Mark Van Arsdale: Modeling the Ocean, September 24, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 24, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

30 knot easterly winds, rain, waves to eight feet

60.20 N, 147.57 W (Prince William Sound)

 

Science Log 

Modeling the Ocean

During the last two weeks, scientists aboard the Tiglax will have done over 60 CTD casts, 60 zooplankton tows, measured over one thousand jellies caught Methot Net tows, and collected hundreds of water and chlorophyll samples. What happens with all of this data when we get back?   The short answer is a lot more work. Samples have to be analyzed, plankton have to be counted and measured, DNA analysis work has to be done, and cohesive images of temperature, salinity, and nutrients have to be stitched together from the five different transects.

Preparing for another CTD cast. More than 60 CTD casts were made during our cruise.
Preparing for another CTD cast. More than 60 CTD casts were made during our cruise.

Much of this data will eventually be entered into a computer model.  I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with one of the scientists on aboard about how models can be used to answer essential scientific questions about how the Gulf of Alaska works.  Take Neocalanus, the copepods we collected yesterday, for example.  A scientist could ask the question, what factors determine a good versus bad year for Neocalanus?  Or what are the downstream effects on a copepod species of an anomalous warming event like “the blob” of 2014-2015? A model allows you to make predictions based on certain parameters. You can run numerous scenarios, all with different possible variables, in very short periods of time. A model won’t ever predict the future, but it can help a scientist understand the “rules” that govern how the system works.  But a model is only as good as its baseline assumptions, and those assumptions require the collection of real world data.  A computer doesn’t know how fast Neocalanus grows under optimal or sub-optimal conditions unless you tell it, and to tell it, a scientist has to first measure it.

The fishing industry is a billion-dollar piece of the Alaskan economy.  The ocean is getting warmer and more acidic.  Food webs are shifting, and the abundance and distribution of the species we depend upon are changing as a result.  Using models may allow us to better predict what sustainable levels of fish catches will be as conditions in the Gulf of Alaska change.

I also asked the scientists on board about the future of oceanography in light of the advancements in autonomous unmanned vehicles.  Do you still need to send people out to sea when sending a Slocum Glider or Saildrone can collect data much cheaper than a ship filled with twenty scientists?  The answer I got was, “No, at best these technologies will enhance but not replace what we do at sea.  There will always be a place for direct scientific observations.”  We still need oceanographers at sea.

In twenty-one years of teaching I have had lots students go on to be doctors, PA’s, nurses, micro-biologists, geneticists, and a variety of other scientific occupations, but no oceanographers.  I guess I still have some work to do.

Personal Log

The Weather Finally Gets Us

We have had a few showers, bits of wind and waves, but the weather has been remarkably good for a cruise through the North Gulf of Alaska in late September.  This morning, during the night shift the winds started to blow, it started to rain, and the waves came up. When I went to bed around six AM, the wind was blowing thirty knots, and when I woke up at eleven, it was pushing up some pretty rough seas.  Things got really crazy after lunch.  The winds were being channeled right down Night Island Passage and all work was put to a stop.  I retired to my bunk to read, unable to even go outside and take look.  They eventually battened down the hatches; and we changed course to go hide in a bay sheltered from the wind. (Yes, they really do say batten down the hatches.)

By dinner time decisions were made to not work for the night.  It looked better where we were, but the stations we needed to sample were exposed to winds that were still blowing.  No zooplankton sampling for the night meant that it was time to start washing, disassembling, and drying nets.  We used seventeen different nets to sample zooplankton during the course of this trip and all of them needed to be washed and cared for before they got packed up.

Plankton nets hanging to dry (oceanographer laundry.)
Plankton nets hanging to dry (oceanographer laundry.)

Tomorrow we will begin the journey home with two stations un-sampled.  The storm kept us from getting to the last stations, and another storm is just a few days away. Once the decision was made, I think we were all relieved to be heading in.  Doing oceanography is hard work, and being away from lives, work, and family for such extended periods of time is tough.  Some of the scientists on board have spent as much as six or eight weeks at sea this year.  Having been out here for two weeks, I now understand what commitment that takes.

Unless something really interesting happens tomorrow, this will be my last blog.  This trip has been personally challenging, but a rich experience, and I believe it will be formative to my teaching.  I have learned a great deal about oceanography in general, and the Gulf of Alaska in particular.  The Gulf of Alaska is a magical place.  There is life almost everywhere you look.  More than anything I will leave with a deep impression of the dedication that scientists give to the accuracy and integrity of their work.

[Postscript:  Zooplankton and jelly work was done, so I was able to spend the entire last day on the flying bridge.  There was a good amount of swell from the previous day’s storm, but the sun and scenery made it an enjoyable trip back to Seward.  As we left Prince William Sound we were greeted by an abundance of seabirds that had been blown into the Sound by the weather.  On that day, we documented almost as many species as the rest of the trip combined.  We also got to watch a large group of orcas patrolling the area around Danger Island at the entrance to the Sound.  We made our way back to GAK1.  If the weather allows, GAK1 is always sampled at the beginning and ending of any trip.  The weather was beautiful, Bear Glacier and the entrance to Resurrection Bay was alive with color, and I was going home.  It was a great day.]

Views of the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula as we traveled from Prince William Sound back to Seward.
Views of the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula as we traveled from Prince William Sound back to Seward.

Animals seen today

  • Sea otters
  • Fewer birds today, bald eagles, kittiwakes, gulls

Mark Van Arsdale: Waking up Copepods, September 23, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 23, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Variable winds, partially cloudy, calm seas

60.20 N, 147.57 W (Prince William Sound)

 

Science Log

Waking Up Copepods

One of the scientists on board is interested in the life cycles of a particular species of Neocalanus copepod. Neocalanus is a remarkable looking copepod.  They have long antennae with feathered forks at the ends. They have striking red-orange stripes on their bodies and antennae that reminds you a bit of a candy cane. Neocalanus is an important copepod in the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, and it typically makes up the largest portion of zooplankton biomass in the spring.

Neocalanus cristatus, photo credit Russ Hopcroft, UAF
Neocalanus cristatus, photo credit Russ Hopcroft, UAF

Its life cycle is interesting.  If zooplankton were cars, the Neocalanus might be a Toyota Prius.  It’s not fast or fancy, but it’s efficient.  Neocalanus copepods feast in the spring and early summer and then settle down several hundred meters below the surface to enter into a diapause state.  Diapause is a kind of dormancy that involves slowing basic metabolic functions to near zero.  It is a strategy used by other Alaskan arthropods, most notably mosquitos, to survive long winters.  As for why they travel deep into the water column, the answer seems to be that they use less energy in the dark, cold, high pressure waters at depth.  Inside the Neocalanus there is an unmistakable large, sausage shaped sack of oil that should provide the energy reserves needed to survive prolonged diapause.

When the Neocalanus females wake up, they have to restart their metabolism and begin meiotic development of their oocytes (egg cells.) They have previously mated and they store the male’s sperm within their bodies during diapause.  Each of these biological events involves turning on several dozen genes.  What our scientist wants to know is what genes get turned on, in what order, and what environmental clues tell the initial genes to start making RNA. To study all of this, she needs living copepods in diapause.  Our collection process inevitably wakes them up, but it gives her a time zero for observing this transformation.  For the next twelve hours, she separated and preserved copepods every hour for later genetic analysis that may give her insight into when genes turn on and in what order as the copepods wake up.

In order to get her copepods, the night team did a vertical Multi-net tow at four AM.  We dropped the Multi-net down to a depth of 740 meters. The work we were doing was sensitive, as she needed the copepods alive and undamaged.  I was glad to have slept a few hours as we were moving between sampling stations, because what came up in the tow was pretty amazing.  Along with the Neocalanus, there were many other types of zooplankton including the copepod MetridiaMetridia produce an intense bioluminescence when disturbed. When we brought the nets to the surface, the cod ends were glowing electric blue and individual copepods could be seen producing pinpricks of light that were remarkably bright.

Bioluminescence is ubiquitous amongst deep sea species.  Deep sea fishes, jellies, and plankton use it to attract prey, to camouflage their silhouette, to surprise and distract predators, and likely to communicate with members of the opposite sex.  The deep oceans make up 95% of biological habitat on Earth.  If you consider bioluminescence communication a kind of language, it may be the most commonly spoken language on the planet.

Luciferin production and luciferase transcription in the bioluminescent copepod Metridia lucens. Michael Tessler et al (2018)

Personal Log

Protected Waters

Knight Island Passage, Prince William Sound
Knight Island Passage, Prince William Sound

Waking up in Prince William Sound today felt good.  I was closer to home this morning than at any time since leaving Seward.  The Sound feels comfortable and protected.  Should bad weather come up, and it sounds like it will tomorrow, there are hundreds of sheltered bays to hide in.

Chenega Glacier, Icy Bay, Prince William Sound.
Chenega Glacier, Icy Bay, Prince William Sound.

Prince William Sound’s beauties are hard to describe without sounding cliché.  Most striking of all are the large tidewater glaciers.  In the evening, we made our way to Chenga Glacier, to do CTD cast.  It was a quite a sight, as were the three hundred harbor seals hauled out on the floating ice in front of the glacier.

These glaciers directly shape the ecosystem of the Sound.  They provide a large freshwater input that is high in trace minerals, while creating pockets of cold water, which serve as micro-climates within the larger area.  These glaciers are melting at incredible rates, and freshwater inputs are greater than they have been at any time since the last ice age.  Sampling stations that were once near the face of the Chenga and Columbia Glaciers are now miles away from their quickly receding faces. Click here to watch the satellite images of Columbia’s retreat.  This ecosystem is changing, and only through long term ecological monitoring will we know exactly how or what it means.

The completion of the road to the town of Whittier has also changed the Sound.  It’s late September, and most pleasure boaters have stowed their boats for the winter, but the number of boats and people coming into the sound to fish, hunt, and sight see has increased dramatically.  Many Alaskans have come to recognize the coastal gem that lays just seventy miles and one long tunnel through the mountain from Anchorage.

Columbia Glacier 1986 (left) 2011 (right). Image from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=78657
Columbia Glacier 1986 (left) 2011 (right). Image from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=78657

 

Animals seen today

  • Lots of harbor seals near Chenega Glacier
  • Sea otters
  • Fewer birds today, mergansers, Kittlitz’s murlets, mew gulls, goldeneyes,

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Marine Debris, September 22, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 22, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Southeast wind to 20 knots, rain showers, 6-8 with occasional 12 feet seas

59.913 N, 144.321 W (Kayak Island)

 

Science Log

Marine Debris

The wind came up a bit today, and so did the waves, but we are far enough ahead of schedule that the captain and head scientist decided we should take a two-hour excursion to Kayak Island before taking the eighteen-hour trip into Prince William Sound.  The Tiglax has a pretty deep draft, and the waters surround Kayak Island are shallow, so the boat was anchored about a mile off shore.  The waves were pretty mellow when we departed and it was a pleasant zodiac ride to shore.

The ocean side of Kayak Island is as remote as you can get, but it is covered with human trash. Marine debris is not new, fishing lines, nets, and glass floats have been washing up on beaches for hundreds of years, but the issue changed with the advent of plastics in the 1950’s.  Plastic is buoyant, supremely durable, and absolutely ubiquitous in modern human society.

The beach we walked on faces the ocean and the intense energy of winter storms was obvious.  There were logs thrown up to the high tide of the beach that were nearly four feet in diameter.  The rocks on the beach were polished, rubbed free of their edges.  Driftwood pieces were sanded smooth by the energetic action of waves smashing against rocks.  There were all kinds of interesting things to discover, including fresh bear tracks and some rather large piles of scat.  But more than anything else, there was plastic.  Plastic bottles, plastic fishing floats, fishing line, and wide variety of other refuse.  Some of it below the high tide line, and much of it thrown far back into the dense alder and salmon berry bushes above the high tide line.  Labels and lettering indicated much of the debris was from Asia.  Some of it may have been debris from the large tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, but much of it was just fishing gear lost during ordinary storms or accidents.

The Kuroshio Current
The Kuroshio Current

So how does fishing gear from Taiwan or Japan end up on a remote Alaskan beach?  Currents is the simple answer, specifically, the Kuroshio Current that flows towards the northeast from Japan.  The Kuroshio Current is a swift moving, warm water current, and it pushes debris into the North Pacific Gyre.  A Gyre is clockwise moving merry-go-round of ocean moved by the rotation of the Earth around its axis and by the prevailing winds.  Much of the debris from Asia gets trapped in that Gyre and coalesces into a floating soup of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Some of that debris ends up washing ashore on the islands of Northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago, and some of it takes a left-hand turn, getting caught up in the counterclockwise movements of the Gulf of Alaska Current.  Kayak Island sticks out into the Gulf of Alaska like a hitchhiker’s thumb, and does a good job of catching floating debris.

Kayak Island Alaska
Kayak Island Alaska

Marine debris is more than a problem of unsightly litter.  Fishing gear lost in the water keeps on fishing, catching fish, birds, and sea turtles.  Plastic breaks apart into smaller pieces and ends up in the bellies of seabirds, turtles, marine mammals, and fish.  It’s not uncommon to find dead sea birds in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands with bellies completely filled with human trash.  Seabirds don’t consciously eat plastic, but in lower light conditions floating plastic can look like squid or krill.  To a hungry sea turtle, plastic bags and bottles can look like floating jellies and may clog the digestive system of an animal that eats them.  Plastics also concentrate potentially toxic organic chemicals that can work their way up the food chain into the fish and seafood that we eat.

Much to the annoyance of the crew, we picked up some of the larger floats and brought them on board the Tiglax. Larger efforts have been organized to do summer clean-up work on the outer islands of the Prince William Sound, but their efforts are a drop in a very large bucket.  The problem of plastic debris is enormous and in desperate need of a global solution.

Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.
Marine debris, Kayak Island.

Personal Log

Big Wave Riders

A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.
A rainbow visible as we left Kayak Island.

It doesn’t take long for waves to build in the Gulf of Alaska.  Within an hour and a half, the waves had risen to six feet with occasional ten foot monsters cresting just off the beach.  You could see white caps and even a mile away on the beach you could see the Tiglax bobbing up and down.  Marin, our ever-calm skiff driver, told us in a pleasant voice that the ride would be a little bumpy and that we might be “uncomfortable.”  In reality, it was a harrowing fifteen minutes that seemed to take much longer. I was sitting in front of the zodiac and was thrown several feet in the air more than once as we crested waves much larger than our boat. While on the beach I had discovered an intact 500-watt red lightbulb, used as a squid attractor by fishermen in Asia.  We had seen some of these floating on the surface the last few days, and to me it was the perfect piece of marine debris to take back to my classroom.  Unfortunately, that meant I was riding the bucking bronco that was our zodiac with a very fragile piece of glass in my left hand.  As I was getting air going over each wave, I was very conscious of the potential laceration I was risking to my hand or worse to the rubber zodiac.  Somehow we made it back to the boat, light bulb intact.  For the last two weeks, the Tiglax has grown to feel quite small, even confining, but as we approached the boat it seemed gigantic, dwarfing our skiff with its large steel hull crashing up and down in the waves like a giant hammer.  We tossed our bow line to the crew waiting on the back deck and they held us marginally in place as each of us timed our climb up a safety line with a rising wave.  “Don’t jump, take it slow, wait for the next wave if you need to,” said the captain.  The three other passengers on the zodiac did just as instructed.  The last passenger out, I grabbed the safety line with my right hand, but was unable to climb because of the glass treasure in my left hand. I jumped, skidding onto the back deck as if it was home plate, light bulb still in my left hand.

[Postscript: That lightbulb survived a trip across the Pacific Ocean, washing ashore on a rocky beach, and a trip to the Tiglax by a possibly foolish collector.  However, it only survived 24 hours in my classroom, smashed by an unknown student while I was visiting the bathroom.  Just so you know, high school students are rougher than the Pacific Ocean.]

Red Light Bulb Marine Debris
Red Light Bulb Marine Debris

We all managed to get back on board safely.  The experience and training of the crew really showed through.  When asked later if that was crazy, they answered with a casual dismissal, “just another day at the office.”

We got underway in large seas, six to eight feet, with the occasional twelve-footer.  I don’t know the techniques used to calculate such things, but some of those waves were huge.  As we positioned the boat perpendicular to the waves, each dip into a trough sent spray crashing over the bow of the boat.  I went up to the flying bridge, held on tight to a railing, and enjoyed the ride. The waves were wild and beautiful.  The sun occasionally peaked out from the clouds and the seas reflected a diverse assortment of blue and grey hues.

At the end of Kayak Island there stands the sharp cliffs of Point Elias, a lighthouse at its base, and a rock spire called Pinnacle Rock in front of it.  I’ve seen pictures of this place. It’s an iconic Alaskan image.   I felt lucky to be watching it as we rounded the point and headed into Prince William Sound for the last leg of our trip.

Did you know?

The size of a wave is determined by the multiplication of three variables.  The speed of the wind, the duration the wind blows, and the fetch (distance the wind blows.)  Increase any of those three and waves get bigger.  The size of waves can also be impacted by changing tides or currents and the specific topography of a shoreline.

Animals seen today

  • Stellar Sea Lions
  • Sea otter
  • Lots of birds including Haroquin ducks, double crested cormorants, gulls, common murres, and a blue heron

Mark Van Arsdale: Gelatinous Fireworks, September 21, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 21, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.27 N, 143.89 W (Cape Suckling Line)

 

Science Log

Gelatinous Fireworks

 

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.

Last night, we traveled between the Middleton Island line and the Cape Suckling line, providing us with a change in pace from our regular routine of zooplankton and jelly collecting.  Still, it wasn’t a night off, and at midnight, while still in deep waters, we stopped to do a special Multi-net tow. At 800 meters (almost 2500 feet,) this was our deepest tow of the trip.  A tow that deep takes almost two hours to get down to depth and back up again.  This tow was looking for unique organisms for later genetic analysis, and most of the stuff that came up I had previously only seen in movies.  Deep red shrimp, giant copepods almost a centimeter in length, big-eyed lantern fish, comb jellies, and amphipods that looked straight out of the movie Aliens.

Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.
Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.

We had a couple of hours break until we reached the outermost Cape Suckling station, so naturally I slept.  We did our first Methot net jelly tow at five am. We were in deep water, 2500 fathoms (~15000 feet), and far enough off shore that the jellies were abundant.  In fact, as we were putting the net in the water we noticed that there were more jellies than we had previously seen at any sampling station.   After putting the net in, we turned off the ships lights and lay witness to a fireworks show in the water.  So many jellies, and each time one hit the net there was an explosion of blue green light.  Jellies, particularly the glass jellies, are super fragile with long delicate tentacles.  When they hit the net, their tentacles break apart and they release a plume of glowing bioluminescence.  The normal in-water time for this net is twenty minutes, but after seeing such dense concentrations of jellies we decided to pull it early.  As we pulled it out of the water, the net nearly bursting at its seams, we had to attach an extra line and bring the cod end out of the water with the crane.  We measured jellies for a long time, and watched the sky glow red as the sun came up over the rugged peaks of Cape St. Elias and the Bering Glacier.

The Scientists

Yesterday, I talked about the Crew of the Tiglax. Today I thought I would say a bit about the scientists on board.  Excluding myself, there are thirteen scientists on board.  Of those thirteen, ten are women and three are men.  The group includes four graduate students, three research technicians, two wildlife biologists, two primary investigators/professors from UAF, one investigator/professor from the University of Hawaii, and one semi-retired UAF research staff.  Aside from the wildlife biologists and the researcher from the University of Hawaii, they are all physical oceanographers.  Physical oceanographers look at the ocean almost as if it is an equation waiting to be solved.  If you have the right physical drivers, wind and currents may combine nitrates and iron at the surface.  If you have the right nutrients mixed with light near the surface, you get phytoplankton growth.  If you have oxygen and phytoplankton with the right physical conditions to stay near the surface, you can grow and sustain zooplankton. They build ecosystems as if by Lego blocks, each piece critical to the final outcome.

Ask any one of them how they get paid and you will inevitably get the response – it’s complicated.  Most of the salaries are funded through grants in what they describe as “soft money.”  Grants for research are funded by a variety of agencies, in this case, the largest being the National Science Foundation.  Writers of the grants list the number of positions required and the dollar figure attached to those positions.  Once the grant is awarded it gets managed by The University of Alaska accounting department.  For the grad students, these trips are certainly a learning opportunity, and one that a lot of schools could not offer.

Personal Log

Autonomy

The back and forth nature of the way we sample stations is at times dizzying.  We make progress slowly, sample four stations at night, drive back to where you started in the morning, then sample the same four stations during the day.  At sunset, start at the next station down the line.  Much of the conversation aboard revolves around what station we are on and what test is being run.   The acquisition of data is slow, tedious, and deliberate work.

Today we are closer to Canada than we are from the town of Seward where we left. When you are part of a research cruise one hundred miles off shore, you can’t just go home because you’re tired, or because something happens at home, or because you just want a break. If something breaks, you have a spare, or you try to fix it.  If a schedule gets altered because of waves or weather, you just sleep when you can and work later.  There is no phone and no internet, so you can’t call your kids to wish them goodnight.  There is just work, and I have found myself in many ways ill prepared for its single-minded focus.

I have come to realize how much I take for granted the autonomy I have to do or go where I want.  Out here, you have no autonomy.  You go where the boat goes, you eat what and when the chef says, you work when the chief scientist says to work, and you do exactly what they say.  This of course, is driven by the sheer expense of doing research at sea as well as the tremendous travel times it takes to get out this far.

Northern Fulmar, notice it's "tube nose."
Northern Fulmar, notice it’s “tube nose.” photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

Did you know?

Many seabirds have a structure on the tops of their beaks that looks like the air intake on a muscle car.  These birds are known as “tube-nosed” birds and they make up the order Procellariiformes.  The group includes albatross, fulmars, petrals, and shearwaters.   The tube hides two nasal glands that help them concentrate and remove excess salt from their blood.  The glads allow them to drink saltwater without suffering dehydration.

 

Animals seen today

  • Minke whale
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

Mark Van Arsdale: The Tiglax, September 20, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 20, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.38 N, 146.3 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Careers at Sea

The Tiglax

The R/V Tiglax  (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) has been in operation since 1987.  During the 2018 field season, it traversed to Seattle, Nome, St. Mathew Island in the Bering Sea, and on multiple trips down the Aleutian Chain.  It supposedly logged enough miles in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea this summer to circumnavigate the Earth. It is operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Monitoring Project charters the boat for about $11,000 a day.

The Tiglax as seen from Middleton Island
The Tiglax as seen from Middleton Island

The boat itself is 121 feet long and 32 feet wide. It has two cranes for moving gear and a winch with 2000 meters of cable. The Tiglax has a front and back operating deck and a walk around on one side. Inside, the boat is equipped with a small science lab, bunks to accommodate sixteen passengers besides the crew, a galley, kitchen, a dry room for hanging rain gear and mustang suits, and a large hold for storing equipment at the bottom of the boat. The boat has its own water desalinization system, electrical generator, a huge fuel capacity, a walk-in fridge, and two walk in freezers. It can stay at sea for weeks, limited only by its supply of fresh food.

The Tiglax has a crew of six.  John Faris is the captain.   He has worked on the boat for eighteen years, the last three as captain.  John keeps tabs on all of the scientific work going on aboard the Tiglax and works closely with Russ Hopcroft, the chief scientist, to maximize what can get done on the boat with the time and equipment we have.  He’s always lighthearted and upbeat, unless you forget to wear your float coat while working on deck.  I appreciated that John seemed to have a genuine interest in the science understanding that his boat was contributing to.

Dan, Andy, and Morgan lowering a skiff for our trip to Middleton Island.
Dan, Andy, and Morgan lowering a skiff for our trip to Middleton Island.

Dan is the mate and back-up pilot, running the boat on the night shift. He is a recent addition to the boat, having previously worked in marine salvage.  He was full of great stories and we shared a common distaste for the night shift.

Andy is the ship’s engineer.  I never knew where he was, down in the engine room somewhere maybe, but when things broke, which they did, he was always on it.  Despite having blown a hydraulic line on the main crane, and having seriously taxed the aging winch, we only missed out on one tow in fourteen days.

There are two shifts on the Tiglax.  The night shift operates from 10 pm to 6 am, and then again from 2pm to 6 pm.  The dayshift runs on the opposite hours.   There are two deckhands to staff those shifts, Dave on the day shift and Marin on the nightshift. Dave and Marin have both been with the boat for a few years, and seemed to enjoy the life that an intensive six-month season provides.

Dave keeps a van in Arizona, and is looking forward to some desert therapy after a long season spent on the cold water of the Gulf.   He was patient when I lashed things down poorly and always offered up a smile when I reached zombie status at the end of the night shift. He also taught me that the phrase “make sure the dog is in the clover,” doesn’t have anything to do with a four-legged animal or a plant (my bad), but rather meant I was supposed to put the metal tie down hook (dog) in the clover-shaped tie down slot (clover) on deck.

Marin at the winch controls.
Marin at the winch controls.

Marin grew up commercial fishing and is pretty much super woman.  She could move heavy equipment as well as any man on board and run the crane with a delicate touch, all while making a float coat and Grundens rubber bibs look stylish.  Marin does some other gigs during the winter, including work as a professional climber cleaning tents for Cirque du Soleil.

This type of cruise is not the main function of the Tiglax. For much of the summer the Tiglax is bringing scientists to,  picking scientists up from, or resupplying study sights in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. The Tiglax is really a scientific taxi service and hotel. Our work, by comparison, is certainly repetitious if not dull. Running a deep-water plankton tow or a deep cast of the CTD typically means two hours of standing at the winch controls.  The deck hands will run the winch for those casts and tows over one hundred and twenty times during the length of this cruise.

Hardworking oceanographers have got to eat, and Morgan is key to that. Morgan is the ship’s chef; three times a day, she plans and prepares meals for twenty.  She is amazingly efficient in the kitchen, and always playing great music.  The rest of the crew thinks she has the hardest job on the ship.  Although fresh vegetables got a little hard to find, the food was always excellent.  Working just six months a year on the boat, she runs a private catering company the rest of the year.   She talked to me about the challenges of running a growing small business when you are so remote for so much of the year.

The entire crew lives in the town of Homer, the boat’s home port. They seem to enjoy their jobs on board the Tiglax as well as the exotic places it took them.

Personal Log

What’s it really like being at sea?

Being on board a small research vessel at sea is a series of sharp contradictions.  The boat can go anywhere, but you can’t go anywhere. You are in an incredibly remote and exotic location, but your day is totally routine.  When working, you are constantly busy, but when you aren’t working, there are few distractions and time moves slowly.  Look out at the horizon for an hour and you may see nothing but water and sky, but then in an instant a fifty-ton fin whale surfaces right in front of the boat.  You are traveling though places completely devoid of human noise, but the ship itself is a constant cacophony of sound.  When the boat moves completely out of sight of land, there is a visual blandness that lays in contrast to the thrill of the living things that populate the absurd depths below you.

Sunset on the Middleton Island Line
Sunset on the Middleton Island Line

Did you know?

If you want to open a door on a boat at sea you first have to unhook it.  All doors and shelves have hooks to keep them from flying open or closed.

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Dall’s porpoises
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Estuaries, September 19, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 19, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, calm seas

 60.25N, 145.5 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Science Log

Estuaries

Water chemistry for the Middleton Transect Line
Water chemistry for the Middleton Transect Line

Estuaries are semi-enclosed bodies of water where fresh and saltwater mix.  By this morning, we had moved into the Copper River Estuary and the salinity reading at the surface showed nearly fresh water.  Estuaries can be sites of incredible biological productivity, but in Alaskan high rates of water flushing due to rain and glacial melt along with low rates of plant decay (and almost zero use of agricultural fertilizers) mean that may not be the case.  Close to the Copper River, light may also become a limiting factor as the glacial sediments increase turbidity and decrease water clarity.  Along this line, we did see a narrow band of higher productivity (seen as Fluorescence on the graph above) about fifty kilometers out where water clarity had improved.

Estuaries tend to be shallow with lots of tidal movement.  This creates ideal conditions for plankton growth, and our nightly plankton tows did see more algae than we had in previous tows.  We also started to see juvenile pink shrimp and salmon smolt.  Much to our surprise, we were still catching jellies well into the freshwater area. For most oceanic species, fresh water is a stressor. Dealing with the constantly changing salinity is a challenge for any estuarine species.  An inflowing tide brings in denser saltwater, which moves along the bottom.  Freshwater flows in from rivers at the surface.   Depending on the conditions of the estuary, that can create either well mixed brackish water or distinct salt and freshwater wedges.

Bird biologist Dan Cushing entering data along the Middleton Line.
Bird biologist Dan Cushing entering data along the Middleton Line.

Estuaries across the world have historically been centers of intensive human development. In the U.S., New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Seattle are just a few examples of large urban areas sitting along large and important estuaries.  For historically developing cities, estuaries meant easy to access food and oceanic transportation, as well as the benefits of fresh water for drinking and the outflow of sewage waste.  Sixty percent of North America’s estuaries are considered to have significantly degraded habitat. However, the Copper River Estuary remains a largely undisturbed gem.  There are no dams on the Copper River and very little development along its watershed.   

Personal Log

Human Connections

When the sun came up in the morning we could see the heavy glacial silt of the Copper River.  There were sightings of ducks and other water fowl.  The water was grey and murky, but the peaks surrounding the Copper River water shed were sensational, and I found myself wishing I could stay awake.  As we get further east and into areas that I am completely unfamiliar with, there is so much to see, and I find myself wishing I did not have to sleep through the mornings.

Sunrise over the Copper River Estuary
Sunrise over the Copper River Estuary

At this point we were just a few miles away from the town of Cordova.  Although I did not, many people on board had cell service this morning.  When I woke up after five hours of sleep it was impossible to walk around the boat without seeing someone looking down at their phone.  Scientists at sea are very work focused, but even hard core scientists miss their human connections.  People wanted to talk to spouses or kids, and get updates on their friend’s social media.  There were also murmured discussions about what news we had missed over the last eight days, much of it ominous.  Our human connections are life sustaining points of encouragement, our twenty-four-hour news cycle maybe not so much.  By afternoon we were headed far back out to sea working on the Middleton line.  Because of the zig-zag nature of our day-night work, we have had a clear view of Middleton Island several times now.  Those who were here last year recall such torrential rains that they never saw the island once.  Our weather continues to be remarkably good.  We hope to complete the Middleton Line tomorrow and head further east to Cape Suckling after that.  Ironically, the good weather seems to be leaving the captain and crew slightly ill at ease.  It can’t last forever, and they seem to be wondering when the other shoe will drop.  I just hope that if and when the weather goes bad, it’s during the last leg of our trip when we have moved into the protected waters of Prince William Sound.

Mark Van Arsdale: Sightings from the Flying Bridge, September 18, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 18, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, calm seas

59.30 N, 146.15 W (Middleton Island Line)

 

Science Log

Sightings from the Flying Bridge

We finished up night work on the morning of the 17th in a bit of swell. Our last casts of the Methot and the Bongo nets were bumpy.  It was hard to stand up, and hard to keep objects from shifting dangerously.  But the swell didn’t last, and by time I woke up mid-morning it was a picture-perfect day, clear and calm. The day shift finished up sampling the Kodiak line by dinner, and we began a twenty-four-hour transit from the Kodiak line to Middleton Island east of Prince William Sound. I got the night off, and with it my first solid night of sleep since the trip started.  I felt like a whole new human.

Mola mola
Sunfish (Mola mola) with diver
© Tomas Kotouc
Tomas Kotouc
Sladkova 331/II, Jindrichuv Hradec, 377 01, Czech Republic

The transit allowed me to spend most of the day in the flying bridge and it was a good day for it.  We sighted fin whales in the morning, numerous sea birds, another Mola mola (ocean sun fish), and two pods of Risso’s dolphins in the afternoon.  The last two sightings are really interesting.  That was the third Mola mola spotted on the trip.   The Mola mola is the largest bony fish in the ocean.  They can grow up to four meters long and three thousand pounds, eating almost exclusively jellies. They are a bizarre looking fish.  They have no true caudal (tail) fin, thin elongated pectoral fins, and a body shaped like more like a giant head than a fish.   They also swim (if you can call it that) on their side.  The interesting thing is that the Mola mola is a sub-tropical fish and should not be seen in the North Gulf of Alaska – but here they are.

The Risso’s dolphins were another unusual sighting.  We saw them in groups of twenty or so.  Fast swimmers and acrobatic in their movements, you could see their characteristically white faces and scratched backs as they jumped out of the water.  None of the crew or scientists on board had ever seen them and we went through three books trying to get a solid ID.  Very little is known about this species, and confirmed sightings at sea are limited.  It’s likely that this will be the farthest north sighting of Risso’s dolphins recorded.

In the last few years, unusual sightings of species have become more common and not just on the surface.  Plankton tows are revealing copepod species more commonly associated with the California Current than the Gulf of Alaska.  It’s possible that these sightings represent observational bias – we are just paying more attention.  But it seems likely that species in the Gulf of Alaska are on the move.

The North Gulf of Alaska changes seasonally, it changes based on your depth and location, and it changes with weather and currents, but it seems obvious that it is also experiencing long term climactic change.  How will that change affect the stability of this rich ecosystem?  How will it affect the large slice of the Alaskan economy that depends on the wealth of fish brought out of the Gulf?  Already this summer, the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery closed due to lack of fish.  A disaster to some of fishermen in Kodiak, and a heavy hit to the Kodiak Island economy. By tomorrow morning we will be at the outflow of the Copper River.  Copper River salmon are famous for their rich flavor, high prices, and dependable arrival, but this summer, fishing for Copper River king and sockeye salmon was also closed for much of the summer. Fish were coming back small or not at all.

Middleton Island, the kittiwake tower in the background.
Middleton Island, the kittiwake tower in the background.

Personal Log

Middleton Island

Good weather has left us a bit ahead of schedule, and the captain and chief scientists decided we could make an excursion to Middleton Island.  When I get home I plan to do some more research on the Island, but it seems to have an interesting, albeit short history.  The island is just a few thousand years old, brought up out of the ocean by the tectonic movements of the Pacific and North American plates.  Much of the island is a flat plateau, surrounded by a series of shelves descending down to the water.  Some of the shelves are quite new, the latest edition came during the 1964 Alaska Good Friday Earthquake, as the island was force 12 feet up from the ocean.

Abandoned air force buildings and the newly remodeled kittiwake tower.
Abandoned air force buildings and the newly remodeled kittiwake tower.

The island was once home to a World War II Air Force base.  It was believed that its moderate climate would make an ideal early warning site, but the base was abandoned some time ago. Middleton is currently home to an FAA weather station and an immense number of nesting seabirds.   At some point the disintegrating air force buildings were taken over by those nesting sea birds.  Scott Hatch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, saw an opportunity and over the years has turned the old Air Force tower into an observation and study center for nesting black legged kittiwakes.  Over a thousand birds have nests on the outside of the tower, and each one now has a one-way glass window at its back.  The nesting birds can be observed and studied by budding biology students from inside the tower. Studies have been done on their diets, metabolism, behaviors and numerous other details of their private lives. We got to meet Scott and his wife, who were just finishing up some end of the season work on the sight.  They gave us a bit of a tour and showed us where they had built facilities for students and observation sites for nesting common murres, as well as burrow digging sea birds like rhinoceros auklets and puffins. The sea birds were all gone, having fledged their young and returned to the ocean a few weeks before, but it was fun to imagine what the island looked and sounded like with thousands of sea birds on it.

View from inside the kittiwake tower.
View from inside the kittiwake tower.

The day off and a shore excursion seemed to leave everyone more relaxed that they have been for the last week.  People smiled and joked and enjoyed the unusually warm September day.  Feeling recharged, I was even looking forward to my night shift.

Cool Moment of the Day

We start working most nights just after the sun goes down.  Last night I noticed there was a bird following us just overhead.  It was an osprey, and it followed us for more than two hours as we worked through the night.  The bird undoubtedly thought we were a fishing vessel and was looking for handouts, but in the middle of the night it was an amusing distraction to look up at the rapture silhouette against the clouds.

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Risso’s dolphins
  • Another Mola mola
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, cormorants, fulmars, petrels, a merlin, an osprey

Mark Van Arsdale: Kodiak, September 17, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 17, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

This morning 25 knot winds from the NE, waves to 8ft, tonight calm seas variable winds, light rain

58.14 N, 151.35 W (Kodiak Line)

Science Log

Kodiak  

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Kodiak line.

My wife and I have traveled to Raspberry and Kodiak Islands twice.  The island’s raw beauty, verdant colors, and legendary fishing make it one of my favorite places on Earth.  Its forests are dense, with huge hemlocks and thick growths of salmon berries.  The slopes are steep and covered with lush grasses.  Fish and wildlife abound.  As we moved our way down the Kodiak line, getting closer and closer to land, that richness of life was reflected in waters surrounding the Island.  In just fifty nautical miles we moved from a depth of a few thousand meters to less than one hundred.  Seabirds became more abundant, and we saw large groups of sooty and Buller’s shearwaters, some of them numbering in the thousands.  Sooty shearwaters nest in the southern hemisphere and travel half way across the planet to feed in the rich waters surrounding Kodiak.  Fin whales were also abundant today, and could be seen feeding in small groups at the surface. Our plankton tows also changed.  Deep sea species like lantern fish and Euphausiids disappeared and pteropods became abundant. We caught two species of pteropods that go by the common names – sea butterflies and sea angels.  Sea butterflies look like snails with clear shells and gelatinous wings.  Sea angels look more like slugs, but also swim with a fluttering of their wings.  Pteropods are an important part of the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem, in particular to the diets of salmon.

Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.
Sooty shearwaters as far as you can see.

In the last decade, scientists have become aware that the ocean’s pH is changing, becoming more acidic. Sea water, like blood, is slightly basic, typically 8.2 on the pH scale.  As we have added more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, about half of that gas has dissolved into the oceans. When CO2 is dissolved in sea water if forms carbonic acid, and eventually releases hydrogen ions, lowering the waters pH.  In the last decade, sea water pH has dropped to 8.1 and is predicted to be well below 8 by 2050.  A one tenth change in pH may not seem like much, but the pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that that one tenth point change actually represents a thirty percent increase in the ocean’s acidity.   Pteropods are particularly vulnerable to these changes, as their aragonite shells are more difficult to make in increasingly acidic conditions.


A nice introduction to Pteropods

Personal Log

I chose teaching

We have been at sea now for one week. I feel adrift without the comforts and routines of family, exercise, and school. There are no distractions here, no news to follow, and no over-scheduled days.  There is just working, eating, and sleeping. Most of the crew and scientists on board seem to really enjoy that routine.  I am finding it difficult.

There was a point in my twenties where I wanted nothing more than to become a field biologist. I wanted to leave society, go to where the biological world was less disturbed and learn its lessons. I see the same determination in the graduate students aboard the Tiglax. When working, they are always hyper focused on their data and the defined protocols they use to collect it.  If anything goes wrong with tow or sampling station, we repeat it. You clearly need that kind of focus to do good research. Over time, cut corners or the accumulation of small errors can become inaccurate and misleading trends.

When I was in graduate school hoping to become a marine biologist, I was asked to be teaching assistant to an oceanography class for non-science majors. Never having considered teaching, the experience opened my eyes to the joys of sharing the natural world with others, and changed my path in ways that I don’t regret. I am a teacher; over the last twenty years it has come to define me. On this trip, they call me a Teacher at Sea, yet the title is really a misnomer.  I have nothing to teach these people, they are the experts.  Really, I am a student at sea, trying to learn all that I can about each thing I observe and each conversation I have.

Bowler's shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.
Buller’s shearwater, photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

 

Animals seen today

  • Fin whales
  • Lost of shearwaters (mostly sooty but also Buller’s), along with puffins, auklets, skua

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part IV – Jellies, September 16, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 16, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds variable 10 knots, waves four to six feet during the day, up to eight feet at night

57.27 N, 150.10 W (Kodiak Line)

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part IV Jellies

Ever seen a jellyfish washed up on the beach? Ever gotten stung by one?  Most people don’t have very favorable views of jellyfish.  I’m getting to spend a lot of time with them lately, and I am developing an appreciation. We have a graduate student on board studying the interactions between fish and jellies.  Her enthusiasm for them is infectious.

Graduate student Heidi photographing a phacellophora (fried egg) jelly
Graduate student Heidi photographing a phacellophora (fried egg) jelly

Jellyfish really aren’t fish.  They belong to a group called Cnidarians, along with corals, sea anemones, and hydras.   It’s one of the most primitive groups of animals on the planet.  Ancient and simple, Cnidarians have two tissue layers, a defined top and bottom, but no left and right symmetry and no defined digestive or circulatory systems.  Jellies have simple nerves and muscles.  They can move, but they are unable to swim against oceanic currents and therefore travel at the whim of those currents.  Jelly tissue is made of a collagen protein matrix and a lot of water.  I have heard one scientist call jellies “organized sea water.”  That’s really not too far off.  Seawater has a density close to one kilogram per liter, and when you measure jellies, their mass to volume ratio almost always approaches one.

Despite their simplicity, jellies are incredible predators.  When we scoop them up with the Methot net, they often come in with small lantern fish paralyzed and dangling from their tentacles.  Jellies possess one of the more sophisticated weapons in the animal kingdom. Located in their tentacles are stinging cells, called cnidocytes. These cells contain tiny, often toxic harpoons, called nematocysts. The nematocysts are triggered by touch and can deploy as fast as a rifle bullet, injecting enough venom to kill small fish or to give the person weighing the jellies a nasty sting.

Me holding a Chrysaora (sea nettle) jelly.
Holding up a Chrysaora (sea nettle) jelly.

Jellies have not been thoroughly studied in the Gulf of Alaska, and the work onboard the Tiglax may take us closer to answering some basic questions of abundance and distribution.  How many jellies are there, where are they, and are their numbers increasing in response to increasing ocean temperatures?

In order to sample jellies each night, four times a night we deploy a Methot net. The Methot net is a square steel frame, two and a half meters on each side and weighing a few hundred pounds.   It is attached to a heavy mesh net, ten meters long. Even in relatively calm seas, getting it in and out of the water takes a lot of effort.  We have already deployed it in seas up to eight feet and winds blowing 20 knots, and that was pretty crazy. The net is attached by steel bridle cables to the main crane on the Tiglax.  As the crane lifts it, four of us guide it overboard and into the water.  We leave it in the water for 20 minutes, and it catches jellies – sometimes lots of jellies.  On still nights, you can sometimes see jellies glow electric blue as they hit the net.

As we retrieve the net there are a few very tense moments where we have to simultaneously secure the swinging net frame and lift the jelly-filled cod end over the side of the boat. A few of the hauls were big enough that we had to use the crane a second time to lift the cod end into the boat.

Smaller ctenophores (comb jellies) caught in the Methot net.
Smaller ctenophores (comb jellies) caught in the Methot net.

Once on board, the jellies have to be identified, measured, and weighed.  Assuming catches stay about the same, we will measure over one thousand jellies while on this cruise.  I don’t know how all of this data compares with similar long-term ecological projects, but on this trip the trend is clear.  Jellies are true oceanic organisms, the further we go offshore the larger and more numerous they get.  Go much beyond the continental shelf and you have entered the “jelly zone.”

Personal Log

Seasick teacher

Last night was tough.  During our transit from the Seward line to the Kodiak line, things got sloppy.  The waves got bigger, and their periods got shorter.  To make things more uncomfortable, we were running perpendicular to the movement of the waves.  I retreated to my bunk to read, but eventually the motion of the ocean got the better of me and I made my required donations to the fishes.  The boat doesn’t stop for seasick scientist (or teacher) and neither does the work; at 11:00 last night I dragged myself from bed and reported for duty.

The work on the Tiglax is nonstop.  The intensity of labor involved with scientific discovery has been an eye-opener to me.  We live in a world where unimaginable knowledge is at our fingertips. We can search up the answer to any question and get immediate answers.  Yet we too easily forget that the knowledge we obtain through our Google searches was first obtained through the time and labor of seekers like the scientists aboard the Tiglax.

The goal of this project is to understand the dynamics of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, but one of the major challenges in oceanography is the vastness of its subject.  This project contains 60-70 sampling stations and 1,800 nautical miles of observational transects, but that is just a few pin pricks in a great wide sea. Imagine trying to understand the plot of a silent movie while watching it through a darkened curtain that has just a few specks of light passing through.

 

Transect lines for the North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Program.
“Pinpricks in the ocean,” Transect lines for the North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Program.

Did You Know?

Storm petrels periodically land on ships to seek cover from winds or storms.  They are one of the smaller sea birds, at just a few ounces they survive and thrive in the wild wind and waves of the Gulf of Alaska.

Last night we had a forked-tailed storm petrel fly into the drying room as I was removing my rain gear between zooplankton tows.  A softball-sized orb of grey and white feathers, it weighed almost nothing and stared at me with deep black and nervous eyes as I picked it up, wished it well, and released it off the stern of the boat.  It was a cool moment.

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin whales
  • Lots of seabirds including Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwater, and an osprey that followed the boat for half the night
  • Mola mola (ocean sunfish), which was far north of its normal range

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III – Zooplankton, September 15, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 15, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds southerly 20 knots, waves to eight feet

57.56 N, 147.56 W (in transit from Gulf of Alaska Line to Kodiak Line)

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part III Zooplankton

The North Gulf of Alaska Long-term Ecological Research Project collects zooplankton in several different ways.  The CalVET Net is dropped vertically over the side of the boat to a depth of 100 meters and then retrieved.  This net gives researchers a vertical profile of what is going on in the water column.  The net has very fine mesh in order to collect very small plankton.  Some of these samples are kept alive for later experiments. Others are preserved in ethanol for later genetic analysis. One of the scientists aboard is interested in the physiological details of what makes copepods thrive or not.  Copepods are so important to the food webs of the Gulf of Alaska, that their success or failure can ultimately determines the success or failure of many other species in the ecosystem.  When “the blob” hit the Gulf of Alaska in 2014-2016, thousands and thousands of sea birds died.  During those same years, copepods were shown to be less successful in their growth and egg production.

Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net
Chief Scientist Russ Hopcroft prepping the Multi-net

The second net used to collect zooplankton is the Multi-net.  We actually use two different Multi-nets.  The first is set up to do a vertical profile.  In the morning, it’s dropped vertically behind the boat.  Four or five times a night, we tow the second Multi-net horizontally while the boat moves slowly forward at two knots.  This allows us to collect a horizontal profile of plankton at specific depths.  If the water depth is beyond 200 meters, we will lower the net to that depth and open the first net.  The first net samples between 200 and 100 meters, above 100 meters we open the second net.  As we go up each net is opened in decreasing depth increments, the last one being very close to the surface.  Once the net is retrieved, we wash organisms down into the cod end, remove the cod end, and preserve the samples in glass jars with formalin. In a busy night, we may put away twenty-five pint-sized samples of preserved zooplankton.  When those samples go back to Fairbanks they have to be hand-sorted by a technician to determine the numbers and relative mass of each species.  We are talking hours and hours of time spend looking through a microscope.  One night of work on the Tiglax may produce one month of work for technicians in the lab.

 

Underwater footage of a Multi-net triggering.

The last type of net we use is a Bongo net.  Its steel frame looks like the frame of large bongo drums.  Hanging down behind the frame is two fine mesh nets, approximately seven feet long terminating in a hard plastic sieve or cod end.  Different lines use different nets based on the specific questions researchers have for that transect line or the technique used on previous years transects.   To maintain a proper time series comparison from year to year, techniques and tools have to stay consistent.

A cod end
A cod end

I’ve spent a little bit of time under the microscope looking at some of the zooplankton samples we have brought in. They are amazingly diverse. The North Gulf of Alaska has two groups of zooplankton that can be found in the greatest abundance: copepods and euphausiids (krill.)    These are food for most other animals in the North Gulf of Alaska.  Fish, seabirds, and baleen whales all eat them.  Beyond these two, I was able to observe the beating cilia of ctenophores and the graceful flight of pteropods or sea angels, the ghost-like arrow worms, giant-eyed amphipods, and dozens of others.

Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls
Deep sea squid, an example of a vertical migrator caught in our plankton trawls

By far my favorite zooplankton to watch under the microscope was the larvae of the goose neck barnacle.  Most sessile marine organisms spend the early, larval stage of their lives swimming amongst the throngs of migrating zooplankton.  Barnacles are arthropods, which are defined by their exoskeletons and segmented appendages.  Most people would recognize barnacles encrusting the rocks of their favorite coastline, but when I show my students videos of barnacles feeding most are surprised to see the delicate feeding structures and graceful movements of this most durable intertidal creature.  When submerged, barnacles open their shells and scratch at particles in the water with elongated combs that are really analogous to legs. The larva of the goose neck barnacle has profusely long feeding appendages and a particularly beautiful motion as it feeds.

We have to “fish” for zooplankton at night for two reasons.  The first is logistical.  Some work needs to get done at night when the winch is not being used by the CTD team.  The second is biological.  Most of the zooplankton in this system are vertical migrators.  They rise each night to feed on phytoplankton near the surface and then descend back down to depth to avoid being seen in the daylight by their predators.  This vertical migration was first discovered by sonar operators in World War II.  While looking for German U-boats, it was observed that the ocean floor itself seemed to “rise up” each night.  After the war, better techniques were developed to sample zooplankton, and scientists realized that the largest animal migration on Earth takes place each night and each morning over the entirety of the ocean basins.


One of my favorite videos on plankton.

Personal Log

The color of water

This far offshore, the water we are traveling through is almost perfectly clear, yet the color of the ocean seems continuously in flux.  Today the sky turned gray and so did the ocean.  As the waves come up, the texture of the ocean thickens and the diversity of reflection and refraction increases.   Look three times in three directions, and you will see three hundred different shades of grey or blue.  If the sun or clouds change slightly, so does the ocean.

The sea is anything but consistent. Rips or streaks of current can periodically be seen separating the ocean into distinct bodies.  So far in our trip, calm afternoons have turned into windy and choppy evenings. Still, the crew tells me that by Gulf of Alaska standards, we are having amazing weather.

Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.
Variations in water texture created by currents in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Did You Know?

The bodies of puffins are much better adapted to diving than flying.  A puffin with a full belly doesn’t fly to get out of the way of the boat so much as butterfly across the surface of the water.  Michael Phelps has nothing on a puffin flapping its way across the surface of the water.

 

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales in the distance
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwaters

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part II – Phytoplankton, September 14, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 14, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds variable 10 knots, waves to four feet

58.27 N, 148.07 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part II Phytoplankton

Most of my students know that the sun provides the foundational energy for almost all of Earth’s food webs.  Yet many students will get stumped when I ask them, where does the mass of a tree comes from?  The answer of course is carbon dioxide from the air, but I bet you already knew that.

Scientists use the term “primary productivity” to explain how trees, plants, and algae take in carbon dioxide and “fix it” into carbohydrates during the process of photosynthesis.  Out here in the Gulf of Alaska, the primary producers are phytoplankton (primarily diatoms and dinoflagellates). When examining diatoms under a microscope, they look like tiny golden pillboxes, or perhaps Oreos if you are feeling hungry.

Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.
Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.

One of the teams of scientists on board is trying to measure the rates of primary productivity using captive phytoplankton and a homemade incubation chamber. They collect phytoplankton samples, store them in sealed containers, and then place them into the incubator.  Within their sample jars, they inject a C13 isotope.  After the experiment has run its course, they will use vacuum filtration to separate the phytoplankton cells from the seawater.  Once the phytoplankton cells are captured on filter paper they can measure the ratios of C12 to C13. Almost all of the carbon available in the environment is C12 and can be distinguished from C13.  The ratios of C12 to C13 in the cells gives them a measurement of how much dissolved carbon is being “fixed” into sugars by phytoplankton.  Apparently using C14  would actually work better but C14 is radioactive and the Tiglax is not equipped with the facilities to hand using a radioactive substance.

During the September survey, phytoplankton numbers are much lower than they are in the spring.  The nutrients that they need to grow have largely been used up.  Winter storms will mix the water and bring large amounts of nutrients back to the surface.  When sunlight returns in April, all of the conditions necessary for phytoplankton growth will be present, and the North Gulf of Alaska will experience a phytoplankton bloom.  It’s these phytoplankton blooms that create the foundation for the entire Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

Personal Log

Interesting things to see

The night shift is not getting any easier.  The cumulative effects of too little sleep are starting to catch up to me, and last night I found myself dosing off between plankton tows.  The tows were more interesting though.  Once we got past the edge of the continental shelf, the diversity of zooplankton species increased and we started to see lantern fish in each of the tows.  Lantern fish spend their days below one thousand feet in the darkness of the mesopelagic and then migrate up each night to feed on zooplankton.  The have a line of photophores (light producing cells) on their ventral sides.  When they light them up, their bodies blend in to the faint light above, hiding their silhouette, making them functionally invisible.

A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.
A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.

Once I am up in the morning, the most fun place to hang out on the Tiglax is the flying bridge.  Almost fifty feet up and sitting on top of the wheelhouse, it has a cushioned bench, a wind block, and a killer view.  This is where our bird and marine mammal observers work.  Normally there is one U.S. Fish and Wildlife observer who works while the boat is transiting from one station to the next.  On this trip, there is a second observer in training.  The observers’ job is to use a very specific protocol to count and identify any sea bird or marine mammal seen along the transect lines.

Today we saw lots of albatross; mostly black-footed, but a few Laysan, and one short-tailed albatross that landed next to the boat while were casting the CTD.  The short-tailed albatross was nearly extinct a few years ago, and today is still considered endangered. That bird was one of only 4000 of its species remaining.  Albatross have an unfortunate tendency to follow long-line fishing boats.  They try to grab the bait off of hooks and often are drowned as the hooks drag them to the bottom.  Albatross are a wonder to watch as they glide effortlessly a few inches above the waves.  They have narrow tapered wings that are comically long. When they land on the water, they fold their gangly wings back in a way that reminds me of a kid whose growth spurts hit long before their body knows what to do with all of that height.   While flying, however, they are a picture of grace and efficiency.  They glide effortlessly just a few inches above the water, scanning for an unsuspecting fish or squid.  When some species of albatross fledge from their nesting grounds, they may not set foot on land again for seven years, when their own reproductive instincts drive them to land to look for a mate.

Our birders seem to appreciate anyone who shares their enthusiasm for birds and are very patient with all of my “What species is that?” questions.  They have been seeing whales as well.  Fin and sperm whales are common in this part of the gulf and they have seen both.

A Laysan Albatross
A Laysan Albatross, photo credit Dan Cushing

 

Did You Know?

Albatross, along with many other sea birds, have life spans comparable to humans.  It’s not uncommon for them to live sixty or seventy years, and they don’t reach reproductive maturity until well into their teens.

 

Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwater

 

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part I – Chemistry, September 13, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 13, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clear skies, variable winds, swell 4-6 ft

59.58 N, 148.38 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part I Chemistry

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Gulf of Alaska Line.
CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Gulf of Alaska Line.

The scientists aboard this ship are trying to understand the working parts of the North Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.  Since Descartes, the western approach to science has required that the understanding of complex systems begin with the reduction of a system it to its simpler working parts.  For example, to understand the clock, you must take it apart and try to understand the mechanism of each piece separately.  The Gulf of Alaska is huge, and its ecosystem is both highly complex and highly variable.  Changes take place because of weather, season, and climactic regime.  Nonetheless, the first step to understanding it is to understand its chemistry.

The CTD gets dropped or “cast” at each station.  On this boat, that means four people shoving it out the back door while trying not to fall out themselves. There is more than $100,000 worth of equipment attached to the CTD Rosette and there is a moment in each cast where the CTD swings precariously before the winch lowers it down into the water. When the CTD comes back up, all of that data is run through a computer and it paints a picture of what conditions are like at depth.

Inside the "van" where water samples are processed for trace medals
Inside the “van” where water samples are processed for trace medals

CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, depth.  In reality, it tests for those things plus salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, pressure, and florescence (which is a measurement of the chlorophyll in phytoplankton).  The CTD also has a camera onboard that takes gray-scale images of particles and plankton in the water column as it goes down.  Most of our CTD “casts” are showing a water column that is highly stratified, with a surface layer that is relative warm (34o Celsius), lower salinity, and a chlorophyll maximum around twenty meters.  The CTD shows a thermocline (rapid change in temperature) around fifty meters.  Below that, the water is colder and has a higher salinity, both of which results in water with a higher density.  The density differences between these two layers make it so that they don’t easily mix.  The stratification effect had been intensified by the recent stretch of sunny weather and light winds.  Stratification by density “traps” phytoplankton at the surface in waters ideal for photosynthesis except that in September, the availability of nutrients needed for growth is quite low.  Nitrates, nitrites, and silica have been used up by growing phytoplankton earlier in the summer and their absence now limits growth.

Catch from a Multi-net, mostly small euphausiids (krill)
Catch from a Multi-net, mostly small euphausiids (krill)

We have scientists on board measuring the surface waters for trace metals – iron in particular. It’s a common joke on board that the smaller the subject you study, the greater the equipment needs.  Whale watchers just need binoculars but the chemists have their own lab set up inside a twenty-foot shipping container or “van” strapped to the top deck.   The metals team drags a missile shaped device along the side of the boat known as an “iron fish.”  The iron fish, is connected to a long plastic tube and pump that provides them a constant stream of surface water.  Samples are continuously collected and frozen for later analysis back in Fairbanks.   Months of work will be required to process all of the samples collected on this trip.

A three-spined stickleback
A three-spined stickleback

Our plankton catches were much less variable last night.  The Multi-net caught almost exclusively small euphausiids (krill.)  The Methot net caught four kinds of jellies, including one moon jelly that the jelly expert was very excited about – perhaps a species not described in Alaska before.  The Methot net also caught a lot of small fishes swimming at the surface. One of which was the three-spine stickleback.  This was exciting for me because the three-spine stickleback is a species we use in my AP Biology class as an easy to understand and highly local example of natural selection.  The three-spine stickleback is a small fish, around 1 inch in size, found in both fresh and saltwater.  In saltwater, they have three large spines that discourage predators from eating them. Out here in the ocean, the spines give the fish a selective advantage.  During the last ice age, some sticklebacks were trapped in fresh water ponds and lakes in South Central Alaska.  There, they underwent a change.  The spines which were such a great defense in the ocean were a disadvantage to them in freshwater.  Aggressive dragonfly larva use the spines like handles to grab the small fish and eat them.  Over time there was a selective advantage to have smaller spines, and today freshwater sticklebacks have greatly reduced pelvic spines as compared to their saltwater cousins. Natural selection did not design a better fish, it simply picked which variants were more likely to survive and reproduce in its environment.

Personal Log

Cetacean acoustic recording buoy recovered by the Tiglax.
Cetacean acoustic recording buoy recovered by the Tiglax.

My second night shift was not any easier, but it was more pleasant.  Just before sunset, we took a slight detour from our transect line to recovery a buoy for a scientist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.  An acoustic recorder, designed to count whales by their unique calls, it had been deployed a year earlier in 900 meters of water.  The crew had onboard a device that would talk to the buoy and signal it to release from its mooring.  It took about a half an hour, but eventually there we saw it bobbing at the surface.  Luckily the seas were pretty calm, and we were able to pull it through the side door.

The seas and weather continue to be excellent.  Last night we were treated to a display of the aurora around 3:30 AM.  It was so calm and so quiet that at one point, we could hear whales breathing around us.  Both served as distractions to the routine of net deployment, net retrieval, sample containment, repeat.

As we traveled the ten nautical miles between stations, the flood lights on the front deck were turned off and I would sit down to watch the stars.  To ancient mariners, the clear night sky was a map that could direct you across an ocean. It made me think of the Polynesian navigators tracking their small canoes across the Pacific.  It also made me think about Ptolemy, who thought the Earth was encased in a perfect glass sphere with stars painted along its interior.  I could see how you would think of such a sky as art.

Did You Know?

Did you know the Earth is round?  It seems silly to have to say, but as a science teacher, the battle against the fantasies and fallacies of the Internet are never ending.  Last year was the first year in twenty-one years of teaching that I was challenged by a student to prove to him that the Earth is round, and it happened twice.  So here goes.  On a boat in the Gulf of Alaska on a clear day, you know the Earth is round because as you move slowly away from the mountains, they disappear from the bottom up.  By the end of the day we had traveled far enough from shore that we saw just the snow-covered tips of mountain peaks.

Sunset, it must be time to go to work.
Sunset with the mountains receding in the background, it must be time to go to work.

Animals Seen Today

  • Dall porpoise
  • Lots of seabirds including black-footed and Laysan albatross, sooty shearwater, puffins and fulmars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Night Work, September 12, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018

 

Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 12, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially Cloudy, Variable Winds, Seas to 3ft

59.43 N, 149.21 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)

 

Science Log

Night Work

Loading gear on the Tiglax
Loading gear on the Tiglax

Most of day one was spent loading, sorting, unpacking, and storing gear.  Scientists do not travel light.  There were more action packers on board than I have ever seen in once place. At midday, we had a safety training, which consisted of learning how to put on a survival suit and how to use the coffee machine without flooding the galley.  For night work, I was assigned a mustang float coat, a water activated flash light, and satellite locator, so that they could find my body if I went overboard.

After dinner, work shifted to putting together various nets and the CTD which I will describe in more detail later.  We got underway at about 8:00 PM, just as the sun was setting. I slept for an hour and was woken at 10:30 to begin my shift doing zooplankton tows.

The first tow uses a Methot net, which is a large square steel frame attached by d-rings to a heavy mesh net, ten meters long.  The net ends in a plastic sieve tube called a “cod end” that keeps any jellies from escaping.  The net is quite heavy, and it takes four of us to guide it as a crane raises it off of the deck and then lowers it over the side.  The net is dragged at the surface for twenty minutes.  In the darkness of night, it glows slightly green as ctenophores and other bioluminescent jellies smash into it.

Dave demonstrating the proper technique for putting on a survival suit
Dave demonstrating the proper technique for putting on a survival suit

After the Methot net is retrieved and secured on deck, we leave the collected jellies for a few minutes to go deploy the next net, called a Multi-net.  The Multi-net is a steel box about the size of a dishwasher with a funnel entrance and five separate fine-mesh nets hanging off of the back.  The net also has a heavy “fish fin” that acts to drag it down and keep it moving straight.  The four of us work the net to the edge of the boat, open the back gate, and use two winches to lower it overboard.  Once in the water and if the bottom depth allows it, the Multi-net gets dropped to a depth of two hundred meters and the first net is opened.  The Multi-net allows you to “carve up the water column.”  Each net can be triggered remotely to open and collect a horizontal sample of zooplankton at a specific depth.  The electronics also allow you to measure how much water volume flows through the net.  Each net is about two meters long, made of a fine mesh that funnels plankton into a soft sieve or “cod end”. While the Multi-net is “fishing,” we sort, classify, and measure the jellies collected in the Methot net tow.

A Methot Net Tow
A Methot Net Tow

The Seward Line Transect is made up of fifteen stops or stations.  Each one designated as GAK1, GAK2, etc. Once we finish sampling a station, the boat speeds up and drives us ten nautical miles to the next station.  Last night we managed to sample four stations, finishing the last one just as the sun rose around 7:00 AM.  When daylight comes, the Tiglax makes its way back to the place the night shift began.  All of the day-time sampling has to be done at each of the stations we sampled the night before.  The day-time sampling uses different tools, the main tool being the CTD Rosette Sampler.  The Rosette is a steel cage with water collecting “Niskin Bottles” and lots of other instrumentation strapped into the cage. There are fifteen bottles and each is triggered by computer to close at a specific depth.  This allows the scientists on board to measure a variety of physical and chemical properties of the water at depth.

Personal Log

The night shift was surprisingly dark.  That may sound obvious, but after a long Alaskan summer, with campfires and hikes that often went past midnight in perfect daylight, dark is an adjustment.   The night was beautiful and warm, but the work of deploying and retrieving nets was tedious and physical.  By morning I was exhausted, but I was reminded repeatedly that there are no cutting corners.  No matter how tired you get, each sample needs to be meticulously cared for.

After the sun came up, I forced myself to eat some breakfast and then I fell in bed for a hard sleep.  I could only stay there for a couple hours before my well-trained, morning-self wanted to greet the day.  The day was flawless, picture-perfect, sunny and calm, the kind of days you don’t often seen in the stormy Gulf of Alaska.

Animals Seen Today

  • Dall Porpoise
  • Lots of seabirds, including black-legged kittiwakes, pelagic cormorants, and sooty and flesh-footed shearwaters.
Shearwater taking off
Shearwater taking off, photo credit Callie Gesmundo

 

 

 

 

Mark Van Arsdale: Flexibility, September 5, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 27, 2018

Mission: Long-Term Ecological Research in the North Gulf of Alaska, aka The Seward Line Transects

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 5, 2018

Latitude: 61.3293° N
Longitude: 149.5680° W
Air Temperature: 60° F
Sky: Clear

Logistics Log

When I read the instructions for my application to NOAA Teacher at Sea, they emphasized the necessity for flexibility.  Alaskans, in my mind, epitomize flexibility.  The climate demands it.   When the weather changes, you have to adjust to it.  Not doing so can put you or others at risk.

My original cruise should have departed this weekend into the Bering Sea, but NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson developed problems with its propulsion system. Rather than sailing this research cruise, she will be in Kodiak under repair. I was pretty bummed when I got the news, but I really feel for all of those PhD students whose thesis projects needed the data from that trip.

RV Tiglax
RV Tiglax

The wonderful folks at NOAA told me that they were working on a new assignment, most likely in Southeastern US.  I tried to wait patiently, but I was thinking about how much I wanted to teach Alaskan kids about the ocean just a few miles from them.  Meanwhile, I had to cancel my substitute teacher.  My sub has done some biological fieldwork, and when I talked to him he was very understanding.  The funny thing was I got an email from his wife the next day, saying that she might have a berth for me.  It turns out she works for the North Pacific Research Board and was familiar with most of the fisheries and ecological research going on in coastal Alaska.  The berth was on the R/V Tiglax  (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle).  The Tiglax is not a NOAA vessel.  It is owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and operated jointly by the National Science Foundation.  NOAA Teacher at Sea does occasionally partner with other organizations.  After a few days of waiting, I was told that this cruise met the NOAA Teacher at Sea criteria.

Bringing an end to my long logistical story, I leave Monday on a trip into the Gulf of Alaska for seventeen days aboard the Tiglax.

Science Log

The science behind my new project is pretty exciting.  The Seward Line Transects have been run every summer since 1997 – every May and every September.  Weather permitting, we will repeat the Seward Line Transect (seen below in black) along with four other transects.  Each transect begins at a near shore location and makes it past the edge of the continental shelf into the deep waters of the Pacific.  At each transect station, water is collected using a CTD to test the physical and chemical properties of the water at that location.  A variety of plankton collection nets will be also be deployed.   One of these sampling stations (GAK-1) has been sampled continuously for plankton and water chemistry for forty-eight years, representing an incredible wealth of long term ecological data.

Here is Caitlin Smoot (who will be on board with me) talking about how Zooplankton is collected aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, another vessel that operates in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log

The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project
The transect lines that make the North Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Research Project

My job will be working the night shift, helping to collect plankton.  I go out of my way in all of my classes to look at plankton.  I even wrote a lab using diatoms to investigate a suspicious drowning death for my forensic science class. I’ve been collecting and examining freshwater plankton around my home in Eagle River, Alaska with my science classes for years, but rarely have I gotten to look at marine plankton.  I’m excited to learning how plankton is collected at sea and how those collections are used to calculate relative abundance of plankton in the Gulf of Alaska from these samples.

In my classroom, I am always on the look out for how to better connect students to the science I am teaching.  I’ve taught Oceanography for fifteen years but never been on an oceanographic cruise.  I am hopeful this trip gives me a depth of experience that my students will benefit from.

As I get closer, I am not without some anxieties.  I’m the very definition of a morning person, so working the night shift is going to be an adjustment.  Just being aboard the Tiglax is going to be an adjustment.  At a length of 120 feet, the Tiglax is a small research vessel with pretty limited facilities and no Internet connection.  I’ve been in a lot of boats, but I don’t recall ever being beyond the sight of land.  Those transect lines go way out into the ocean, and I wonder what it will feel like to be 150 miles from shore.

Did You Know?

The average depth of the ocean approaches 3,700 meters (12,000 feet.) The Seward Line transect begins in water only 100 meters deep and moves into water greater than 4000 meters in depth.

Mark Van Arsdale, How Big is Alaska Anyway? August 13, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

September 3–14, 2018

Mission: Bering Sea Juvenile Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Dutch Harbor, Alaska

Date: August 13, 2018

Latitude: 61.3293° N
Longitude: 149.5680° W
Air Temperature: 56° F
Sky: Rain (typical weather for August in AK)

Cascade Glacier
Me standing in front of the rapidly melting Cascade Glacier, Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound.

Personal Introduction

My name is Mark Van Arsdale.  I am a high school teacher in Eagle River, Alaska.  Eagle River is a bedroom community just outside of Anchorage.  At ERHS, I teach AP Biology, Forensic Science, Oceanography, and Marine Biology.  I will be aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson as a participant in the 2018 NOAA Teacher at Sea program.

It’s raining right now, and I am sitting in my kitchen contemplating the start of the new school year next week and the start of a new adventure next month.   In three weeks I will fly from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, Alaska to join the scientists and crew of the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.  Even though I will never leave the state, I will fly 796 miles, the same distance as flying from New York to Chicago.  Alaska is an incredibly large state, almost 600,000 square miles of land and 34,000 miles of coastline.  My adventure will take me into the Bering Sea.  Although I have never been there, I have a connection to the Bering Sea.  Like many other Alaskans’, much of the salmon and other seafood my family eats spends all or part of its lifecycle traveling through the rich waters of the Bering Sea.

Alaska map
At 591,000 square miles, Alaska is as wide as the lower 48 states and larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Copyright Alaska Sea Adventures.

Alaska and Alaskans are highly dependent on the oceans. Commercial fishing in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea produces more groundfish (pollock, cod, rockfish, sablefish, and flatfish) than any other place in the country, close to 2 million metric tons per year. In 2013 that was valued at over $2 billion.  Fishing is consistently Alaska’s top non-government employer and after oil, seafood represents our largest export.  Thousands of residents participate every year in subsistence fishing, and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Alaska each year, many with the hopes of catching a wild salmon or halibut (facts from the Alaska Sea Grant).

My classroom is less than five miles from the ocean (Cook Inlet Estuary), yet many of the students I teach have never seen the ocean.  They may not know the importance of the ocean to our state.  When I teach Oceanography and Marine Biology, I work very hard to connect my students to both the science and industry of the oceans.  Not just so that my students can understand what kind of work that scientist and fishermen do, but also so that they will understand the value of the work do.

I have been in the classroom for twenty years, and in the last few years I have seen more and more students entering my classroom who see no value in science.  Science matters!  The oceans and our relationship to the oceans matter!  I am hopeful that working on board the Oscar Dyson with a team of scientists is going to help me make those connections better.

Have I mentioned yet that I love fish?  I love to study fish, teach about fish, catch fish, cook fish, eat fish, watch fish.  So I am pretty excited about spending two weeks on a research cruise dedicated to fish research, and working with some of the Scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

IMG_8559
A Quillback rockfish caught in Prince William Sound.