reduction in energy is assumed to be caused by aerosols when the sunlight’s path to earth is free of clouds.  Aerosols are solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere.  Sea-salt is a major contributor over the ocean as well as smoke and dust particles from land that are lifted and transported over the oceans.  There are many stations over land that collect this data, but using ships is also important because the data is used to provide “ground truth” to satellite measurements over the entire earth, including the oceans.  The data is also used in climate change research and aerosol distribution and transport modeling.

Aerosols in our Atmosphere

“This portrait of global aerosols was produced by a GEOS-5 simulation at a 10-kilometer resolution. Dust (red) is lifted from the surface, sea salt (blue) swirls inside cyclones, smoke (green) rises from fires, and sulfate particles (white) stream from volcanoes and fossil fuel emissions.” (NASA,Goddard website)
Image credit: William Putman, NASA/Goddard

It is pretty cool to be part of such an interesting project!  The people here are interesting too.  I thought I’d highlight some of their stories in my next few blogs.

Career Profile of Intern Chelsea Wegner

Chelsea’s story is a great example for high school students.  She graduated from a high school in Virginia that is similar in size to Ashland High School, where I teach.  Her family enjoyed spending time near the ocean and had a library of books about ocean adventures.  Her grandfather served in the Navy on Nuclear Submarines and liked to build models of ships.

Chelsea Wegner reading "My Father, the Captain:  My Life with Jacque Cousteau"  by Jean Michel Cousteau  in her free time.

Chelsea Wegner reading “My Father, the Captain: My Life with Jacque Cousteau” by Jean Michel Cousteau in her free time.

In high school, her career interests began to take shape in her Environmental Science in Oceanography class.   She went to college at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia majoring in environmental science with particular interest in geology and river systems.  She took advantage of a research opportunity studying sediment transport from rivers to the coast during her undergraduate career.  She took sediment core samples and analyzed them to determine human impacts, contamination, and dated the sediment layers.  She took more research courses that took her to the US Virgin Islands to conduct a reef survey, identifying and counting fish.  She described that as a pivotal experience that led her toward her Masters Degree in Marine Science.  Her Masters thesis project was a coastal processes study the potential effects of sea level rise on coral reefs and the corresponding coastline.  She used the connections she had in the US Virgin Islands and in her university to fund and/or support her research.

After competing her Masters Chelsea applied for a marine science and policy fellowship, the Knauss Fellowship, which allowed her to work as an assistant to the Assistant Administrator of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) within NOAA, Craig McLean, for one year.  Through this fellowship, Chelsea traveled the world to places like Vietnam, the Philippines, New Zealand, and France getting a first-hand look at how science informs marine policy and vice versa.

Chelsea learned early on that experience matters most when trying to make yourself marketable.  That is why she is here now serving as a mapping intern.  She takes the opportunity to learn every piece of equipment and software available to her.  She is a rising star in the world of science.  After this voyage, she will begin her new job as a program analyst at OAR headquarters working in the international office handling engagements with other countries such as Indonesia and Japan.  And she is only 28!

Did You Know? 

At 10 AM this morning there was tsunami drill, LANTEX (Large Atlantic Tsunami Exercise) on the east coast from Canada all the way down to the Caribbean.   So students in schools inside Tsunami-threatened areas likely participated in evacuation drills.  The test is part of NOAA National Weather service Tsunami Warning Program.  It helps governments test and evaluate their emergency protocols to improve preparedness in the event of an actual tsunami.

Question of the Day

Theresa Paulsen: A Vessel Built on Science, March 23, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Theresa Paulsen
Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
March 16 – April 3, 2015

Mission: Caribbean Exploration (Mapping)
Geographical Area of Cruise: Puerto Rico Trench
Date: March 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Scattered Clouds, 27.0˚C, waves 1-2ft, swells 3-4ft, wind 11kts from 100˚

Science and Technology Log

A ship like the Okeanos Explorer demonstrates the connection between science and engineering to the nth degree.  Every room that I visit and every person I talk to can illustrate scientific applications.

Okeanos Explorer

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Consider the galley I introduced you to in my second blog post.  On a three-week cruise with no access to a grocery store, how are the cooks able to serve fresh fruits and vegetables?  I assumed that they would have to serve canned or frozen foods as time went on but that is not the case.  The Chief Steward, Dave Fare, tells me that he or a member of his crew, goes through the produce each morning to pick out anything that is past its prime so that the any ethylene emitted by the offending overripe items won’t affect the other fruits or vegetables. So far the food has been fabulous so it must be working!

Salad bar

Check out the salad bar available every day!

Then of course, you have the clean up where dishes are rinsed, washed, rinsed again, and then sanitized in a high temperature dishwasher to kill off any harmful bacteria.  Biology in action. They occasionally add beneficial bacteria treatments to the drains to help break down any organic matter that makes its way into the drain pipes.  This reduces the unpleasant smell of decaying matter and makes the water cleaner.

Where does that water go?  I took a tour to find out.

Engine Room Tour

Ready for an Engineering Tour!

First Assistant Engineer

My tour guide, First Assistant Engineer, Ricardo Gabona

The water that goes down the drain or gets flushed goes through an onboard wastewater treatment process similar to one used by a city but in miniature form. It is macerated (ground up), filtered, and then treated with just enough chlorine to kill harmful bacteria before leaving the ship.  The ship’s First Assistant Engineer, Ricardo Gabona, told me that the effluent (water leaving the ship) looks as clean as the seawater we are sailing on with less than 15 ppm total dissolved solids.

Wastewater Treatment Unit

The Ship’s Wastewater Treatment Unit.

How do we survive without additional freshwater for drinking?  We don’t have to!  We are actually drinking seawater – after it has been distilled.  It is a pretty cool process.  The water used to cool the engines, absorbs enough heat to raise the temperature to about 180˚F.  Using a vacuum, the pressure of the water from the engines is reduced so that it boils at temperatures as low as 150˚F.  Next the vapor is condensed.  There you have it – distilled water!  That is great energy conservation in action!  The water then has to be cooled, before heading to the faucets with a heat exchanger.  No need for a water heater – the engines do the work!  The distilled water is also filtered and run through an ultraviolet light tube twice just to be sure to kill off any remaining microbes.  The distillers can make water at a rate of about a gallon per minute.  There are two of them on the ship.  So can you calculate how long it would take them to make enough water for the maximum 46 people on board, each using 50 or more gallons per day?

Vacuum Distinller

Vacuum distiller for the desalination of sea water

In order to draw in relatively clean sea water, the ship must be at least 20 miles from shore, according system’s manufacturer, to avoid contamination from erosion and runoff. For us this means we need to transit north periodically to make water, disrupting our planned mapping route. Water conservation is a priority on this cruise to avoid that as much as possible.

Check out our mapping progress!  You see, the vertical paths were taken when we needed more water.

Our mapping path so far

Our mapping path is represented by the red line in this window. The black outline is Puerto Rico.

Bathymetry data collected so far

Our path looks much cooler with the bathymetry data added, doesn’t it?

What about fuel?

According to Ricardo, the ship was originally built as a submarine hunter during the cold war.  It’s mission was to listen for and locate Russian submarines.  It carried a crew of 24 sailors for 6-9 months at a time. NOAA took charge of the ship in 2004 and by 2008 had modified it to become the exploration vessel it is today.  Some of the fuel tanks now serve other purposes.  Currently the ship can hold 149,000 gallons of diesel fuel! The ship now has 26 crew members, but also now hosts teams of up to 20 scientists, which requires more power and energy.   Still the fuel can last more than 2 months.  The ship will need to be refueled before heading to the Panama canal en route to the Hawaiian Islands.

Why diesel?  It is a very safe fuel for ships, since it won’t ignite at standard temperatures and pressures.  But diesel can be dirty and can contain water, both can interfere with engine performance.  You don’t want to have engine trouble when you are out at sea.  So the fuel is cleaned with a fuel purifier and water separator that use a centrifuge to  separate the fuel from the contaminants based on density.  The fuel entering the engines goes through this process multiple times to ensure the engines are getting very clean diesel fuel.  As a result, you don’t see or smell the exhaust from the combustion.

Of course all of this fuel is heavy, as it is used, the ship would get lighter and lighter making it float higher and higher.  This would be a problem for stability.  As any object’s center of gravity rises higher, the object becomes less stable and more likely to topple.  You do not want your ship to topple!  So you need to replace the fuel as you use it with ballast water.  The fuel and ballast tanks are located all around the ship.  As the fuel tanks are emptied and water tanks are filled, the engineers must consider the balance of the vessel, ensuring the mass is distributed properly for optimum performance and stability in the water.

Personal Log:  

I am loving this adventure.  I am mesmerized by the massiveness of the ocean.  I love looking out at water as far as I can see with only a ship or two in the distance every now and then.   I could watch the water for hours on end.  You see interesting things when you are really looking, each one giving you cause to wonder.  Consider the interesting birds that fly by.  What are they?  Where do they call home?  Why do they like to fly by the ship?  Why do flying fish fly?  Are they finding insects that I can’t see, or are they evading predators?   Where do all the seaweed patches floating on the water come from?  What kind of seaweed is it?  Is it edible?  Do they grow there at the surface, or are they floating debris carried out to sea, or is it a combination of the two?

Let’s start with the birds.  Lieutenant Emily Rose, Operations Officer, told me they are brown boobies.  Take a look at these photos taken of the bow of the ship.

A Brown Booby

A Brown Booby

Brown Boobies

Brown boobies often maintain mating pairs for several seasons

Brown Booby in Flight

Brown Booby in flight

Did You Know?

According to Wikipedia, brown boobies nest in large colonies in tropical areas like the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.  They very good fliers that can plunge for fish at very high speeds, but they are clumsy at take off and landings as we observed on the bow this morning.  One of the birds tried to land on the railing and slipped. Junior Officer Bryan Pestone had to help him up and over.  He flew away for a short time and then returned.  My guess is they use the vantage point of the ship to watch for small fish and to preen themselves.

I’ll let you know what I find out about the seaweed and flying fish in future blogs.  ¡Hasta Luego!

Question of the Day

Julia West: Bongos! March 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C

Science and Technology Log

Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.

Stations covered 3/22

This is what we’ve covered so far. We’re doing well!

Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:

Kim labeling a sample

Kim Johnson (scientist) in the wet lab, labeling a sample. Notice the cardboard boxes – they are all full of sample jars, both empty and full.

Bongo sample

This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!









These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.

NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.

In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.

The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!


The bongo nets just entering the water. They will be lowered to 200m, or near the bottom if it is shallower.

Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:

Bongos ready to deploy

These bongos are ready to go as soon as we get the OK.

Flow meter for bongos

This little whirlybird is the flow meter.


The SeaCAT








The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.

I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!

Deploying the bongos

Here I am holding the “codends,” ready to drop them over the side. The crane does all the heavy lifting. Photo by Andy Millett


Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:

Measuring wire angle

Measuring the wire angle (angle of the cable) with the inclinometer. Photo by Madalyn Meaker.

The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!

Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.

Bongo cod end

This is a close-up of the “cod end” of the bongo, where the plankton get funneled into.

Plankton from the bongo

This is the sample from one of the bongo nets. Can you see why it’s hard to come up with pictures of individual organisms? There are thousands in here!

Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.

Personal Log

Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).

Margaret, chief steward

Margaret, assembling some spinach lasagna rolls while talking about her life.

Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.

Gunter dining room

The dining room, or “mess deck.”

condiment selection

World’s largest selection of condiments, including anchovy sauce and REAL maple syrup!








Lunch spread


more food

and more decisions…








That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!

Challenge Yourself

What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?

Did You Know?

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)

Oil and gas platforms in the Gulf

Locations of the active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. From http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/