Cara Nelson: Methot Madness, September 14, 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 – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 14, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º19.670’
Longitude: 146º07.196’
Wind: East 5 knots
Air Temperature: 14.5ºC (58ºF)
Air Pressure: 1010 millibars
Clear skies

Science and Technology Log

A Methot net is not your typical plankton net.  This large net hooks to a stainless-steel frame and has a mesh size of 3mm.  Its purpose: large jellyfish collection!  The Methot is unique not only for its size but also in its method of deployment.  The net must be craned off the starboard (right side) of the ship and submerged just under the water.  It is then towed for 20 minutes at the surface. Similar to the smaller plankton nets, there is a “cod-end” bucket that helps collect the jellies as the water filters out of the net. 

Methot net setup
Heidi working to tighten the shackles on one setup for the Methot net.
Methot net setup
Emily helps place the flow meter on the net prior to deployment to measure water flow for quantifying the abundance of organisms caught.

The setup of the Methot is tricky.  The frame that we are using was fabricated locally for these nets so there isn’t a manual for setup and a lot if trial and error is involved in the setup process.  This entails a lot of wrenching on shackles to connect the net to the frame, trying out a setup and then trying again once it is in place and we can watch the positioning and motion of the net in the water.  Fortunately, we have an amazingly positive team so we were able to meet each challenge and come up with a solution.  Our fourth time in resetting the net seems to be the charm.

lowering Methot net
The Methot being craned into the water.
Methot fully extended
The Methot looks like a giant wind sock when it is fully extended in tow next to the ship.

Heidi Islas is our onboard jellyfish guru.  I have never met anyone who loves jellyfish more than Heidi, and this passion and enthusiasm translates directly toward her commitment to her research.  She is currently working on her master’s degree at UAF with Russ Hopcroft as her advisor.  Her specific research thesis is, “the abundance and distribution of gelatinous zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).”  Currently there is no baseline data on the type and biomass of the large jellies in the NGA so Heidi’s work is so important in helping identify not only what is present but how these jellies may be playing a role in this ecosystem particularly as predators on small fish. 

Heidi and codend
Heidi is about to open the cod-end where the jellies are trapped at the end of the net. A few of our samples were so full the jellies were up into the net and we needed the assistance of the crane to lift it back onboard.
jelly collection
One of our first collections had only a few but a nice variety of jellies: 2 Lion’s Mane, 1 albino Lion’s Mane, 1 Sea Nettle and 1 Crystal jelly.

Our typical sampling includes running either a Bongo net or Multinet off the stern (back) of the boat to collect zooplankton, and then immediately following we lower the Methot net for its 20-minute tow.  One of the deckhands, either Dave or Jen, run the crane for us, while the four of us help move and position the net into and out of the water.  At the end of the tow, we hose down the net and then open the cod-end to see what we have collected.  Our first few tows had only a few jellies but a little more variety.  Last night however, as we moved into deeper water south of Middleton island, we had a large number of jellies to process.  We assist Heidi in measuring the diameter of bells of the jellies, as well as collecting volume and mass measurements.  We then preserve any zooplankton and fish we collect for analysis by fisheries scientists back in the lab. 

measuring jellies
Emily assists Heidi in measuring and massing the jellies.
Heidi and Cara and jelly
Even though it is 3am, Heidi and I are pretty excited about our sample of Crystal jellies.

Many people might ask, why should we care about the jellyfish?  It all comes back to the food web connectivity.  For example, it is known that jellies will feed on smaller zooplankton, such as copepods and euphausiids (krill), but also on fish larvae, such as pollock.  The commercial pollock fishery is very interested in identifying any factor that may impact the adult pollock numbers.  Additionally, very little is known about what else the jellies are eating, or in what quantity.  So many questions arise about how these jellies might be impacted food availability for other species as well as serving as a food source themselves. 

Russ and worm
Russ examines a polychaete worm that was part of our sample.

Another very interesting piece of research for Heidi apart from her thesis focus is how are jellies responding to climate change.  A current hypothesis was that jellies increase in number during warming events, suggesting that they may become more abundant as our climate changes with even greater impact other species.  In her research on this topic, Heidi came across a paper published in 2013 that challenges this hypothesis.  It demonstrated that jellyfish actually follow a natural cycle of growth and decline with a peak in abundance every 19 years.  Heidi decided to analyze data that NOAA Fisheries had collected over a 38-year period from bottom trawls in the NGA.  She too saw the same cycle emerge.  Although this is exciting data, it leads to many more questions for her to explore. Such as what is driving this cyclic pattern?

giant sea nettle jelly
Emily holds a giant Sea Nettle that actually got trapped in our Bongo net. We measured it before sending it back to sea.

In both the scientific and non-scientific world it is easy to see a correlation of cause and effect and jump to a conclusion.  What I am realizing from the research going on aboard R/V Tiglax is that numerous variables must be considered before true causes can be determined from the data.  This is why collaboration in research is so important.   Physical, chemical and biological oceanographers along with fisheries biologists must work together to gain more holistic view of this NGA ecosystem to help unravel its secrets. 


Personal Log

Fortitude is my word for the past few days.  I have learned so much on this trip so far, including two important pieces of information about myself.  One is that my body does not like to work nights.  The days are blurring together for me as I adjust to my shift work.  I can say that it is definitely not an easy transition because the transition requires more than just adjusting sleep times, but also eating patterns as well.  On Friday night, due to the nature of our stations, we were not able to start our shift work until 1am.  By 5:30 in the morning as we began our last sample, I literally fell asleep on the rales of the ship waiting for our Bongo net to surface.  I think in another day or two, I will have it figured out.

A second piece of information I learned about myself, I am allergic to the scopolamine patch!  Early on Friday, I realized I was developing a rash, which soon spread.  The itching was becoming a problem and so I immediately discontinued an antibiotic I was taking thinking it was the culprit.  After the rash worsened, I then realized it was likely the patch.  After speaking with Captain John, he confirmed that this is a nasty side effect for some people.  I removed the patch Saturday and transitioned back to my usual medicine for motion sickness prevention: Bonine. Unfortunately, 24 hours later, the rash and itching persists.  Russ and John joke that they will be taping my fingers soon, so I better behave. 

After the first storm passed we were lucky enough to have several days of beautiful and surprisingly warm weather as we started along the Middleton line.  I was able to spend time on the fly bridge with Dan birding and mammal monitoring.  I will definitely highlight more on this in a later blog.  From Friday to Saturday I was fortunate enough to watch both amazing sunsets and sunrises as well as enjoy the beauty of the full moon. 

sunset
Sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!

Another storm is forecast to be upon us by late Sunday evening, so our plan is to finish the Middleton line tonight and be in transit to GAK1 (just outside of Resurrection Bay) overnight.  Currently it is calling for East 40 knot winds and 11-13 foot seas.  It should be a fun ride.


Did You Know?

The jellies we are sampling all started out in the benthic (bottom) habitat in what is known as a polyp stage of their life cycle.  These polyps are attached to the bottom and will asexually bud off into the water column.  At this point, the jellies are only approximately a half of a centimeter in size.  It is estimated that it takes approximately a year for the jellies to grow to the full adult medusa stage.  The medusa is the bell-shaped, free floating stage that everyone recognizes as a jellyfish.  This amount of growth requires a lot of energy input, and thus these jellies must feed continuously to reach the adult sizes.  It is not known for sure, but it is estimated that the jellies will spend approximately a year in this phase in which they sexually reproduce.  The larva will then settle back to the benthic environment and start the cycle all over again.

Cara Nelson, The Gales of September, September 12, 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 – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 0830
Latitude: 60º16.073’ N
Longitude: 147º59.608’W
Wind: East, 10 knots – building to 30
Air Temperature: 13ºC (55ºF)
Air Pressure: 1003 millibars
Cloudy, light drizzle

Science and Technology Log

There is a tool for every job and the same holds true for sampling plankton and water in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).  As we sorted, shuffled and assembled equipment yesterday, what struck me the most was the variety of nets and other equipment needed for the different science research being performed as part of the LTER program. 

There are a variety of research disciplines comprising the LTER scientific team aboard the R/V Tiglax, each with their own equipment and need for laboratory space. These disciplines include physical oceanography, biological (phytoplankton and zooplankton), and chemical oceanography along with marine birds and mammal.  Their equipment has been transported from University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Western Washington University to the remote town of Seward AK and subsequently transferred to the ship before it could be either set up or stored away in the hold for later use.  Logistics is an important part of any research mission.

Immediately, it was obvious that some of the primary equipment on the ship, used for almost all the water sampling and plankton tows, require frequent maintenance in order to maintain function.  The winch for instance needed rewiring at port before we could depart. Winch runs the smart wire cable that allows the scientists to talk real time to the equipment (e.g., CTD and MultiNet).

v
The deck full of boxes being unpacked and stored away, as well as the winch pulled apart for rewiring

One of the most complex pieces of equipment and the workhorse of all oceanographic cruises, the CTD, takes a good deal of time to set up as well properly interface with the computers in the lab for real-time data communication.  A CTD, which stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, is a piece of equipment that accurately measures the salinity and water temperature at different depths.  The CTD is actually only a small portion of the device shown below.

CTD prep
The CTD is being put together and wired before departure.
CTD output
Temperature (blue line) salinity (red line) and fluorescence (chlorophyll) are transmitted and graphed on the computer as the CTD is lowered and raised.


The main gray bottles visible in a ring around the top are called Niskin bottles. These bottles are used to collect water samples and can be fired from the lab computer to close and seal water in at the desired depth.  These water samples are used by the team to examine both chlorophyll (abundance of phytoplankton) as well as nutrients.  As a side note, if these bottles are not reopened when the CTD is sent back down the pressure can cause the bottles to implode.  Two bottles were lost this way at our second station this morning, luckily spares were available onboard!

One bottle shattered from the pressure (on the right) and in the process, broke the neighboring bottle.

On the bottom of the CTD, there are several important sensors.  One is for nitrates and another for dissolved oxygen.  Additionally, there is a laser that detects particle size in the water, aiding in identifying plankton.  Much of this data is being fed to the computers but will not be analyzed until the scientists return the lab at the end of the cruise. 

A big decision had to be made before departing Seward late in the evening on the 11th.  A gale warning is in effect for the NGA with 30+ knot winds and high seas.  After several meetings between the chief scientists and the captain, it was determined to forego the typical sampling along GAK1 and the Seward line and head immediately to Prince William Sound (PWS) to escape the brunt of the storm. 

After getting underway late in the evening on Wednesday, the 11th, we stopped at a station called Res 2.5 in Resurrection Bay.  This station is used to test the CTD before heading out.  Just as with any complicated equipment it takes time to work out the glitches.  For example, it is imperative to have the CTD lower and raise at a particular rate of speed for consistent results and speed and depth sensor were not initially reading correctly.  Additionally, the winch continued to give a little trouble until all the kinks were worked out close to midnight. With a night focused on transiting to PWS, sampling was put on hold until this morning.


Personal Log

There are three F’s to remember when working aboard a NOAA research vessel: Flexibility, Fortitude and Following orders.  Flexibility was the word for everyone to focus on the first day.  I was immediately impressed with how everyone was able to adjust schedules based on equipment issues, coordination with other researchers on equipment loading and storage and most of all the weather.

Yesterday, there was help needed everywhere, so I was able to lend a hand with the moving and sorting and eventually assembly of some of our equipment.  The weather was beautiful in Seward as we worked in the sunshine on the deck, knowing that a gale was brewing and would follow us on our exit from Resurrection Bay.  Helping put together the variety of nets we are going to be able to use during our night shift, gave me time to ask our team a lot of questions.  I am amazed at how open and willing the entire team is to teach me every step of the way.  I am feverishly taking notes and pictures to take it all in.

Orientation and safety are also a big part of the first day on a new ship.  Dan, the first mate, gave us a rundown of the rules and regulations for R/V Tiglax along with a tour of the ship.  We ended on the deck with a practice drill and getting into our survival suits in case of a ship evacuation. 

survival suit practice
The new crew practices with their survival suits: Emily, Jake, Kira and Cara
Cara in survival suit
Although it has been a few years, I was able to don my survival suit pretty quickly.

Adjusting to a night time schedule will be one of my greatest challenges.  Usually we work the first night but we had a break due to the weather so we were able to put off our first nighttime sampling until Thursday night.  Everyone on the night crew has a different technique to adjust their body clock.  My plan was to stay up as late as possible and then rise early.  Last night however, between the ship noise and the rocking back & forth in the high seas during our transit from Seward to Knight Island passage, I did not sleep well.  Hopefully this will inspire a nap so I can wake refreshed for our first night shift. 

When I awoke this morning at 06:00, we had entered the sheltered waters of Knight Island passage. with calm seas and a light drizzle, ready to start a full day of collection.  I was able to watch the first plankton tows with the CalVet for the daytime zooplankton team with Kira Monell and Russ Hopcroft. Additionally, I made my rounds up to the fly bridge where Dan Cushing monitors for seabirds and mammals while we are underway.  I will share details of these experiences in the coming days.

For now, it is time for lunch and my power nap.


Did You Know:

There are a wide variety of plankton sampling nets each with a unique design to capture the desired type and size of plankton.  To name a few we will be using: Bongo nets, Mutlinets (for vertical and horizontal towing), Methot trawl nets, and CalVet nets.  As I get to assist with each one of these nets, I will highlight them in my blog to give you a better idea what they look like and how they work.

Cara Nelson: A Birthday Gift to Remember, September 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – September 26, 2019


MissionNorthern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska (Port: Seward)

Date: September 5, 2019

Weather Data from Bartlett High School Student Meteorologist Jack Pellerin

Time: 0730
Latitude: 61.2320° N
Longitude: 149.7334° W
Wind: Northwest, 2 mph
Air Temperature: 11oC (52oF)
Air pressure: 30.14 in
Partly cloudy, no precipitation


Personal Introduction

On September 10th, I enter my 46th year on this amazing planet, and on the 11th, I depart on a trip that will be a birthday gift to remember. I will be departing Seward on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s R/V Tiglax to assist in the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research study. To understand why I am so excited about this trip, I have to rewind about 30 years.

On March 24th, 1989, I watched in shock, along with the world, as the oil from Exxon Valdez swept across Prince William Sound. I was a 15-year old budding scientist learning about the importance of baseline data for ecosystems.  I didn’t know how, but I envisioned myself someday assisting in science research for this beautiful ecosystem. I dreamt of the day I would end up in Alaska and experience the Pacific Ocean.

In 2006, I was fortunate to be offered a teaching position in Cordova, Alaska on Prince William Sound where I became an oceanography and marine biology teacher.  I was in awe of the ocean and what it had to teach myself and my students. Having the ocean at our front door made hands on learning in the field possible each and every week.  We were also fortunate enough to partner with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Sycamore for a marine science field trip each year along with scientists from the Prince William Sound Science Center and U.S. Forest Service. 

zooplankton sample
Showing zooplankton to a U.S. Coast Guard crew member after a plankton tow. Photo Credit: Allen Marquette

Since 2017, I have been teaching at Bartlett High School (BHS) in Anchorage School District.  I again have the opportunity to teach oceanography and marine biology and I am thrilled.  Although we live only a few miles away, many of my students have not yet seen the ocean.  It is so important for me to make learning relevant to their lives and their locality. As much as we can incorporate Alaska and their cultures into the lessons the better.

Here are just a few snapshots from our classroom:

BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class learn to make sushi during a lesson on seaweed uses.
BHS marine biology students
BHS marine biology students examine zooplankton during the Kenai Fjords Marine Science Explorers program in Resurrection Bay.
BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class operating mini-ROVs they built to complete an underwater rescue mission.

In a few days, I will begin my two-week mission to assist in important science research in Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and I feel like my 30-year old dream has come true. I will be participating in the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

This cruise will be the third survey for the 2019 season for this area and the 23rd consecutive season for sampling along the Seward Line.  The goal of the NGA-LTER program is to evaluate the ecosystem in terms of its productivity and its resiliency in the face of extreme seasonal variations and long term climate change.  The mission entails doing a variety of water and plankton sampling at different stations along four transect lines in the NGA, as well as a circuit within Prince William Sound.  

sampling station map
The NGA-LTER sampling stations. Image Credit: Russ Hopcroft

I will be sailing aboard R/V Tiglax (pictured below) which is the Aleut word for eagle and is pronounced TEKL-lah.  My primary mission is to assist on the night shift with the collection of zooplankton at each station.  In addition to this, I look forward to learning as much as I can about the other work being done, including water chemistry, nutrient sampling, phytoplankton collection and analysis, and seabird and mammal surveys.  As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am tasked with creating lesson plans that connect this science research to my classroom.  My goal is to develop lessons that will help my students understand the importance of whole systems monitoring, as well as the important connections between ocean water properties, microfauna and megafauna. 

R/V Tiglax
R/V Tiglax. Photo Credit: Robin Corcoran USFWS

When I am not in my classroom, I like to be outside as much as possible.  I enjoy hiking, backpacking and spending time with my family on our remote property in Bristol Bay. 

Crow Pass Trail
My husband and I getting ready to backpack Crow Pass Trail , part of the historic Iditarod Trail.

My husband and I also like to travel outside of Alaska whenever possible during the winter months and see the world.  One of our favorite trips was completing a full transit of the Panama Canal.  This winter break we will be headed to the barrier reef in Belize to experience the beautiful tropical ocean. 

Panama Canal
Transiting the Panama Canal on Christmas Day on our honeymoon.

I tell my students we have researched and explored more of space than we have of our own ocean.

Cara at Space Camp
Participating in Space Camp Academy during my tenure as 2012 Alaska Teacher of the Year.

I am so excited to be working to help change that statistic!

Teacher at Sea Cara Nelson
I am honored to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea.


Did You Know?

This summer has broken many records in Alaska for warm dry weather and Southcentral has been in an official drought.  How will this impact ocean temperatures out in the NGA and will we see evidence in the plankton or other organisms we examine? 

Stay tuned to my blog and I will let you know the answer to this as well as so much more!