NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
March 13-18, 2015
Mission: Channel Islands Deep-Sea Coral Study
Geographic Area: Channel Islands, California
Date: Friday, March 13, 2015
NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada, my home away from home for the next six days!
Today marks my first official day aboard the Shimada as part of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program. NOAA stands for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. My name is Sarah Raskin and I am an educator at Haydock Academy of Arts and Sciences, a public middle school in Oxnard, California. For the next week, I have the opportunity to join NOAA scientists from across the United States on a deep-sea science expedition in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. I am hoping to bring back what I learn to the students at Haydock and to paint a picture of what it is like to work on real-life science out in the field.
The location for our expedition is in the waters off of the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in Southern California. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) covers 1,470 square miles of water surrounding Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands and is home to a large amount of diverse species. On this expedition, scientists will use an ROV (a remotely operated underwater vehicle) to examine deep-sea coral and the water chemistry around those coral beds. One of the most surprising facts for me before beginning this journey was to learn that coral grows in cold water deep-sea habitats, having only previously associated coral with warm water environments.
During this expedition, scientists will also look at how the corals are affected by ocean acidification. It will be interesting to see what their findings are: how do our actions on land affect organisms, such as coral, that live in the deep sea?
The scientists will collect live samples of the coral to take back to their labs for further ocean acidification testing. Throughout this trip, scientists will also use sonar to map the ocean floor. The information gathered from the sonar will help provide direction for where to send our ROV. The new images generated from the sonar could also be used to bring up-to-date sea floor maps of the Sanctuary, many of which have not been updated since they were created in the 1930s! Another feature of the sonar is to map out locations and quantities of fish populations in the area. This information is vital to sanctuaries and marine protected areas, as it contributes important information about why these areas are important to protect.
Science in the field is much different than science in a laboratory setting. There are so many factors to take into account: weather, ocean conditions, the working conditions of the equipment and many more unforeseen circumstances. The scientists and ship crew must each do their parts and work closely together as a team to make the research possible. During the first day aboard the researchers have faced quite a few challenges… Maybe because we set sail on Friday the 13th?
The morning began with impromptu safety drills. Similar to the fire drills that we have at our school, the ship also conducts regular drills. Today we had both a fire drill and an abandon ship drill. The abandon ship drill prepares the crew for an emergency event that would require us to leave the ship immediately. It also involved donning a safety suit, a giant red neoprene wetsuit that is designed to keep you warm if you needed to jump into the ocean.
Later in the afternoon, the team took the ROV out for its first outing of the trip. Chris Caldow (the expedition lead) and the scientists from Marine Applied Research and Exploration (MARE) chose a spot on the ocean floor that was sandy and flat with few physical features to snag on for its initial run. The ROV, which is named the Beagle, is an amazing piece of machinery. It is designed to be able to function in depths of down to 500 meters. It is also equipped with a high definition video camera that will take footage of what is going on under the sea. If the scientists see something of interest, the Beagle ROV has a manipulator arm to collect samples. The arm feature is also used to deploy different types of sensors that will keep track of information, such as temperature, over a longer period of time.
The launch of the ROV was exciting. Most of the crew gathered around to watch its release, and as it made it’s way down to the sea floor, it began streaming video footage to monitors inside of the laboratories on the ship. It was pretty incredible to be able to see the bottom of the sea floor with such clarity. So far, we have spotted multiple species of rockfish and an egg case of a skate. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring!
Back to one of our challenges: the key sonar machine is currently out of order. When things break on a ship, it can be a bit tricky to fix. It’s definitely not as simple as running to the nearest hardware store to pick up a new piece of equipment. When something is not working out here, it can involve scuba diving under the ship to fix something or sailing back to the mainland if there is a real issue. So tomorrow there will be a boat coming out to meet our ship and bringing with it equipment and a trained sonar technician to hopefully solve our problems. Let’s keep our fingers crossed!
Update: Science in the Field
The Beagle ROV journeyed into the depth once more last night. This time the mission was to find deep-sea coral beds, in particular one species called Lophelia pertusa, and bubble gum coral.
The MARE team (Dirk Rosen, Andy Lauermann, Steve Holz and Rick Botman) worked with scientists Peter Etnoyer, Leslie Wickes, Andrew Shuler and Branwen Williams to locate a coral bed that they had visited previously in 2010 and 2014. Using GPS coordinates, the MARE team was able to locate the exact site of the coral bed that Peter and his team had worked with in earlier years. There were quite a few high-fives and cheers of excitement in the lab when the ROV made its way to the familiar patch of bright red bubble gum coral.
The team dropped a temperature gauge at that location that will take and record a temperature reading every five minutes for the next six months. After that, Peter and his team will return on a second expedition to retrieve the device. The temperature gauge is tied to a rope attached to a lead weight and a flotation device covered with bright reflective tape. Andrew explained that the reflective tape would stand out in the headlights of the ROV, making it much easier to spot when they return for it half a year later.
The Beagle also retrieved its first coral sample of Lophelia pertusa, which it brought to the surface. Picking up samples from the deep in no easy feat. Andy and Dirk control the ROV from the deck with controls that look similar to something you would find on a video game consul. Sitting along side them, scientists Peter, Leslie and Branwen direct them to which coral specimens look the best for their sample. Then using either the manipulator arm or a shovel like feature on the boat, the ROV controller works quickly to scoop the organism into a basket attached to the front of the machine.
Once the ROV safely made it back on board, the scientists worked quickly to get the coral and its little inhabitants, such as deep-sea brittle stars and crabs, into cold water tanks as fast as possible. While the coral doesn’t seem to mind the pressure difference between the deep-sea and surface, it does not handle the temperature differential as well.
The team also took water samples from the water near the coral sites, which they will test later for pH. They are hoping to find out whether coral changes the composition of the water surrounding it. In order to collect the water samples, Branwen Williams (a scientist and professor from Keck Science Department at Claremont College), Leslie, and Andrew retrieved water samples using a CTD-Niskin rosette. They took water samples at the depth of the coral beds (approx. 290 meters) and then every 25 meters up from there. Once they filled bottles with the water, it was important to immediately “fix” the water samples. This means putting a poison, such as mercuric chloride into the water sample to kill off any living organisms, such as zooplankton or phytoplankton, that might be photosynthesizing or respiring and changing the pH levels of the water samples. This gives the scientists a snapshot of what the water chemistry is like at a particular place and time.