Catherine Fuller: Into the Copper River Plume, July 7, 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: July 7, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 59° 40.065 N
Longitude: 146° 04.523 W
Wave Height: 2-3 ft
Wind Speed: 10.4 knots
Wind Direction: 254 degrees
Visibility:  100 m
Air Temperature: 12.0 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1015.4 mb
Sky: Overcast, foggy


Science and Technology Log

Usually LTER cruises are more focused on monitoring the ecosystem, but in our case, the cruise will also focus on a process study of the Copper River plume.

Copper River plume
This is a satellite photo of the plume with an overlay of the salinity of the water along our course. The darker colors represent the lowest salinity.

This seasonal plume brings iron and fresh water into the marine ecosystem, where they are dispersed by weather and currents. Because our winds have been very light, the plume is retaining its coiled shape remarkably well.  Our sampling on the Middleton Line (prior to the plume study) will add information about how both the Copper River fresh water and iron are spread along the shelf and throughout the food web.  

Clay Mazur
Clay checking the fluorescence of a sample.

Clay Mazur has a particular interest in the iron-rich waters of the plume.  He is a graduate student from Western Washington University who is working under Dr. Suzanne Strom (also onboard). He is one of a few on board who are working on their own experiments as opposed to assisting others.  The overall goal of his work is to study how iron in phytoplankton is limited and how the sporadic addition of it can stimulate growth.  He has a gigantic on-deck incubation experiment in which he will take an iron-limited plankton community from offshore in the Gulf and introduce iron-rich water from the Copper River plume to see what happens.  Clay will measure chlorophyll – an indication of biomass – by which he can estimate the plankton population.  He will also be checking the physiology of plankton in different size classes, and taking samples to see the pigments that every cell produces and if they change over time with the addition of water from the Copper River plume. His hypothesis is that everything should change: phytoplankton species composition, cell size, photosynthetic ‘health’, and chlorophyll production. When phytoplankton are iron-limited, they cannot produce healthy photosynthetic structures. 

Clay measured the same indicators on every station of the MID (Middleton Island) line and will also measure the same on GAK line.  These samples will use the metrics described above to show environmental heterogeneity along the cross-shelf sampling lines. Samples from the MID and GAK line will also allow his iron experiment to be seen in context.  Does the iron-rich community that develops during the experiment match anything that we see on the shelf? How realistic is experiment within the Gulf of Alaska? Clay would also expect a diatom bloom with the introduction of iron into his sample population, but he says there are not a lot of cells greater than 20 microns out here and 5 days may not be enough for diatoms to grow up from this small seed population.

The Acrobat

One specialized instrument being deployed to gather information about the Copper River plume is the Acrobat.  Where the CTD is critical to give a site-specific profile of various indicators in the water column, the Acrobat can provide much of the same information along the path of the research ship, such as through the plume or across the shelf from deep regions to shallow.

CTD Screen
This is an example of the readout that comes from the CTD when it is deployed.

Lead scientist Dr. Seth Danielson from UAF, and Pete Shipton, a mooring technician from UAF’s Seward Marine Center are using the Acrobat to record a number of parameters as it moves through the water column.  The Acrobat is lowered off the stern of the ship and towed behind us.

Acrobat on deck
Bern, the Marine Tech, and Paul, the Bosun, with the Acrobat on deck prior to launch

As it is towed, it dives and climbs in a repeated vertical zigzag pattern to sample the water column vertically along the length of our course, creating a “cross-section” of the ocean along our line.  The Acrobat measures water temperature, salinity, density, chlorophyll, particle concentrations and CDOM (colored dissolved organic matter). The CDOM indicator allows the Acrobat to distinguish between different water colorations.

The path of the Acrobat can be constrained by distance from the surface or seafloor, in which case it receives depth sounder readings from the ship itself to inform its “flight” behavior.  It can also be set to run a path of a set distance vertically, for example, within a 20m variation in depth.  When set to a maximum depth of 40 m, it can be towed at 7-8 kts, but someone must always be monitoring the “flight” of the Acrobat in relation to ship speed to ensure the best possible results. The operator provides a watchful eye for shallow regions and keeps an eye on the incoming data feed.  The Acrobat also has two sets of wings.  The larger set will allow the Acrobat to reach a maximum depth of 100m or carry a larger sensor payload.  The profile being created as we tow through strands of the plume indicates that there is a pronounced layer of fresh water at the surface.  A concentration of phytoplankton, indicated by high chlorophyll a fluorescence levels, lies just beneath the fresh water layer and as we exit the plume, we observe a subtle shift towards the surface.  The fresh water also contains a good deal of sediment from the river that settles to the bottom as the plume spreads out. As we cross through the plume, we see the sediment levels at the surface drop, while the temperature, salinity and density remain fairly constant, showing a continued flow of fresh water at the surface. 

The readout from the Acrobat appears as a series of bar graphs that record in real time and provide a clear picture of what’s happening in the water column as we move.

Acrobat screen
This is what the Acrobat readout looked like as we went through a portion of the plume.

Once the data from the Acrobat is gathered, Dr. Danielson is able to create three-dimensional representations of the water column along our path according to the individual indicators. One that is particularly interesting and important for the Gulf of Alaska is salinity, which exerts strong control on water column stratification and therefore the supply of nutrients into the ecosystem.

Acrobat salinity graph
Here is a 3-D representation of the salinity along our plume route.

The low-salinity waters of the Gulf of Alaska are influenced by the fresh water precipitation, snow melt and glacier melt in the coastal Alaska watershed, including the big rivers like the Copper River and the thousands of un-gauged small streams.  Some of the fresh water runoff eventually flows into the Bering Sea, the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean, playing its role in the global hydrological cycle and the conveyor belt that circulates water through the world’s oceans.  Oceanographic monitoring has shown that the Gulf of Alaska water column is warming throughout and getting fresher at the surface, a consequence in part of glaciers melting along the rim of the Gulf of Alaska.


Personal Log

Finding my way around onboard was initially somewhat confusing.  I would exit the main lab and turn the wrong way to locate the stairway back up to my room, and it took a few days to figure it out.  Here’s an idea of the path I take in the mornings to get from my room to the lab:

Here’s what our stateroom looks like…yes, it’s kind of messy!

One rule when you open a door, because the hallways are narrow and the doors are heavy, is to open slowly and check for people.

The stairs are steep with narrow treads and necessitate careful and constant use of the handrails.

From the main hall, I usually go into the wet lab.

From the wet lab I can either go into the main lab…

Main lab
Main lab

… or into the Baltic Room.

Baltic Room
Baltic Room

There are six levels to the ship.  At the bottom are supply rooms, equipment, the engine room, workrooms and the gym.  On the main floor are the labs, workrooms, laundry areas and computer center.  On the first floor are science team quarters, a control room for the main deck winches, the mess hall and a lounge.  On the second floor are crew quarters.  The third floor has officer quarters, and the fourth level is the bridge.  There are also observation decks at the stern and bow on the third level.

I have a bit of a reprieve during the plume study, since Steffi’s project does not focus on these waters.  It’s been a great opportunity to shadow other teams and learn about what they’re doing, as well as to explore more of the ship. Now that the first phase of the plume study is over, we are extending it farther out in the gulf to be able to examine a fresh water eddy that is showing up on satellite imagery.  After that, we will have about a 12-hour transit to the next line of stations, called the GAK (Seward) line, where Steffi (and I) will resume her testing. 


Did You Know?

It’s still foggy and the sea state is very calm compared to what everyone expected.  It’s great for the experiments, but doesn’t help with wildlife sightings.  We’re under the influence of a high pressure system currently, which is expected to keep things quiet at least through Wednesday.  At some point next week, we may have a low-pressure system pass through, which would increase wind speed and wave height. 


What Do You Want Kids to Learn from Your Research?

**Note: I’m asking the various scientists on board the same question.  Clay took five days to formulate this and it really captures the essence of his passion for his research and the effects of climate change.  It’s worth the read!

Clay: Recently, I was asked by Cat, our Teacher at Sea for this cruise, what I want members of the general public to take away from my work studying iron limitation of phytoplankton. Though I can provide her a superficial answer to my research question immediately, the motivations for my work go much deeper than answering “How does a micronutrient affect phytoplankton growth?”

There are two main levels at which I want to answer Cat’s question:

1. Proximal: Though phytoplankton are microscopic, they have macroscopic impacts.

2. Philosophical: Why bother in the quest for such knowledge?

Level 1: The Macroscopic Impacts of a Microscopic Organism 

Both human societies and phytoplankton communities are impacted by global climate change. Globally, humans are realizing the need to combat carbon emissions and mediate the effects of increasing global temperatures. Consequences of global climate change for us include mass emigration as sea levels rise and increased frequency of extreme weather events (e.g. droughts, wildfires). As a result, humans are racing to bridge political divides between countries, develop sustainable energy, and manage natural disaster response.

Phytoplankton, too, must respond to global climate change. As sea surface temperatures rise, phytoplankton will have to adapt. CO2 that is dissolved in seawater removes the precious materials some diatoms use to make their “shells” and takes away their protection. Dissolved CO2 can also alter the ability of micrograzers to swim and find food!

Melting glaciers are a double-edged sword. Glacial flour in freshwater runoff brings in vital nutrients (including iron) through the Copper River Plume and phytoplankton love their iron! But freshwater also works to trap phytoplankton in the surface layers. When all the nutrients are used up and you’re a phytoplankton baking in the heat of the sun, being trapped at the surface is super stressful!

As global climate change accelerates in the polar regions, phytoplankton in the Northern Gulf of Alaska are in an evolutionary race against time to develop traits that make them resilient to their ever-changing environment. Phytoplankton crossing the finish line of this race is imperative for us humans, since phytoplankton help to mediate climate change by soaking up atmospheric CO2 during photosynthesis to produce ~ 50 % of the oxygen we breathe!

Phytoplankton also form the base of a complex oceanic food web. The fresh salmon in the fish markets of Pike’s Place (Seattle, WA), the gigantic gulp of a humpback whale in Prince William Sound (AK) and even entire colonies of kittiwakes on Middleton Island (AK) are dependent on large numbers of phytoplankton. When phytoplankton are iron limited, they cannot grow or multiply (via mitosis). In a process called bottom up regulation, the absence of phytoplankton reduces the growth of animals who eat phytoplankton, the animals who eat those animals, and so on up the entire food chain.

Let us consider “The Blob”, an area of elevated sea surface temperature in 2015 to illustrate this point. “The Blob” limited phytoplankton growth and that of herbivorous fishes. As a result, the population of kittiwakes on Middleton Island crashed as the birds could not find enough fish to provide them the nutrients and energy to reproduce successfully. In this way, the kittiwake deaths were directly attributed to a lack of phytoplankton production.

Not only are phytoplankton ecologically important, they are commercially important. For consumers who love to fish (and for the huge commercial fisheries in the Northern Gulf of Alaska), the base of the food web should be of particular interest, as it is the harbinger of change. Fisheries managers currently use models of phytoplankton growth to monitor fish stocks and establish fisheries quotas. If sporadic input of iron from dust storms, glacial runoff, or upwelling stimulate phytoplankton to grow, fish stocks may also increase with the newfound food source. Because phytoplankton are inextricably linked to fish, whales, and seabirds, in years where nutrients are plentiful, you may well see more fish on kitchen tables across the U.S. and Native Alaskans may be able to harvest more seabird eggs.  

Level 2: The Nature of Science

As a supporter of place-based and experiential learning, I view myself as a student with a duel scientist-educator role. To succeed in these roles, I have to be able to combine reasoning with communication and explore questions like “How does science relate to society?” and “How do we foster scientific literacy?” What better way to think about these questions than embarking on a three-week cruise to the Pacific Subarctic?! Not only am I working with amazing Principal Investigators in an immersive research experience, I am able to collect data and think of creative ways to communicate my findings. These data can be used to build educational curricula (e.g. Project Eddy modules, R shiny apps, etc.) in an effort to merge the classroom with the Baltic room (where the CTD is deployed). But what’s the point of collecting data and sharing it?

Science is “a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations” (Bill Nye) and is “the best tool ever devised for understanding how our world works” (Richard Dawkins). The goal of communicating my results in a way that touches the lives of students is two-fold. One aim is to allow them to appreciate the philosophy of science – that it is iterative, self-correcting, and built upon measurable phenomena. It is the best way that we “know” something.

The other aim is to allow students to engage in scientific discourse and build quantitative reasoning skills. As the renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has said, “When you’re scientifically literate the world looks very different to you and that understanding empowers you.” Using phytoplankton to model the scientific process allows students to enter into the scientific enterprise in low-stakes experiments, to question how human actions influence ecosystems, and to realize the role science plays in society. Ultimately, I want students to use my data to learn the scientific process and build confidence to face the claims espoused by the U.S. government and seen on Facebook with a healthy amount of skepticism and an innate curiosity to search for the truth.

Catherine Fuller: Crossing Boundaries, July 5, 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: July 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 59° 54.155’ N
Longitude: 146° 18.252’ W
Wave Height: 2 ft
Wind Speed: 12.6 knots
Wind Direction: 264 degrees
Visibility: 1 nm
Air Temperature:  14°C
Barometric Pressure: 1022 mb
Sky: Overcast, light fog


Science and Technology Log

Dr. Suzanne Strom, from Western Washington University, is the team leader for work being done in the wet lab.  Simply put, her team is examining the amount and production rate of phytoplankton (single-celled algae) captured at various depths.  The team uses information from sensors on the CTD during each cast to read light levels and determine the depths at which to collect water samples containing phytoplankton. 

After bottles are filled from the CTD, the team introduce 13C (a heavy isotope of carbon) into the bottles and then packages them in varying layers of mesh bags to recreate light levels at the depths from which they were sampled, simulating 50%, 30%, 10%, 5% and 1% of surface light.  For example, the sample representing 1% of surface light has seven layers of mesh over it.  Depending on the concentration of particles in the water, the 1% sample might range from 20 meters down near shore to 50 meters or more in open ocean. After a 24-hour incubation, the team filters the plankton out of the water samples and has them analyzed for 13C content, which indicates the amount of primary production that has taken place in each bottle (and, by extension, at each depth in the water column). Once the production is known, it can be related to measures of phytoplankton abundance that are obtained from the sensors attached to the CTD.

CTD Screen
Here is the live readout that comes from the CTD as it is lowered into the ocean and raised again.

Dr. Strom is in the process of discovering a way to estimate the production of phytoplankton based on the amount of chlorophyll present in the water.  Currently, on site testing has to be combined with information from sensors and from satellite imagery (which will indicate the amount of chlorophyll present in the surface ocean).  When a relationship between the two is established, it will allow scientists to make accurate predictions about plankton populations and their production without actual sampling.  The spring bloom is a time of greater chlorophyll content and primary production and thus is a critical component of her data set. 

Suzanne and Hana
Suzanne and Hana working in the lab.

Hana Busse is a graduate student from WWU who is studying under Dr. Suzanne Strom. Her work is based on the perceived distinction between phytoplankton (which photosynthesize) and microzooplankton (which feed on other organisms) and the identification of organisms that cross those boundaries.  These organisms are called mixotrophic, and they can both photosynthesize and feed.  She hopes to find out why particular organisms have developed that ability and how it helps them survive in a varied environment. 

Although mixotrophy has been observed for a long time, it was commonly thought to be an anomalous phenomenon.  However, with better sampling technology, mixotrophy has been discovered to be ubiquitous.  Because this is a relatively new branch in the study of plankton, there are still many questions to be answered. Does mixotrophy promote ‘phytoplankton’ blooms?  Does it promote resilience of species and communities? Can mixotrophs switch strategies, i.e. from photosynthesis to feeding and vice versa? 

As a part of her research process, Hana is incubating a natural community of photosynthetic organisms in gradients of light and added nutrients. 

plankton nursery assembly
The plankton nursery is being assembled on the main deck.

She will be trying to discover whether ingestion rates change according to the amount of light or nutrients a mixotrophic population is exposed to.  Is the reverse true? Is feeding driven by lack of nutrients or by prey?  Prey concentration experiments?

Because of the relative newness of this kind of a study (it has been growing in importance over the last ten years or so), the results will have important implications for the food web because you have organisms that fit both categories (phytoplankton and microzooplankton) rather than just one or the other.  Hana is working with a modeler on this project to incorporate mixotrophy in models of the ecosystem we are sampling.  Her work also has implications for previous studies that did not take mixotrophy into account.  Although there are different kinds of mixotrophs, she is focused on dinoflagellates, while others, such as Dr. Strom, are looking at ciliates (they “borrow” chloroplasts to photosynthesize).  Hana is also looking at different strategies that organisms use to become mixotrophic. Do they steal chloroplasts? Do they create them themselves when they are in need? Can they switch back?  Her work has huge implications for our understanding of environmental variability, the food web and the dynamics of marine ecosystems worldwide.


Personal Log

There have been more safety protocols in place over the last few days that are noteworthy.  First of all, since we’ve been traveling through fog, the ship must sound fog signals at a two-minute interval to alert other vessels of our presence.  Every two minutes, it sounds like a VERY large angry goose or an annoyed Tyrannosaurus Rex sounds off.  I think most of us have learned to ignore it, although, with the labs being open to the working deck, it is louder in there.  Yesterday for the Fourth of July, Third Mate Artie and the Chief Mate led a safety briefing and demonstration on flares, rockets, projectile line launchers and preventing polar bears from coming on board the ship.

Announcement
The announcement of the afternoon safety briefing on the message board in the Mess Hall.

It’s not something we’ll be dealing with, but it is an issue the ship encounters when it goes on arctic cruises.  The line launcher is used to transfer a line over a distance to another vessel or to deploy it to someone in the water. 

Artie and line launcher
Third Mate Artie explains how the line launcher is used.

Kim, the Chief Steward and head chef on board volunteered to fire it.

Kim takes aim and fires!

To deter bears, two different shells are fired off: one that makes a loud bang and another that makes a loud squeal.

Chief Mate
The Chief Mate explains how to deter bears from boarding the ship.

Both are fired from a small pistol at a 45-degree angle (to go over the head of the bear).  A number of the crew as well as the science team took the opportunity to try firing the pistol. 

Ayanda tests the bear deterrent pistol

Being that it was a relatively warm and sunny day (58 degrees outside), and that we were basically circling while one of the science sensors was being fixed, both the science team and the crew were able to enjoy some “overlap” and have a relaxing afternoon together.  Luckily, we were also close enough to land for most of us to be able to text, if not call our loved ones.  We were located in the Copper River plume in fairly shallow water, which meant that the color of the water was close to a tropical green, and was reminiscent of home. 

Tropical-green waters
It almost looks like home out here.

I’ve decided that I definitely over-packed for the conditions we’ve experienced so far on this voyage.  I expected to find temperatures to be much colder and thus I brought two more jackets than I need.  I brought a combination of short sleeved and long sleeved shirts, planning on layering, but have not had to do much of that yet, although we’ve still got a couple of weeks to go.  I also brought a spare pair of shoes that I haven’t worn yet.  I am glad, however, that I packed workout clothes, as the food on board is so good that I definitely need to exercise!  I discovered the rowing machine in the gym and spent almost an hour on it last night. 

One diversion for a few of us yesterday was rescuing a hummingbird that had gotten into the Baltic Room (which opens onto the main deck) and couldn’t get out.  One of the crew was able to assist by opening the cargo door and the bird flew out.

hummingbird
An unusual visitor on board: a hummingbird.


Birds Seen Today:

White-winged Scoters
White-winged Scoters, a type of duck, fly towards islands at the mouth of the Copper River.


Did You Know?

Did you know that the draft of R/V Sikuliaq is less than 10m?


What do you want kids to learn from your research?

Hana: The boundaries that we see in nature are not as firm as people expect them to be.  There is a lot of overlap; everything is related.

Catherine Fuller: Out of the Sea and into the Lab, July 3, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 3, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 58° 54.647’ N
Longitude: 146° 00.022’ W
Wave Height: 4-5 ft.
Wind Speed: 1.9 knots
Wind Direction: roughly 90 degrees, but variable
Visibility: 1 nm
Air Temperature: 13.2 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Clear, then foggy

Weather overview

We have been fortunate so far to have very calm conditions.  Winds have been variable or light and are expected to continue to be so through the weekend at least.  Wave heights have generally been about 3 feet, although they’re up to 4-5 feet today, and are expected to drop tomorrow.  The calm weather is critical for some of the testing being done, and thus is allowing more to happen.

Science and Technology Log

The focus of all of testing on board is plankton.  As the base of the food web, all species depend on their health and abundance for survival. There are multiple teams who are focused on various aspects of plankton and their reaction to environmental conditions.  Kira Monell is a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is working under the direction of Dr. Russ Hopcroft while on board.  She is studying zooplankton, or the animal version of plankton.   She is specifically focusing on Neocalanus flemingeri, a type of sub-arctic copepod.  It is important to study zooplankton because they provide a link between phytoplankton (the plant version of plankton) and larger fish on the food web.  Copepods are extremely abundant and varietal, found just about everywhere in the world.  They are an important food source for most aquatic species (they exist in both salt and fresh water).  They are a trophic link – a connection in the food web.  Her target species is special because they mostly eat phytoplankton during the seasonal plankton blooms.  They convert their food into a lot of lipids (fats) and thus are great sources of food and energy for larger fish.  After fattening up, they go deep into the ocean to hibernate around mid-summer. 

Kira is specifically focused on the termination of their hibernation (technically called diapause).  She is doing genetic testing to see which genes are activated or deactivated during this phase of their lives.  Messenger ribonucleic acid (or mRNA) coded by these genes is required to construct the enzymes that cause changes in body functions, so she is looking at levels of different mRNA in the copepods. She is expecting to see an increase in genes relating to oogenesis (egg formation).  Her female copepods go into diapause ready to start making eggs, so she expects to see changes in genes relating to egg growth as they come wake up from diapause.

Kira is examining copepods through three different experiments.  With some samples, she adds a stain called EDU (a dye that labels cells that are just about to divide) into her samples and then checks them at 24 hours to see which cells have divided.  Because the copepods are still alive, she can check back to see what further cell division have happened over longer periods of time.  A fluorescent microscope is required to see the EDU.  Scientists still struggle to understand what actually triggers emergence from diapause since deep water copepods don’t experience seasonal light changes, or other potential triggers that might exist on the surface. 

Another thing she is looking at is in-situ hybridization.  She makes a tag that is very specific for the gene she wants to examine.  When the probe gene is introduced, it attaches to the gene she wants to look at only if it is being actively copied.  Kira then attaches a colored or fluorescent dye to the probe and in that way she can track which genes are being expressed in specific areas of the body.

The third project that she is working on is trancriptum analysis, which requires building a complete “catalog” that shows all the RNA used by a species. She can then look at which gene transcripts are present, and in how abundant they are, so as to compare them to the “average” version of a transcriptum to see which genes are being turned off and on under certain conditions.

To obtain samples of copepods, the zooplankton team, including Kira, uses Calvet nets.  These are four long nets that terminate in collection tubes. Weight is added to the bottom of the nets and they are submerged off the stern to 100 meters of depth and then pulled back up (a process that takes roughly five minutes).  The nets are then rinsed to collect the samples in the tubes, which are transferred into jars and brought to the lab for more detailed sorting and examination. 

Calvet rising
The Calvet is returning to the surface after being submerged
Kira and Kate rinse net
Kira and Kate rinse the length of the nets to collect their samples in the tubes in the end.

As the Calvet rises you can see the full net. (This video has no dialogue.)



Personal Log

back deck
This is the main working deck at the stern of the ship.

Getting prepared to go out on deck safely!

All of the sample collection happens on the working deck at the stern of the R/V Sikuliaq or in the adjacent Baltic Room.  The back deck is equipped with a variety of cranes and winches that are designed to handle heavy weights and lines under tension.  As such, it is critical to wear the proper protective gear when you’re out there: boots (preferably steel-toed), a hard hat and a flotation vest of coat.  If there’s a potential to get wet or dirty, rain gear or waterproof bibs are essential to stay dry and relatively clean. Being properly dressed is a process that took getting used to, but now it’s habit.  Again, we’re lucky to have had good weather, so the deck is usually warm enough to wear a t-shirt and jeans.  I find it calming to be outside, so I am enjoying learning about the sampling methods of other teams by watching and sometimes assisting them.  There are also observation decks at the bow that do not require safety gear.  A few of us have discovered that the forward decks are much quieter and are good spaces to decompress and look for sea life. 


Animals Seen in the Last 24 Hours:

We’ve seen a few species of birds including black turnstones, glaucous-winged gulls, Black-winged kittiwakes, as well as deeper water birds such as storm petrels and shearwaters.  In addition, there have been small pods of dolphins in the distance and one humpback whale (all we saw was the tail).

Catherine Fuller: Maintaining Balance, July 1, 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: 1 July 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60’ 15” N
Longitude: 145’ 30” N
Wave Height:
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Wind Direction: 101 degrees
Barometric Pressure: 1020 mb
Air Temperature:  13.2° C
Relative Humidity: 94%
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

When I read some the material online about the NGA LTER, what struck me was a graphic that represented variability and resiliency as parts of a dynamic system.  The two must coexist within an ecosystem to keep it healthy and sustainable; they must be in balance.  On board, there is also balance in the studies that are being done.  The Main Lab houses researchers who are looking at the physical aspects of the water column, such as sediment and plankton.  The Wet Lab researchers are looking at the chemical aspects and are testing properties such as fluorescence, DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon), and DOC (dissolved organic carbon). 

Working deck
This is the working deck of the ship, where the majority of equipment is deployed

Today we deployed Steffi’s sediment traps, a process during which balance was key. First of all, each trap was composed of four collection tubes arranged rather like a chandelier. 

collection tubes
These are the collection tubes that will be staged at selected depths to collect sediment

These were hooked into her primary line. Her traps were also attached to two sets of floaters: one at the surface and one as an intermediary feature on her line.  These allowed her traps to sit at the proper depths to collect the samples she needed.  The topmost trap sat 80m below the surface, while the next three were at subsequent 25m intervals. 

hazy sound
Steffi’s traps were released against the background of the smoky sound.

We also collected more samples from another run of the CTD today.  Again, the Niskin bottles (collection tubes) were “fired” or opened at various depths, allowing sampling through a cross section of the water at this particular data point PWS2. Unlike our previous collection, these samples were filtered with .45 micron mesh to eliminate extraneous particles.  This is a very careful process, we needed to be very careful to eliminate air bubbles and replace the filters regularly as the clogged quickly.  For one depth, we did collect unfiltered samples as a comparison to the filtered ones.  Many groups use the CTD to collect samples, so there must also be careful planning of usage so that there is enough water for each team.  Collection is a complicated dance of tubes, syringes, bottles, labels and filters all circling around the CTD. 

Steffi and buoys
Steffi looks over the sound as the buoys marking her traps recede into the distance.

Later this evening, we’ll have the chance to pull up Steffi’s sediment traps and begin to prepare her samples for analysis. 


Personal Log

Balance is key in more ways than one when you’re living aboard a research ship. Although it’s been very calm, we experience some rolling motion when we are transiting from one site to the next.  The stairways in the ship are narrow, as are the steps themselves, and it’s a good thing there are sturdy handrails!  Other than physical balance, it’s important to find personal balance.  During the day, the science work can be very intense and demanding.  Time schedules shift constantly, and it is important to be aware of when your experiments or data collection opportunities are taking place.  Down time is precious, and people will find a quiet space to read, go to the gym (a small one), catch up on sleep or even watch a movie in the lounge. 

A couple of weeks before I left, the Polynesian Voyaging Society hosted a cultural group from Yakutat, who had shipped in one of their canoes down for a conference.  We were able to take them out sailing, and the subject of balance came up in terms of the worldview that the Tlingit have.  People are divided between being Eagles and Ravens, and creatures are also divided along the lines of being herbivorous and carnivorous.  Rather than this being divisive within culture, it reflects the principle of balance.  Both types are needed to make an ecosystem whole and functional.  And so, as we progress, we are continually working on maintaining our balance in the R/V Sikuliaq ecosystem. 


Animals seen today:

A few dolphins were spotted off the bow this evening, but other than that, Prince William Sound has been relatively quiet.  Dan, our U.S. Fish and Wildlife person, remarked that there are more boats than birds today, which isn’t saying much as I’ve only seen three other boats.

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?

Catherine (Cat) Fuller: An Introduction, June 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

(Not Yet) Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 18 June 2019

Weather Data

(From Honolulu, HI)

Latitude: 21.33 N

Longitude: 157.94 W

Wind Speed and Direction: NE 15 G 23

Wind Swell Height and Direction: NE 3-5 ft

Secondary Swell Height and Direction: SSW 2-4 ft

Humidity: 47%

Barometric Pressure: 1016.1 mb

Heat Index: 93 F (34 C)

Visibility: 10.00 nm

Weather: clear and sunny

(From Seward, AK)

Latitude: 60.12 N

Longitude: 149.45 W

Wind Speed and Direction: S 9

Swell Height: 2 ft

Humidity: 77%

Barometric Pressure: 1016.0 mb

Heat Index: 56 F (13 C)

Visibility: 10.00 nm

Weather: Overcast

Personal Log

Aloha kākou! Greetings everyone! In about a week, I will be exchanging currently very warm and sunny Honolulu for the vastly different climate and ecological zone in Seward and the Northern Gulf of Alaska.  I will be embarking on R/V Sikuliaq there to participate in one part of a long-term study of the variability and resiliency of species in the area, but I will get to that in a bit.

In August, I will begin my seventeenth year as a sixth grade social studies teacher at ‘Iolani School, an independent K-12 school that is academically competitive at a national level.  In sixth grade social studies, our students focus on the development of the modern world from ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  I enjoy challenging my students to broaden their worldviews, especially about the impacts ancient civilizations have had on today’s world. We cover those for three quarters, and in the fourth quarter we examine the choices these civilizations have made and whether or not they contribute to a sustainable society.  I want my students to understand that sustainability is more than just picking up trash and conserving water, but it is also about choices in government, society, culture, behavior and environment. The content of our fourth quarter is predicated on the reality that we live in Hawai’i, an island group that is roughly 2000 miles from any other major point of land.

Living in Hawai’i can be just as idyllic as advertisements make it seem, with daily rainbows, colorful sunsets and blue ocean waves.  However, it also comes with challenges that we all have to face.  Our cost of living is among the highest in the nation, and we face constant struggles between maintaining culture and environment in a place with limited room for population growth.  We have a high homeless population, yet many of us joke that the (construction) crane is our state bird.  We are also braced to be at the forefront of climate change.  With a rise in sea level of 3 feet, most of Waikiki and much of downtown Honolulu is at risk of inundation.  In addition, changes in sea surface temperature affect our coral reefs and fish populations as well as minimizing or eliminating our trade winds through changes in weather patterns.  For these reasons, I hope to plant the awareness in my students that their generation is poised to make some major decisions about the state of the world.

My passion for sustainability and ocean health stems from the amount of time I spend in and on the water.  I have been a competitive outrigger canoe paddler for the last 30 or so years, and in the summers, I paddle five to six days a week.  I go to six-man team practices as well as taking my one-man canoe out with friends.  I also have coached high school paddling at ‘Iolani School for the last sixteen years. Being on the ocean so much makes me much more aware of the wildlife our waters shelter: monk seals, dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales.  It also makes me aware of the trash, especially plastics that are more and more present in the ocean.  I’ve picked up slippers, coolers, bottles, bags and even pieces of cargo net out of the water on various excursions.  Being on the water so often also fuels my interest in meteorology; you need to know what weather and ocean conditions to expect when you go to sea.  One major impact that being on the water has is that it allows you to see your island from offshore and realize that it is an ISLAND, and not a very big one at that!

Cat on Canoe
Me on my one-man canoe off He’eia, O’ahu

Some of the biggest lessons about the ocean that I’ve learned have come from my experiences with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 to recreate the original settlement of Hawai’i by ocean voyaging canoes, as well as revive the ancient art of non-instrument navigation.  PVS is most well known for the voyaging canoe Hõkūlea, which sailed to Tahiti (and back again) in 1976 to prove the validity of these cultural arts.  I began working with the organization in 1994, helping to build a second voyaging canoe, Hawai’iloa, and have been there ever since.  As a part of this organization, I have sailed throughout the Pacific, to locations such as Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Mangareva, and the Marquesas.  With Te Mana O Te Moana, another voyaging canoe initiative, I sailed to the Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. I’ve seen many faces of the Pacific Ocean on my travels and I look forward to seeing another. 

Between 2012 and 2017, PVS sent Hõkūle’a on a journey around the world.  The name of the voyage was Mālama Honua (To Protect the Earth) and the goal was to visit with indigenous communities to learn what challenges they face and how they work to preserve their lands and cultures.  One of the founding principles for this voyage is a Hawaiian saying, “he wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a”, which means “the canoe is an island and the island is a canoe”.  The saying refers to the idea that the choices we make about positive behavior, bringing what we need as opposed to what we want, and what we do with our resources and trash while living in the limited space of a voyaging canoe are a reflection of the choices we need to make living on the islands of Hawai’i as well as living on island Earth.  I strive every day to make my students aware of the consequences of their choices.

voyaging canoe
Hõkūle’a en route to Aotearoa, 2014


Science and Technology Log

I’m pretty excited to go to Alaska, first of all, because I’ve never been there!  Secondly, we have species in Hawai’i (birds and whales) that migrate between our shores and Alaska on an annual basis.  Although the two locations are distant from each other, there are connections to be made, as Hawai’i and Alaska share the same ocean. 

The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). R/V Sikuliaq is an NSF ship working with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.  LTER encompasses 28 sites nationwide, of which the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) is one.  In this area, three surveys a year are made to monitor the dynamics of the ecosystem and measure its resilience to environmental factors such as variability in light, temperature, freshwater, wind and nutrients.  The origins of the NGA portion of this project have been in place since 1970 and have grown to include the Seward Line system (s series of points running southeast from Seward).

On our trip, we will be looking at microzooplankton and mesozooplankton as well as phytoplankton, the size and concentration of particles in the water, and the availability of nutrients, among other things.  Information gathered from our study will be added to cumulative data sets that paint a picture of the variability and resiliency of the marine ecosystem. I will be a part of the Particle Flux team for this expedition.  I have a general idea of what that entails and the kind of data we’ll be gathering, but I certainly need to learn more!  If you’re curious, more detailed information about ongoing research can be found at https://nga.lternet.edu/about-us/.

I always ask my students, after they complete preliminary research on any project, what they want to learn.  I want to know more about particle flux (as previously mentioned).  I would like to learn more about seasonal weather patterns and how they influence the NGA ecosystem.  I would like to find out if/how this ecosystem connects to the Hawaiian ecosystem, and I REALLY want to see the kinds of life that inhabit the northern ocean! For my own personal information, I am really curious to see how stars move at 60 degrees north and whether or not they can still be used for navigation. 

Mahalo (Thank you)

I’m spending my last week sorting through my collection of fleece and sailing gear to prepare for three weeks of distinctly cooler temperatures.  I’m going to be doing a lot of layering for sure!  My two cats, Fiona and Pippin are beginning to suspect something, but for now are content to sniff through the growing pile on the couch. While packing, I’m keeping in mind that this is just another type of voyage and to pack only what I need, including chocolate.  As departure gets closer, I’d like to thank Russ Hopcroft, Seth Danielson, and Steffi O’Daly for their information and help in getting to and from Seward.  I’m looking forward to meeting you all soon and learning a lot from each of you!  Thanks also to Lisa Seff for her on board life hacks and detailed information…much appreciated!