Kiersten Newtoff: I Got on a Boat! Just, Not my Boat, June 7, 2023

NOAA Teacher at Sea on Land

Kiersten Newtoff

Hanging Out In: Biloxi & Pascagoula, Mississippi

June 1 – June 7, 2023

Date: June 7, 2023

So, here was the plan:

  1. Fly in to Gulfport, MS on Thursday, June 1. Stay the night.
  2. Head to the Oregon II in Pascagoula, MS on Friday, June 2 and stay the night aboard.
  3. Sail out on Saturday, June 3 and be at sea for 2 weeks working on a groundfish survey.

And here’s what really happened:

  1. Fly in to Gulfport, MS on Thursday, June 1. Stay the night.
  2. Get an email on Friday that essential personnel were unable to sail and that we were in a “holding pattern” until the staffing shortage was resolved.
  3. Hang out in Biloxi, MS until Tuesday, June 6 waiting to hear if there is any good news (unfortunately not).
  4. Fly out of Mobile, AL on Tuesday night, with a layover in Atlanta. However, my first flight was delayed, which made me miss my connection, so I spent the night in Atlanta until flying back to the DC area on Wednesday, June 7.
Picture of a scenic overlook over the Gulf of Mexico. Two sailboats are in the distance.
Picture off the Gulf Coast, directly across the street from my hotel.

I have to say, the MVP in this was Emily Susko, the Program Support Specialist for NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program. She was pulling in her connections, rebooking flights, walking me through different options at ALL hours of the day. Emily was feeling bad for the whole situation and shared that she has never had a vessel delayed for this precise reason before. But I reassured her, I am the poster child for Murphy’s Law when it comes to traveling. For example, last summer I did a 3 week camping trip to the National Parks out west. Here’s a sampling of the things that want wrong:

  • Flight out there was cancelled, had to fly out the next day
  • About 4 days in, our campsite in Glacier (which was the ending of the trip) had been cancelled due to bad flooding. We weren’t able to rebook due to full campsites.
  • Spent 2 out of 5 nights in Yellowstone, as we got kicked out because the park was shut down due to insane flooding.
  • Got COVID and spent quarantine in a hotel.
  • Rearranged entire trip and went to Bryce Canyon, which had a thick layer of smoke because of nearby wildfires .
  • Went to Capital Reef NP, where I was stuck in a flash flood in a small overhang for over 4 hours.

So needless to say, a delay on when I will get to ship out is no problem. Plus, the Teacher at Sea Program really stressed being flexible , so while the situation wasn’t ideal, I know to expect the unexpected! While admittedly, I did spend a good chunk of time in the hotel as I needed the cooldown from the end of the semester, I did some exploring and learned a lot as well!

Photograph of an osprey nest as seen through the trees. One osprey sits on top of the nest and another osprey is below the nest on a pole. Both osprey are looking out over the landscape.
A male and female osprey guarding their nest.

My first couple days were spent in the Biloxi area, trying to soak in as much sun, wildlife, and food as possible. The hotel I was staying at was right across the street from the beach. When walking on the beach, I heard an incessant screeching and birds were dive bombing me! This is when I realized I was in a Least Tern colony. Terns are a shorebird that lay their eggs right on the sand. This colony had over 300 adults and was cordoned off by the Audubon Society to protect the nest (and probably, the passersby from the tern attacks). Also along the beach was an Osprey nest . Many conservation societies will purposefully create artificial platforms for Osprey to use, but these guys were nested atop the USS Biloxi memorial.

Picture of a small pond. There is dense vegetation that is mirrored in the water. The top of an alligator can be seen floating in the water.
Can you spot the alligator in this “alligator pond”?

I spent a morning in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is protected by the National Park Service. Here I contributed to citizen science by completing three eBird checklists. eBird is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is a way for anyone, anywhere around the world to submit a checklist of all the birds they saw and heard. Then, scientists globally can use the data to answer ecological questions. To give you the scale of eBird, in May 2023, over 2 million checklists were submitted worldwide! One of the ponds that went through the marsh land was named “Alligator Pond”, and after looking in, I understand why!

On my last day in the area, I headed to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Pascagoula, MS. Here I met Brandi Noble who is the Vessel/Environmental Compliance Coordinator for the Southeast fleet. While she stays on land, she has been with NOAA for over two decades and has done every type of cruise NOAA conducts! Brandi was also instrumental in juggling me around. She was also kind enough to give me a tour of the Gordon Gunter so that I at least got on some sort of boat and also a tour of the Science Center. The Science Center houses scientists in many different fields (ecologists, microbiologists, chemists) who analyze water and organismal samples when cruises return. They also have an engineering department who creates technologies to be used by fisherman in the US (and around the world) that helps conservation efforts. It’s said that the engineering team at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center is the reason why sea turtle populations have bounced back as much as they have — they are the ones who invented the turtle exclusion devices for fishing nets!

A photograph of a close-up of a trawl net that has a turtle exclusion device installed.
This is a medium-sized trawl net, mainly used for catching shrimp. On the left, where the white buoy is, is the TED — a turtle exclusion device. The metal bars allow smaller organisms to go through, but turtles (and other organisms like sharks) hit the bars and are pushed downwards out of the net through the green mesh at the bottom. The next section to the right, in green, has some pockets where fish can swim out (but shrimp likely wouldn’t). The blue mesh at the far right also helps to “push” undesirable fish out because they are afraid of it and will swim backwards (towards the pockets). Some fish, like menhaden, try to escape by swimming upwards. The orange mesh at the far right end allows them to do so. Meanwhile, all the shrimp are being pushed into a mesh bag at the far right end (not attached in this picture).

With my trip to the Science Center, I learned about the importance of the commanding officer (CO) role. While all roles on a vessel are important, the CO is essentially the captain. Now, captain is an official rank, so a CO may not actually be a captain, but to the layman, they are. In the NOAA corps, a CO is assigned to a ship for a two year post. They direct every cruise, which can be hundreds of days at sea each year. I attended the Change of Command Ceremony for the Gordon Gunter. During this ceremony, the current CO is recognized for their hard work during their tour and a new CO is welcomed aboard. COs have a pin on their uniform recognizing their command. It’s interesting as they pin the new CO first, then change the position of the pin on the old CO so that there is never a moment that the vessel lacks a commanding officer.

Well, this is goodbye for now! I hope I will be able to be placed in another cruise this summer, but if not, I’ll be back next year!

Kiersten stands in front of a large white NOAA boat. Though not shown in the photo directly, it is the Gordon Gunter.
I at least got to check out and board the Gordon Gunter!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: