NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 27-July 5, 2018
Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 4, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Conditions at 2012
Latitude: 28° 36’ N
Longitude: 89° 26’ W
Relative Humidity: 75%
Temperature: 28.5° C
Wind Speed: 2.5 knots
Science and Technology Log
“Everyone’s a sauce boss on Oregon II.”
-ENS Andy Fullerton
Happy Independence Day! Valerie and Arlene broke out the festive tablecloths, beads, an ice cream sundae bar and even some soda. In the fridge, there are a half a dozen types of mustard alone for midnight hot dogs on the Fourth. And always, each of the two tables in the galley is a stocked with its own assortment of about 20 hot sauces and seasonings.
The Fourth of July is often a day of transitions for me. In 1994, it was the day my family moved from Virginia to Florida. In 2014, it was the day I left New Mexico where I earned my graduate degree to Illinois. This year, I have the pleasure of spending the Fourth with the Oregon II family. The research is complete for this leg and we are heading back to land; after three weeks onboard, it feels like leaving another home.
The sauce bosses are about 30 men and women who work aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II: 20 crew and 10 scientists. Behind the scenes, or rather, below deck, the engineers are hard at work operating, refueling and otherwise monitoring the ship’s engines. Of course, these are the engines that propel the ship, but they also include the machinery that powers the winches on deck for trawls and CTD casts. They warm up the engines ahead of data collection so that the winches are ready when we reach each station. It’s another hard job on the boat; below deck in the engine rooms, even with air conditioning it can still reach over 40˚C or 110˚F. Shifts are four hours long and eight hours off so meals and sleep alternate with watches.
Vincent Perry is one of the engineers and was raised with the mindset that travelling and experiencing different cultures is an essential to a meaningful life. He joined the Navy which took him around the world to places like Japan and the Middle East. After retiring from the service, he joined NOAA to continue travelling by visiting different ports. Although the work is hard, he enjoys visiting new places and trying foods around the country. Another benefit of being crew is that the weeks spent at sea are balanced by weeks of leave between trips that he can spend with his family.
On deck, the Deck Department handle and deploy the trawl nets and CTD, including the winches. Many of these men also have Navy experience that allowed them to see the world while using the mariner skills that many from the Gulf coast learned as members of fishing families. Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols always had a strong sense of adventure, and was especially inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Captains Courageous, which he found among his father’s things when he was a boy. The novel is a story of a wealthy teen that falls off an ocean liner and is picked up by a fishing boat where he is eventually shaped into a hard working member of the crew. Following Naval service, Chris served as a US Merchant Marine, which are civilian mariners who transport cargo and passengers to Navy vessels. He also worked on charter fishing boats out of Florida and then joined NOAA and Oregon II’s crew.
NOAA Corps officers are primarily posted in the bridge. Although they are required to have science backgrounds and coursework, ship navigation is their primary duty; they chart our course from station to station and steer. Naturally, the bridge has the best view and crew often spend time there chatting with the officers if there isn’t too much traffic. However, at night when other fishing boats and defunct oil rigs are difficult to see, this can be a daunting task. Even during the day, navigating around the MANY oil rigs that dot the Gulf coastline makes this job less than straight forward.
The bridge of Oregon II boasts a number of “antique” parts, another reminder of its years of service. Today, alongside the table of paper charts are electronic counterparts. A raster navigation chart (RNC) computer system displays scans of paper maps. Next to that is the newest addition, the electronic navigation computer charting (ENC) system which is a clickable map that displays other ships and reports their bearings, information about geographic points such as depth if available. These and other data can be layered on the map and is continuously updated with new information.
A large radar screen is posted at either end of the bridge, one that detects larger ships and one that picks up signals from smaller boats. Even though the expanse of water seems large, traffic jams can still occur around busy ports. Executive Officer (XO) Andrew Ostapenko explains to me the stress-inducing calculations that continuously run through his head when he looks at the radar screens. The radar displays are able to show lines of where each boat will be in the next hour given each one’s speed and direction, thus showing if and when our paths would cross. It’s too busy on the screen to keep it that way, but it seems that’s the picture XO has running through his mind all the time. A large tanker over 20 miles away holds his attention because he can predict that we would cross paths in 45 minutes. That means you have start correcting your speed and bearing now to maintain a safe distance when we pass in 40 minutes to avoid a collision. That’s just one of at least 20 vessels clustered around New Orleans on the ENC screen and the weather is fair.
They also drive the boat during trawls. When we come to a station, the officers bring the boat to a complete stop in order for us to launch the CTD. As soon as the CTD is back onboard, the trawl begins. There is a set procedure for the trawl and the wind direction is taken so the net doesn’t blow back towards the boat. The bridge, deck and scientists in the dry lab are in communication about the time and length of the trawl to coordinate the speed of the boat with each stage of the trawling process. The boat cruises at 5-5.5 knots to shoot the doors of the net, and slows to about 2.5 knots for the half hour during the trawl. We speed up slightly to 3.5 knots to haul back the net.
Navigation is mainly done be ENS Chelsea Parrish and ENS Andy Fullerton who are supervised by XO and CO, the commanding officer. ENS Fullerton grew up in Florida, but his adventurous spirit took him to Colby College in Maine; as far north as he could get from Florida without his mother having a “conniption fit”. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in environmental science and heard about NOAA in college. He applied to NOAA Corps and was accepted.
ENS Parrish comes from a military background, but would say she’s from Savannah, GA. Following a love of science took her through a Master’s degree in Marine Science at Savannah State University. She was introduced to NOAA in her first year of graduate school and decided to join.
NOAA officers rotate ship assignments every two years. Her term with Oregon II is coming to an end in the next few months, but she is looking forward to her new post in La Jolla, CA where she will be a drone pilot for marine mammal surveys. She found a great way to combine NOAA service with a more hands on way to do the science she loves.
I’m not a “Star Trek” fan, but I feel like I finally understand the premise of the show. Research vessels such as NOAA Ship Oregon II are like the USS Enterprise’s of Earth, and there are many places on our planet where “no man has gone before”. However, Oregon II actually goes to the same places every year—the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean–to create long term data sets, because we don’t know what kinds of changes might happen from year to year. Long term data helps scientists identify cause and effects of population explosions or crashes, for example of shrimp and plankton, and the effects of fishing practices on red snapper.
Anyway, Oregon II’s only mission is to support scientific study, and the entire crew, from the captain and NOAA officers in the bridge, to the deck crew operating the winches and launching the CTD, to the engineers monitoring and running the engines of the boat, winches, electrical, air conditioning, and everything in between, are seamlessly coordinated with scientists to conduct research. Scientists aren’t the only people who do science. The men and women aboard NOAA ship Oregon II, and the various ships in the fleet have found their different contributions to science through their particular skill sets. It’s inspiring to see people practice strong support for science with such a range of skill sets.
I was also reminded of “Gilligan’s Island”, of which I am a fan. For the younger readers, it’s a comedy show from the 1960s where seven people—a two man crew and five passengers, including “The Professor”— on a small charter boat get shipwrecked by a storm on an island during a “three hour tour”. The series is about the living they make on the island as their boat is beyond repair. In contrast to the SS Minnow, our story would follow a very different track, but still make a great TV show. Oregon II has been in NOAA’s service for just over 50 years, and that’s only part of its career. The ship itself is reliable in large part to the dedicated crew who keep her running. Many of them, including Captain Dave Nelson, have been with Oregon II for over 20 years! They are a close knit team, really family, that are the epitome of a well-oiled machine when they work. The remaining “passengers” on board are the scientist party who work in conjunction with the crew, many for a decade as well. And of course, there’s “Teach”, the current Teacher at Sea. Either the ship would be quickly repaired and back in Pascagoula before anyone noticed it wrecked, or, if they chose to stay, this team of 30 skilled people would build a pretty comfortable and sophisticated settlement on that tropical island.
Fortunately for us, the second leg of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey went smoothly once we got going. When we pull back into port in Pascagoula, I get to see the workings of the machine one more time. The whole crew is on deck to dock the boat, reconnect to land-based utilities and hug their waiting families on land. Despite the invitations to stay for the third leg, I have to make way for the next Teach, but hopefully I’ll find a way back next year.
Did You Know?
Captain Dave Nelson is one of two civilian CO’s in the NOAA fleet. CO’s are usually NOAA Corp Commissioned officers. Like other NOAA Corp officers, a ship’s CO would rotate every two years to a different ship. Captain Nelson however, will spend his entire NOAA career of 30 years aboard Oregon II.