Leah Johnson: Career Spotlight: NOAA Corps Officer, July 30, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

 Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 34.18282
Longitude -76.13712
Water Temperature 25.62 °C
Salinity 35.3592 ppt
Air Temperature 29.8 °C
Relative Humidity 71 %
Wind Speed 13.23 knots
Wind Direction 159.25
Air Pressure 1013.2 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
Career Spotlight: I would like to introduce everyone to Ensign Hollis Johnson, one of the Junior Officers on NOAA Ship Pisces. She was kind enough to let me ask her a few questions about life at sea.

Ens Hollis Johnson

Ensign Hollis Johnson

Q: What is the role of a Junior Officer (JO) on this ship?

A: The primary duty of a JO is driving the ship. We are also the eyes and ears of the Commanding Officer (CO). We carry out standing orders, ensure ship safety, and also make sure the scientists are getting what they need for their survey work.

Q: Does this job description vary depending on the ship?

A: This is a generic fleet-wide description, and some ships are a little different. On hydrographic ships, there is more computer-based work with data collection. On fisheries ships, collateral duties are split amongst the JOs; for example, we have an environmental compliance officer, a safety officer, a movie officer, and a navigation officer.

Q: What do you like best about your job and being at sea?

A: I really like driving the ship. Few jobs offer this kind of an opportunity! I also like the fact that no two days are ever the same, so my job is a constant adventure. The best things about being at sea in general are the sunrises and sunsets, and the dolphins, of course.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job and life at sea?

A: This job requires long hours. We can easily work 12-16 hour days, and while in port we still have to work some weekends. Because of this time commitment, we have to make sacrifices. But, we get that time back with our land assignments because there is more flexibility.

Q: When do NOAA Corps officers go to sea, and for how long do they stay?

A: After a 5-month training period, JOs are sent straight to sea assignments for 2 year periods. This can be extended or shortened by 6 months depending on what you are looking for in your next assignment. I extended my assignment at sea for 5 months so I could get my upcoming land assignment in California to work with dolphins for 3 years. After the land-based assignment, NOAA officers typically return to sea as operations officers, then back to land, then sea as executive officers, and so on. That is how you move up.

Q: What exactly will you be doing when you are on your next assignment in California?

A: The title of my position will be Cetacean Photo Specialist. I will be in La Jolla, CA, doing boat and aerial surveys, lots of GIS work and spatial surveys of marine mammal populations. I will participate in the center’s marine mammal stranding network. I will also be involved with outreach and education, which includes giving tours and presentations on scientific studies happening at the lab.

Q: Is life at sea different from what you expected?

A: Actually, it is easier than I thought it would be. I have always been a homebody and lived near my parents, I’m always busy here so time flies. I have internet and phone service so I still feel connected.

Q: Where did you go to college, and what degree did you earn?

A: I attended the University of Georgia, and earned a B.S. in Biology with a focus in marine biology.

Q: When / how did you decide to pursue a career in science?

A: When I was a kid I went to Sea World and fell in love with the whales and dolphins. I always loved animal planet. I also considered being a veterinarian for a while. I tried to be realistic because it is hard to land a career as a marine biologist, but I interned at a lot of places and made connections so I could do what I wanted to do.

Q: How did you find out about careers with NOAA?

In college, I took a summer course about marine mammals and toured a NOAA lab. About a year later, in June, my uncle saw the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster in port in Georgia, and I talked to someone on board about the work they were doing at sea. I immediately applied, interviewed, and was commissioned in January. It all happened very fast once I found out about it.

Q: You were one of the divers who recovered the missing trap this week. How long have you been diving?

A: I was certified to dive when I was 18. It is amazing, and something everyone should try. When I became an officer, the first thing I did was beg my command to send me to the NOAA Dive Center for training as a working diver.

Q: If a high school student is interested in a career like yours, what advice would you give?

A: Do a lot of volunteer work before you expect to get paid. You are investing in your future. If you want it bad enough you have to make sacrifices – but it will pay off. Make connections. If a marine biologist gives a presentation at your school, hang out after and talk with them. Ask for their email address and follow up. It’s a small world in marine research and networking is key.

Q: What is your favorite marine animal, and why?

A: I love thresher sharks and octopuses, but I’ll say Orcas. I’ve always found their species-wide diversity fascinating.

Personal Log:

There are so many people on this cruise who scuba dive and see amazing things below the sea surface. I have only snorkeled. I see dive certification in my future!

Did You Know?

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven uniformed services in the United States. Their motto is “Science, service, stewardship”.

map and control panel on the bridge

Chart and control panel on the bridge

Kathleen Gibson, Time to Fish! July 29, 2015

High flyer away! Photo Credit : Kristin Hannan

High flyer away!
Photo Credit : Kristin Hannan

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kathleen Gibson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 25-August 8, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographic Area of the Cruise: Atlantic Ocean off the Florida and Carolina Coast
Date: July 29, 2015
LAT 2933.3326N
LONG 8029.065W

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Wind speed (knots): 9.2
Sea Temp (deg C): 29.6
Air Temp (deg C):  28.7

Yesterday was the first full day of sampling.  We were off the coast of Miami, FL and it was relatively shallow.  I’m not sure how many sharks I expected to see on my first day, but certainly not the 80 + that we did catch!

Science and Technology Log –  A, B, C’s of Fishing for Sharks

Kristin Hannan preselected our stations following a random stratified approach. Sampling stations have A, B, or C designations, depending on the depth (A is more shallow than B or C). The night crew went on duty at midnight and completed one station yesterday morning.  We completed three stations during our shift yesterday and three more today.

The bridge lets us know when we’re 30 minutes from our  station, and we begin preparations. We bait the hooks with mackerel 20 minutes ahead of time.

When we get to the station, the longline is fed out from the stern of the ship and extends one mile.  A

Throwing Bait - I'm passing baited gangions to Tim Martin to attach to the Longline. Moments after this photo my TAS hat took flight and joined the sharks of the Atlantic.

Throwing Bait –
I’m passing baited gangions to Tim Martin to attach to the Longline. Moments after this photo my TAS hat took flight and joined the sharks of the Atlantic.

marker, called a high flyer, is attached to the beginning of the line. One hundred baited gangions are attached to the line at intervals after which another high-flyer marks the end of the line. The ship then returns to the starting point, the line is hauled in and the fun begins. If there is a shark on the line, the deck crew fisherman calls out “Shark On!”  That’s the signal for someone from the science group to step up and take the shark, remove the hook and collect data.

The following data collected is collected for all sharks:

  • Species
  • Precaudal Length: Nose to base of tail
  • Fork Length: Nose to fork of tail
  • Natural Length: Nose to tail
  • Total Length: Nose to end of tail when extended manually
  • Weight (Kg)
  • Sex Determination

Tag numbers and tissue sample collection is also noted if applicable.

Early morning haul back by the night shift. Video taken from the highest point on the ship. 

Most of the sharks caught were small enough to bring up and hand to the science team.  We use a wooden measuring board to determine lengths. Those that were a bit larger were brought up on deck by the fishermen and they required multiple handlers to collect data.

Very large sharks had to be measured with the help of a cradle and hoist.  The cradle is lowered to water level and large sharks are coaxed onto the cradle using the hook and line they are still attached to.  A hoist brings them to deck height for assessment.  Deck Operations Crew manages all shark retrieval and determines when is safe for us to proceed.

Atlantic Sharpnose

Atlantic Sharpnose Photo Credit: Kristin Hannan

Me holding a mature male Atlantic Sharpnose Photo Credit: Kristin Hannan

Most of the sharks that we’ve caught have been Atlantic Sharpnose.  This shark is relatively small (adults average 0.85 M) and are found in shallow Atlantic coastal waters from New Brunswick down into the Gulf of Mexico, and even off the coast of Brazil.  They are known by at least 8 common names in different regions.  My Biology students would recognize this as a good example of why it’s important to use agreed-upon scientific names for scientific research.  The scientific name for this species is Rhizoprionodon terraenova.  It has a long snout (longer than the width of the head) and most adults have a few white spots on a gray body.

Sharpnose mature relatively quickly and can begin producing offspring within two years; also, they can have up to 5-7 pups at once. These are major factors contributing to the abundance of this species.  In comparison, larger sharks may take up to 15 years to reach maturity and typically have fewer offspring in each brood.  

Our catch also included one Blacknose (Carcharhinus acronotus) and multiple Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), Nurse (Ginglymostoma cirratum) and Spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna).

Larger specimens were brought to deck height using a cradle, for weight, size, and sex determination, and were lowered back into the water after being measured and tagged.

Nurse Shark in cradle

Nurse Shark in cradle (Photo Credit: Ian Davenport)

A Sandbar shark in the cradle. I'm in the yellow helmet tagging the shark.

A Sandbar shark in the cradle. I’m in the yellow helmet tagging the shark. ( Photo Credit: Erica Nu


Hook removal required bolt cutters after I tagged this Sandbar Shark.

Hook removal required bolt cutters after tagging  this Sandbar Shark.


Career Spotlight

If your interests tend toward science mixed with heavy machinery, skilled fishing, robotics or electronics, perhaps one of the following careers is for you.

Tim Martin: Chief Boatswain

Tim Martin Chief Boatswain

Tim Martin Chief Boatswain

As the Chief Boatswain, Tim Martin is responsible of all activities that happen on deck and he maintains constant communication with the bridge during all operations.  Tim came to NOAA fisheries with a wealth of experience gained while serving in the U.S. Navy and later as a commercial fisherman in the Pacific Northwest.  He was initially classified as a “Skilled Fisherman” with NOAA and has worked his way up to Chief Boatswain.

He and his group set and retrieve the longline. They also run all of the heavy deck equipment, such as the cranes that are used to position the shark cradle for large sharks and the CTD (water Sampling device).  The Chief Boatswain is also responsible for training new crewmembers and maintaining ship supplies.  In addition, Tim has earned Dive Master Certification through the NOAA Diving School, considered to be the best civilian diving school in the US.



Tim Martin and deck Crew cradling a Tiger shark. Note the wooden dowel at center used to attach tags. ( Photo Credit: Erica Nuss)

Tim Martin and deck crew cradling a Tiger shark. Note the wooden dowel at center used to attach tags. (Photo Credit: Erica Nuss)

When asked what keeps him going, Tim is very clear that he believes the work that NOAA Fisheries does is very important, and he is proud to be able to use his expertise to support NOAA’s efforts.  This satisfaction somewhat tempers the challenges of the job which include being at sea for at least 6 months of the year, and constantly being in a training flux. Tim feels a strong bond with his crew and there is a clear sense of mutual trust and respect among them. 

Ken Wilkinson: Electronic Technician (Supreme), NOAA Fisheries Engineering Unit

Ken has been with the Engineering Unit of NOAA Fisheries for 26 years.  The mission of his Unit is to

Ken using his skills to filet a Red Snapper

Ken using his skills to filet a Red Snapper

support NOAA Fishery research by developing innovative technology. Ken always wanted to work on the water and he initially studied Marine Biology in college, but he migrated toward electronics.  His work allows him to combine two great interests.  His work takes him to sea 50-80 days each year.

A major focus of the electronics unit is to support the Reef Fish program.  Trawling nets and longline apparatus will damage reef systems.  In order to assess reef fish populations in a non-invasive way, Ken and his group work a number of Remotely Operated Vehicles that capture still and moving images that can be used later to determine abundance and species diversity.   Ken’s unit has also developed a device called an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). This programmable instrument scans the sea floor using lasers and  data collected is used to develop more accurate sea floor maps.

Bathymetric map of the Longline sampling area- NOAA

Bathymetric map of the Longline sampling area- NOAA


New device: Kennenator 5000 Dual Laser

Ken Wilkinson and his Kennenator 5000.

Ken Wilkinson and his Kennenator 5000.

Ken is on board the Oregon II testing his new device that can be used to assess the size of large sharks without bringing them to deck height. Ken’s device has two lasers set at a fixed distance from one another.  The beams are directed toward the shark while it remains at the surface of the water. Various measurements can be extrapolated from the laser measurement. Large sharks caught on the longline survey are typically brought to the surface in the cradle for assessment.  Cradle use is preferred as it allows tagging and tissue sample collection and sex determination. However, there are situations when this is not possible such as when poor weather conditions develop which limit sling operations, and some small vessels are not equipped with sling equipment.

Personal Log

The Challenge

The Challenge

The fast pace of the haul back at early stations was jarring.  I stepped up when “Shark On” was called and a writhing Sharpnose was thrust into my hands.  The first task is to get the hook out of the shark’smouth and this is no small feat.  The circle hook is designed is to reduce the chance that the shark will swallow the hook or get hurt by it, but getting these hooks out of the mouth without hurting the shark requires technique.  There will be plenty of opportunities to get the hang of in the next week.

A highlight of this first day was getting up close to a 2 meter long Scalloped Hammerhead brought to the surface in the cradle.  I was able to feel its head, observe its eyes, and place an identification tag near its dorsal fin before it was lowered back into the water.

Smaller Scalloped Hammerhead on deck. It took two of us to hold this one in place fore measuring and tagging.

Smaller Scalloped Hammerhead on deck. It took two of us to hold this one in place fore measuring and tagging. (Photo Credit: Ian Davenport)


Cristina Veresan, Welcome Aboard the Oscar Dyson, July 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Cristina Veresan
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 28 – August 16, 2015 

Mission: Walleye Pollock Acoustic-Trawl survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 58° 27.7′ N
Longitude: 149° 31.0′ W
Sky: Clear
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: S
Wind speed: 2 knots
Sea Wave Height: 1 ft.
Swell Wave: 0 ft.
Sea Water Temperature: 14.4° C
Dry Temperature: 14.8° C

Science and Technology Log

We steamed out of the port of Kodiak, sailing northeast into the Gulf of Alaska. From the bow, I looked back and saw the busy harbor, full of fishing boats of all sizes, slowly fade away. Scanning the water, I saw two sea otters floating on their backs with their arms in the air. I spotted a few puffins dotting the surface of the water, with their characteristic black and white plumage and orange beaks. In the distance, a spout rose from the ocean’s surface, evidence of a whale below. The sea was calm and the sun was shining. I breathed in the salty air. I was feeling grateful to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea and ready for this mission.

So what exactly is our mission here aboard the Oscar Dyson? We are conducting fisheries research, primarily a Walleye Pollock Acoustic-Trawl survey. A fish survey is like a scientific fishing trip! The surveys, when conducted consistently and repeatedly over time, allows scientists to monitor trends in fish abundance and changes in the marine ecosystem. The data from these surveys are used, along with data collected from fishermen and other sources, to set sustainable catch limits, ensuring a healthy supply of pollock in the future..

The science team is from the Midwater Assessment and Conservation Engineering (MACE) group of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington. This is the third and final leg of their summer assessment of the walleye pollock population in the Gulf of Alaska. We will be traveling along predetermined, randomized transect lines, and scientists will use acoustic technology, along with catch data from nets towed behind the boat, to assess the pollock population. Walleye pollock is the targeted species, though everything we catch will be identified and measured.

The Oscar Dyson in the Port Of Kodiak, Alaska

The Oscar Dyson in the Port Of Kodiak, Alaska

A view of Kodiak Harbor

A view of Kodiak Harbor

Young Pollock caught in the pocket net of a trawl

Young walleye pollock

You might not have seen walleye pollock on a menu, but you probably have eaten it. Pollock is the “Fish” in McDonald’s “Filet-o-Fish” sandwiches. Pollock are also masters of disguise and can sometimes be found imitating crab meat. Yes, that imitation crab (surimi) in your California roll is usually ground up and re-formed pollock. In fact, the pollock fishery is one of the largest and most valuable in the world. Walleye pollock are a schooling, semi-demersal (bottom) fish that is found at depths up to 1000 feet and widely distributed throughout the North Pacific Ocean. They can grow up to 3.5 feet and live up to about 20 years old. Pollock feed mainly on krill when they are young; when they mature, they eat young pollock and other teleosts (bony fish). That’s right, they are cannibalistic! Recently, after extensive genetic studies, the scientific name of this fish changed from Theragra chalcogramma to Gadus chalcogrammus. This change placed the walleye pollock in an evolutionary lineage that includes the Pacific, Atlantic, and Greenland Cods. In Alaska, about 1.5 million tons of this fish are caught each year. With each fish weighing an average of 3 pounds, that’s about 1 billion fish annually!



Shipmate Spotlight: Emily Collins

Lab Lead Emily Collins

Lab Lead Emily Collins

What is your position on the Oscar Dyson? 

I am on the science team, and for all three legs of the survey this summer, I have been the Lab Lead.

Where did you go to school?
I earned a BS in Biology (marine science concentration) from Boston University. I am attending Southern Oregon University in the fall for graduate work in Environmental Education.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I certainly like playing with fish, but I enjoy the people the most. This is an awesome group of scientists and I really like meeting new people each cruise, too. I enjoy learning new things from different scientists.

Have you had much experience at sea?
Yes, after college, I worked as a fisheries observer for 2 ½ years on various east coast boats from Maine to Virginia and 1 ½ years on boats in Alaska. As an observer, I boarded commercial fishing vessels and kept fishing data on the catch and discarded species and collected biological samples for the National Marine Fisheries Service. I have been on trawlers (pollock, ground fish), gillnet vessels (cod), scallop dredgers, pair trawls (herring), pot vessels (cod) and longliners (halibut, sablefish). Observer data is used to conduct stock assessments, which are used in managing the fisheries.

Where do you do most of your work aboard the ship?
You can usually find me in the wet lab. I am in charge of the wet lab and sampling all the fish that we catch: identifying, weighing, measuring fish and collecting otoliths and other biological samples. I also help with camera operations and data management, so I am often in the Chem Lab or Acoustics Lab on a computer.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?
I always liked biology and knew it was a career goal. I took a Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic voyage in the Galapagos my senior year of high school and Sylvia Earle was onboard as an expert naturalist. The snorkeling was unbelievable. I saw so many fish, sea turtles, penguins, and sea lions. That was my inspiration for studying marine biology

What are your hobbies?
I love to travel, hike and snowboard. And I do arts and crafts, like paper arts and beadwork.

What do you miss most while working at sea?
I miss my friends and family the most (Hi Mom!). And being able to eat out at different restaurants.

What is your favorite marine creature?
Bluefin Tuna because they are huge, fast, and they live in the open ocean.

Inside the Oscar Dyson: Staterooms


Our sleeping quarters

So once our work is finished, where do we finally get some rest? Staterooms are what you call the sleeping quarters aboard the ship. Emily Collins and I share a stateroom. There are bunk beds, and I am on the top and Emily is on the bottom. We each have a locker to store our clothes, and there is a desk and shelving to stow odds and ends. You have to latch the locker doors closed, or they will slam when the ship moves. There is a head (bathroom) with a toilet, sink and shower attached to our stateroom. It is important to keep voices down in your stateroom and moving through the corridors, as people are sleeping at different times of the day! We have a porthole in our room, but since it is summer in the high latitudes, it is dark for only about 4-5 hours a day. The quarters are cozy but comfortable. I enjoy getting lulled to sleep by the rolling motion of the ship.



Personal Log

As Teacher at Sea, I am an active member of the science team and I have been assigned the day shift, which means that I work from 4am-4pm. I think this shift will be great because it is a little more of a regular schedule, just getting up really early and going to bed really early. I come on shift when it is actually dark and then, after about an hour, I enjoy the sunrise over the water. During the shift, as our work allows, we can break for breakfast and lunch. And we can get coffee as needed…which is a lot!


Sunrise over sea

Safety is the first priority of everyone aboard the Oscar Dyson. The ship’s officers have briefed us about safety procedures, and we have participated in drills for different scenarios, such as Man Overboard and Abandon Ship. For the Abandon Ship drill, we grabbed our PFD (personal floatation device) and survival suit from our staterooms and mustered on the deck to find our lifeboat group.

Here’s to a productive and safe voyage aboard the Oscar Dyson!

Survival suit

Trying on my survival suit during an Abandon Ship drill. Photo by Mackenzie Wilson

Leah Johnson: Career Spotlight: Survey Technician, July 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 033.707470
Longitude -076.827550
Water Temperature 25.8 °C
Salinity 37.1618 ppt
Air Temperature 29.2 °C
Relative Humidity 75 %
Wind Speed 16.08 knots
Wind Direction 25.88 degrees
Air Pressure 1013.2 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
Career Spotlight: I would like to introduce everyone to Danielle Power, the Survey Technician on NOAA Ship Pisces. She was kind enough to let me interview her today.

survey technician working in the acoustics lab

Editing map area coordinates in the acoustics lab

Q: What is the role of a survey technician (ST) on this ship?

A: The survey technician keeps track of scientific equipment and spaces. This includes calibrating sensors and maintaining and repairing equipment. When science parties are on the ship, the ST assists with data collection and oversees CTD operation.

Q: Does this job description vary depending on the ship?

A: Yes. On the Nancy Foster and other ships with big dive platforms, STs do a lot of diving and deck work. There are often two STs on board, each working a half-day shift. These STs do not work so intensively with fish. Hydrographic vessel STs deal with mapping and tide station installs.

Q: What do you like best about your job and being at sea?

A: My favorite thing about life at sea is that there are no bugs, and I don’t have to deal with allergies! I also meet awesome people on every cruise. Every trip is a little different, so I am always learning new things.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job and life at sea?

A: Being at sea for a long time, all the time, is taxing.

Q: Is life at sea different from what you expected?

A: Yes. This job requires living with 20 other people in a confined space all the time, and it isn’t easy. I didn’t fully realize this back in college. I don’t have easy access to things I might want or need. I also have to give up certain aspects of social life. You can’t just take a day off, you have to take an entire leg of a cruise off (up to 2 weeks), which is a lot of money to not be making and a lot of work to be missing. So I have to miss some big events for important people in my life, like weddings and holidays.

Q: Where did you go to college, and what degree did you earn?

A: I graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. I earned a B.S. in biology with a concentration in marine biology.

Q: When / how did you decide to pursue a career in science?

A: In 6th grade, I went on a family vacation to Disney world. I went to Sea World, and it ignited my love for all things ocean. I have stuck with it ever since.

Q: If a high school student is interested in a career like yours, what advice would you give?

A: Work hard, and get a college degree that is relevant. Make sure you know that this is a job you truly want to do. Find internships and experience life on a ship before you commit. If you enjoy it, then make the most of the career and all of the opportunities that come with it.

Q: What is your favorite marine animal, and why?

A: An Octopus! Cephalopods are very intelligent creatures, and I love that they can blend into environments so well that they cannot be seen. They can change not just their color, but their texture. They are so interesting! They can go into small spaces, because they can fit anywhere their beaks fit and they use parts of their environment as tools.

survey technician working in the wet lab

recording data in the wet lab

Personal Log:
I am blown away by all of the different jobs that need to be filled while out at sea. Working on a boat was something that I never even considered when I was in high school. The idea just never occurred to me, and I didn’t know anyone at the time who did anything like this. There are so many interesting career opportunities that exist, and new types of jobs will develop as needs and technology change over time.

Read all about career opportunities with NOAA here!

Did You Know?

NOAA stands for “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”. It officially formed in 1970, but the environmental agencies that came together to form NOAA originated in the 1800s. Learn more about NOAA’s history here.

Leah Johnson: Trap Recovery, July 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Monday, July 27, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:38 PM
Latitude 034.384490
Longitude -076.576130
Water Temperature 23.75 °C
Salinity -No Data-
Air Temperature 30.8 °C
Relative Humidity 62 %
Wind Speed 10.15 knots
Wind Direction 88.23 degrees
Air Pressure 1014.8 mbar

 Science and Technology Log:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, flexibility is key. Things don’t always go according to plan. Originally, we were going to head northeast from Morehead City Port, but the weather did not cooperate with us. We headed south to avoid a large storm, and then moved closer inshore. This forced us to choose some different areas to sample. Most of our sample sites are situated over the continental shelf between Cape Fear and Cape Hatteras. Tomorrow we hope to move to deeper waters beyond the shelf break.

Pisces cruise pathway so far. Image from Shiptracker.

Map of Pisces route so far. Image from Shiptracker.

On July 23, we lost a trap. After one of the deckhands threw the hook out to catch the buoy rope and started the winch, the rope went taut and then snapped. Occasionally this happens because the traps can shift and become wedged under or hooked onto a rocky ledge on the seafloor. We do our best to avoid this, but it happens. This is why it is important to have extra traps, cameras, and camera housings on board.

Map showing locations of the two lost traps. Image from Shiptracker.

Map showing positions of two lost traps. Water depth is shown in feet.

We planned to retrieve our trap the following day, but the storm chased us out of the area. Two days later, we lost a second trap! Unfortunately, this one was too deep to recover on a dive. The traps we deploy have zinc clasps that dissolve after ~24 hours, so fish can eventually exit the traps on the off chance that we are unable to retrieve them. Still, we don’t want to simply abandon traps on the seafloor or run short on gear, so we made plans to retrieve the first trap. We just had to remain patient and hope for calmer seas. Finally, our window of opportunity opened up today.

Zodiac dive boat

The small boat is on a davit on the 01 deck.

A small boat is located on 01 deck near the stern of NOAA ship Pisces. The deck chief oversees operations as it is lowered for the divers, the dive master, and deckhands to board. They take an inflatable buoy and rope with them, and then head out to the coordinates of the trap. The divers descended ~20 meters to the shelf where the trap was indeed wedged on a rocky ledge. First, the divers removed the two GoPro cameras that were attached to the trap. Next, they secured a rope attached to a buoy on the trap. The ship will then be able to use this buoy to retrieve the trap as typically done. The divers ascended the line and were picked up with the small boat.

dive boat returns after successfully locating the trap

The small boat returns after successfully finding the trap.

The deckhands then attached our standard buoys to the rope, and returned to the Pisces. The divers climbed up a rope ladder on the starboard side of the ship, and the small boat was hoisted up. We then hauled up the missing trap like we would any other. The trap was empty, and all of the bait was gone – not surprising after a 4-day soak!

Personal Log:

I make a point to stand near the bow of the ship and watch the sea and sky for a while every day. I usually see some flying fish, which are fun to watch. They zip out of the water, dart across the waves, and then dive back under. One of them landed on deck after a storm, so I had a chance to see one up close.

flying fish found on deck

Flying fish

The skies are beautiful, too. I have seen some impressive clouds and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The view is completely unobstructed, so I can just take it all in without distraction. I find it all very peaceful.

The skies at sea are stunning.

Did You Know?

After otoliths and tissue samples are collected from the fish we keep, the fish are filleted, frozen, and donated to local food banks.

removing tissue samples from a fish

Collecting tissues from a fish.

Leah Johnson: Physical and Chemical Properties of Ocean Water (There’s More Here Than Just Fish!) , July 26, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Sunday, July 26, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:38 PM
Latitude 34.24389
Longitude -76.6625
Water Temperature 23.75 °C
Salinity –No Data-
Air Temperature 28.6 °C
Relative Humidity 68 %
Wind Speed 12.6 knots
Wind Direction 67.01 degrees
Air Pressure 1014.8 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
The primary purpose of this cruise is to survey reef fish. Our main task is to collect data pertaining to presence and number of fish species, species length frequency, and sample materials for fish age and growth. However, other types of measurements are being made as well. For example, the CTD is an instrument that measures different properties of ocean water with depth. It is deployed every time the fish traps are dropped.

CTD instrument

The CTD sits on the starboard side of the deck of NOAA Ship Pisces.

The acronym “CTD” stand for conductivity, temperature, and depth. The instruments that measure these properties are affixed to a metal cylinder called a rosette. A range of sensors can be attached depending on what needs to be measured. Additionally, containers can be attached to the frame in order to collect sea water samples at different depths. When the ship reaches the designated coordinates, the survey technician calls to the deckhands and instructs them to use the winch to lower the CTD to a designated depth, and then haul it back up.

Deckhands assist with lowering the CTD

Deckhands assist with lowering the CTD.

Below you can see a graph of the data collected earlier in the week:

CTD Data

CTD Data

The y-axis represents depth in meters. The CTD actually measures water pressure, which is then converted to depth. Pressure and depth are directly related: as depth increases, pressure increases.

There are several different properties represented on the x-axes, shown in different colors:

light green = oxygen (mg/l)
orange = conductivity (S/m)
dark green = temperature (°C)
purple = salinity (PSU, or ppt)

What do these measurements mean? As depth increases, temperature decreases. Sunlight warms the sea surface, and wind and ocean currents distribute this heat energy throughout the upper waters. Beneath this mixed layer, temperature decreases steadily with depth. In deeper water (not at this location), this rate of change decreases and the temperature of deep ocean water is nearly a constant 3 °C. Salinity refers to the concentration of dissolved salts in the water. Average ocean salinity is 35 ppt (parts per thousand), though this varies by a few parts per thousand near the surface. Increased precipitation, runoff, or melting of sea ice can decrease salinity, and evaporation and ice formation can increase salinity. Conductivity (measured in Siemens per meter) is a measure of how much current can travel through the water, and this is affected by both salinity and temperature. Finally, fish and other marine organisms require dissolved oxygen to breathe. By measuring the amount of oxygen at different levels in the water column, we can determine how much sea life can be supported in a given area. Dissolved oxygen in the ocean comes from mixing at the surface, and is also produced by photosynthetic organisms. As temperature and salinity increase, dissolved oxygen levels decrease. Additionally, temperature and salinity data can be used to determine the water density, or the mass of water per unit volume. Different fish can tolerate certain ranges of all of these chemical and physical parameters.

With respect to the fish survey, this information is important because we can monitor the conditions of the water near the ocean floor where the traps are located. For scientists who are interested in characterizing reef fish habitat, this data is a critical component of their research.

There are other ways in which this data can be used. The depth profiles of each of the chemical and physical properties at a given site can be compared to other local sites in order to identify any spatial anomalies. This is of great interest for seafloor mapping and ocean exploration cruises. For example, a change in conductivity and temperature at a site in the middle of the ocean could indicate the presence of a hydrothermal vent. Or, a decrease in salinity in a region along a coastline could indicate freshwater runoff.

Additionally, as measurements are made at similar locations over a period of time, temporal changes may be observed. This could reveal seasonal changes, or a long-term trend. Because we are observing an increase in average global temperatures and experiencing global climate change, it is critical to collect data that can be used to assess changing ocean conditions.

Personal Log:
“Will you be eating a lot of fish on the ship?” I heard this question a lot before I left for this cruise. I wondered myself. It seemed reasonable that fish would be prepared for meals because, well, we will be living at sea! On the other hand, I wondered if everyone on board would be sick to death of fish because we would be looking at them all day. As it turns out, fish is prepared for nearly every meal; however, there is often another meat option, as well as a variety of other non-meat dishes. Now we know!

ship mess

Ship mess

Did You Know?
There are many fish that make a grunting sound. When we have tubs full of tomtates in the wet lab, it sounds like a bunch of miniature pigs making snorting noises!

tomtates and nurse shark

Still from video of tomtates near a trap. A nurse shark can be seen in the background.

Kathleen Gibson, Sailing Away, July 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kathleen Gibson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 25 – August 8, 2015

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographic Area of the Cruise: Atlantic Ocean off the Florida and Carolina Coasts
Date: July 27, 2015
Coordinates:  25o   30.755 N
                       O79o   55.736W

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Wind speed (knots): 9
Sea Temp (deg C): 31.3
Air Temp (deg C):  31.2

View from the Bow - Gulf of Mexico

View from the bow – Gulf of Mexico

Just before we left Pascagoula last Saturday, we learned that the V-Sat system was not operational and that in all likelihood we wouldn’t have internet access during the trip.  So far this prediction has been accurate.  I’ll continue to write these blogs as we go and post them all after we get to port if it doesn’t get fixed.

In my first post I wrote a bit about the area we would be surveying. I’ve since learned that during this cruise we will only be working in the Atlantic Ocean. Another change is that our final destination will be Cape Canaveral, FL rather than Jacksonville, FL.

Motoring through the Florida Keys

Motoring through the Florida Keys

Since we aren’t doing any fishing in the Gulf, we are currently following a straight track from Pascagoula to the Florida Keys. We’ve been sailing for two days and are currently off the coast of Key Biscayne, FL.  There has been one rain event that went by quickly, and otherwise it has been fair weather. While land isn’t visible, there are a good number of recreational motorboats, so land must not be too far off.


Science and Technology

This cruise is the first of four legs of a long-term (longitudinal) study of the distribution and abundance of shark and red snapper populations. The study began in 1995 and the research area includes U.S. waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The Atlantic Ocean sampling stations on this first leg are positioned at various distances offshore from Miami, FL to Cape Hatteras, NC and at different depths. Later legs will complete the survey in the Gulf of Mexico.  While this type of study can be resource and labor intensive and also time consuming, a well-designed longitudinal study can provide valuable data that tracks trends and patterns over an extended period of time. As with any investigation, numerous potential variables must be controlled, including time of year sampling occurs, sampling equipment (line and hooks) and sampling locations.

We’ve prepared three barrels of gangions (50 hooks in each). When we start fishing we will bait the hooks with mackerel and hook them on the long line.

Kristin Hannan ( left) and science volunteers preparing gangions. These will be baited and attached to the main line.

Kristin Hannan ( left) and science volunteers preparing gangions.
These will be baited and attached to the main line.

The circular hooks are designed to minimize harm.

The circular hooks are designed to minimize harm.

NOAA Careers

A successful cruise requires a significant amount of preparation as well as committed participants. Those aboard include NOAA scientists, NOAA Corps Officers, an experienced deck crew, engineers, stewards, and science team volunteers. From the moment I arrived on board it has been apparent that everyone is fully invested in this project.  They’ve been willing to share their stories of how they made their way on to this cruise of the Oregon II;  I’ll share some of their stories with you in this and future blog entries.

Career Spotlight: Kristin Hannan – Field Party Chief, NOAA Shark Unit

As Field Party Chief, Kristin is responsible for all of the scientific work done during the cruise.  She is also the watch leader for the day shift.  While Kristin was fascinated with marine science at an early age, she followed some sage academic advice for her undergraduate program: “focus on being a scientist first, include rigorous coursework, and then do marine work.”  She graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Biology and a minor in Chemistry and she remains a loyal Hokie fan.

Kristin Hannan taking measurements

Kristin Hannan taking measurements

She has been involved in a number of challenging marine-related projects all around the United States and has been open to unusual opportunities when they arose. One such opportunity, over 10 years ago,  was to be a volunteer with NOAA Fisheries in Pascagoula, MS.  She joined the Shark Longline cruise as a volunteer one summer, and returned in subsequent summers to participate. Kristin eventually joined NOAA permanently as a Field Biologist with the Shark Unit, and is now the Chief Scientist/Field Party Chief for this cruise–the very same one she volunteered for some years ago.

In addition to her work with NOAA, Kristin is pursuing a Master’s Degree from the University of South Alabama, where she is studying chimeras and methods used to determine their age.

Kristin’s advice to students looking to work in Marine Sciences –or any field- is to:

  1. Be open to unusual opportunities
  2. Try to make a good impression every day
  3. Work hard

Personal Log

Flying Fish Photo Credit: NOAA

Flying Fish
Photo Credit: NOAA

We’re still sailing to the sampling area, so there is plenty of free time to meet others on board, read and walk around the deck.  This will definitely change when sampling begins. Today I went out to the bow and saw flying fish for the first time and dolphins were swimming off the bow.

The science team is made up of 4 NOAA scientists and 7 volunteers with a variety of experience. Our volunteers include 2 university professors, one graduate student, three undergraduate students, and one Teacher at Sea!  The group is split into two 12-hour shifts.  I’m on the day shift which begins at noon each day and ends at midnight.  It’s likely that we will begin fishing tomorrow morning, and the night crew has begun adjusting their sleep pattern to be prepared.  I’m going to have to work at sleeping in.

Survival Suit - Perfect Fit  Photo Credit: Lecia Salerno

Survival Suit – Perfect Fit  Photo Credit: Lecia Salerno


The Executive Officer (XO) LT Lecia Salerno, has graciously allowed me to share her quarters, which includes her office. The cabin is on an upper level so I definitely get rocked to sleep.

A fire drill and abandon-ship drill were called on the first full day at sea.  Lecia helped me get into my survival suit and, more importantly, out of it as well.

Questions of the day for my students:

What additional variables do you think should be considered and kept constant in this study?

What is a nautical mile and how many nautical miles is it from Pascagoula, MS, to Miami, FL?

How do chimeras differ from sharks?

Tomorrow we fish!

Tomorrow we fish!

Up next… Time to Fish.