Martin McClure: Navigating the Seas, August 7, 2023

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Martin McClure

NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 25– August 9, 2023

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Bottom Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 7, 2023

Latitude: 30°33.167’N

Longitude: 81°04.685’W

Air Temperature: 31° Celsius

Wind Speed: 12.01 knots

Rachel, wearing a navy blue NOAA Corps uniform, stands for a portrait photo next to a plaque on an exterior wall of the ship that reads: R.V. Oregon II, designed by R. H. Macy for U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, built by The Ingalls Shipbuilding (Company), a Division of Litton Industries, Pascagoula, Mississippi, 1967
Executive Officer Lieutenant Commander Rachel Pryor

Navigating NOAA Ship Oregon II is at once one of the most important and complex tasks on board. It is in motion 24 hours a day and must have skilled individuals to keep the crew safe and accomplish the mission of the survey. I spoke with Commander Adam Reed, Acting Commanding Officer, and Lieutenant Commander Rachel Pryor, Executive Officer, about this task.

Oregon II operates on two engines with one propeller (prop). It has a controllable pitch prop. This means that the pitch of the blades can be changed in order to change speed or even reverse the direction of the ship. The rudder turns the ship to port or starboard. There are also bow thrusters that turn the bow one way or the other.

There are a variety of devices that the navigator uses to know where the ship is, and to stay on course. They have two different GPS devices, in case one goes out. Additionally, they have a magnetic compass as well as a gyrocompass.

A storm and cruise ship off near Jacksonville, FL.

There are two radar units to see where other ships are and to get detailed weather information. One unit is more precise than the other but may pick up rain storms which may interfere with spotting ships. The other unit will still work in that situation.

When navigating, it is important to not just maintain the correct heading but also monitor course over ground. Even though the ship is heading in the right direction it can be pulled off course by the water currents and winds. This is very important to keep in mind not only across long distances but also when approaching the high flyer to pick up the longline. They must approach at a 90° angle and then turn to follow the longline. This is a fairly precise maneuver that is affected by both wind and current. 

view of the bridge, empty of personnel. It is lined with windows facing three sides. We see control panels and map tables, the helm, electric boxes on the interior wall.
The bridge. This is where NOAA Corps officers navigate Oregon II.

One important factor affecting the operation of the ship is the weather. Careful consideration of any weather conditions must be factored into any decisions made. No one is allowed on the deck if there are winds of 25 knots or more, waves of 4-5 feet, or lightning within 25 miles. Weather information is always monitored through five different sources. Decisions must be made while consulting and comparing different sources of data.

Executive Officer Rachel Pryor explained that there are two types of weather patterns to keep in mind when considering operations. The first are small squalls, which can be fast moving and may have lightning. These squalls may keep moving in the same direction and you can calculate when they will arrive. But they can sometimes dissipate, change course, or stay where they are. There are also larger weather systems to consider. These tend to be slower moving but can have seas “kicking up,” increased wind speeds, and lightning. These may require seeking some sort of shelter or even docking at a port. 

photo of a screen displaying radar data from the website We are looking at map centered approximately on Brunswick, Georgia, extending south to the northern counties of Florida, north to Charleston, and west to about the border of Alabama and Georgia. The radar shows a storm system concentrated on the Georgia-Florida border with other storm patches in central Georgia.
Radar showing an approaching storm system.

Weather has impacted the survey several times during this cruise. One of the most memorable was when I was working my shift and we were told to expect a long delay due to the weather. After about 30-45 minutes we were told to go ahead and bait the hooks and lay the longline. It takes about 2 ½ hours to run a station from putting the first hook in, to pulling the last one out of the water. The weather was beautiful and the seas were relatively calm during the station. Within a few minutes of finishing, the winds began to kick up as a system approached. In my estimation, these were pretty amazing calculations by Lieutenant Commander Pryor who was Officer of the Deck (OOD) for the haul.

The other incident to include here was a larger storm system that we were told on a Tuesday would arrive on Friday. Sure enough, it did. We headed in for cover near Cape Fear, NC. In this case, all fishing stopped and we sailed in an oval pattern keeping the waves to the bow or stern as much as possible. This led to a work stoppage of about 36 hours. In both cases careful calculations were made to keep the crew safe and maximize mission success. 

Meet the Crew: Taniya Wallace, Fish Biologist

Taniya and another crew member stand on deck, each wearing life vests, work gloves, and rubber boots. The other crewmember grips a small (2-3 foot long) shark firmly with two hands, holding it at an angle toward Taniya. Taniya grasps the shark's head with her left hand and reaches with her right to remove a hook. Both Taniya and the unnamed crewmember look down at the shark, focused on their work.
Fish biologist Taniya Wallace unhooks a small shark

Taniya Wallace is a fish biologist contractor on the science team here on Oregon II. Taniya hails from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where she grew up and still lives. Her mother is a teacher and her father works in naval ship design. Taniya credits her 6th grade teacher with first inspiring her interest in science. She says, “Science challenged my mind and made me wonder how things worked.”

After graduating high school, she got a summer internship at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory where she developed an interest in marine biology.  Taniya attended Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi. She played softball for her university and they won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship three years in a row! At Mississippi Valley State, she earned a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. 

Taniya sits at a desk, facing a computer with two monitors. The screen is too bright to make out. She holds a microphone from an intercom system up to her mouth with her left hand, perhaps ready to read out data or provide direction.
Taniya works on a computer

After college she was hired as a contractor during the Deepwater Horizon disaster working on small boats trawling for fish and crustaceans to gather samples for NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection program.  This was a three month contract.

Next, she was contracted to work with NOAA for the Plankton Unit for the next four years. On the surveys, she worked with the team to collect plankton (microscopic organisms) in three different sized nets. Then, back in the lab, she sorted and identified decapods (crabs, lobster, shrimp) and red snapper. 

In 2014, she moved to the trawl survey. In this survey, they pulled a large net behind the boat and caught a variety of marine animals. They sort, identify and record measurements on what they find on the boat. Back at the lab, they would identify unknown species. This included different kinds of fish as well as invertebrates. She explained to me that the science team uses only scientific names so, often, she may not know the common name of species she is cataloging.

Here on the shark and red snapper survey her computer and data entry skills are evident. She catalogs otoliths (ear bones) and other parts quickly and easily. I am not sure if patience, kindness and equanimity are requirements of her job but she, like the other members of the science crew, excels in these qualities. And, her shark handling skills are really impressive. 

Personal Log: A very exciting haul!

Every day continues to be full of new experiences and animals. Yesterday, there was a haul which on paper would look pretty boring but it proved to be anything but. First, we brought up a royal sea star ( Astropecten articulatus), a beautiful hand sized star with cream colored feet, with orange edges filled by a deep purple band. I half expected Trey, our lead on the science team, to claim it for Clemson. (Go tigers! Or, is that LSU? Yes, there is a school rivalry playing out among the science team.)

close-up view of a sea star held on the open palm of a gloved hand. the sea star is purple and orange with cream-colored 'feet' that looks like frills.
Royal sea star

Hook number 33 had a feisty seven foot nurse shark. The next shark, a nearly seven foot sandbar shark, was on hook number 43.

Hook number 49 had a baby tiger shark that was being pursued by a great hammerhead. The hammerhead was closing in on its prey when the gangion tightened and the tiger shark was hauled out of the water. I cannot say what was in the hammerhead’s brain, but it was certainly animated. For the next few minutes, it searched in vain for the tiger shark, circling and making several passes on the starboard side of the ship and showing its dorsal fin.

view over the rail of NOAA Ship Oregon II of a hammerhead shark swimming at the surface of the water in the direction of the ship
Hammerhead, thwarted in pursuit

Confusion? Anger? We can only speculate but I can imagine how strange the situation was from the hammerhead’s point of view. “Just another second and then, yum. Wait… where did it go?” I know this is purely unscientific and I am anthropomorphising (giving human characteristics to animals) but it really was a sight to witness. 

Now where did that darn fish go? I know its here somewhere.

Later on that same haul, we hooked into a large tiger shark. It is not unusual to see a shark sucker or cobia, maybe two, hanging out around the shark as we bring it in. We have even caught a shark sucker on a hook. But this tiger had at least 10 cobia following it in.

A group of cobia following a tiger shark.
Photo credit: NOAA Corps Lieutenant Junior Grade Cassidy Ring
She was big and had no intention of getting tagged.

She broke the line, and we were not able to measure and tag her. In this haul, only one fish was landed, but each of those events excited all involved and will be remembered and shared long into the future. 

Martin rides a stationary bike in the workout room, facing the camera and smilng for a photo. He is wearing a Nokomis Staff t-shirt that reads "We run with the wolves" and a Teacher at Sea hat. A rack full of weights is visible on the floor to his right.
Enjoying some time off shift.

Animals seen: Shark sucker, royal sea star, brittle star, sea fan, nurse shark, cobia, royal tern

Did you know? Sometimes hammerhead sharks swim on their sides.

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