Catherine Fuller: A Tropical Fish in an Alaskan Aquarium, June 30, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 30 June 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60.32 N
Longitude: 147.48 W
Wind Speed: 3.2 knots
Wind Direction: 24 degrees
Air Temperature: 72 °F
Sky: Hazy (smoke)


Science and Technology Log

We arrived in Seward mid-day on Thursday, June 27th to find it hazy from fires burning north of us; the normally picturesque mountain ranges framing the bay were nearly obscured, and the weather forecast predicts that the haze will be with us at sea for a while as well.  Most of the two days prior to departure were busy with loading, sorting, unpacking and setting up of equipment. 

Ready to load
All equipment and supplies are placed on pallets to load on board

There are multiple experiments and different types of studies that will be taking place during the course of this cruise, and each set of researchers has a specific area for their equipment.  I am on the particle flux team with Stephanie O’Daly (she specifically requested to have “the teacher” so that she’d have extra hands to help her), and have been helping her as much as I can to set up.  Steffi has been very patient and is good about explaining the equipment and their function as we go through everything.  Particle flux is about the types of particles found in the water and where they’re formed and where they’re going.  In addition, she’ll be looking at carbon matter: what form it takes and what its origin is, because that will tell her about the movement of specific types of plankton through the water column.  We spent a part of Friday setting up a very expensive camera (the UVP or Underwater Visual Profiler) that will take pictures of particles in the water down to 500 microns (1/2 a millimeter), will isolate the particles in the picture, sort the images and download them to her computer as well. 

Steffi’s friend Jess was very helpful and instructive about setting up certain pieces of equipment.  I found that my seamanship skills luckily were useful in splicing lines for Steffi’s tows as well as tying her equipment down to her work bench so that we won’t lose it as the ship moves. 

As everyone worked to prepare their stations, the ship moved to the refueling dock to make final preparations for departure, which was about 8:30 on Saturday morning. 

Day one at sea was a warm up for many teams.  Per the usual, the first station’s testing went slowly as participants learned the procedures.  We deployed the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) at the second station.  A CTD is a metal framework that carries various instruments and sampling bottles called Niskin bottles.  In the video, you can see them arranged around the structure. The one we sent on June 28 had 24 plastic bottles that were “fired” at specific depths to capture water samples.  These samples are shared by a number of teams to test for things like dissolved oxygen gas, and nutrients such as nitrate, nitrites, phosphate and silicate, and dissolved inorganic carbon.  

Video coming soon!
The CTD is lowered over the side of the ship long enough to fill sample bottles and then is brought back on board. (This still photo is a placeholder for the video.)

One of my tasks today was to help her collect samples from specific bottles by attaching a tube to the bottle, using water from the sample to cleanse it and them fill it.  Another team deployed a special CTD that was built completely of iron-free materials in order to run unbiased tests for iron in the water. 

By late Saturday night, we will be in Prince William Sound, and will most likely spend a day there, before continuing on to Copper River.  Usually LTER cruises are more focused on monitoring the state of the ecosystem, but in this case, the cruise will also focus on the processes of the Copper River plume, rates and interactions.  This particular plume brings iron and fresh water into the Northern Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, where it is dispersed by weather and current.  After spending some time studying the plume, the cruise will continue on to the Middleton Line to examine how both fresh water and iron are spread along the shelf and throughout the food web.  


Personal Log

As the science team gathered yesterday, it became evident that the team is predominantly female.  According to lead scientist Seth Danielson, this is a big change from roughly 20 years ago, and has become more of the norm in recent times.  We also have five undergraduates with us who have never been out on a cruise, which is unusual.  They are all very excited for the trip and to begin their own research by assisting team leaders.  I’ve met most of the team and am slowly getting all the names down. 

I have to admit that I’m feeling out of my element, much like a fish in a very different aquarium.  I’m used to going to sea, yes, but on a vessel from another time and place.  There is much that is familiar about gear, lines, weather, etc., but there are also great differences.  The ship’s crew is a separate group from the science crew, although most are friendly and helpful.  Obviously, this is a much larger and more high tech vessel with many more moving parts.  Being on the working deck requires a hard hat, protective boots, and flotation gear.  There are viewing decks that are less restricted. 

I am excited to be at sea again, but a little bit nervous about meeting expectations and being as helpful as I can without getting in the way.  It’s a little strange to be primarily indoors, however, as I’m used to being out in the open! I’m enjoying the moments where I can be on deck, although with the haze in the air, I’m missing all the scenery! 

Did you know?

Because space is limited onboard, many of the researchers are collecting samples for others who couldn’t be here as well as collecting for themselves and doing their own experiments.

Something to think about:

How do we get more boys interested in marine sciences?

Questions of the day (from the Main Lab):

Do whales smell the smoke outside?

Answer: Toothed whales do not have a sense of smell, and baleen whales have a poor sense of smell at best.

Do scorpions get seasick?

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