Julia West: In Port in Pascagoula, MS, March 17, 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 17, 2015

Personal Log

I made it! A smooth flight down to Mississippi (which is a new state for me – I’ve never been here). I arrived to sunshine and warm temperatures – OK, downright hot to me, but I’ll get used to it quickly I’m sure. Pamela Bond, the chief scientist on this cruise, met me at the airport and brought me out to the Gordon Gunter. I quickly learned that it is not only Pam who is super nice and welcoming, but the entire crew. I’ll be introducing them more in future posts.

The ship is not at the usual port near the NOAA lab, but at the former naval station, on an island at the mouth of the Pascagoula River. This yard has multiple uses now, as you can see from the pictures below. So not only is the Gunter here, but it has the company of a Coast Guard vessel, and both are dwarfed by a massive oil rig. On the other side of the pier (not pictured) is a USGS vessel and others. There’s a lot going on here!

Gordon Gunter
The Gordon Gunter at the dock
Gunter, CG vessel, and oil rig
The Gordon Gunter (right) and Coast Guard vessel dwarfed by the huge Sovereign Explorer (oil rig), an old rig that has been docked here for about a year, waiting for bids to take it apart for scrap .

Across the way is Pascagoula’s largest employer, and Mississippi’s largest manufacturing employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding, with 11,000 employees right here in Pascagoula! I can see ships in various stages of construction.

I have learned a lot about this area in the one day here at port. Two major events have happened here in recent years – Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP oil spill (2010). Both events simply ravaged this area. Everywhere we have been in the last day – the naval station, the NOAA lab, the highway – was under several feet of water during Katrina. You’ve seen the pictures. To hear about it from the folks here is profound. The BP oil spill (also known as Deepwater Horizon oil spill), another devastating event, changed the whole NOAA season (as it did for the fishermen and just about everyone else here). All the NOAA ships on the east coast, and one from the west coast, had to cancel their season’s research and congregate down here to be involved as needed, looking for oil, looking for marine mammals, etc. Today we visited the NOAA lab, where several employees are analyzing plankton samples taken from the affected waters. This is five years later, and still very relevant and ongoing data collection! (sorry, forgot to bring my camera to the lab, but I got to check out lots of plankton under the microscope).

my room
Deluxe accommodations!

Backing up now, to my arrival: Pam showed me to my room – I’m surprised that I have my own room! It has a refrigerator, closet, desk, comfy chair, my very own sink, and a shared bathroom with the room next door. And it has a TV – I barely know how to use a TV!

And then Tony, the ET (electronics technician) gave me a tour of the boat. Since then, I have been wandering around, sometimes in circles, trying to figure out the layout. I can tell right away that the food is going to be amazing.

My head is already spinning with some of the details about the equipment and technology. Pam was not sure if we would be launching on time – everything has to be just perfect for a research cruise to start, and if there are any issues, we don’t go. There were two repairs that needed to be made since the ship came to port just two days ago: one had to do with the unit that makes our water, by distilling seawater (very important!), and the other had to do with a malfunctioning gyro, or gyrocompass, needed for navigation (also important!). I wanted to know more about how a gyrocompass works, so I first looked it up on Wikipedia, and then talked to Dave Wang, the NAV (navigations officer). It’s so fascinating – a compass that points true north partly by using the rotation of the Earth. The good news is that both of the repairs are done and we will be launching on time!

Water tank
This large fresh water tank was added after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

I just want to share one bit info about a simple piece of equipment on the aft deck. It’s a water tank. I asked Tony what it’s for, when we have the technology to make fresh water. Well, after the oil spill, getting fresh water was a problem, so the tank was added. It was decided that it was convenient to have after it was no longer needed, and is now used for things that need a freshwater wash.

I am wrapping up this blog post now, a day after I started it. I’ve had my safety and ship protocol briefing, and we are underway. We’ve passed the barrier islands, and the ship is starting to rock a bit. Here we go! We have another 5 hours or so to go to get to our first sampling station, so the science work will start tonight. One final photo – to get out of the tight spot we were docked in, a tugboat was necessary:

The tug getting ready to help us leave the dock. At first it held the stern of the ship in place while our bow thrusters pivoted the front, and then it pulled us out.

 Word of the Day (time to start learning the terminology):

Neuston – the organisms that are found on the very top of the water, in the surface film. Contrast that with plankton, which can be said to be found within the water, not always right at the surface.

26 Replies to “Julia West: In Port in Pascagoula, MS, March 17, 2015”

  1. Fascinating, Julie! Keep the news coming!! We’re in another freeze up here, so enjoy that Gulf heat!

  2. Hi Julia,
    I’m glad to hear that you were able to start the voyage without delay. I’ve never been to Mississippi before, but it sounds pretty cool. It’s sad to think about how much damage Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill caused there. Do you know approximately where the first sampling station is (is it in the middle of the ocean, or closer to land)? And what is the water tank now used for – what kinds of things need a freshwater wash? One last thing – you said in the last blog post that the zooplankton are mainly fish larvae. Do you know what species of fish the zooplankton are (or, if there are many different kinds, what are a few examples)? I hope the voyage continues to go well!

    1. Yes, Jamie – I’ll be sharing a map with the sampling stations. NOAA used to have a shiptracker on their website which was really cool – you could find out where any ship was. Very recently they took that down (you can try to look for it and see what you get) – something to do with security or something. It’s too bad. So I can’t put us on a google map either, like I did on that first post. But I have a map of the different stations, and they get crossed off as we do them. I’ll share that soon. One thing that needs a freshwater wash is the CTD unit (LOTS more on that coming). Any of the sensitive equipment that gets dunked in the water gets rinsed with fresh water every time. Salt water is hard on equipment! Zooplankton are more than fish larvae – I’m learning. But many, many kinds. I have some pics to share soon!

  3. The oil spill was tragic because it went into the ocean and corrupted the water. That spill killed many fish and caused so many fisherman to lose business.
    Neuston are insects, whirling beetles, and worms and other organisms that are on the surface film of water. They are different than plankton that are found in the water and flow with the current.
    Have you gotten seasick yet?

  4. Only just spotted this latest blog post after having posted a reply on the previous one. Must be very exciting to be finally starting the cruise! The room looks nice. I wish you all the best and I hope you don’t get too seasick!

  5. Hi Julie! Glad to hear you are on schedule.
    If you have the time, I have a couple questions for you:
    How many (crew & scientists) are on board with you?
    I’m really interested in the water-making system that’s on board. Can you find out any more about what type/model they are using?
    How many gallons of water will they have to “make” with the desalination unit to supply the whole ship with fresh water?

    1. Hi Beth – I can see where your mind is – sailing! I too want to learn about the water making system. It’s a distillation unit, I know that. But that’s all. I will learn! There are only 5 scientists (small crew), plus me to help, and a bunch of crew – actually more than normal. Total of 26 I think? I’ll get more on that also.

  6. When I went sailing in the Virgin Islands with my friends, one place where we set anchor for the night, was next to a patch of phosphorescent. I was curious as to whether or not phosphorescent was a type of plankton or a type of neuston, or if it belongs to another group entirely?

    1. Hi Caroline, there are so many different organisms that create light. Phytoplankton, zooplankton of different kinds, etc. You probably saw the algae (phytoplankton). So cool, isn’t it? It lights up when agitated. I will learn more!

  7. Hi Julia! It’s been such a pleasure to read your first experiences with NOAA and on the Gordon Gunter. It seems like you are learning a lot before you even depart for the open waters. I’m learning so much, too, just from reading your blog. Love the “word of the day” additive. Keep us posted on your daily events!

    1. Thanks Leslie! Share it with any OM families you think might be interested. (Leslie is an Oak Meadow K-8 teacher).

  8. Hi Julia,
    when I was little my family lived in Texas, and when we went to the beach on The Gulf the hotels there had bottles of baby oil for getting oil off of your skin if you had been in the ocean. This was even before the BP spill. There were blobs of oil all over the beach, too.

    1. Yeah, Ryan, that’s discouraging. Today I don’t see any oil rigs at all, for the moment, but they have been a big part of the view here. The oil reaches shore by pipelines. I was told “they leak all the time” by one of the crew here. It’s a challenge. We all use it, as much as we all don’t want to depend on it!

  9. Can you put up pictures of the plankton next to the neuston. Last time I asked how are you going to collect the plankton. Can you tell me about that. How long is the ship and where is your cabin in relation to the front of the ship and to the top deck?

    1. Emalie – yes to all your questions. I’ll make sure to cover it all in blog posts. The collection methods are a big part of upcoming posts. Stay tuned!

  10. Whoa! I never new plankton consisted of so many different species of plants, animals, bacteria and algae! I think most people still think of plankton as its own exclusive animal. Are you going to be studying a specific type of plankton, or just patterns, population and stuff like that? Either way I am excited to learn more about the plankton survey!

    1. August, those are really good points, and so true! I think that’s why programs like this exist. Scientists often live in a vacuum, and what they do is not connected to the lives of most people. They are specialists. This is evident in so many subjects, not the least of which is climate change. (Check out this month’s edition of National Geographic for a great article on the gap between science and common understanding). Through programs like this, teachers can help explain the science in an understandable (and maybe even fun?) way! We are mostly collecting plankton, to be sorted later. Yes, for abundance, distribution, types, etc. They do this survey in the spring, specifically for bluefin tuna larvae, and the summer, specifically for red snapper larvae (two important food fish for people). This one is a general survey. (August lives in Mexico).

  11. Hi Julie! I was just wondering how big the ship is (how long)? As well as how deep in the water the hull is?

    1. Hmmmm, I’m not quite clear what you’re asking, Zoe. But this is good, because it makes me realize that we need to clarify just what plankton are again! Any organism that can’t move much on its own – it can’t swim against a current, and usually drifts around, although they sometimes can move up and down. Jellyfish are plankton, albeit sometimes large plankton! Tiny fish larvae, too small to swim well, are plankton, and then when they grow bigger they become nekton (can swim well). We have all kinds of little things – baby shrimp, decapods (baby crabs and such), and so much more, and they are all very small! I will try to clarify this in a blog post.

  12. Thanks for the answer,Julia! I didn’t know any of this stuff about plankton until now. I’d really appreciate a clarification whenever it’s convenient because I’m still not altogether clear about what is and is not plankton.

  13. Hi Julie! Have you seen any barges go through while you were docked or leaving port? It was so interesting to see them all go by and ponder the magnitude of their loads of cargo on the Illinois River, heading for the Mississippi River and the then Gulf of Mexico. I’m interested to hear about the presence of commercial shipping now that you are out on the Gulf in terms of the types of vessels the barges are loaded onto or how they are transported, to where, and how frequently they are making passage. It’s so fascinating to see first-hand the global operation of the resource distribution for all the things that make up our functioning lifestyles in the 21st century.

    1. Hi Marissa! There are some cargo ships now and then, but a lot of the ship traffic has to do with the oil platforms. They are service boats, bringing workers and supplies back and forth. There are cargo ships going to Houston as well – I’ve seen some container ships in the distance. We might see more as we go west. There are certain “lanes” in the Gulf that they call fairways. They’re on the navigation charts and they are places where it is deep enough and clear of oil platforms for shipping (I think). I need to learn more. We see a lot of ships/boats on the nav charts, but can’t see them all that often just looking – or maybe I don’t look hard enough! I’ll try to learn more

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: