What a busy couple of days we have had here on the Knorr. We have been crisscrossing the shelf following a plankton bloom we can see from the MODIS satellite. MODIS, which stands for Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, is a key instrument aboard both the Terra and Aqua satellites. Terra’s orbit around the Earth is timed so that it passes from north to south across the equator in the morning, while Aqua passes south to north over the equator in the afternoon. Terra MODIS and Aqua MODIS are viewing the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days, acquiring data in 36 spectral bands, or groups of wavelengths. A big area of interest in oceanography is ocean color. Because the world’s oceans are so vast it can be hard to monitor them on a large scale. Using satellites is ideal because they can profile large swaths of the ocean at any one time. Changes in the oceans color as seen from space can give scientists a good estimation of what’s going on in terms of productivity. The problem with using satellite information here on the Bering Sea is the fact that it cannot see through clouds. Well, guess what we get up here on the Bering Sea, clouds. It’s great when we get a clear or not so overcast day because then we can make good use of MODIS information.
One of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife people onboard, Liz Lubunski took some great pictures of birds and wildlife and I thought I would share them with you. She is one of the two people (the other is Sophie Wells) who are doing a survey of birds here on the Bering Sea. Liz had to get of at St. Paul Island but Sophie is still onboard and is continuing the survey. Both have tremendous knowledge of the local birds life and great eyes, plus better cameras then I have to get those better shots. There is a great diversity of life up here in Alaska. The picture of the Metridium anemones growing on the piling was taken right at the pier where the Knorr was docked. She was also able to get some pictures of the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), which makes its living catching small invertebrates in fast moving streams and the Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus), which summers in extreme northern Canada and Alaska.
The one bird I get asked about the most is the Albatross. Well here are a couple of shots of some Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) we saw while on station. They tend to stay away from the ship but Liz was able to the pictures with a telephoto lens. These particular birds traveled here to the Bering Sea from the Hawaiian Archipelago.
They feed mostly on cephalopods such as squid. In recent years there has been a problem with these birds picking up pieces of plastic from the ocean, mistaking it for food and feeding the plastic to their chicks, which frequently causes them to starve to death.
Unfortunately there is way too much plastic in the ocean and this is really having a deleterious effect upon marine life. From sea birds to turtles, many organisms are adversely harmed by our improper disposal of plastics. Please keep that in mind next time you are shopping. Be aware of how much plastic and packaging we are buying because unfortunately some of this makes its way into our marine ecosystems.
It has been a very strange couple of days. One of the routines that you have to get used to on a research vessel is that there are no routines. When I first got on the ship I went to bed at regular times, eat my meals at the same time, for a couple of days at least. Now that I have a project that I am working on I have to be available to collect samples whenever and wherever they are required. A lot of what I have to do is to balance collecting samples in route between stations verses collecting data while on station. This means getting two hours of sleep, getting up and collecting water from the CTD and run them before we leave station. I am working with what’s called a Advanced Laser Fluorometer (ALF). It is a tool that helps determine what species of phytoplankton are present, and it does it very quickly. I can look at individual water samples that contain phytoplankton while we are not cruising to another station.
When we are in route, the ALF goes into automatic mode and looks at what plankton is present in the water as we transit from one station to another. So my day (and night) gets to be a balancing act between sleeping and being available to collect data. But that really is no different then all of the people on the ship. We have a little more then four weeks to collect as much data as possible. The research plan is carefully set up to hit as many “hotspots” as possible so that all groups get the data that they need. What else has been strange is the rapid change in the weather. It has been cloudy and foggy the last couple of days or so. Yesterday things really changed. As we crossed the shelf break again the weather turned clear and cold. The color of the ocean was a beeper blue also. It was really bright out there as you can see from the pictures. Previously the water ws a steel greyish color. Now it has a much more rich blue hue to it.
One of the things I was able to see and photograph was an actual Bering Sea sunset, which was actually at about 12:30 this morning. It was good to see the moon again also. Fairly bright also. But the weather has changed even again. We are supposed to drop a couple of people off at St. Paul Island on Sunday so they can catch a plane back to their homes and at the same time we were to pick up their replacements. The problem is the fact that we have fog again and the pilots wont take off from Anchorage. This could really mess things up for the ships plan if they have to wait for too long a time for those coming aboard. This is especially true if their plane hasn’t gotten out of Anchorage because of the weather. Everybody is just waiting and keeping their fingers crossed.
It has been a very busy couple of days here on the Knorr. I haven’t received very much sleep. But then again, none of the science team has either. We have been a little ahead of schedule so it was decided that we could stay on station at a pretty interesting site for a longer period of time and due some diurnal studies, meaning, how are the organisms and ecosystems we are studying changing as we cycle through daytime to night. I am working on a project on phytoplankton so this was especially interesting for my work. So I was up several time thorough out the night collecting water samples and analyzing them. We headed to a particularly productive area right between the Pribilof Islands. As you can see from the photographs you can just barely make out St. Paul Island. As usual everyone scrambles to get his or her experiments in the water. A familiar face on the deck is Ebett Siddon who is a graduate student working on zooplankton and juvenile fish on this trip.
She frequently uses the MOCNESS Sampler, which allows the researchers in her team to open and close bottle at specific depths. It’s a pretty good-sized device so it takes a fair amount of skill to operate it. The sediment core people have been just as busy. They pulled up a core with a very cool deep water shrimp. Notice the large reflective eyes on this creature. There is a lot of life around here. When I got up this very early this morning to collect samples there were some porpoises hanging around one of or floating sediment traps. There wasn’t enough light to get any pictures. My bird survey friend have promised me some great pictures of Albatross so stay tuned.
We spent the day cruising in one of the shallowest regions of the entire expedition. The depth below us is only about 40 meters. We are also getting close to what ice is still present this time of the year. I checked with the National Snow and Ice Data Center to see what the status of the sea ice in the arctic currently is. So far I haven’t seen any ice but I am keeping a look out for it. Of course we cant see anything, we are cruising through a thick fog right now. I am also doing some of my own research on phytoplankton while up here and the edge of the sea ice plays an important part in how productive the phytoplankton actually is. They reported that after a slow start to the melt season, the ice extent declined quickly in May. Scientists are monitoring the ice pack for signs of what will come this summer. The thinness of the ice pack makes it likely that the minimum ice extent will again fall below normal, but how far below normal will depend on atmospheric conditions through the summer.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the sea ice extent over the month of May 2009 averaged 13.39 million square kilometers (5.17 million square miles). This was 81,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) above the record low for that month, which occurred in May 2004, and 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. So its clear that something unusual is happening up here. At pretty much every station the zooplankton guys set out their nets to see what’s living in the area. Watching them work I can see changes in the zooplankton populations from one location to another. They are finding larval fish, copepods, euphusisds (krill), isopods, amphipods, jellyfish, and the occasional juvenile squid. Some critters are coming out of the sediment cores currently. Maggie Esch, a graduate student from Western Washington University is studying bioturbidation in the sediment. She is looking at how nutrients move through marine sediments as a response to what is burrowing through the ocean bottom. Her last core had some cool worms and young Sea Stars.
I’m hoping to see more marine animals, especially mammals and birds as we approach the Pribilofs, which are the only island on the eastern Bering Sea that are in the proximity of the shelf break. The current sampling line we are on will bring use right between St. Paul and St. George islands. Owing to their position near the shelf break, these islands are home to large populations of marine mammals, seabirds, and fish. The Pribilofs are a famous destination for birdwatchers. There are a reported 240 different species of birds present in the Pribilofs, and “Birders” come from all over the world to see them in the wild. The islands were also once know as the Fur Seal Islands because of the Fur Seal (Callorhinus ursinus) rookeries located there. Today, the fur seals are only subsistence hunted by the Aleuts, and Inuit who live on the islands.
Some very interesting activities have been going happening on board the Knorr the last couple of days. While everyday there is a routine of cruising to a station, stopping and dropping plankton nets and/or other probes, other, more exotic experiments get deployed. For example, yesterday researcher Pat Kelley from the University of Rhode Island and his team retrieved sediment traps that they had set out 24 hours before. Their interest is seeing what is settling to the bottom of the ocean and at what rate this material is settling. To do this, they use a rather ingenious device. They take tubes and fill them with salt water that is many times more concentrated then regular seawater. Because it is so dense, the concentrated saltwater stays in the open toped tube as it is lowered into the ocean. Anything that falls into this liquid stays in the trap and can be recovered for analysis. That’s where it gets interesting. Deploying and then recapturing a drifting probe can be a little tricky. After letting the sediment trap loose for 24 hours, you first have to go back and find it.
Fortunately the trap uses a satellite beacon that broadcasts its position to the ARGOS satellite system. The Argos program is administered under a joint agreement between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the French space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). The system consists of in-situ data collection platforms equipped with sensors and transmitters and the Argos instrument aboard the NOAA Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES). The Argos system will lead you right to your instrument, then you have t get it on board. After they locate the instrument, they bring the ship along side and “lasso” so the deck crew can attach a cable and lift it out of the water using the A-frame crane located on the aft portion of the ship. The sediment traps are attached to a long line comprised of a heavy weight at one end with floats and a buoy at the other. The device is separated and brought up in sections so that they can be brought aboard using one of the ships cranes.
This takes a lot of skill to do, especially when on a deck that is slippery and rocking with the waves. Remember that this is done in between the other experiments and device tows. The deck crew is probably the busiest and hardest working group on this cruise. Another group on the cruise is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “bird people” as they seem to be know as on the ship. They are made up of Elizabeth Labunski and Sophie Webb, both of which position themselves on the ships bridge so that they can survey what birds and marine mammals are present in-between stations. The Eastern Bering Sea is a very productive area and is rich in bird life. I went up to visit them on the bridge.While there they identified a rather unhappy Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris) sitting rather pitifully near the bow of the ship.
These birds are interesting because as opposed to their Black-legged cousins, they have a very narrow distribution. According to the Audubon Society, Red-legged Kittiwake’s breeding distribution is limited to just four localities in the Bering Sea: Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, Bogoslof Islands, and Buldir Island, and Russia’s Commander Islands. More than 75% of the species’ known population breeds on St. George Island in the Pribilofs, which were about 40 miles from where we were cruising. The weakened bird was captured so that it could be warmed up and released when it regained its strength.
In the middle of this great big Bering Sea, who would have thought that we would meet up with another research vessel going to the same station at the same time as us? The NOAA ship R/V Oscar Dyson was in our area. This ship’s primary objective is to study and monitor Alaskan pollock and other fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The ship also observes weather, sea state, and other environmental conditions, conducts habitat assessments, and surveys marine mammal and marine bird populations. It’s named after Oscar Dyson, an Alaskan fisheries leader and is homeported in Mr. Dyson’s hometown of Kodiak, Alaska.
Today we found out how a common marine organism can insert its presence and mess carefully planned experiments. The ship has a flow through seawater system, which allows the scientists to monitor the chemistry, and phytoplankton of the water the ship is sail through. We apparently met up with a large number of jellyfish that gummed up several of out instruments. The zooplankton scientists were having trouble with them getting into their plankton nets when they pulled them out of the water. So now it was my turn to experience their effect. Dr. Sambrotto, the missions Chief Scientist has several in instruments that rely on the flow through system and one of them, the one with the smallest tubing got chunks of sticky, gooey jellyfish parts in them. This required tearing down the instrument and cleaning out its tubing. Fortunately the seas were relatively calm and it time more then effort to rectify the situation. The Instrument is back up and collecting data on phytoplankton. Actually, it runs better then before. Its too bad I couldn’t get a picture of them. They apparently are down below the surface right where the ships seawater intake is. I will keep looking. By the time I am writing this however, I believe we have moved away from the “swarm”.
We have been cruising over the large shelf that takes up so much of the Bering Sea. We are getting close to the shelf break, which is where the shelf stops and deep water begins. This is known to be a very biologically active area. This is due to the upwelling of nutrients from the deep. The more nutrients the more phytoplankton, and hence more things that feed on phytoplankton, like zooplankton. And of course there are animals that live on the zooplankton, etc. I have already noticed an increase in the birds present, and I’m really looking forward to getting to this area of the Bering Sea. We should be there Friday morning.
During the night the Knorr turned south westward to start it’s collecting along the CN (Cape Newenhan) line. We had skirted the edge of Bristol Bay before heading back out to into the Bering Sea. The expedition is following a plan that lets it stop at locations they have stopped at in previous years. This allows the scientists to compare data from multiple years so they can get a more accurate picture of what’s happening in the Bering Sea.
When I got up this morning I had to double check to make sure we were still on the Bering Sea and not something more temperate. The sky has been clear and the air temperature has been a “balmy” 45º F. May be I’m getting used to the weather but I had to take my jacket off to stay comfortable. The weather change quickly up here and may be totally different, and more severe later today. Best to be prepared for anything! So far the trip has been surprisingly pleasant. The one thing I’m not used to is the fact that the sun is always up. At 10 o’clock at night I step outside and it’s just like noon back at home.
Today is going pretty much like previous days. Everybody knows their job and goes about it in a efficient manner, meaning don’t get in the way, you are likely to get bowled over. They sent down the Multicore Apparatus again this morning. Hit a pretty sandy bottom but this time they had an unexpected hitchhiker. One of the cores came up with a Echiuran worm. Interesting creature. It has the consistency of a full water balloon, and is similar to the “innkeeper worms” which are common back home in California. Makes is living eating detritus in sediments that it pushes to its mouth with its proboscis (snout). Some types of Echiurans feed by making a “net” of mucus that captures detritus in the water. They then pull in the mucus and eat the captured detritus.
The zooplankton people are having fun with their collecting with one exception. Apparently the waters we have been sailing are fairly heavily populated with Jellyfish. The “Jelly’s” apparently gum up the collection bottles making collection little more difficult. I was watching as they tried to clean them out of their nets and it is a sticky mess. More on that later. For now, dinner! The food on the Knorr is great by the way.
Well things are starting to settle into a routine here on the Knorr. What appears to be chaos is actually a very well staged operation. Everything has a place and is secured so as it doesn’t become a hazard in rough seas. The researchers and crew all know their jobs and the ship runs like a well-oiled machine. There are several science labs here onboard. The largest is the main lab pictured below, but there are other labs, which serve specific purposes, spread through out the ship. His ship is totally dedicated to Science. One thing I forgot to mention is that the Knorr is the ship that Dr. Robert Ballard used to find the Titanic on September 1, 1985. A lot of history associated with this ship.
Most of the day we have been heading in a northeasterly direction paralleling some really interesting Geology in the North Slope of the Aleutian Islands. We stopped periodically “on station” at specific points of scientific interest. It’s really interesting watching the coordination between the different experiments that are run from the ship. What I thought was really interesting is the work they are doing with zooplankton on this cruise. Zooplankton consists of a range of organism sizes that includes anything from small protozoa’s to large metazoan animals. Examples would include copepods, larval fish and the very important Krill or euphausiids. These crustaceans (Krill) are a very important part of the Bering Sea food chain. Scientists onboard use what is known as a MOCNESS, which is the acronym for Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sampling System.
This system is towed through the water at a speed of 1.5 knots from one of the winches on the ship. This system consists of five or more nets that can be opened or closed under computer control at desired depths. After the system is retrieved from the water, that’s when the fun begins. These scientists have a lot of samples to pick through, so they always like to have help. I got to spend a big chunk of my evening looking through trays of plankton, trying to pick out specific species of copepods, krill, and juvenile fish with tweezers. That was tedious work but we made a game of it, and I had a chance to see lots of examples of local critters. We have been staying close to coastal waters for the last day. Tomorrow we will be heading back out to the west and a bit farther away from coastal waters. I’m looking forward to seeing how both the water chemistry and the organisms we fine there differ from what we have experienced in the last couple of days. Stay tuned!
We are underway!!! Got up this morning to a flurry of activity as the Knorr was preparing to get underway. I hooked up with my researcher Dr. Ray Sambrotto from Columbia University. His interests are in phytoplankton and the different chlorophylls they produce. There is a lot of plankton work happening on this cruise, as well as some benthic (seafloor) studies and surveying of seabirds. It’s amazing how much science they squeeze into a cruise. One of the things I saw as we were heading out was a very cool example of a Hanging Valley. This geological feature is formed by glaciers. I saw it when we flew into Dutch Harbor but I didnt get a chance to get a picture of it. As we set out on the Knorr we passed right by it so I got my chance.
The day before we departed was spent storing equipment, testing instruments, and getting settled in our quarters. Problems with equipment not arriving on time wont prevent the start of the mission. We got underway right about 11 am Alaska time and headed for our first station over the Bering Canyon. Safety is everything onboard the Knorr so before anything really gets started we are required to undergo safety training. The ships crew is very concerned with making sure everyone is safe so they go through procedures in detail.
After the safety briefings and getting some of Dr. Sambrotto’s equipment running, I had a chance to play in the mud. Dr. Shull’s group from Western Washington University is looking at cores of sediment taken from the ocean bottom. Their interest is in how nutrients are cycled through deep-water sediments. They drop the sampling device, called a Multicore, which has specialized sampling bottles to the ocean bottom. The device pulls cores from the seafloor and when the sampling device is retrieved, the scientists have a sample of the sea floor. My job came after the bottles were retrieved. The process was to slice through the cores at specific depths and save the samples for further analysis. Good way to get really dirty.
Wow! I woke up this morning and it really hit me that in a couple of days I will be on the R/V Knorr heading out of Dutch Harbor, AK heading for the Bering Sea. How cool is that? I have spent the last several weeks making preparations both personally and at my school for this trip. Have a lot to do. Arranging live events with the help of the great ARCUS staff, getting my paperwork done at school, and getting the family situated for me to be gone for a month. The vessel I will be on is called the Knorr and it is owned by the U.S. Navy. It has been operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute since 1970. The ship is named in honor of Ernest R. Knorr who was appointed Chief Engineer Cartographer (mapmaker) of the U.S. Navy Hydrographic office in 1860. This vessel has undergone extensive retrofitting in order to accommodate a wide range of oceanographic tasks. She is stuffed with two instrument hangers, eight scientific work areas, a machine shop, winches and cranes, and some very cool navigation and communications systems. The Knorr and has a propulsion system that allows the ship to move in on direction and more importantly maintain a fixed position in rough seas. This is especially important when deploying it new “long-coring” system that can pull a 60 meter (150 ft) of sediment from the ocean floor. These coring operations give scientists the opportunity to look at past climatic and oceanographic events that occurred on the earth and in the oceans.
Well I had better get back to my preparations. I’m sure I am forgetting something. I will be making updates here frequently so please check it out. IF you would like to know more about the Knorr, or the other Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutes research vessels, go to www.whoi.edu. Next post I will talk more about our particular mission.