Gail Tang (she/her)
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
June 28, 2023 – July 27, 2023
Mission: Hawaiian Islands Cetacean and Ecosystem Assessment Survey (HICEAS)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Hawaiian archipelago
Date: June 23, 2023
Introduction and Background
Hi Everyone! My name is Gail Tang and I am an Associate Professor of Mathematics at University of La Verne located in Southern California, about 35 miles east of East Los Angeles. I have been the Math program chair for 5 years. I teach mainly upper-level math classes for majors, but also really enjoy teaching the lower-level courses since it is in these classes where I can identify future math majors/minors. Shout out to those who added a math major/minor after one of these classes. You know who you are!
As I’ve been telling people about my summer plans, several questions have come up which I will answer below.
Where am I going?
In a few days, I am flying to Honolulu, Hawaii to start orientation for my Teacher at Sea (TAS) experience. TAS is a program of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for any educators at any level teaching any subject! This could be YOU! Check out more here: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/teacher-at-sea-program
What are the goals of Teacher at Sea with NOAA?
The TAS program has two main goals (TAS Online Training Documents, 2023):
- To increase environmental literacy, outreach, and educational initiatives
- To recruit and retain a highly adaptable technically competent and diverse workforce
Thus, during my time out at sea, I will be learning about NOAA research as related to ocean literacy principles, as well as education and training paths for NOAA-related careers. When I return home, I will work to create some math lessons using research methods, data collection, and data analysis learned aboard the ship. I will also create a lesson to highlight NOAA-related careers. I’m particularly excited about passing on career information to my students!
What kind of research do TAS participate in?
There are three types of cruises that TAS can get placed onto (TAS Online Training Documents, 2023):
- Fisheries – conduct biological surveys and physical science studies “to protect, restore and manage use of living marine, coastal, and ocean resources through ecosystem-based management.”
- Oceanographic – to increase the understanding of the world’s oceans and climate by measuring “ocean currents, ocean temperatures, atmospheric variables, surface salinity, carbon dioxide content, and sea-level atmospheric conditions.”
- Hydrographic – chart the ocean floor using “multibeam sonar to collect depth measurements of the seafloor.”
Which type of cruise will I be joining?
I will partake in a fisheries cruise aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette for a marine mammal survey near the Hawaiian Archipelago. The ship was originally built for the U.S. Navy and was formerly known as U.S. Naval Ship Adventurous. It is 224 ft, can go up to a speed of 10 knots, and has a range of 17487 nautical miles. Visit the ship’s website for more information: https://www.omao.noaa.gov/mo/ships/oscar-elton-sette
What type of research is involved in HICEAS?
HICEAS (pronounced High Seas) “will survey the Hawaiian archipelago with a focus on studying whales, dolphins, seabirds, and their ecosystem (i.e., oceanography sampling).” (Email correspondence with Emily Susko, March 1, 2023). The last time the survey was conducted was in 2017 and the 2023 survey will be the fourth HICEAS survey.
Through reading the blog posts about the 2017 survey, I learned that there are two teams: the visual team and the acoustic team. The visual team is trained to use 25-powered binoculars (nicknamed “big eyes”) to spot marine mammals. I am hoping I’ll learn to spot the difference between a white cap and a splash from a dolphin! The acoustic team will also keep track of the cetaceans (order of marine mammals, whale, dolphin, porpoise) under the surface using hydrophones and sonobouys.
Each surveyor privately records their estimates of the number of cetaceans they observed as not to influence others. Later all the estimates are calibrated. This reminds me of the mathematical concept called the “wisdom of crowds”. Basically, it says that a crowd’s prediction (or in this case estimate) is more accurate that the predictions (estimates) of any one individual’s. Truly an example of a group-worthy task, as we say in mathematics education! Watch this ~4-minute video of Dr. Talithia Williams, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd, demonstrating the wisdom of crowds: https://ca.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/nvpn-sci-crowds/understanding-a-crowds-predictive-ability-prediction-by-the-numbers/
How did I find out about TAS?
Dr. Emily Cilli-Turner, Assistant Professor of Mathematics at University of San Diego, is a TAS alumna. In 2018, Dr. Cilli-Turner participated on a Pollock Acoustic-Trawl Survey aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson for three weeks off the coast of Alaska. She told me about her experience and helped me apply. I actually applied twice, having been rejected the first time. Moral of the story: be persistent and use your failures as learning opportunities! To read about Dr. Cilli-Turner’s time at sea, visit her blog: https://noaateacheratsea.blog/category/2018/emily-cilli-turner/
How long will I be on board NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette and what will it be like?
Each HICEAS survey has been about 180 days across two ships. The 2023 survey has 5 legs aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette (I am on the first leg for 4 weeks!) and 2 legs on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker. TAS Staci DeSchryver joined the 2017 survey aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette and filled me in on some of the day-to-day life experiences. Staci shared some of the incredible learning experience and didn’t want to tell me everything in order to keep some things a surprise. Some interesting things I learned through Staci as well as the blogs/materials:
- Unless we are going onto one of the Fast Rescue Boats aboard the ship, we do not disembark from the ship for the entire 4 weeks.
- I will eat the best fish I’ve ever eaten.
- Fresh fruit and veggies run out at about week 3.
- There was one room on the ship that many of the staff would get seasick.
- There’s a movie room and a gym. There have been stationary bikes on deck in the past.
- I will be sharing a “stateroom” or “bunkroom” with others.
- I will be among 14 scientists (Marine Mammal Observers, Birders, Acousticians, Oceanographers) and about 22 crewmembers.
I first applied to the TAS in 2018 and then applied again in 2019. I was accepted as a TAS for the 2020 field season and was anticipating sailing Summer 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the sail to 2021, and then to 2022. Now in 2023 (about 4.5 years later!), I am scheduled for the HICEAS survey. To say I’m excited is an understatement. However, there are a number of reasons a cruise does not set sail so I am holding onto the excitement until I am on the ship! One characteristic the program really stresses is flexibility because there are so many factors that impact these research expeditions.
I am most looking forward to the learning opportunities aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Though scary, uncertainty is thrilling, especially when it’s paired with prospects to view the world from a new and unimaginable perspective. As Michelle Obama says in her audiobook The Light We Carry:
“Go forth with a spoonful of fear, and return with a wagonful of competence.” (2:16:59)
Did You Know?
False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) are a priority of the HICEAS survey. Despite their name, they are actually a member of the dolphin family (the delphinids). Their name comes from the similarity of skull shape to the killer whale rather than visual appearance. This population has been on the endangered species list since 2012. Their biggest threat are interactions with fisheries; fishermen see them as competitors and the species are prone to net entanglement. (International Whaling Commission, Marine Mammal Commission)