NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 9 – 20, 2018
Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2018
In a few short days, I’ll be flying to the Gulf Coast and going aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II, a 170-foot fisheries research vessel which first launched in 1967. I turned seven that year, and in my Southern California boyhood loved nothing better than exploring the cliffsides and mudflats of the Newport Back Bay, collecting seashells and chasing lizards and Monarch butterflies. Fifty years later, I’m just as smitten with nature and the marine environment, maybe more so. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, and these days my passion for the ocean takes the form of getting out on the water whenever I can (and longing to do so whenever I can’t): kayak-fishing along the coast from Marin to Mendocino, tide-pooling at Half Moon Bay, and whale-watching with my family in Monterey.
Though my childhood reading consisted almost entirely of field guides for shells and insects—and those by Roger Tory Peterson (no relation) were my most-prized books—I didn’t become a biologist. No, I became a professor of English instead, one who was drawn, not too mysteriously, to writers who shared my fascination with the sea and its creatures, novelists like John Steinbeck and Herman Melville, poets like Walt Whitman and George Oppen. As a non-scientist with an incurable case of “sea fever,” I simply couldn’t be happier to sail this summer as a NOAA Teacher at Sea, and I look forward to experiencing first-hand the rigors of life and work aboard a NOAA research vessel.
I have the great good fortune of teaching at a wonderful independent high school that has helped me to cultivate these interests within and beyond the classroom: Oakland’s College Preparatory School. I teach a year-long Freshman English course there as well as a handful of upper-level semester-long seminars, each focused on a special topic or theme. One of my favorite seminars is called “Deadliest Catches” (yes, a shameless allusion to those intrepid Bering Sea crabbers on Animal Planet), a course that offers a deep-dive into the encyclopedic wonders of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Every fall members of this course visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park to go aboard historic vessels and sing chanteys with a locally famous park ranger. We also team up with members of College Prep’s Oceanography class, taught by my colleague Bernie Shellem, for an afternoon of marine science aboard the R/V Brownlee, examining bottom-dwelling marine life, identifying fish and crustaceans, and studying water chemistry and plankton in the San Francisco Bay.
Another of my sea-related courses, and one that might stand to benefit even more directly from my TAS experience, is “Fish & Ships”: a week-long intensive class on sustainable seafood and Bay Area maritime history. Though the course is brief, it encourages students to reflect on big questions: how do their everyday choices affect the marine environment that surrounds them, and what does it mean to be an ethical consumer of seafood? We meet and eat with industry experts, and we take a road trip to Monterey, visiting its amazing Aquarium, kayaking on Elkhorn Slough (where its rescued sea otters are released), and feasting mindfully at restaurants that feature sustainable seafood.
In connection with this course and on a personal note, I’m especially interested in the shrimp species I’ll become well acquainted with on the upcoming cruise. I’m a big fan of shrimp tacos, and my favorite taqueria in Berkeley makes theirs from “wild-caught shrimp from the waters of Southeastern Louisiana.” An ad on the wall proclaims they’re a sustainable resource, informing customers that independent fisherman harvest the “Gulf Shrimp” using a method called “skim netting,” reducing by-catch (i.e., the unwanted capture of non-target species) and thereby doing less damage to the ecosystem. I’m fascinated by the ways supply-chain connections like these—between particular fishermen and the fish they fish for in a particular place and in a particular way—swirl out into so many different but interconnected orbits of human endeavor, binding them in one direction to the fisheries biologists who help determine whether their stocks are sustainable, and, in another, to fish taco aficionados and English teachers in far flung states who delight in their flavorful catches.
What am I bringing along to read, you may wonder. Well, for starters, it’s only fitting that my well-worn copy of Moby-Dick accompany me, and another old favorite belongs in my bags: Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez. More powerfully than any of his fiction, that work—which records the marine-specimen collecting trip Steinbeck made to Baja California with his longtime friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts—spoke to me as a young man and certainly helped inspire the voyage I’m about to take as a Teacher at Sea.
Did You Know?
Samuel Clemens’s pen name, Mark Twain, had a maritime source. In the parlance of riverboat pilots, the two words mean “two fathoms” (or 12 feet) of depth, “marked” (or measured) by the leadsman. The expression meant safe water for a steamboat, in other words.