Terry Maxwell: Strike a Pose, June 18th, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Terry Maxwell
Aboard Hugh R. Sharp
June 6th-21st

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: June 18th, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude 41 06.60 N
Longitude 67 03.68 W
Wind Speed 18 Knots (20.7 miles per hour)
Air Temp 16.2 Celsius (61. Fahrenheit)

Science and Technology Log
After being a part of over 40 dredge station tows, I started asking myself, “I wonder what these animals look like/act like before they get caught in this dredge?”  Most of these animals still look amazing when they come out of the dredge, but many are beaten up from the tow. Some have swim bladders that are bulging from the pressure difference of the bottom of the ocean to the surface.  So you begin to ask yourself, is there another way to survey these animals and leave them in their natural state?  The answer is an emphatic yes.

When I first walked onto the deck of the Hugh R. Sharp, a structure stood out on board that looked like a heavy duty reinforced sea horse.  I was quickly caught up to speed by Mike Saminsky from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) as to what the structure was.  The large structure I was looking at was a Habitat Camera, or HabCam for short.  Mike has been on the Hugh R. Sharp since the beginning of May participating in the NOAA Scallop Survey.  I consider him an expert of sorts when it comes to the information on the HabCam.   From NOAA, our Chief Scientist for the second part of this cruise, Jonathan Duquette is another HabCam expert on board.  Between the two of them, and my experience with HabCam, I’ll do my best to explain how effective this piece of equipment is at collecting data.

This large contraption is HabCam.  Inside the metal framework is a large array of sensors, cameras, and lights.  The zip ties on the cable reduce the vibration of the cable in the water.

For three of our watch sessions I have gotten to be a part of the HabCam process.  I have gotten to pilot, co-pilot, and annotate the images it collects and processes.  Essentially the HabCam is towed behind the ship and run at a depth of about 2 meters above the ocean floor.  From this vantage point, the Habcam takes up to 6 pictures per second of the ocean floor, but this piece of advanced equipment does much more than snap pictures.  Before I get into the details of how it functions, let me explain where it came from .

HabCam was first thought up back in 2006 from a joint effort between the Sea Scallop fishing industry and WHOI.  The first version of HabCam had a lot of issues, consider it a prototype.  Through this corrections were made and the second version of HabCam was created.  However it too was short lived.  Imagine towing a camera behind a boat moving at about 7 knots that is trying to get close to the ocean floor, plenty can go wrong.  Through these first two cameras trials, a third version of HabCam was created.  This version is still in use today by a group of fishermen on a boat called the Kathy Marie.  HabCam 4 is the version that is on board the Hugh R. Sharp today, and the model I will be focusing on.  HabCam V4 was designed by WHOI specifically for NOAA in 2010, and is the only such Habitat Camera in use in the NOAA Fisheries Program.

This awesome piece of equipment does not just take pictures.  As I have mentioned, dragging along a camera at the bottom of the ocean is riddled with challenges.  There is plenty of gear on HabCam that attempts to make this task possible.  HabCam is equipped with front and side scan sonar to give the operator a read out of what is ahead and to the side of it.  The forward facing sonar allows the pilot to see if any obstacles are in the way of the tow, so the pilot can raise the camera to avoid obstacles.  The side scan sonar helps to a point with this as well, but is more useful to show when large sand waves/hills might be approaching on the ocean floor.  This also gives scientists an idea of the topography of the area being investigated.

habcam monitors
A multitude of screens.  The starting from top left: videos of the stern side, bottom left: video feed of the winch cable, middle bottom: side profile of the ocean floor with HabCam depths, bottom right: video feed from HabCam, top right: side scan sonar to view the ocean floor, and top middle: forward facing sonar to spot obstacles.

HabCam also has two CTD’s on board.  C stands for conductivity, essentially this gives a reading of the salinity content in the water.  T stands for temperature, this obviously gives temperature readouts.  D stands for depth, which ties together the salinity and temperature at particular depths.  Every so often the HabCam is raised up and a “vertical profile” is taken of the water column.  Again, giving scientist a bigger picture of what the water in a particular survey area is like. Along with CTD, the HabCam is equipped with a fluorometer that can give scientists a read out of how light is being scattered in the area and how much chlorophyll is in an area.

The camera ability on HabCam is impressive.  Since the places it is photographing are deep in the ocean where light is not penetrating, the HabCam is equipped with 4 strobe lights to light up the bottom of the ocean.  These are timed with the camera, so they turn on at the proper time so get the best picture possible.  The camera itself takes 6 pictures per second, which equates to about 500,000 images per day or 2.7 terabytes worth of data.  The programming processes about one out of every 25 to be annotated by trained volunteers (like myself) or NOAA scientists.  While HabCam has been on the Hugh R. Sharp, an estimated 100,000 images will be annotated.  The pictures are of a square meter area of the ocean floor.

habcam pictures
These are all images produced by Habcam.  The top left is a field of sea stars, the top right and bottom right shows an array of scallops, the bottom left shows a hiding goosefish…can you see it?

HabCam is controlled by a winch system which a pilot operates.  The pilot must raise and lower the camera as a readout of the depth to the ocean floor is given.  The pilot must pay attention to the forward facing sonar, side scan sonar, and altimeter of the HabCam.  If an object is coming towards the camera on the sonar, the pilot pulls back on the winch joystick to raise the HabCam, then pushes the joystick forward to bring it back down once the obstacle as passed.  The equipment is housed in a large steel frame in case it does run into any obstacles.  The whole structure is about 2500 lbs, 8 feet tall, and 10 feet long.   Just during this leg of the research cruise, HabCam will have been towed over 600 nautical miles.

piloting habcam
I have gotten to pilot HabCam several times now.  There is a lot to look at, but the more you pilot it, the easier it gets to multitask the screens.

The images from HabCam are valuable to scientists for several reasons.  These images show these benthic dwelling animals in their true habitat (hence the name Habitat Camera).  You can see interactions between species that naturally happening on the photographs.  These images can also be taken through sites that have been dredged to see how effective the dredge tows have been.  By using both the physical dredge catches and the pictures, scientists can study these areas more effectively.

Personal Log
Today was Father’s Day.  Not an easy day to be out here in the Atlantic.  This has without a doubt been a once in a life time experience, but its still hard to miss days like that.  Happy Father’s Day to my dad, Richard, my Father-In-Law, Gary, and to all you fathers out there.  My kids were able to send me videos, which was nice and the night shift made some treats in honor of the fathers on the boat.

Seasickness reared its ugly head again the other night.  The Atlantic likes to remind me that people from Illinois don’t get free rides out here!  Someone asked me what seasickness feels like. Its like you are stuck on the tilt-a-whirl ride at a carnival, and the person running the ride has just walked off so there’s no one to stop the ride.  All you can do is just accept it.  I do feel better today so that’s a bonus.

I’ve learned a lot out here, and the lessons are ranging.  Things I want to bring back to my classroom, things that are life lessons, and lessons in leadership.  This has been a wonderful experience even with the missed holidays and seasickness.  I finally did get up to see the sunrise the other day.  What an awesome view.

It was worth losing some sleep over this sunrise view.



Did You Know?

One of the common sea birds that follows our boat daily is called a shearwater.  I have grown to really enjoy watching these birds cruise over the top of the waves in search of fish.  Two really unique things about them, their take off and their flight.  When they take off, they literally run on top of the water with their web feet.  Its awesome to watch.  In flight, they flight fast above the waves, and glide on top of every crest of a wave looking for food in the water.  By flying closer to a wave surface there is less drag on their wings than higher up in the air.


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