Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 29 , 2019
I sat with the marine archaeologists and chief scientist and the operators of the ROV in a control room bolted to the back deck of the Point Sur. Inside were at least 12 video monitors showing views from the ROV in color and infra-red, a sonar scanner, various mapping tools to track the location of the ROV and the ship, and controls for all the equipment on the ROV including cameras, lights, the sampling tray and robotic arms. For a while we stared at the silty sea floor seeing nothing more than a few shrimp and rockfish and sea cucumbers. Every once in a while the ROV would kick up a cloud of silt and we would watch it swirl across the screen looking much like images of the cosmos.
Suddenly a ghostly vertical shape appeared ahead, covered in part by a white lacey growth. The closer we moved the more clear it became – this was the bow of the shipwreck we were looking for! It stood out on the seafloor like a lone bedraggled sentinel in a watery desert. The ROV hovered around it. We could see white branching coral called Lophilia, anemones, a long-legged Arrow crab and other species of marine life. The ROV moved along what we thought was the length of the shipwreck. An anchor lay on its side with one hooked arm lifted and around it we began to see other things: white ceramic plates, a ceramic whiskey jug, some metal rods with a loop on one end that most likely came from the rigging.
The ROV passed over and around the artifacts, trying to see them closely, but at the same time we could not pick up or even move the silt away to see what else lay buried there. With each new pass over the wreck more things were seen: a copper bell, some ceramic cups with blue decoration. We were not treasure seekers out to plunder. A good archaeologist doesn’t take artifacts out of context without good reason and permission. Melanie Damour, the marine archaeologist for the expedition likens a shipwreck to a crime scene. Each clue tells the investigator a part of the story of what happened. If a clue is taken away, it becomes harder to piece the story together. Our expedition is to map and photograph the wreck, so we won’t disturb anything we see.
Finally, the controlled mapping of the shipwreck began. This is called photogrammetry. The plan was to do three passes lengthwise ten meters apart, and then repeated transects across the whole ship. From these combined overlapping images, the archaeologists will make a 3-D map of the wreck. Hours later, mapping complete, the ROV returned to the ship.
By evening, a squall had found us, rain fell for a short while, the wind whipped the waves up, the ship pitched and rolled in an uncomfortable way, and to say the least, I lost my newfound sea legs and my cookies. You don’t want to know the rest.
Mission: Cape Newenham Hydrographic Survey Geographic Area of Cruise: Bering Sea, Alaska Date: June 25, 2019
I am so excited about my upcoming experience as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. I will be on the NOAA Ship Fairweather from July 8 to 19 and will be participating on a hydrographic research cruise, one that is mapping the sea-floor in detail; more about that soon. We will embark from and return to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, which is part of the Aleutian Islands. If you are my current or former student, or you are a friend or colleague of mine, or you are an admirer of the Teacher at Sea program, I hope you will follow along on this ocean adventure as I post about my experiences while at sea.
A little about me
I am originally from California. I went to the beach often to body surf and splash around, maybe sunbathe (I don’t do THAT anymore). It was in California where I got interested in geology. I was pretty young when I experienced the 1971 San Fernando 6.5M earthquake and after that, earthquakes were a regular occurrence for me. When I moved to Hayward, California, in early 1989 to complete my bachelor’s degree in geology at California State University East Bay, I was living off-campus and had the “pleasure” of rocking and rolling through one of the longest earthquakes I every felt when the 6.9M Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I moved on from there to the desert of Las Vegas, Nevada, to earn my Master’s in Structural Geology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I didn’t feel any earthquakes in Nevada, but I did do my research on an active fault in southwestern Utah. I like to think of myself as a “boots-on-the-ground” kind of scientist-educator.
My work and life experiences are such that for five years after grad school, I was a staff geologist at a large environmental consulting company. I loved that job and it took me all around the U.S. One of the assignments I had was to manage a mapping project involving data from New York and New Jersey harbor area. From that experience I became interested in digital mapping (known as Geographic Information Systems or GIS) and switched careers. I went to work at a small liberal arts college as the GIS support person within the instructional technology group. In addition to helping teach professors and college students how to work with the GIS software, I helped teach about use of social media in teaching, use a mobile devices for data collection, integrating alternative assessments like using of audio and video, and I maintained two computer labs. While I was involved in those two different careers, I gained some adjunct teaching experiences at several different colleges and grad schools, teaching geology, environmental science and GIS.
Another professional experience that I’ve had that I am most proud of is I was a Fulbright Scholar in 2009-2010 to Barbados. My family and I lived in Barbados for a year while I was worked with the University of the West Indies, Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) I taught GIS to graduate students, I worked with some of the students on research projects, I traveled to Belize as a field assistant on a field studies trip with faculty members and CERMES students, and I had the privilege of working on a marine-based, community-driven mapping research project with a then PhD student (who has since earned her degree). My part of the project was to take the spatial data, organize it and create a user-friendly Google Earth KML file. She and I got to travel around St Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada, teaching community members about the work, the available data, and how to access the Google Earth project file.
In 2015, I re-tooled yet again and was accepted into a challenging yet rewarding education program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In 15 months, I learned how to teach with artifacts, took graduate courses in all manner or earth and space subjects, of course, had classes in pedagogical approaches, had two in-residence teaching experiences at area schools, all the while in the amazing AMNH, home of Night at the Museum.
Now as a public high school educator, teaching Earth Science to 9-12 graders in the Bronx, I have a strong foundation in the solid earth topics like plate tectonics, rocks and minerals, and geologic time. But Regents Earth Science class in New York also involves oceanography, meteorology, climate science and astronomy.
What compelled me to apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program is what motivates me throughout my other life decisions: I wanted to push against my boundaries and my limitations. I have always had a healthy respect for the sea, which was mixed in with a little fear. I saw the movie Jaws when I was young and impressionable, so I never really wanted to venture too far into the water beyond the waves. I didn’t even want to swim in lakes for fear of what might be traversing through the murky unknown. As I’ve aged, I’ve certainly grown less fearful of the water. I’ve traveled on sailboats and catamarans, I’ve snorkeled in the Caribbean, I’ve jumped into waters with nurse sharks and stingrays! But as a teacher who feels like she’s missing some key knowledge of her curriculum – oceanography – I want to challenge myself to learn-while-doing as I have the privilege of being selected to be a Teacher at Sea. I cannot wait!
Game Plan and Trawling Line: Channel Islands San Nicolas Line
I am up on the flying bridge and I just saw two humpback whales spouting, an albatross soaring and a large Mola Mola on the sea surface. In this blog I will write about an amazing once in a lifetime experience that from last night- May 31, 2019. The first haul was called off due to an abundance of Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Lagenorhynchus obliquidens, (as reported by the inside marine mammal watch prior to net deployment), so we motored on ahead to the second station, but dolphins chased the ship all the way there, too. One strategy to encourage marine mammals to leave is for the ship to stop moving with the hope that the dolphins become disinterested and vacate the area. This pod was intent on having a party at the ship so Keith Sakuma encouraged everyone to just go outside to observe and enjoy the dolphins!
Fishing on this survey takes place at nighttime (so the fish do not see the net) and Scripps graduate student Kaila Pearson and I stepped outside on the side deck into the darkest of dark nights. Kaila and I carefully placed one foot in front of the other because we couldn’t see our feet and where to step next. I was afraid I would trip. When I asked Keith Hanson if we should use a flashlight to safely make our way up to the top deck, he suggested that we stay in place for a few minutes to allow our eyes to adjust. Within 5 minutes or so objects around us started to present themselves to us within the black void. We could eventually see our feet, each others faces, the dolphins, and even the finer features of the sea surface.
Within a few minutes Ily Iglesias reported seeing bioluminescence, a type of chemiluminescence that occurs in living things, such as the familiar green glow of lightening bugs in the Summer in the South. This glow results from oxidation of the protein luciferin (present in photophore cells/organs) by the enzyme luciferase. It its excited state, lucifern emits light. This reaction is known to occur in some marine bacteria, dinoflagellates (single celled photosynthetic organisms), squid, deep sea fish, pyrosomes and jellyfish, and I am fortunate to have observed many of these creatures already on this research cruise (see photos below). Some animals have photophore organs and generate their own luciferin, while others are hosts to bioluminescent bacteria.
When dinoflagellates floating on the sea surface are agitated, they glow. At first when I was trying really hard to see this, I noticed a couple of tiny flashes of green light, sort of like lightening bugs, but it wasn’t anything super obvious. In time, I noticed clouds of faint light, sort of like a glowing mist floating the water’s surface, that moved up and down with the swell. I hypothesized that dinoflagellates on the sea surface were being agitated by the passage of waves through them and Ily suggested that it was caused by schools of anchovies.
Since the dolphins were intent on staying, we decided to head to the next station. I knew that as the ship began to move that the bow would be breaking through surface water that had previously been undisturbed, and I predicted the bioluminescence would be much more intense.
As we took off, the dolphins began to bow surf and, as I predicted, the dinoflagellates were activated and this time their glow was a bright white. As the dolphins surfaced to breath, their skin became coated with the glowing algal cells, creating an effect as if they were swimming in an X-ray machine. The dolphins were literally glowing white swimming in a black sea! We were so entranced and excited by the beauty, we screamed in delight. I am sure the dolphins heard us cheering for them. They too, seemed excited and could see each other glowing as well.
Next we saw the faint cloud of dinoflagellates caused by Northern anchovies (Ily was right) up ahead of us. As the ship encountered the school of small (~ 3-6 inch) fish, they also started to glow really bright and it was easy to see all of the individual fish in the school. The dolphins could also see the glowing fish and split off in different directions to hunt them. There were hundreds of fish that dispersed as they were being chased creating a pattern of short white glowing lines somewhat like the yellow lane markers on the highway.
The display was unlike anything I have ever witnessed. It was like the Aurora Borealis of the sea. Despite our best efforts, our cell phone cameras were unable to pick up the bioluminescent signal, however, we do not need photos because the patterns of light will be forever embedded in our minds. The dolphins eventually tired from the surf and chase and departed. Ily said the experience was “an explosion of light that overwhelmed the senses” while Flora said it was “better than fireworks.”
With no marine mammal sightings at the third station, we completed a five minute haul in the deep channel and collected a huge white bin of anchovies (see photo of Keith Hanson with this catch below). In this catch we found a few Mexican lampfish, 3 king of the salmon, a lot of of large smooth tongues, a lot of salps, a few pyrosomes and one purple striped jellyfish. The purple-striped jelly (Chrysaora colorata) is is primarily preyed upon by Leatherback turtles. Haul 2 was conducted over shallower water near San Nicolas Island and we only found salps and four small rockfish in the catch. After these two hauls, we called it a night and wrapped up at 4:15 a.m.
Scientist Spotlight: Ilysa Iglesias, NMFS SWFSC FED/ University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC)
Ilysa “Ily” is a doctoral student who works in John Field’s Lab at UCSC. She is studying the fish we are collecting on this cruise as part of her research. She is very knowledgeable about all of the survey research objectives. She is also one of the most positive and gregarious people I have every met. Ily grew up in Santa Cruz, CA, and enjoys surfing, hiking, gardening and raising chickens. Ily is a fan of early marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, who often wore a red beanie/toboggan and a blue shirt. Ily came prepared and brought six red hats (that she knit herself) for each of the members of the sorting team. Ily’s favorite fish is the hatchetfish. She was thrilled when we found on in the catch!
Ily obtained a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in integrated biology and a Masters Degree from the University of Hawaii in Zoology with a specialization in marine biology. Her thesis was on the function of intertidal pools as a nursery habitat for near-shore reef fish. She compared otoliths (fish bone ears) of fish reared inside and outside of tide pools and compared their growth rates. Otoliths can be used to the age of the fish much like counting rings on a tree and stable isotope analysis reveals information about where the fish were reared.
Ily, Flora and Kristin have all used otoliths in their research and taught me how to locate and collect the sagittal otolith from anchovies and myctophids. It is a tiny ear bone (one of three) that is positioned near the hindbrain of fish. See photos below of the otoliths we collected. This is a technique that I will definitely take back to my classroom and teach my McCallie students.
After obtaining her masters degree, Ily was Conservation Fellow for the Nature Conservancy in HI and worked in octopus fisheries before returning home to join NOAA’s salmon team and then the rockfish team as a Research Associate. Ily has just completed the first year of her doctoral work in the Field Lab and expects to complete the program within 5 years.
On this cruise, Ily is collecting small fish called Myctophids for her research. These are small bioluminescent fish that live at depths of 300 and 1,500 m in the bathypelagic zone. In this survey, we encounter these deep sea dwellers during their nightly vertical migration up to the edge of the photic zone at depths we are targeting. They are likely chasing their prey (krill) on this upward journey. It is amazing to me they are able to withstand the pressure change. Mcytophids are also known as lanternfishes and have bioluminescent photophores dispersed on their bodies. The fish sorting team analyzes the position of these organs to help distinguish between the different species. There are 243 known species of myctophids, making these little fishes one of the most diverse vertebrates on Earth. They are so abundant in the sea that they make up 65% of the ocean’s biomass, but most people have never heard of them!
In 2014- 2015 there was an anonymously high sea surface temperatures off of the Pacific Coast known as The Blob. Marine scientists are still elucidating the effect of the hot water had on fish populations and ecosystems. Ily explains that “atmospheric forcing caused changes in oxygen and temperature resulting in variability in the California current.” The water was less nutrient dense and caused a reduction in phytoplankton. This disruption of primary production propagated up the trophic cascade resulting in die offs of zooplankton, fish, marine mammals and birds.
Ily is using the catch records and acoustics data from the rockfish survey to study changes in distribution and abundance of myctophids from before, during and after The Blob (2013-2019). She aims to understand if and how their trophic position of myctophids was affected by the unusually high sea surface temperatures. Using elemental analysis isotope ratio mass spectrometry to analyze the Carbon and Nitrogen atoms incorporated into fish muscle, Ily can determine what the myctophids were eating each year.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 27, 2019
Yesterday was a doozy of a day I think everyone on the ship would agree. One frustrating setback after another had to be overcome, but one by one each problem was solved and the day ended successfully. If you would like to read more about this expedition, it is featured on the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research website.
The first discovery yesterday morning was that the ship’s pole-mounted ultrashort baseline tracking system (USBL) had been zapped with electricity overnight and was unusable. This piece of equipment is a key piece of a complex system. Without it we would not know precisely where the ROV was, nor could we control the sweeps of the ROV over the shipwrecks for accurate mapping. The scheduled dive time of 1330 (that’s 1:30PM!) was out of the question. There was even talk of returning to port to get new equipment. Yikes. This would cost the expedition $30,000-$40,000 for a full 24 hours of operation, and no one wanted to do this.
Max, the team’s underwater systems engineer, worked his magic, and replaced the damaged part. This required expert knowledge and some tricky maneuvers. Once this was fixed, the next step was to send a positioning beacon down to the seafloor to calibrate the signal from the ship to the ROV so that we would be able to track it precisely. Calibrating means that the ship and the ROV have to agree on where home is. The beacon is attached to three floats connected together to make a “lander”, and then 2 heavy weights are attached as well. The weights take the beacon down. The lander brings it back to the surface later. The deployment went without a hitch. However, when the lander floated to the surface, we noticed it was floating in a strange way. When we hauled it aboard, we discovered that one of the glass floats had imploded – probably due to a material defect under the intense pressure at 1200m below sea level – and all we had left of that unit was a shattered mess of yellow plastic.
In spite of that, the calibration was complete and we could send the ROV on its mission. We loaded the experiments onto the back of the ROV, along with another lander and weights. This was the exciting moment! The crane lifted the ROV off the ship deck and swung it out over the water. But in the process, the chain holding the weights broke and, with a mighty groan from all of us watching, both of them sank into the sea. Back came the ROV for a new set of weights. Luckily nothing was damaged. By 1745 (5:30PM), 5 hours after the scheduled time, the ROV went over the side for a second time successfully. Once this was done the Chief Scientist was able to crack a smile and relax a bit.
Now we had an hour to wait for the ROV to reach the sea floor again, and begin its mission of deploying and retrieving experiments. Inside the cabin of the ship, some of us sat mesmerized by the drifting phytoplankton on the big screen, hoping to see the giant squid that had been spotted on the last expedition. Up in the pilothouse the captain was on duty holding the ship in one spot for as long as it took for the ROV to return. Not an easy job!
Yesterday I saw what scientific exploration is really like. As someone said, “Two means one, and one means none,” meaning that when you are out at sea, you have to have a second or even a third of every critical piece of equipment because something is inevitably going to break and you will not be able to run to Walmart for a new one. Failures and setbacks are part of the game. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am looking at all that goes on on the ship through the lens of a classroom teacher. Yesterday’s successes were due to clear headed thinking, perseverance, and team work by many. These are precisely the qualities I hope I can foster in my students.
I’m actually afraid of the sea. The unspeakable power, the dark depths, the mysterious uncharted territory – the sea has always held curious minds captive. I want to be someone who faces the things that scare me. And for 19 days, on a relatively tiny ship, I will be doing just that.
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is “one of the most technologically advanced fisheries vessels in the world” according to the Office of Marine & Aviation Operations. In addition to studying fish and marine life populations, it is also equipped for acoustic data sampling and the gathering of oceanographic data. It can stay out to sea for up to 40 days at a time without needing to return for food or fuel replenishment.
And yet, as I’m writing this, I can’t help but think about SS Edmund Fitzgerald and RMS Titanic. They were the most advanced ships of their time too. Of course, I’m just letting my imagination get carried away. People fear the things they don’t understand. And I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can on this cruise in order to understand not just how this incredible vessel operates, but also how the ocean and atmosphere impact my life on a daily basis.
I was lucky last year to stumble across a professional development opportunity funded through the American Meteorological Society. I took two graduate level courses since then – DataStreme Atmosphere and DataStreme Ocean. Upon finishing this program I’ll earn a graduate certificate from the California University of Pennsylvania and be able to apply my new understanding of earth science directly to my classroom instruction. Already I’ve been able to incorporate fascinating information about coral reefs, the Bermuda Triangle, map reading, and weather into lessons and activities this year.
Why does a Reading Specialist need all this professional development, you might ask? In science of all things? Because nobody reads about things they’re not interested in (unless they have to). Students need to have something to connect with, to care about, in order to learn. When was the last time I, as an adult, read something I didn’t care about? Probably years.
Humans are curious by nature, and by incorporating new topics into our reading lessons over the past year, I’ve noticed that students really like learning about earth science. It’s like the mother who hides cauliflower in the lasagna – students are more motivated to read when they’re reading about something exciting and directly relevant to their lives. Thankfully, the more they read, the better they get at comprehending the nuances of the text. And then the less they need me.
One of the most valuable aspects of this trip for me is that I’ll return with a new appreciation for earth science, current events as they relate to our food supply and environment, and marine life. I can use this experience to build exciting lessons for high school students who may use their connection to these lessons as a lifeline. The last ditch effort to find something exciting to learn before graduating with a lackluster memory of the doldrums of the high school classroom.
Teenagers are tough eggs to crack! But I like them. And I’m very grateful to the NOAA Teacher at Sea program for giving me, and other teachers, opportunities like this to show our students that there are literally thousands of directions to take after high school in regard to career and quality of life. And that high school is one of the few places where they can build the foundational knowledge necessary to get them there – for free. I want my students to pursue their passions. To get excited about learning! And the first step to doing that successfully is to expose them to as many post-secondary options and lessons about their world as we can in the short time that we spend with them. Thanks NOAA! I’m excited to start my journey.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 24-25, 2019
On Monday I was introduced to the R/V Point Sur in Gulfport, Mississippi. Every nook and cranny of this vessel is packed, and it took the science crew most of the day to pack it even fuller with all the equipment they need. The largest single item is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus which makes a large footprint on the back deck. Over it hangs an enormous pulley that will be used to lift Odysseus in and out of the water.
When I arrived at the port, I met Dr. Leila Hamdan, the Chief Scientist, and some of the crew. We have two Rachels on board and they are both graduate students studying microbial biomes. Over time a layer of microbes form a “biofilm” on different kinds of wood and metal. This organic layer forms on the surface of a shipwrecks, and this is what the scientists are studying. They want to know how this layer speeds up or slows down the corrosion of shipwrecks and how other organisms use this habitat.
I was able to join in and help put together microbial recruitment experiment towers, or MREs for short. Each tower is a PVC pipe fitted with samples of wood, both oak and pine, and some metal samples. Each of these pipes fits loosely inside a second pipe, and then each set is roped together and attached to a float. Each tower is rigged in such a way that it will sink to the sea floor vertically, and then the outer pipe will rise to expose the inner tower and the sample plugs. After four months, the MREs will be retrieved, and the scientists will be studying what kinds of microbes grew on the samples. Their experiments add to our understanding of how shipwrecks act as a habitat for corals and other organisms
Finally, at the end of the day we had to quickly load the last of the gear on the ship before a huge container ship of bananas arrived to dock in our space. We set up a “fire line” to hand the last of the gear into the ship as fast as possible. We could see the huge Chiquita banana ship heading our way. The port was already stacked four high with Chiquita banana shipping containers and more bananas were coming! Who is eating so many bananas?!
As the newbie member of the crew, I was allowed to stay on board as the crew moved the ship from the large loading dock to the smaller pier on the other side of the port. This meant I got a taste of the ocean breezes that are going to help keep us cool once we leave land. I saw pelicans glide low over the water as I stood on the deck and imagined all the new and amazing things I am about to see and do.
If you’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, I can tell you it is HOT and HUMID. It’s hard to imagine until you try to actually do something in it. If you were an egg, you would definitely fry on the sidewalk. Despite the heat, all over the ship crew and scientists are working, bolting things together, greasing mechanical parts, putting last minute touches on their experimental equipment, organizing the lab and working at laptops. To mitigate the heat and humidity outside, the air-conditioning runs on high inside the ship. This helps to keep the humidity from damaging the equipment, as well as to keep the crew happy. So it is actually COLD in here!
In addition to all this activity, a group of high school students visited the ship. They are participating in The Ocean Science and Technology Camp to learn about marine science careers and they will be tracking our progress from shore. Each of our many talented scientists shared a bit about their research and their roles in the ship. I will share more about that in another blog. We are scheduled to leave tonight at 1930 hrs, that’s 7:30PM for most of us! Stay with me, it’s going to be awesome!
Last night I fell asleep, twice, at the lab bench in between trawls, since I am still adjusting to being on the night shift. We worked from 9:00 P.M. to 6:30 A.M. After the shift I had a nice hot shower and slept a solid 9 hours from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Hopefully, I will be less drowsy tonight!
Upon waking, I went to the galley and grabbed some Raisin Bran and coffee and took it up to the flying bridge to hang out with Ornithologist Brian Hoover. Our current location is in the middle of the Channel Islands, an area I know something about because my friend Evan Morrison, mentioned in my first blog, helps with the Channel Islands Swimming Association, and I would like to swim between these islands one day. Lauren Valentino, Flora Cordoleani, Ily Iglesias and I congregated on the flying bridge and decided we should exercise. We joined Flora in her squat challenge (80 squats on this particular day), followed by 5 minutes of planking and a bit of erging. Half of female members of the fish sorting team are avid rock climbers. They did lots of pull-ups using the rock ring climbing training holds that are installed there.
It felt nice and warm when the ship stopped for deployment of the Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) Rosette, and it got chilly again as the wind picked up when the ship started moving again. We saw a few whale spouts in the distance and at 5:30 P.M. we went down to the galley for a delicious meal of steak and mashed potatoes. I am beginning to really appreciate how nice this whole experience has been in terms of amenities. The NOAA Reuben Lasker first set launch in 2014 and is a state of the art fisheries vessel with a sophisticated acoustics lab, fish lab, dynamic positioning system, CTD, etc., but is ALSO equipped with creature comforts including a movie lounge, an ice cream cooler loaded with ice cream sandwiches, snickers, fruit pops, you name it, and my personal favorite – a coffee bar where all coffee is freshly ground, an espresso machine, and all varieties of milk and creamers, including Reese’s cup whipped cream. The mattress in my stateroom bunk is quite comfortable and the shower gets hot within seconds! I doubt it can get much better than this for a research experience at sea?
Game Plan and Trawling Line: Point Sal line with five 15 minute hauls.
I am familiar with the sorting protocol now. The catch is dropped from the net into the bucket by members of the deck crew and survey tech, with the oversight of Keith Sakuma, Chief Scientist and NOAA Operations Officer Keith Hanson. The bucket is immediately placed in the fish lab and this is when the fish sorting team starts our work.
SORTING AND COUNTINGMETHOD
We start by carefully picking through a 2000 mL or 5000 mL volume of the harvest, depending on Keith Sakuma’s initial assessment of the species density and volume in the bucket. The first volume of catch to be sorted is evenly dispersed onto four white sorting trays arrayed on the main lab bench. Once you have a pile of the catch on your tray, you start to separate them into piles of different types of organisms, such as Northern anchovies, ctenophores, krill, salps, pyrosomes, Californian smoothtongues, squid, rockfish, myctophids, and young of year (YOY) fish. I prefer to use my hands for sorting while others use forceps. Once sorted, we count the number of individuals for each species. If we have difficulty identifying an animal that we have not yet seen, we ask Keith Sakuma or a more experienced team member to help with identification. YOY fish, some in larval form, are particularly difficult for me.
Once sorted and counted, we verbally call out the common name and number of organisms to Keith Sakuma who manually records the data in a 3-ring binder for the lab hard-copy. For smaller organisms, such as krill or salps, or in hauls with a high number of any particular species, it would be quite tedious to pick out and count each individual in the total haul. This is why we start with a small subsample volume or 0.5, 2 or 5L, count the individuals in that small volume, establish the ratio for the number of individuals in that volume, and then extrapolate and calculate by the total volume of the haul. For example, if we counted 97 pyrosomes in the initial 5L sort, and we collected a total of 1000L, then we can say that there are 19,400 pyrosomes in the haul.
Once 20 individuals of each species have been called out, we no longer have to count that species since the ratio for this catch has already been established and to expedite sorting the rest of the volume. Following sorting, the length of the twenty representatives of each species is measured using electronic calipers and the values populate on an Excel spreadsheet. After measuring, specimens requested by various research institutes including Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Moss Landing, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are collected, labelled and frozen.
Creature(s) feature: Salps and Pyrosomes.
Salps What are these strange gelatinous organisms in our catch that look like little puddles of clear jelly with a red, green, yellow, and brown digestive organ in the center? They are goopy, small and slippery making them difficult to pick up by hand. They float on the sea surface and are ubiquitous in our hauls BUT NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT THEM.
These creatures are called salps and belong to the subphylum Tunicata. Tunicates have a notochord in their early stage of life which makes them members of the phylum Chordata, to which humans also belong. Having a transparent body is a way escape being preyed upon.
Salps are planktonic tunicates That can be found as individual salps or in long chains called blastozooids. The salps shown in the photo below were individuals and were notable in most of our hauls. Individual salps in this pile are dime to quarter sized and occupy a volume of ~10-15 ml. We measured the volume of salps in every haul.
While on the topic of salps, I will tell you about a cool 1 inch long salp parasite I found on my sorting tray (see image below). Keith Sakuma explained that it was a deep sea amphipod called Phronima which is a parasitoid that takes up residence inside of a salp’s body, eats the salp’s organs, and then lays its eggs inside of the salp. The King-of-the-salmon, Trachipterus altivelis, (which we are also catching) uses its protrusible jaw to get inside of the salp just to eat this amphipod!
Another type of salp we keep catching is Thetys vagina, a large solitary species of nektonic salp that feeds on plankton, such as diatoms, and is an important carbon sink in the ocean. Thetys has an external surface, or test, that is covered with bumps and ridges, as seen in the photo below.
PyrosomesPyrosoma atlanticum are another type of planktonic tunicate which are very numerous in most of our hauls. Pyrosomes look like bumpy pink hollow tubes with openings on both ends. They are rigid in structure and easy to pick up by hand, whereas salps are goopy and difficult to pick up by hand. We have collected some pyrosomes that are 13 inches long, while most are in the 4-6 inch range. The small pyrosomes look like clear Tic Tacs, but they do not taste as such.
How can pyrosomes be so ubiquitous just 20 miles or so off of the Central California Coast, but I have never seen one that has floated up on the beach or while swimming?
Pyrosoma atlanticum are also planktonic tunicates, but are colonial organisms made up of many zooids held together by a gelatinous structure called the tunic. One end of the tube is wide open and filters the water for zooplankton and phytoplankton, while the other end is tighter and resembles a diaphragm or sphincter. The pyrosomes we harvested appeared in diverse array of pinks and purples. Pyrosomes are believed to harbor intracellular bioluminescent bacteria. Pyrosomes are drifting organisms that swim by beating cilia lining the branchial basket to propel the animals through the water and create a current for filter feeding.