Julia West: Getting Ready to Head South to the Gulf of Mexico! March 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
(Almost!) Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 11, 2015


Hello from the frozen north! From the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and from almost as cold southern Vermont, I welcome you to this blog of my new adventure. My name is Julia West, and in just a few short days I will be embarking on a new journey, leaving this place where the average temperature last month was a cozy 5°F (-15°C) and joining the crew and scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be more like 60°F (15°C).

The Gordon Gunter

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
The Gordon Gunter, length 224′, first launched in 1989 as the U.S. Naval ship Relentless, and converted to its present configuration for NOAA in 1998. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

First of all, if you’re the type who asks as many questions as I do (and I hope you are – questions are good!), you might be wondering why am I saying hello from two places, both NY and VT. Well, Oak Meadow School, “where” I teach, is in Brattleboro, VT. I live in NY, 3 hours away. And the students? They are everywhere! But of course if you are an Oak Meadow student, you already know all this. So I will say I am from both places, and I represent homeschooled students throughout the world, who will hopefully be tuning into this blog and adding comments. I invite everyone reading this to ask questions and share comments – I don’t need to know who you are, but hope you will introduce yourself.

I teach high school science, mostly biology and environmental science, and health, to homeschooled students through our distance learning program. I have been working for Oak Meadow for 22 years now. I am always looking for ways to bring our students together in our global community, and what better way to do that but to go out into the one “world ocean” that we all share. I’m passionate about science and scientific research, and very excited to share with you all that I learn. And believe me, I have much to learn. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real field work, and the technology has changed so much that I am getting into student mode!

More About Me

Julia West - skiing Feb 2015
This is me on a backcountry ski tour last week here in the Adirondacks

 I would have to say I’m a landlubber who loves oceans. I’m more comfortable in the mountains where I can range far and wide, yet the unknown has a strong pull on me – I love new challenges. Living in a small floating space will be my first entry into a whole new world, which I hope will lead to more sailing experiences in the future. I don’t even know yet if I get seasick! I grew up with small boats on the many lakes we have here; I’ve taken plenty of ferries in various oceans, but I’ve never spent real time at sea. I love the outdoors – I am an avid cross-country skier, biker, hiker, and whitewater raft guide.

I don’t know the Gulf of Mexico; I have spent very little time in the south. We all hear about the Gulf in the news, and often not in a good way: hurricanes, BP oil spill, the dead zone…. I teach about these topics. I’m excited to get a firsthand perspective on the important research being done there. More on that soon, but first, I have to share this picture of some of the cool NOAA goodies that came in the mail last week! I have to admit – I really like the NOAA logo.

NOAA TAS goodies
The cool TAS swag that came from NOAA!

What I Know about NOAA

When most people think about NOAA, they are probably thinking about the National Weather Service forecast. NOAA is so much more! I have used the website as an incredible resource on meteorology, anything related to the oceans or atmosphere, fisheries, and climate science. As a science geek, I just have fun clicking around the NOAA website, checking it all out. It is NOAA scientists who map the ocean floor, providing safe passage for shipping. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service takes the lead in stewardship of the marine ecosystems in the U.S. And if you want the latest in climate monitoring and predictions, look to NOAA.

I also have learned a little bit about NOAA through my daughter, Joy. She was a Hollings scholar in college, which opened the door to employment with NOAA in Woods Hole, MA. Now a PhD candidate in marine biology, she still does some research on NOAA ships. Here is a picture of Joy on the R/V Auk a few years ago. The yellow creature is called a marine autonomous recording unit (MARU), otherwise known as a pop-up. It is deployed into waters of the continental shelf to record the sounds of marine mammals. These units are anchored to the bottom, and in six months, when it is time to retrieve them, an acoustic signal triggers the cable to release, and the unit “pops up” to the surface, where it is found and picked up.

Joy doing NOAA research
My daughter Joy (see any resemblance?) ready to deploy a pop-up in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod. Photo credit: Denise Risch.

It was partly through Joy that I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, and I also have to credit her for reviving my interest in field science. So here I am!

What I Will Be Doing

What is a winter plankton survey anyway? I will be sharing lots of details about that in the next few weeks, as I learn. The fish resources in the Gulf (or anywhere) are important to humans, and it is through constant monitoring that we keep up on the status and health of fish populations. This data informs fishing regulations. The status of non-fishery species (those not used by humans) is equally important, as you know, because all species are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

We will be sampling fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles, as well as their zooplankton predators and prey, to determine their abundance and distribution. We will be measuring physical properties of their habitat, as well as primary productivity. That’s about as far as I will go right now, at the risk of giving you incorrect information! I’ll be sharing details about the tools and methods used in upcoming blog posts.

Meanwhile, this map below shows the sampling locations – if you need me, you can look for me in one of these spots!

SEAMAP monitoring stations
SEAMAP monitoring stations in the Gulf of Mexico. You can be sure to find us around here somewhere! Photo credit: SEFSC (NOAA website)

New? Terms

If you can’t remember what plankton is, it’s time to look it up! How about primary productivity? Feel free to share your definitions by leaving a comment.

Today’s Question (leave a reply in the comment section with your answer!)

Who was Gordon Gunter?


I love maps, and couldn’t help adding one. First stop Pascagoula, MS NOAA lab, where the ship will be waiting. Next “stop,” Gulf of Mexico!

46 Replies to “Julia West: Getting Ready to Head South to the Gulf of Mexico! March 11, 2015”

  1. Hi Julia!
    I am so excited to hear about your studies in the Gulf of Mexico. My father was in the Navy and he was stationed in Pensacola, Florida when I was just in Kindergarten. I have strong memories of swimming in the beautiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t know anything about plankton at such a young age, but I did quickly learn about jellyfish and sharks! I also didn’t know anything about Dr. Gordon Gunter until today after reading your blog! It is so interesting for me to know that he was appointed the director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in 1955! This is just when I was swimming in the very waters he was researching!
    Keep us posted, Julia! Thank you for your blog!

    1. Very cool, Lesley. You DID know about plankton, because jellyfish are plankton! (I hope I don’t have to grab one of them out of our sample net, but that’s what gloves are for I guess).

  2. Julie, fantastic first blog entry! Caroline & I will have a great time “following” you on your trip! Bon voyage! Take care, Beth

  3. Hi Julia, Ryan Harper here,
    Dr. Gordon Gunter was a marine biologist and reasercher. He was also the director of the Gulf Coast Reaserch Laboratory from 1955 to 1971.

    1. Great job, Ryan! He was a pioneer. (Ryan is my student who lives in North Carolina – I think it’s fun to put where everyone lives.)

  4. Question of the Day: Who is Gordon Gunter?
    I did a little poking around and came up with his bio page. What a prolific and hardworking researcher! Remind you of anyone you know? Maybe someday there will be a ship named after you, Julie!

  5. That’s a pretty big lake! I remember primary productivity and all that other Limnology stuff – but alas you’re oceanography now. Is that journal still around L&O (limnology and oceanography)?

  6. Hello Mrs. West this is Abdul from Oak Meadow. I wanted to answer your question about Gordon Gunter.

    Gordon Gunter was from Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas. He became a marine biologist and leader in marine research. He was the first to develop marine science in the Gulf of Mexico. He has been researching marine science 60 years. But in 1998, Pascagoula, Mississippi the US naval ship RELENTLESS was renamed as the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. He was the first director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and he founded the scientific journal “Gulf Research Reports”. He also published over 250 scientific paper articles, reviews, and other publications. His work is known world wide. He passed away on Dec, 19, 1998.

    NOAA. (2014) Dr. Gordon Gunter. NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. USA.gov. Retrieved from: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/gu/gunter.html.

    1. That’s awesome, Abdul! Well done! He was an amazing person, wasn’t he? (For everyone else – Abdul lives in Maryland)

  7. Have a great trip Ms. West! Thank you for posting such an interesting blog post, I will be reading all of the upcoming posts. I am so excited to be reading such a thought provoking and informative blog.

    Question of the day:
    The ship you are traveling on (the Gordon Gunter) is named after Dr. Gordon Gunter. Dr. Gunter was a marine biologist and leader in marine research. Dr. Gunter was the director of the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory from 1955 until 1971. He remained associated with the laboratory until his retirement in 1979.

    Esmé (Oak Meadow student).

    1. Excellent, Esmé! I’m so glad you wrote, and this is the first time I’ve heard of Dr. Gunter also! It made me look up some of the origins of names of some of the other NOAA ships. I’m glad you’ll be following! (Esmé lives in VT for those following the distribution of some of our students)

  8. How deep beneath the surface does the plankton live?
    How much does the plankton vary the deeper into the ocean you measure?
    Good luck on your voyage! I hope you have a nice time!

    1. Hi Zoe! Great questions. I can tell you that the bulk of plankton live in the photic zone near the surface, because the phytoplankton need the light and the zooplankton eat the phytoplankton. But how deep is the photic zone? It is about 200 meters usually. Zooplankton travel up and down a LOT, to get out of the way of predators during the day (but they can’t move horizontally on their own). I’m going to save your second question, because it’s a great one, and while I could answer it now, it would be way cooler to actually take pictures of the different plankton and get the info firsthand! Stay tuned! (Zoe lives in NY, on Long Island.)

  9. Julie, Jody Dixon here. Just want to wish you wonderful travels! What a fantastic opportunity!

  10. Hello Julia
    Thank you for the fast reply. Very interesting. Indeed I will stay tuned! This is my first real blog experience and I’m enjoying it. I’m looking forward to receiving the answer to my second question!

  11. Hi Julia! The research project sounds so cool – I hope you’re having a good time. I’m interested to learn how you actually complete the survey; I think it’ll be really cool to find out firsthand what a project like this is like. Do you know how many different species of fish and plankton you’ll be monitoring (approximately)? Will you be recording any other species besides fish and plankton if you come across them? Good luck on your trip!

    1. Hi Jamie! I’m so glad you are following. I’ll get more accurate info on the first question as we go along, but I see lots of little jars of plankton samples in the science lab. The researchers won’t be officially be recording other species (I think), but I certainly will! I like the birds – I see cormorants and white pelicans here at port, and one tall shorebird with long black legs that still needs to be identified. (Jamie lives in CT)

  12. Julia
    Gordon Gunther is a NOAA ship that collects information on the fish and mammals of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The ship conducts scientific surveys of the health and amount of fish and marine mammals.

    Have a great trip.

    1. Hello Emalie, from the Gordon Gunter (no h). Exactly, and named after Dr. Gordon Gunter, a leader in marine research here in the Gulf. Thanks for writing! (Emalie lives in VT)

  13. How do zooplankton propel themselves if they can’t move horizontally on their own?
    How do zooplankton eat phytoplankton? Do they have special mouths?

    1. I’m writing these questions down to get you accurate answers, but generally, ocean currents are very strong and zoooplankton can’t swim against them. You are about as inquisitive as I am! Remember, some zooplankton (and the bulk of what we will be catching) are fish larvae. So yes, they have mouths. More soon!

    1. Lesley, that’s a great website! I recommend everyone check it out. Another really cool one is http://www.planktonchronicles.org/en, shared by former TAS Sue Cullumber. I can’t look at the videos because the internet is too slow on the ship and it takes too much bandwidth, but check out how amazing and beautiful plankton are! (Lesley is a K-8 Oak Meadow teacher).

    1. That is a HUGE (meaning important) question, Emalie, and will definitely be covered in the blogs in the next couple of weeks! Stay tuned.

  14. Great blog. I am a Teacher at Sea Alumna, having sailed on a fisheries cruise in the fall aboard the Henry B. Bigelow. Love your blog already. I just returned from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab with my 5th grade students. They loved the Plankton Lab they did there–especially using the microscopes. They learned about the holoplankton and meroplankton. I believe they will have fun reading your blog as it will bring back good memories of their recent science trip. So, my question is…do you have plankton earrings yet?:) Have fun and happy blogging.
    Sue Zupko, TAS

    1. Oops, I am reading backwards, and looked you up before I read your intro! Thanks. No, I will definitely need to look for plankton earrings — hmmm, a baby squid maybe? Or a jelly?

  15. Checked out the plankton websites. Fascinating! I loved the pictures on plankton chronicles.org. I never knew plankton could be that colorful and beautiful. I didn’t know jellyfish were plankton either. Thanks for answering my latest questions, Julia! Are there plankton in the arctic and antarctic oceans? How do plankton breed?

    1. Oh yes, there are plankton in the polar oceans! They are the foundation of the food web everywhere on Earth. That’s why this is such important research. Copepods are a major type of zooplankton, and they are a major food source for baleen whales (I think I read that northern right whales eat 2000 lbs of copepods a day!). Copepods also feed krill, which feed baleen whales also. But it’s not just the whales. All fish species depend on plankton. And of course, the tiny baby fish ARE plankton themselves (not being strong enough to get around on their own yet). As far as breeding – that depends entirely on what they are – crustaceans, fish, ctenophores, etc. More on that in biology class!

  16. Dr. Gordon Gunter was a marine biologist who revolutionized marine research and education for over 60 years.

    1. Yay for Sue Zupko’s 5th graders! Great job. I’m really excited that you are following the blog. For everyone else, Sue zupko was a TAS last fall, on the Henry B. Bigelow, and also in 2011 on the Pisces! These 5th graders are in Huntsville, Alabama, right?

    1. OOPS Esmé – sorry about that! I knew you didn’t live in VT – was getting confused with Emalie for a minute!

  17. This is such an exciting adventure! Can’t wait to read all about it! Thanks for sharing your journey with us!!

  18. While we don’t have a bird observer onboard on this trip, we have had several come out and do research on Gunter. What I really like about working on Gunter is meeting the scientists and helping, where I can with the research.

    1. Thanks, Tony! Just for everyone else, Tony is our electronics technician (ET). You see me mention him, and more later. There are a LOT of electronics on board, needless to say. Tony takes care of it all.

  19. Copepods are whale food! Gunter will be working later this year with Dr. Mark Baumgartner of WHOI doing research on Northern Right Whales and Sei Whales. If we can find the whales, we don’t always. Dr. Baumgartner will put tracking devices on them and when they sound, dive, we will put his equipment in the water and look for what they are eating – mostly copepods.

  20. Thanks for the answer. Interesting to read that plankton live in polar oceans. How much plankton does a baleen whale eat in a day?

    1. I’m interested in all things polar, Zoe, since those are the areas of the world that are changing the fastest with climate change. The polar ice cap is important for the plankton there – I’d have to get my facts straight, but I think it has to do with the timing of the thawing. The freeze is necessary for a good plankton supply in the spring. As for your question, I answered that before – the northern right whale (a baleen whale) eats 2000lbs of copepods (plankton) in a day. Other baleen whales will also measure their food in the tons.

  21. Hi Mrs. Julia !!

    I loved reading your blogs but I guess it’s too late to answer your Question: “Who is Gordan Gunter”. Nevertheless, I really enjoy reading about your journey with such excitement and detail. It really does encourage me to want to write the same and go on my own adventure one day.

    Thank you 🙂 take care and Thanks for sharing.
    looking forward to your next journal !! 😀

    ~Hamzah Al-Quaid OMS Student Gr.10

    1. Thanks, Hamzah! I’m glad you were inspired. I encourage you to grab the experiences that come your way, and work to create them; your life will be richer in so many ways!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: