Julia West: In Port in Pascagoula, MS, March 17, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 17, 2015

Personal Log

I made it! A smooth flight down to Mississippi (which is a new state for me – I’ve never been here). I arrived to sunshine and warm temperatures – OK, downright hot to me, but I’ll get used to it quickly I’m sure. Pamela Bond, the chief scientist on this cruise, met me at the airport and brought me out to the Gordon Gunter. I quickly learned that it is not only Pam who is super nice and welcoming, but the entire crew. I’ll be introducing them more in future posts.

The ship is not at the usual port near the NOAA lab, but at the former naval station, on an island at the mouth of the Pascagoula River. This yard has multiple uses now, as you can see from the pictures below. So not only is the Gunter here, but it has the company of a Coast Guard vessel, and both are dwarfed by a massive oil rig. On the other side of the pier (not pictured) is a USGS vessel and others. There’s a lot going on here!

Gordon Gunter

The Gordon Gunter at the dock

Gunter, CG vessel, and oil rig

The Gordon Gunter (right) and Coast Guard vessel dwarfed by the huge Sovereign Explorer (oil rig), an old rig that has been docked here for about a year, waiting for bids to take it apart for scrap .

Across the way is Pascagoula’s largest employer, and Mississippi’s largest manufacturing employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding, with 11,000 employees right here in Pascagoula! I can see ships in various stages of construction.

I have learned a lot about this area in the one day here at port. Two major events have happened here in recent years – Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP oil spill (2010). Both events simply ravaged this area. Everywhere we have been in the last day – the naval station, the NOAA lab, the highway – was under several feet of water during Katrina. You’ve seen the pictures. To hear about it from the folks here is profound. The BP oil spill (also known as Deepwater Horizon oil spill), another devastating event, changed the whole NOAA season (as it did for the fishermen and just about everyone else here). All the NOAA ships on the east coast, and one from the west coast, had to cancel their season’s research and congregate down here to be involved as needed, looking for oil, looking for marine mammals, etc. Today we visited the NOAA lab, where several employees are analyzing plankton samples taken from the affected waters. This is five years later, and still very relevant and ongoing data collection! (sorry, forgot to bring my camera to the lab, but I got to check out lots of plankton under the microscope).

my room

Deluxe accommodations!

Backing up now, to my arrival: Pam showed me to my room – I’m surprised that I have my own room! It has a refrigerator, closet, desk, comfy chair, my very own sink, and a shared bathroom with the room next door. And it has a TV – I barely know how to use a TV!

And then Tony, the ET (electronics technician) gave me a tour of the boat. Since then, I have been wandering around, sometimes in circles, trying to figure out the layout. I can tell right away that the food is going to be amazing.

My head is already spinning with some of the details about the equipment and technology. Pam was not sure if we would be launching on time – everything has to be just perfect for a research cruise to start, and if there are any issues, we don’t go. There were two repairs that needed to be made since the ship came to port just two days ago: one had to do with the unit that makes our water, by distilling seawater (very important!), and the other had to do with a malfunctioning gyro, or gyrocompass, needed for navigation (also important!). I wanted to know more about how a gyrocompass works, so I first looked it up on Wikipedia, and then talked to Dave Wang, the NAV (navigations officer). It’s so fascinating – a compass that points true north partly by using the rotation of the Earth. The good news is that both of the repairs are done and we will be launching on time!

Water tank

This large fresh water tank was added after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

I just want to share one bit info about a simple piece of equipment on the aft deck. It’s a water tank. I asked Tony what it’s for, when we have the technology to make fresh water. Well, after the oil spill, getting fresh water was a problem, so the tank was added. It was decided that it was convenient to have after it was no longer needed, and is now used for things that need a freshwater wash.

I am wrapping up this blog post now, a day after I started it. I’ve had my safety and ship protocol briefing, and we are underway. We’ve passed the barrier islands, and the ship is starting to rock a bit. Here we go! We have another 5 hours or so to go to get to our first sampling station, so the science work will start tonight. One final photo – to get out of the tight spot we were docked in, a tugboat was necessary:

Tugboat

The tug getting ready to help us leave the dock. At first it held the stern of the ship in place while our bow thrusters pivoted the front, and then it pulled us out.

 Word of the Day (time to start learning the terminology):

Neuston – the organisms that are found on the very top of the water, in the surface film. Contrast that with plankton, which can be said to be found within the water, not always right at the surface.

Julia West: Getting Ready to Head South to the Gulf of Mexico! March 11, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
(Almost!) Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 11, 2015

Introduction

Hello from the frozen north! From the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, and from almost as cold southern Vermont, I welcome you to this blog of my new adventure. My name is Julia West, and in just a few short days I will be embarking on a new journey, leaving this place where the average temperature last month was a cozy 5°F (-15°C) and joining the crew and scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Gulf of Mexico, where it will be more like 60°F (15°C).

The Gordon Gunter

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

The Gordon Gunter, length 224′, first launched in 1989 as the U.S. Naval ship Relentless, and converted to its present configuration for NOAA in 1998. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

First of all, if you’re the type who asks as many questions as I do (and I hope you are – questions are good!), you might be wondering why am I saying hello from two places, both NY and VT. Well, Oak Meadow School, “where” I teach, is in Brattleboro, VT. I live in NY, 3 hours away. And the students? They are everywhere! But of course if you are an Oak Meadow student, you already know all this. So I will say I am from both places, and I represent homeschooled students throughout the world, who will hopefully be tuning into this blog and adding comments. I invite everyone reading this to ask questions and share comments – I don’t need to know who you are, but hope you will introduce yourself.

I teach high school science, mostly biology and environmental science, and health, to homeschooled students through our distance learning program. I have been working for Oak Meadow for 22 years now. I am always looking for ways to bring our students together in our global community, and what better way to do that but to go out into the one “world ocean” that we all share. I’m passionate about science and scientific research, and very excited to share with you all that I learn. And believe me, I have much to learn. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any real field work, and the technology has changed so much that I am getting into student mode!

More About Me

Julia West - skiing Feb 2015

This is me on a backcountry ski tour last week here in the Adirondacks

 I would have to say I’m a landlubber who loves oceans. I’m more comfortable in the mountains where I can range far and wide, yet the unknown has a strong pull on me – I love new challenges. Living in a small floating space will be my first entry into a whole new world, which I hope will lead to more sailing experiences in the future. I don’t even know yet if I get seasick! I grew up with small boats on the many lakes we have here; I’ve taken plenty of ferries in various oceans, but I’ve never spent real time at sea. I love the outdoors – I am an avid cross-country skier, biker, hiker, and whitewater raft guide.

I don’t know the Gulf of Mexico; I have spent very little time in the south. We all hear about the Gulf in the news, and often not in a good way: hurricanes, BP oil spill, the dead zone…. I teach about these topics. I’m excited to get a firsthand perspective on the important research being done there. More on that soon, but first, I have to share this picture of some of the cool NOAA goodies that came in the mail last week! I have to admit – I really like the NOAA logo.

NOAA TAS goodies

The cool TAS swag that came from NOAA!

What I Know about NOAA

When most people think about NOAA, they are probably thinking about the National Weather Service forecast. NOAA is so much more! I have used the website as an incredible resource on meteorology, anything related to the oceans or atmosphere, fisheries, and climate science. As a science geek, I just have fun clicking around the NOAA website, checking it all out. It is NOAA scientists who map the ocean floor, providing safe passage for shipping. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service takes the lead in stewardship of the marine ecosystems in the U.S. And if you want the latest in climate monitoring and predictions, look to NOAA.

I also have learned a little bit about NOAA through my daughter, Joy. She was a Hollings scholar in college, which opened the door to employment with NOAA in Woods Hole, MA. Now a PhD candidate in marine biology, she still does some research on NOAA ships. Here is a picture of Joy on the R/V Auk a few years ago. The yellow creature is called a marine autonomous recording unit (MARU), otherwise known as a pop-up. It is deployed into waters of the continental shelf to record the sounds of marine mammals. These units are anchored to the bottom, and in six months, when it is time to retrieve them, an acoustic signal triggers the cable to release, and the unit “pops up” to the surface, where it is found and picked up.

Joy doing NOAA research

My daughter Joy (see any resemblance?) ready to deploy a pop-up in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off of Cape Cod. Photo credit: Denise Risch.

It was partly through Joy that I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, and I also have to credit her for reviving my interest in field science. So here I am!

What I Will Be Doing

What is a winter plankton survey anyway? I will be sharing lots of details about that in the next few weeks, as I learn. The fish resources in the Gulf (or anywhere) are important to humans, and it is through constant monitoring that we keep up on the status and health of fish populations. This data informs fishing regulations. The status of non-fishery species (those not used by humans) is equally important, as you know, because all species are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

We will be sampling fish eggs, larvae, and juveniles, as well as their zooplankton predators and prey, to determine their abundance and distribution. We will be measuring physical properties of their habitat, as well as primary productivity. That’s about as far as I will go right now, at the risk of giving you incorrect information! I’ll be sharing details about the tools and methods used in upcoming blog posts.

Meanwhile, this map below shows the sampling locations – if you need me, you can look for me in one of these spots!

SEAMAP monitoring stations

SEAMAP monitoring stations in the Gulf of Mexico. You can be sure to find us around here somewhere! Photo credit: SEFSC (NOAA website)

New? Terms

If you can’t remember what plankton is, it’s time to look it up! How about primary productivity? Feel free to share your definitions by leaving a comment.

Today’s Question (leave a reply in the comment section with your answer!)

Who was Gordon Gunter?

Lastly

I love maps, and couldn’t help adding one. First stop Pascagoula, MS NOAA lab, where the ship will be waiting. Next “stop,” Gulf of Mexico!