Mark Van Arsdale: Gelatinous Fireworks, September 21, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018


Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 21, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.27 N, 143.89 W (Cape Suckling Line)


Science Log

Gelatinous Fireworks


CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.

Last night, we traveled between the Middleton Island line and the Cape Suckling line, providing us with a change in pace from our regular routine of zooplankton and jelly collecting.  Still, it wasn’t a night off, and at midnight, while still in deep waters, we stopped to do a special Multi-net tow. At 800 meters (almost 2500 feet,) this was our deepest tow of the trip.  A tow that deep takes almost two hours to get down to depth and back up again.  This tow was looking for unique organisms for later genetic analysis, and most of the stuff that came up I had previously only seen in movies.  Deep red shrimp, giant copepods almost a centimeter in length, big-eyed lantern fish, comb jellies, and amphipods that looked straight out of the movie Aliens.

Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.
Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.

We had a couple of hours break until we reached the outermost Cape Suckling station, so naturally I slept.  We did our first Methot net jelly tow at five am. We were in deep water, 2500 fathoms (~15000 feet), and far enough off shore that the jellies were abundant.  In fact, as we were putting the net in the water we noticed that there were more jellies than we had previously seen at any sampling station.   After putting the net in, we turned off the ships lights and lay witness to a fireworks show in the water.  So many jellies, and each time one hit the net there was an explosion of blue green light.  Jellies, particularly the glass jellies, are super fragile with long delicate tentacles.  When they hit the net, their tentacles break apart and they release a plume of glowing bioluminescence.  The normal in-water time for this net is twenty minutes, but after seeing such dense concentrations of jellies we decided to pull it early.  As we pulled it out of the water, the net nearly bursting at its seams, we had to attach an extra line and bring the cod end out of the water with the crane.  We measured jellies for a long time, and watched the sky glow red as the sun came up over the rugged peaks of Cape St. Elias and the Bering Glacier.

The Scientists

Yesterday, I talked about the Crew of the Tiglax. Today I thought I would say a bit about the scientists on board.  Excluding myself, there are thirteen scientists on board.  Of those thirteen, ten are women and three are men.  The group includes four graduate students, three research technicians, two wildlife biologists, two primary investigators/professors from UAF, one investigator/professor from the University of Hawaii, and one semi-retired UAF research staff.  Aside from the wildlife biologists and the researcher from the University of Hawaii, they are all physical oceanographers.  Physical oceanographers look at the ocean almost as if it is an equation waiting to be solved.  If you have the right physical drivers, wind and currents may combine nitrates and iron at the surface.  If you have the right nutrients mixed with light near the surface, you get phytoplankton growth.  If you have oxygen and phytoplankton with the right physical conditions to stay near the surface, you can grow and sustain zooplankton. They build ecosystems as if by Lego blocks, each piece critical to the final outcome.

Ask any one of them how they get paid and you will inevitably get the response – it’s complicated.  Most of the salaries are funded through grants in what they describe as “soft money.”  Grants for research are funded by a variety of agencies, in this case, the largest being the National Science Foundation.  Writers of the grants list the number of positions required and the dollar figure attached to those positions.  Once the grant is awarded it gets managed by The University of Alaska accounting department.  For the grad students, these trips are certainly a learning opportunity, and one that a lot of schools could not offer.

Personal Log


The back and forth nature of the way we sample stations is at times dizzying.  We make progress slowly, sample four stations at night, drive back to where you started in the morning, then sample the same four stations during the day.  At sunset, start at the next station down the line.  Much of the conversation aboard revolves around what station we are on and what test is being run.   The acquisition of data is slow, tedious, and deliberate work.

Today we are closer to Canada than we are from the town of Seward where we left. When you are part of a research cruise one hundred miles off shore, you can’t just go home because you’re tired, or because something happens at home, or because you just want a break. If something breaks, you have a spare, or you try to fix it.  If a schedule gets altered because of waves or weather, you just sleep when you can and work later.  There is no phone and no internet, so you can’t call your kids to wish them goodnight.  There is just work, and I have found myself in many ways ill prepared for its single-minded focus.

I have come to realize how much I take for granted the autonomy I have to do or go where I want.  Out here, you have no autonomy.  You go where the boat goes, you eat what and when the chef says, you work when the chief scientist says to work, and you do exactly what they say.  This of course, is driven by the sheer expense of doing research at sea as well as the tremendous travel times it takes to get out this far.

Northern Fulmar, notice it's "tube nose."
Northern Fulmar, notice it’s “tube nose.” photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

Did you know?

Many seabirds have a structure on the tops of their beaks that looks like the air intake on a muscle car.  These birds are known as “tube-nosed” birds and they make up the order Procellariiformes.  The group includes albatross, fulmars, petrals, and shearwaters.   The tube hides two nasal glands that help them concentrate and remove excess salt from their blood.  The glads allow them to drink saltwater without suffering dehydration.


Animals seen today

  • Minke whale
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

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