Cara Nelson: The Ocean Moved Me, September 26, 2019


NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 26, 2019

Weather Data from Anchorage, AK:

Time: 14:18
Latitude: 61º13.257′ N
Longitude: 149º51.473’ W
Wind: North 1 knot
Air Temperature: 5.6ºC (42ºF)
Air Pressure: 1026 millibars
Sunny

Personal Log

As I drove home from Seward yesterday I was overwhelmed by the snow-capped mountains and vibrant fall colors that were such a stunning contrast to the ocean views of the past two weeks.  One no less beautiful than the other.  I had almost three hours to reflect on my experience out at sea and I can say that the ocean had a powerful impact on me. 

mountains
Termination dust settles over the mountains on the drive home from Seward.

Before I summarize my reflections from this trip, I want to rewind to where I left off on my last blog and give an update of the last leg of our journey.  On Monday afternoon, the forecast had not improved enough for travel and the decision was made to spend another night in Kodiak harbor.  This was a difficult call but it seemed like the weather was just getting the better of us.  Many were getting restless with the extended stay in Kodiak, the lack of ability to collect the necessary data for research projects and the overall feeling of being trapped (we were docked a about a mile from town with not much is open on Sundays and Mondays in Kodiak in late September).  On Tuesday morning, the seas were still forecast to be quite high, but Russ made the call to attempt to head out to sample the end of the Kodiak line with the day crew.  It was a difficult call, as it would put us far out to sea if the conditions were bad, but he also risked missing a key opportunity to get much needed data considering the gaps we had from the rest of the trip. 

We immediately began to encounter large swells leftover from the previous gale.  The ten footers rocked the boat side to side as we sat in the mess during the transit.  By the time we reached the first station, all of us were a bit pensive.  The winds were beginning to pick up and we were encountering larger swells as we hit the more open waters of the gulf.  After a tenuous CTD tow and CalVet, Captain John shut down the sampling due to a growing safety risk and Dan pointed the ship to Seward to begin our 20-hour final journey home. 

By sunset the winds had picked up even further to about 30 knots and the seas were getting to 14 feet.  It became difficult to move around the ship, but I made my way very carefully to the bridge.  Holding on tight with one hand, I was able to video the ship as she moved through the waves.  Remember this is 120-foot vessel. Shortly after this the waves made it all the way over the top of the bridge!

R/V Tiglax in High Seas

By 11pm, no one was able to do anything but try and sit still and hold on.  The winds had picked up to 40 knots and the sea state to 16 foot swells across our port side.  One particular wave really did a number and the galley and mess took quite the hit.  The food processor, mixer and dishes went flying, amongst other things, and the ship had to come to a stop for cleanup.  I had a hard time not rolling out of bed was unable to sleep until we were closer to sheltered waters at around 3am.  When I awoke the next day, Russ shared that in all his years as an oceanographic researcher he has never had a cruise that encountered such bad weather and rough seas.  I am actually glad I got to experience it, as I feel like this is the true colors of the Northern Gulf of Alaska in late September. 

Today as I sit back on my couch in Anchorage writing my final blog, I sway back and forth as the ocean swells still exert their power over my inner ear. Below are some my reflections from my experience:

  • Science is hard on the oceans! The LTER program has a team of scientists attempting to collect important data over a 6-week window from the spring to fall.  The problem is that despite the best logistical planning and preparation, mother nature still controls the show.  There isn’t a second chance or a next week for data collection for these researchers so they must constantly reevaluate their trip and work closely with the crew to come up with the best plan on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  For some on the cruise, this data is needed to complete a master’s degree thesis this year, for others it is used to publish research based on grant funding requirements.  The money cannot be reimbursed due to weather delays or broken equipment.  Science in the field is hard and I have the utmost respect for the scientists aboard who did not waver in the face of the stressful cruise conditions and who maintain integrity and quality in their data collection throughout. 
cruise plan
Our cruise plan hanging in the lab. The only line we were able to complete on this trip was the Middleton line on the far right.
  • A good team is important.  Night work is hard work physically and mentally, so I was fortunate to work on the team that I did aboard R/V Tiglax.  Jenn was an amazing leader and friend to me during the cruise.  I felt comfortable with her from the minute we met and we shared many laughs together.  She was able to lead and educate our team, while making it comfortable and fun at the same time.  Heidi was the sweetest and kindest person around.  Her love of her work was infectious and I found myself very excited to see and help sample the jellyfish that were collected in each Methot. I have no doubt that she will continue to do great work in this field while bringing joy to those around her.  Emily is a superstar prospective graduate student at UAF.  Her energy and positivity were a welcome addition to our long nights on sampling.  Whatever needed done, Emily was ready and willing to jump in.  Overall, we settled in quickly as an efficient and productive team.  One that I was proud to be part of and one that I will never forget.
night shift group photo
Myself, Heidi, Emily and Jenn.
  • Life at sea is challenging and rewarding. The crew of R/V Tiglax spends months away from home working to serve the scientific research community.  Their jobs are hard, with only a few days off each season.  Their shifts are long, with 12 hour shifts each day, seven days a week.  Yet at the same time, each crew member clearly loves being out on the ocean and working in this field.  They welcomed us as I am sure they welcome each new team of researchers and made us feel at home aboard their ship.  They kept us safe, made us laugh, fed us well and worked their hardest to assure we collected the data that we could.  I am not sure I could do their job, but at the same time I am in envy of what they get to experience and see each season out on the ocean.  A special thank you to John, Dan, Dave, Jen, Andy and Margo for an experience of a lifetime aboard R/V Tiglax!
Dan and Jen
First mate Dan and deck hand Jen, they kept us smiling all night every night.
  • The oceans are warm.  As we worked far off on the Seward and Middleton lines, just past the continental shelf, we noticed something strange, the seawater coming out of our hose was oddly warm on our hands.  Whispers of a return of “The Blob” are circulating in the news as we return to port and we worry we were experiencing it firsthand.  “The Blob” was an unusual ocean warming event that occurred in the North Pacific and NGA in 2014-2016.  It created a nutrient poor environment that had ripple effects through the ecosystem, and is blamed for massive bird deaths, declines in salmon fisheries and shifts in marine mammal behaviors.  It will take time for the CTD data from this cruise to be analyzed to draw conclusions, but this type of event is exactly why the LTER study is so important.  We need to know as much as we can about this ecosystem so we can better understand its response and resiliency to major stressors such as a warming ocean.
sea surface temperature
Sea surface temperatures in 2014 compared to 2019 in the North Pacific and Northern Gulf of Alaska. The red color indicates the temperature shift above normal. Photo credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch.
  • Ecosystems are infinitely complex. I had no idea the depth and breadth and interconnectivity of the oceanographic research I would experience during my time out at sea.  The LTER program is an amazing study that truly attempts to piece together a whole-systems view of the NGA by examining detailed aspects of the chemical, physical and biological ocean environment.  Aboard our ship alone we had trace metals investigations, phytoplankton productivity and abundance studies, temperature and salinity modeling and analysis, seabird and marine mammal observations, zooplankton morphological and molecular analysis, and jellyfish abundance and biomass evaluation. Individually this data is valuable for baseline information, but the true importance lies in understanding the interplay between all of these aspects in the ecosystem.  I feel we are just beginning to scrape the surface in terms of our understanding of our ocean environment, let alone how we are impacting it.  I feel it is imperative that this research continues and that I as a teacher help educate about its importance.
Crab larvae and krill
Crab larvae and krill peer back at me from one of our samples of the thriving ecosystem just below the surface.

Prior to my departure, my biggest hope for my trip was that I was able to see a sperm whale.  I return satisfied, not because I saw a sperm whale, but rather because I saw so much more. I am enthralled by the vastness of the of ocean and the fortitude of life that survives upon and within.  I am in awe of how little we see and experience by sailing across its surface or even dropping in an occasional net. I hope in my lifetime I am able to witness more of the ocean’s incredible secrets revealed, without being at the expense of the sea and its inhabitants. 

I am anxious to return to my students to tomorrow as I have missed them. I am eager to answer their questions and share my pictures.  Additionally, I am so excited to share my story with other teachers across my district and state to encourage them to apply to this amazing program.  It was a true honor to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea, and it truly was a birthday gift to remember. 

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