Staci DeSchryver: A Front Row Seat to the Bottom of the Ocean, August 12, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical Area:  Gulf of Alaska

Location:  Kodiak, AK
Heading: back to the docks
Date: August 12, 2011

Weather Data From the Bridge: N/A

Science and Technology Log

My last night on the Oscar Dyson was a busy one!  Because our trip was cut so short, we had to “break protocol” so to speak.  Typically, nighttime operations consist of seafloor mapping (which I will get to in a minute), and do not consist of trawling for Pollock.  For science students, you probably have a good idea why – running operations only in the daytime means that the experiment is controlled.  Since Pollock behave differently in the night-time, it is important to only run operations when their behavior is consistent.  However, because we were so short on time, we had to make a “run” for the shelf break that got us to the area well after dark.  So we got to do one more trawl!  This one was the best kind, in my humble opinion.  We completed a bottom trawl, which means that the net went almost down to the bottom of the ocean – within a couple of meters.  The reason why bottom trawls are so neat is because there are plenty of ocean critters down there that the average Joe doesn’t get to see on a daily basis.  Of course, the scientists do their absolute best to catch only Pollock to minimize bycatch, but one or two fish of different species are difficult to avoid.  On this trawl, we had a few jellies, two Pacific Ocean Perch, and a Herring.  We finished late – right around one in the morning.  At that time, we began our night-time operations.

Night time operations are run by Dr. Jodi Pirtle.   Dr. Pirtle is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of New Hampshire  Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping.  Her research is a collaborative effort between the UNH CCOM and the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.   Even though Jodi is traveling all the way from New Hampshire,  she is actually very close to home right now.  She is quite connected to the Alaska fisheries – she grew up in Alaska, and has both family and friends who are involved in the commercial fishing industry.  The fisheries hold a place very close to her heart, and her passion for her current line of work is well evident.

So, why, then, does Dr. Pirtle work in the cover of night?

acoustics lab
Here, the scientists are working in the acoustics lab on daytime operations. As you can see, most of the electronic equipment is used during the day. At night, Dr. Pirtle gets the opportunity to chart her own path and select an area to map without interfering with the ship's primary operations.

At first I suspected it was some sort of secret service operation, but the reality is much more strange and explainable.  Her line of work is a side project on the Oscar Dyson, which means that she can work when the ship is not working for its primary purposes.  Hence, she works from 6pm until 6am.   One focus of her research is to identify whether or not certain areas of the Gulf of Alaska are trawlable or untrawlable by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center bottom-trawl survey for groundfish.   How is an area determined to be untrawlable?  Let’s say, for example, there is a commercial fishing ship somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska.  This ship decides to do a similar trawl as the one that I did earlier this evening, but they use a net that makes contact with the seafloor because they are fishing for groundfish species – say, Rockfish, for example.  But, something happens.  When the net comes up, it is all torn up – as though it got caught on a series of rocks or ledges.  In order to warn other ships of the dangers of losing a very expensive net, the fisherman deems the area “untrawlable.”  It’s kind of like putting caution tape around the area.

Untrawlable areas are problematic for scientists because every area deemed untrawlable is an area where they can’t sample with the bottom-trawl gear.  For example, a large component of the groundfish fishery are several species of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) that associate with a rocky habitat.  Rockfish are delicious with garlic and butter, but they are sneaky little guys because they like hanging out around rocks (who knew?).  Many rockfish could be in areas that are untrawlable, but scientists would never know because it is inadvisable to tow a bottom-trawl net in the area to find out.  In a sense, untrawlable areas are a source of error, or uncertainty in the population estimate for species of groundfish in those areas.  This is where Dr. Pirtle’s research starts.

A few years ago, a group did research in an area called Snakehead Bank – a location previously deemed to be untrawlable.  They wanted to tighten the definition of “untrawlable.”  For example, there is a possibility that an untrawlable area is covered with steep cliffs, many sharp, large rocks, and impossibly tough relief.  However, there is also the possiblity that the area is relatively flat and trawlable, but the fisherman was just unlucky enough to drag his or her net over a rogue boulder that found its way onto the vast, flat, continental shelf.  So, the scientists decided to see what kind of “untrawlable” this particular area was.   The group took the time to make a bathymetric profile of the area and couple that research with camera drops – video cameras that would make the trek to the bottom of the ocean and provide a second set of data for scientists to confirm what the bathymetric profile showed them.  From the camera drops and the bathymetry, the scientists determined that Snakehead bank was not completely untrawlable – in fact, most areas could support trawl nets without the risk of tearing the nets.  Dr. Pirtle is continuing with this important work.

One focus of the research is determining seafloor trawlability in the Gulf of Alaska using the same acoustic transducers that we use to catch fish in our daytime operations.  The fishery that the  survey is concerned about  is groundfish –   a general term that encompasses many species such as flatfish, cod, and rockfish.  These sneaky guys enjoy habitats that are associated with rocky areas, so we are not getting the best estimate of populations in those areas.  Dr. Pirtle is looking in to alternative methods to determine whether an areas of the seafloor is untrawlable or trawlable using the mulibeam sonar.  Not only is she looking for areas that can now be considered trawlable, she’s also using the data she collects to determine certain seafloor characteristics.  Hardness, roughness, and grain size are all data that can be collected using the acoustic transducers.  This information will help her to determine the relative trawlability of an area, as well.  Therefore, the groundfish survey benefits because she is either finding areas to be trawlable (thus, they can now sample there) or somewhat trawlable, which can tell them ahead of time that alternative sampling methods might be needed in a particular area.

Her research is also concerned with developing alternative sampling methods for untrawlable locations.  These methods could involve a combination of acoustic seafloor mapping to characterize seafloor habitats for groundfish, acoustic midwater data (to observe the fish that like to hang out on tall pinnacles and rocky banks) and, the most fun method – dropping a camera to the ground to identify species and biomass assessment (which is a fancy term for seeing how many fish are in a particular area).  Improved understanding of groundfish habitats can lead to better management models, and the work Dr. Pirtle is doing can also contribute to conservation of areas that are sensitive to fishing gear that touches the seafloor.

The area that Dr. Pirtle decided to survey this evening was an area that was deemed to be untrawlable surrounded by many trawlable areas.  These areas are often good candidates for mapping and camera surveys because both untrawlable and trawlable seafloor types are likely to be encountered, so the area can more easily be compared against existing data.  We began our transects – driving transects with the ship over the area while sending sound waves to the bottom of the ocean to figure out differing ocean depths and seafloor type.  Transect lines are close together and driven in a pattern similar to mowing a lawn, which gives Dr. Pirtle 100% coverage of her targeted area.  Dr. Pirtle selects a location to drop a CTD – Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth meter – usually in the middle of the mapped area.  The CTD is used to estimate sound speed in the location she is mapping.  This is important because ocean depth is measured by the amount of time it takes for a sound wave to leave the ship, bounce off the ocean floor, and return back to the ship.

This is a photograph of a halibut on the uncharted pinnacle discovered by Dr. Pirtle, similar to what I saw real-time on the camera late at night.

She then selects three to five areas to conduct camera drops.  The camera travels to the bottom of the ocean where she can see if the area is untrawlable or trawlable based on what the camera shows her.  I, on the other hand, get to see deep ocean critters in their habitats, which is also very cool.   There are two types of camera drops – ones that record the information and then get played back later, and real-time camera drops where we can literally watch the camera make the trek to the bottom of the ocean in real-time.  Dr. Pirtle uses the camera data to “groundtruth” or check the seafloor type against her acoustic map, to identify fish and other animals in the area, and to observe how species use the seafloor habitat.

As my shift was coming to a close, I could barely keep my eyes open, but I didn’t want to miss this.  Tonight, we dropped the live camera into the depths.  I stayed awake for the first drop so I could see what these operations looked like.  Dr. Pirtle expertly maneuvered the camera into the deep using something that looked much like an old-school Atari controller.

slide o' fun
This photograph shows Dr. Pirtle's work in combination - the area she surveyed is in the bottom right corner. The other three photos are snapshots of the surveyed area.

As the camera dropped, we saw a few pollock and some other unidentified neritic creatures, but the real fun started when we got to the bottom.  It was intense as Dr. Pirtle relayed information back to the bridge about the direction in which to travel, holding the ship still in the waves and currents when she wanted to examine an area more closely, and communicate with the technicians on the hero deck to relay the height that she wanted the camera held at.  We saw all sorts of interesting creatures on the ocean floor – some arrowtooth flounder, a halibut, and Pacific Ocean Perch.  We also observed beautiful cold-water corals and sponges that form a living component of seafloor habitat for many marine animals, including our target – rockfish.   We even saw a shark!  It was completely worth getting to bed a little bit later to see this incredible work in real-time.

unmapped pinnacle
This is the unmapped pinnacle discovered by Dr. Pirtle and her colleague! Now, seafloor maps have been updated to include this potentially dangerous sea hazard.

On a side note, in a previous leg of the survey, Dr. Pirtle and her colleague from UNH CCOM, Glen Rice,  found an underwater pinnacle that was later determined to be a navigational hazard!  This pinnacle came so close to the surface of the water that in a “perfect storm” of low tide and a large enough ship with a deep enough hull, it could have unknowingly collided with this unmapped pinnacle – which could have potentially been disastrous.  Glen, a NOAA hydrographer, was able to update the navigational charts in the area, alerting ships to the pinnacle’s presence.  It just further supports the idea that the our oceans are so vastly unexplored – there is so much we don’t know about the feature that takes up the biggest portion of our Earth!   I asked her if she named it because she discovered it – I quickly learned that just because you find something in the Ocean, it doesn’t mean you get to keep it.  Apparently, you can’t name it, either.  But I still called it Pirtle’s Pinnacle.  I think it has a nice ring.

Personal Log

It was a sad day today watching the scientists pack up and box and tag the lab equipment and computers.  As everyone bustled about, I spent some time hanging out for the last time on the bridge, in the galley, and in the fish lab thinking about my journey coming to its close.  Although we spent the majority of it tied to the dock, I am so grateful for the opportunities we experienced that we otherwise would not have – it was a blessing in disguise, because we really got to experience all of Kodiak, and much of the bays and inlets around the island from the ship.  The pictures will bring no justice to the beauty I’ve experienced in the last three weeks, whether it was walking along a beach with wild horses or staring in all directions to find nothing but water for as far as the eye could see.  I spent an hour one night on the bridge watching the Leonids streak across the sky – a front row and first class seat, in my opinion.  I never though that dodging whales would be an area of concern in my small life until we sailed through pods of them every day.  If you would have told me three years ago I’d be petting an octopus three weeks ago, I would have called you a fool.  If you would have told me three hours ago that this experience would be coming to a close three minutes from now, I would believe you even less.  In the last three weeks, I have never laughed harder, worked more eagerly, or learned more with and from these incredible individuals who call this ship Home.  As I quietly stood on the bridge watching the fast rescue boat dart off to the docks, I remembered the last time it was in the water watching carefully over us as we swam around the ship in our gumby suits.  As we drove silently through the still waters to the city docks, we bade farewell to the animals that accompanied us on our trips – otters, eagles, puffins, and even sea lions gathered around to see us off to our homes and families.  Or, they just so happened to be there looking for food and doing other instinctual things, but I do really think I saw an otter wave me goodbye.

Here is a whale "waving goodbye" with his fluke in the Gulf of Alaska - I will never forget the journey I had here!

Thank you so much to the crew and scientists of the Oscar Dyson – you fed my soul this summer and rejuvenated me in a way I never could have imagined.  I am more revived today than I was on the first day of my second year of teaching (because, let’s face it, the first day of your first year you spend most of your time trying not to vomit) and I owe it completely to the Teacher at Sea Program and to all of the fine people I got to work with.  To my partner in crime, Cat Fox – I’ll see you when we’re landlocked again!  It was a total blast working with you.  Thanks for always being there for a good laugh and for finding me so many salmon berries!  If you are wondering whether or not you should apply for this program in the 2012 season – this is the advice I will give to you:  JUST APPLY!  It will change your life – promise.

Until our next adventure,

Staci DeSchryver

Did you know…

While I was working my night shift, I got the opportunity to help Dr. Pirtle “log the turns” of the ship as it was “mowing the lawn” in the zigzag pattern.  This meant that I got to communicate with the bridge via radio every time they ended a transect and began turning in the opposite direction.  I’m sure you may have predicted that this was most certainly a highlight of my work.  It took great restraint on my part to behave myself with the radio, as everyone knows that radios can be a lot of fun.  I did, however, let a few nautical words fly on the airwaves up to the bridge, one of them being “Roger, Willco.”

I had no clue where the origin of the word “Roger” came from.  But now I do…

Roger, which starts with the letter R, means “Received”, which means, “I received your last transmission.”  A long time ago, the radio alphabet (you know, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Foxtrot, Whiskey, etc.) used Roger to represent the letter R.  It has since been changed to “Romeo.”  Adding Willco to the end, means “I received your transmission, and I WILL COmply.”   So saying that I received a message from the bridge and I was going to comply with it really made me look like a navigational moron – because they weren’t asking me to comply with anything.  But I still had fun.

Staci DeSchryver: Don’t Hate, Just Calibrate! August 9, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location: Barnabas Strait  57 deg 22.630 N, 152 deg 24.910W 
Heading: 67.8 deg
Date: August 9, 2011

Weather Data From the Bridge
Partly Cloudy Skies
Temp: 13.5 deg
Dewpoint:  6 deg
Barometric Pressure: 1020 mb, falling, then steady
Wind:  240 deg at 12kts
Seas:  Calm
stn model 08.11

Science and Technology Log

The start of my first official shift onboard the Oscar Dyson was an interesting one!  We had lost some time (11 days) to some complications, so our cruise goals shifted a bit from the original plan.  We had to focus on the most important aspects of the mission, and sacrifice carefully, as it wasn’t plausible to complete the entire mission in the time allotted.  One of the major steps for completing the season was to do what is known as a calibration.  In order to save time, we did the calibration on my first night out on the job!

Calibrations are typically done during the daytime because the fish are curious little beasts.  During the day, they move lower in the water column, and therefore do not interfere with the calibration of the system, mainly because they are so far away they are oblivious to it.  At night, however, they party at a shallower depth, and sometimes their acoustic signatures can mar the data collected during a calibration.  It is critical to the scientists that they calibrate the acoustic system accurately, and if there is a school of fish swarming the calibration tools, well, it’s a big ‘ole mess.  Given that we are on a shortened time schedule, it made practical sense to conduct the calibration overnight.

Marshmallow has been very helpful on the trip. Here he is counting krill. I don't have the heart to inform him that these krill have already been counted.

Why do we calibrate the acoustic transducer?  Think of it like this.  Have you ever baked cookies before and followed the directions to the letter, only to have them come out of the oven like crispy critters or balls of goo?  Or, let’s say, you have a favorite recipe you use all the time, and you gave the recipe to a friend who makes the same cookies the same way, yet complains that they are overcooked?  Well, one of the reasons that the recipe may have not turned out was because either your oven, or your friend’s oven was not properly calibrated.  Let’s say, for example, the recipe calls to bake the cookies at 350 degrees for 15 minutes.

If you turn the dial to 350 degrees, it is reasonable to expect that the oven is, in fact, 350 degrees.  But there is an equal possibility that the oven is actually only 325, or maybe even 400 degrees.  How would you double check to see if your instrument is off its mark?  One solution is to heat the oven to 350, and use a meat or candy thermometer that you know has an accurate readout and then put the thermometer in the oven.  If the candy thermometer reads out at 350, you can be certain that your oven really is 350 when you turn it on.  If the candy thermometer reads out at 375, then you can be certain there’s an error in the readout of your instrument.  Calibration corrects for those errors.

Here you see Cat and I showing off the downrigger - the piece of equipment that holds the calibration spheres under the ship.

Calibration on this survey is important because scientists use information from the acoustic transducer to determine the types and abundance of organisms in the water column.  If the instrument they use to make these predictions is off in any way, then all of the data they collect could be determined to be insufficient or unreliable.  Calibration also ensures that acoustic measurements (and survey results) are comparable between different cruises, locations, and times.

Calibration is done much in the same way as an oven is calibrated.     We take an object that has a known and reliable return rate on the acoustic transducer, and hang it below the ship.  Then, the scientists will “ping” acoustic soundings off of the object and see how well the return matches up with the known return rate.  If it’s off, then they can “tune” the transducers, much like a guitar is tuned.

downriggers ii
Here, the chief scientist, Chris Wilson, double checks our superior downrigging work!

It is only necessary to calibrate the transducers twice per survey – once at the beginning of the survey (one was done in June) and one at the end of the survey (which was now).  When the transducer is calibrating, the ship must be as close to stationary as possible.  This is why the lead scientist chose to do the calibration at night – we can’t calibrate and conduct assessment surveys at the same time.  Therefore, it’s a one-pony show when the transducer is calibrating.  Almost all other scientific field work ceases while the calibration is completed.

There are two materials used for calibration for this particular transducer on the Oscar Dyson.  The first is Tungsten Carbide, and the second is pure Copper.  These small, spherical objects are quite cleverly hung below the ship off of three downriggers attached to the port and starboard rails.  In order to hang the spheres, the strings on either side of the ship must connect.  In a sense, we ask the Dyson to “jump rope” to get the calibration sphere underneath the ship in the correct position.

Calibration takes about six to eight hours to complete.  I got to help with setting the downriggers up, changing out the calibration spheres, and breaking down the equipment.  As it turns out, the transducer only needed minor adjustments this time, which is pretty typical for the ship.  However, it’s important to double check so that if there is a problem, it can be detected early and corrected.

Personal Log

Today, the chief engineer of the ship, Jeff, gave us a tour of the engine room.  Holy cow, was that impressive!  I don’t know what I was thinking when I  thought that the guts of this beast were contained in one small room.  They most decidedly are not.  There are two whole decks below the lowest level I know of – and they are filled with all kinds of interesting equipment.  We got to see all of the engines (there are 4 diesel generators), where the water is purified for consumption, and all of the internal components of the winch system that lowers and raises our fishing nets.  As if that weren’t enough, we popped open a floor hatch, climbed down the ladder two flights, and got to stand right on the “skin” of the boat.  Translation:  The only thing separating my feet and the big blue sea was a thin little piece of metal.  It was so cool.  The ship is designed to be “acoustically silent” – like a stealth fighter, except they don’t call it stealth and we aren’t fighting enemies – we are hunting fish.  Because of this, many of the larger pieces of equipment are hoisted up on platforms that silence their working parts.  The ship has diesel-electric propulsion.

engine rm
Here is just ONE of the four massive engines on the ship!

This means that there are four diesel generators that make electricity,  which then gets split into two different forms  – one type is for propulsion, and the other is for our lights and other conveniences.  It sounds really complicated, and much of what the engineers do on board is quite complicated, but everything onboard is smartly labeled to help the engineers  get the job done.  I also learned today what the funny numbers on all of the passage doors mean.  See the caption for a description.

door signs
Here is one of the door signs on the ship, which act like a "you are here" sign on a map. The first number tells us what floor we are on. The second number tells us what area of the ship we are in. The third number tells us whether we are port, starboard, or in the center of the ship.

One thing that Cat and I were discussing this morning while searching through binoculars in Alitak Bay for interesting woodland creatures was that we can go pretty much wherever we want to go on this ship.  Everyone who works and lives here is so friendly and welcoming.  They answer any of our questions (even the silly ones) and they all have such cool life stories.  What’s better is that everyone is willing to share what they’ve learned, experiences they’ve had, and accomplishments they’ve achieved to make it here.  I am aboard a utopian city bursting with genuine people who love what they do.  Now, please understand that it’s not that I ever expected the opposite for even a single second.  The science and technology is definitely neat, but the people who live and work here are what is making this trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Do you know….

Your Ship Superstitions?

1.  Bananas on a boat are considered bad luck.

2.  Black luggage for sailors is considered bad luck.

3.  One should never whistle – especially on the bridge or in the wheelhouse – you may whistle up a storm.

4.  To see a black cat before boarding is good luck.

5.  Dolphins swimming along the ship are good luck.

6.  Never sail on Friday – it’s unlucky.

7.  Never sail on the first Monday in April – also unlucky.

8.  Never say the word “Drown” on a ship, as it encourages the act.

9.  Sailors should avoid flat-footed people – they are bad luck.

10.  Never step onboard a ship with your left foot first.

Staci DeSchryver: A Whale of a Time, August 8, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location: Barnabas Trough  56 deg 54.05N, 152 deg 38.100W 
Heading: 252 at 2.4 kts
Date: August 8, 2011

Weather Data From the Bridge
Dry Bulb Temp:  11.0 deg C
Wet Bulb Temp: 10.0 deg C
Pressure:  1020 mb and steady
Cloud cover:  Mostly Cloudy, Altostratus
Wind:  16 kts at 271 deg
Station model 08.09

Science and Technology Log

One of the most important abilities the NOAA Corps officers should master is the capability of navigating the ship.  Today, I got a brief tour of the all of the neat gadgets on the bridge that keep us “headed” in the right direction!

The tour started off with me playing the “What if?” game.  Poor guys.  It went a little something like this:

ENS Rodziewicz:  This machine tells us our current heading.

Landlubber DeSchryver:  What if that thing breaks?  Then what?

ENS Rodziewicz:  Well, then we use this machine over here.

Landlubber Deschryver:  And if that breaks?

ENS Rodziewicz:  (sighs)  We use this alternate machine.

Landlubber DeSchryver:  And if that breaks?

ENS Rodziewicz:  Well,  this would be our last stop if we were in a real pinch.  He points to the magnetic compass.

Landlubber DeSchryver:  And what do you do if that breaks?

I realized my gaffe as it was flying out of my mouth.

He politely informed me that compasses don’t break.   I knew that.  I just didn’t remember it right that second…

Thankfully, he didn’t hold it over my head too long as the tour continued.  As it turns out, much of the tour went in the same manner.  The Oscar Dyson’s bridge can also be called the Department of Redundancy Department.  There are multiple back-up systems to combat malfunctions on all counts.  They even have a hand-held crank phone on the bridge in case things really head south.  The bridge has the following instruments/gadgets:

  • Two Radars to detect oncoming traffic/small islands
  • One computer screen to list, by name and give speed/direction of said oncoming traffic
  • Two computers for plotting course – one of them has “layering” capabilities to include depth, traffic, heading, and the ability to program the ship to steer itself
  • Speaking of steering – there are at least 4 separate places for the “driver” to “drive  the ship.”
  • Two compasses
  • A radio, hand-crank phone, and backup generator power supply for all items in the event of a cataclysmic failure.
  • A superior selection of hard candies for bridge visitor/users perusal.

After the tour, I was a little cross-eyed at all of the instrumentation and its capabilities.  I’ve also evaluated and concluded that the Oscar Dyson would be a great place to hole up in the event of an apocalypse, as she is truly ready for anything.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed looking at the multi-colored information recorders, but what I really wanted to know was “How did the old school guys get the job done?  You know, drive the ship with maps and compasses?”

nav tools
Here are some handy tools for navigation!

As it turns out, there are many factions of Old School sailing.  The oldest group had nothing more than a map, a compass, a sextant, and the stars or the sun to get the job done.  But we’ve been using GPS for quite some time now, so some would consider a single GPS system with satellite passes that would “ping” the ship twice a day as Old School.  It was a nice reminder that we certainly live in a different age!

One of the neat tricks I learned to do tonight was how to calculate the true wind speed.  If you aren’t familiar with true wind speed and direction, here’s a brief tutorial:

It’s time to think in terms of relativity.  Everything on Earth is relative to something else.  Think about the last time you got into a car and sat in the passenger seat.  Relative to the car, the passengers in the car don’t appear to be moving.  BUT…to an observer on the street outside of the car, both the driver and the passenger are moving – in a given direction with a given speed.  (To get technical, they are moving with velocity only – recall that velocity is speed with direction.)  Now, let’s picture riding in the back seat of a car.  The passengers in the front don’t appear to be moving.  If the driver accelerates past another moving car, the car that is getting passed appears to be moving backward.  Some people blame their eyes playing a trick on them.  They shouldn’t.  Relative to your position in the moving car, they are moving backward.  To viewers watching the cars move while standing on the street, both cars are moving forward.  Tricky.

Now, let’s think about this with a ship.  If a ship is trying to calculate the wind speed while it’s moving, it’s not going to get a good reading.  Why not?  The boat effectively creates its own wind as it’s zooming through the ocean.  It can also give a false direction because the ship is not necessarily cruising along in the same direction of the wind.  How do we solve the problem?

Tonight, I learned how to use a Maneuvering Board to calculate the true wind speed and direction.  A maneuvering board is like a fancy piece of circular graph paper that can do so much more than regular graph paper can.  If graph paper is the cat’s meow, the Maneuvering Board is the lion’s roar.    By drawing the vectors of the ship and the relative wind, the true wind can be calculated on the board.

maneuvering board
This board is useful to sailors becuase it can be used for many calculations - wind speed and direction, charting around stationary objects, and charting around other ocean traffic are some good examples.

Remember, the ship has a speed and a direction – its total motion is a vector quantity.  Wind also has a speed and a direction – its total movement is ALSO a vector quantity.  I’m sure as you read you can hear the vector demon whispering in your ear, prophesizing about what is to come…time to resolve vectors…time to resolve vectors…Just give in.  There’s no use fighting it, mostly because vectors are super-awesome.

In order to calculate the true wind speed, both the relative speed and direction of the wind and the true direction and speed of the ship must be taken into account.  Once those two vector quantities are added (or subtracted, depending on the motion of the ship and the wind) the true wind speed and direction can be calculated.

But we only have to do that if all of the instrumentation catastrophically fails on the bridge.  A lot of the people on the bridge will complete a maneuvering board on occasion, just to stay fresh.  Otherwise, you just read the screen.

Personal Log

WHALES!!!  WHALES EVERYWHERE!!!  Tonight as we were moving between transects, we were invited to join a humpback whale party.  I was on my way up to the bridge to see what sorts of shenanigans were going on when someone informed me that the bridge was the place to be because there was a whale.  Well, when I got to the bridge, it was NOT a whale.


There were at least 15.  It started off as two or three spouts in the distance.  Then came the tail flukes slowly and playfully slapping the water.  They were everywhere!  As if that weren’t a beautiful enough show, they began to breach – exploding out of the water and returning via a graceful dive.  We must have seen 8 to 10 breaches.  I don’t know if any one whale breached more than once, but it felt like just as one re-entered the water, someone was shouting “Breach!” in a completely different direction. Two swam within about 50 feet of the Dyson, and we had to change our course briefly for one particular whale who was fancying our transect line as a place to play.  We stayed up on the bridge for about an hour, just watching them have a good old time in the sea.  I’ve never seen anything like it, but I hope to see it again soon.  I got some on video, but my plan is to wait until I’m home to upload videos to my blog because it takes up a lot of internet to upload videos at sea.  It was an incredible and powerful sight.  Scientists still can’t completely confirm why they breach, in particular why humpback whales breach, but I’m not going to ask questions as long as they keep doing it!  What a trip!

In other news, I’ve been combatting seasickness quite handily (I hope I haven’t spoken too soon! Uh oh!) by using a transdermal ear patch.  I tried using  some other anti-seasick meds, and they worked just fine, but they made my brain feel foggy – not a good state to be in while assessing fish stocks!  Finally I just gave up and went to the patch.  I didn’t want to overload my body with medication, but it’s critical that I remain alert while at sea.  It is also critical that I do not hang halfway over the side-rails for extended periods of time.  After all, I still don’t have my sea legs.

AK Sun
I've been working hard, but when my view from the chem lab looks like this, I would call it hardly workin'. Gorgeous!

Up on the bridge, one of the NOAA Corps Officers asked me how long I had been wearing my patch.  I told him I was going on hour 48.  He told me I ought to take it off because my pupils were wildly dilated, which is a side effect of this particular medication.   Admittedly, I kind of blew the advice off, because even if my pupils are big, at least I’m not feeding fish.  A reasonable trade off in the grand scheme of things, in my meek opinion.

Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  Have you ever seen the cartoon classic feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Yeah.  I look like one of those bad-guy Toontown  weasels after he gets hit on the head with a frying pan.  Both of my pupils are large, but one (the one that shares the same side as the ear patch) is considerably larger.  In case you are having a hard time picturing this, I have converted this image into a “dilated emoticon face” to give you a reasonable  representation of my eyes:  o_O    <– me.   So, I’m currently at an impasse.  I was told that after three or so days at sea, it’s not necessary to continue medication because your body adjusts to everything constantly moving.  I don’t know how I feel about that.  I also don’t know how I feel about looking like a crazy cartoon weasel for the next five days.   So, with that being said, I think I may resolve the issue by cutting the patch in half and reducing the medication amount.  It is my hypothesis that my pupils may return to regular, well matched sizes at that juncture.  It is also my hypothesis that I will remain an able-bodied sea girl in doing so.  I guess we’ll see what happens.

Trivia Question:  Where was the Oscar Dyson built?  In what year was she launched?

*Answer:  She was built in Mississippi, and launched in 2005.

Staci DeSchryver: Fossilotimus Abundicus! August 6th, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska, Kalsin Bay
Heading: 213.0 (Stationary)
Date: August 6, 2011,  11:24 pm

Weather Data From the Bridge: click to view station model
Dry Bulb Temp:  10.8C
Wet Bulb temp:  9.9C
Skies: Partly Cloudy, Stratocumulus
Pressure:  1013.3mb, falling then steady
Dewpoint:  10C

Science and Technology Log

As part of our stay on shore, we took some time to travel out to a place called Fossil Beach.  Fossil Beach is located on the south-eastern side of Kodiak Island, on Chiniak Bay.  It is a popular attraction on Kodiak because it is near the Kodiak launch complex (a defense missile base !) and it is a popular surf beach.  I, however, find it incredible for a completely separate reason:  an utter abundance of fossils!

There isn’t much background information to be found on Fossil Beach.  The greatest extent one might find on the internet is “Drive southeast on the only road out of Kodiak.  Find fossils.”  To the layperson going out fossil hunting, that should be enough information.  But for me, however…I wanted to know much more about the conditions of formation, the types of fossils found there, and the age of the rocks in which I was digging.  As it turns out, if I wanted to dig up information on Fossil Beach, I would have to be as clever as I was the day I discovered so many of our extinct marine critter shells.   This experience turned into a bit of a scientific research project for me, as I formed hypotheses, tested my predictions, and revised my original ideas based on new findings.  This, kids, is science.

Walking around the outcrop gave some insights into the environment in which this rock strata formed.  The fossils were definitely nested in dark, muddy shale.  I noticed lots of mollusks, particularly clamshells, at first glance.  Shells were deposited in big, thick, chunks and layers.  What I noticed initially is that they weren’t really fossils.  A fossil, by definition, has been mineralized to a certain extent.   These weren’t.  However, some scientists conclude that the actual fossilization process is not necessary to call a particular dead animal a fossil – the only requirement is an extended period of time locked up in a rock.

fossil beach
Here is just one example of the plethora of fossils found at fossil beach! it's hard to walk away and not try to find the story of these guys.

What are the criteria for fossil formation?  A dead critter needs rapid burial and possession of hard parts.  An anoxic environment helps, as well.  Most soft-bodied critters do not survive the fossilization process, as their flesh will decay so rapidly that there isn’t enough time to fossilize.  It is not unheard of, however, to find soft parts fossilized.  For example, a fly or mosquito trapped in amber is considered to be a fossil – its entire body intact in the clear, honey-colored stone.

My first question, of course, was “what was the environment of formation for this particular set of fossils?”  Meaning, what type of environment did these critters live in before they croaked?  We can narrow it down to two distinct, but broadly categorized areas:  land? Or sea?   Well, let’s think for a moment about the standard conditions for fossil formation and use that to define the environment of formation.  Criteria 1:  Rapid burial.  Criteria 2:  Possession of hard parts.  Criteria 3:  Anoxic environment.  Consider for a moment rapid burial.  In what places may we find rapid burial?  Volcanic eruptions?  Maybe.   Land or mudslide?  Also a viable solution.  The next step is to rule out (or in) these two options.  In a volcanic eruption, the fossils would most certainly be nested in a layer of ash.  In a mudslide or a landslide, these critters would be nested in coarse-grained rock like sandstone. In our mystery case, we have fossils buried in a shale – which is a fine-grained, silty rock associated with slow-moving or stagnant water.  Neither of these options work.

Let’s try criteria 2 – possession of hard parts.  These shells are mainly mollusk – in particular clam shells.  Where do clams live?  The water.  It wouldn’t make sense for a clam to be fossilized in the middle of the desert, now would it?  In addition, the presence of shale does not necessarily indicate rapid burial, but it does indicate that if it were at the bottom of the ocean, it would be undisturbed for many years as it was buried.

Criteria 3 – an anoxic environment.  In this case, if a clam dies at the bottom of the ocean, it may be considered an anoxic environment, but not for certain.

Hypothesis:  confirmed.  These critters once roamed our seas, based on Criteria 2.

Here is an example of calcareous concretions - something I saw at fossil beach, and later used the article to confirm that this formation was indeed the Narrow Cape Formation. The Narrow Cape Formation is characterized partly by this conspicuous row of calcareous concretions. Two points for cross-referencing evidence to a published document! Woot! Minus two point for not putting something next to it for scaling purposes - the concretion is about the size of a soccer ball. Par for the course.

The next question to ask was “how long ago did the fossilization party take place?”  This one is a little more difficult to answer, but with some stealthy sleuthing and some assistance from my fellow Teacher at Sea, Cat, we came to a reasonable conclusion regarding the time frame.

At first glance on a large geologic map of Alaska, Fossil Beach is described as a Paleozoic Era beach.  However, this map was so broad and basic that if we were to “zoom” in on it right down to fossil beach, our perceptions would change about the age and conditions of formation.

I thought I saw large ammonite fossils at the beach, which would have confirmed my suspicions about a Paleozoic beach.  What didn’t fit, however, was that the mollusk fossils were not “fossilized” – and a Paleozoic/Mesozoic fossil like an ammonite would make the rock layers any age between 542 and 206 million years old.  Now, it’s not completely unheard of to find fossil in your midst that has retained all of its qualities and still be extremely old – there are a few fossils out there that are considered fossils, but haven’t “fossilized” in the traditional sense.  But 206 million years?  One would suspect that is plenty of time for a fossil to fossilize.  It didn’t jive.  This was my first clue that maybe this beach was much younger than the broad geologic map suggested.

The broad geologic map is a bit like a mosaic.  When viewed from far away, all a person may see is the color “blue”.  Up close, however, the intricate pieces that make up the mosaic are individually selected for their different shades and textures.  With the broad geologic map of Alaska, I discovered it wasn’t detailed enough to give me the information I needed.  At a distance, there is one big picture – the colors on the map key indicate that the rock formations that make up Kodiak are predominantly Paleozoic Sedimentary rocks.  This is a bit like calling a brand new pair of Louis Vuitton peep toe black patent leather heels “shoes.”  It just doesn’t do it justice.

After looking further, Cat found a great article published online that discusses the nature of the formation of the beach. (I will cite it at the end of the post).  Most of the information following comes from that particular document.

The article also cites an abundance of microfossils. These could be an example of microfossils. They could also be nothing, but given the location, I'm pretty sure we have something, here.

The paper focuses on Sitkinak Island, an island just to the south of Kodiak, but it also mentions that the formation of rocks is one and the same.  The Kodiak formation is just a bit younger.  As it turns out, the rocks are deposited as part of the Narrow Cape Formation, a late Oligocene/early Miocene formation.  This translates into somewhere on the order of 10 million years old or so.  In particular, the paper cites the Juanian stage, which is the time frame that encompasses the last portion of the Oligocene and the first portion of the Miocene.

Even more interesting is that this paper reveals the type of ocean these particular fossils came from.  They originated from the outer edge of the neritic zone to the continental shelf.  If you recall, the neritic zone is the point at which the lowest of the low tide is all the way out to a depth of 200 meters.  Furthermore, the study reveals that the water was a cool-temperate marine climate, which means that the warmest water at the surface was about 10oC for approximately 3-4 months out of the year.

It was great to uncover the mysteries of fossil beach.  The only mystery remains is, what about the Ammonite I thought I found?  At this time, I absolutely cannot reconcile what happened there.  There are a couple of strong leads in terms of solutions to this question:  first, it may not be an ammonite at all.  Second, the broad geologic map does indicate Paleozoic sedimentary rock, which would be a perfect candidate for a critter like an ammonite.  Maybe the ammonites were from a completely different rock formation?

This is the mysterious ammonite (?) fossil. I'm not sure anymore if this is what this large critter is. I hope someone out there can help shed some light on this mysterious former beast.

Until I get back to land and get my hands on a copy of the Roadside Geology of Alaska (I looked everywhere in Kodiak to no avail!) this will have to suffice for my level of satisfaction with respect to fossil beach.  Check back to this blog often to see if my predictions were right!

Personal Log

Well, wouldn’t ya know it?  A tsunami line is painted right on base here at the Coast Guard!  There is no reason to travel or hike a ridiculous  amount when you can just stay right here and visit.  (However, for more information on ridiculous Alaskan hikes, please visit my other blog at – you’ll love it.)  We did see the line on the first day, I just haven’t had time to blog about it again, plus it took a considerable amount of time for me to finally get up the nerve to ask someone to stop a car so I could snag a picture!

It didn’t look that imposing at first.   At first glance, it looked like it was only about 3 or 4 feet from the ground.  I thought to myself, “Gee, this doesn’t look so bad…” until I walked up to the line.  It was bigger than I was!  Holy cow!  Even if I reached my arms all the way above my head, I couldn’t touch the lower portion of the line.  The picture is extremely deceptive, that’s for sure!  I thought about what it would be like to be a person who hears the siren warning of the impending emergency, and what it would be like to make for higher ground, hoping that however high you climbed would be enough to save you from the wicked influx of water.

Eesh…  I am thankful that so few lost their lives, but the sight of that line is a bit imposing.  Also (and not at the expense of the destruction, of course) wickedly, beastly cool.

Wow! The water level for this particular tsunami is enormous!

In other news, we have successfully thrown off the bow lines and set sail!  We were supposed to head out yesterday, but then something went wrong with the water system, causing a delay, and then one of the officers got sick and had to go home.  Luckily, we had a replacement officer standing by to take over.  We are so sorry that she came down ill, but so grateful that we had someone to take over!  As we left Women’s Bay this morning, I saw many otters playing about in the bull kelp.  Those little critters are too dang cute for words!  They poked their heads up for a few moments before doing a graceful backflip back in to the water.  But the most impressive sight of all took place about thirty minutes after we set sail.  Up on the flying bridge, we saw the telltale blow of a whale.  This was followed by two or three playful fluke slaps on the surface of the water.

breaching whale
Here, you can see the breaching whale....wait...Marshmallow! Get out of the way! Just kidding, I didn't get a picture of the whale breach - that happens so quickly! I have a lot of respect for people who can get a snapshot of such a cool experience!

And then, because he (or she) was as excited as we were to be sailing, the whale performed for us the most impressive breach!  You, go, sister!  We like the ocean, too!  In my fumbling wonder, I of course, took 9 or so pictures of the breaching whale using stop-motion photography for you to see below.  Too bad Marshmallow is in the way.

I am so happy and thankful to be out on the sea.  Now I see why people love it so much.  It has an interesting dichotomy.  On one hand, I feel so small – a large, blue, fog-covered expanse stretches out before me, nothing in sight for miles and miles.  On the other hand, I feel enormous.  As we left the bay, we traveled past the peninsula we had walked on so many times before.  Along the shoreline was an oil spill containment kit stored in a freight-train style container.  It looked so tiny from where we stood on the flying bridge.  It was as if we swapped positions – now we were the behemoths, and the spill kit was nothing more than a busted up shoreside lego.

I’m fascinated by the scales of this magnificent place – more so about how I fit in to them.  Everywhere I turn, the sizes of things – animals, projects, decks, horizons, anti-seasick meds, stories, waves, meals, ocean expanses, rock outcrops – everything, everything is large, even that which is the tiniest and seemingly insignificant.  Here is the place where small things commit powerful acts  – a tiny three-foot swell makes its presence known in more ways than one, and a small anti-seasick pill can keep me from worshipping at the feet of its effects.  A big ocean can throw around an enormous ship, and a humpback whale can effortlessly cut through it with its imposing  fins.  A project seemingly small (at least in this context of one ship, one crew, one survey leg, and one set of scientists) can spread awareness about the health of our fisheries to a something the size of a nation.  To top it off, we are completing it along the coast of our largest state – one that blends quietly in with our neighbors to the north, but not forgotten as a beautiful and expansive supplier of natural resources.  Everything small is large out here, and everything large is large.  For those who have spent too long at the dock, today they are home.  For those who have never left a dock before, today we feel your freedom.  And we love it, too.

*Information on Sitinak Island/Fossil Beach was summarized from the following:

Allison, Richard C.  A late Oligocene or Earliest Miocene molluscan fauna from Sitinak Island, Alaska.  United States Department of the Interior, Washington; 1981.

Staci DeSchryver: A Major Ursus, August 3, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location:  57.43287 N, 152.28867 W
241.2 (Stationary)
Date: August 3, 2011

Weather Data From the Bridge
Overall Weather:  Clouds and fog

Science and Technology Log

One of the most serious emergencies that can take place onboard a ship is a fire.  The NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson has many security measures in place in the event of a fire while underway.  During our time in port, the crew of the Dyson planned a ‘’Safety Stand Down” Day to review safety protocol for all types of emergencies, particularly what the crew should do in the event of such a serious issue.

Before we began discussing some of the features of fire-fighting and emergency equipment, we participated in a survival activity that will certainly be used for the first days of school in my AVID class.    The activity consisted of a list of 15 items that we had in a mock abandon-ship emergency situation.  We were supposed to rank order the items of greatest to least importance for survival.  Some items were quite obviously important (water, food, and shelter, for example) and some were quite important but at first glance appeared to be about as useful as chewing gum.  There was a third group of items that appeared to be important, but in reality, ended up being about as valuable as a lawn ornament.  We rank ordered the items first on our own, and then formed groups of four or five to discuss our lists and come up with a group consensus of what is valuable.  As I predicted, repurposing items was the name of the game and those seemingly useless chewing gum items realized their full potential for being used for some other function.  Overall, I won!  I will be accepting applications for spaces in my life raft in the event of an emergency.  Preference will be given to those who can demonstrate strong paddling capabilities and have a deep aptitude for celebrity impersonations for entertainment purposes while on the raft.  Although all candidates will be judged carefully, those who write detailed, yet succinct and poignant essays will be given highest consideration due to limited on-raft seating.

After we finished the safety exercise, we were given the opportunity to take a look at the fire-fighting gear.  Think about this:  what happens when there is a fire at home?  It is usually detected by a smoke alarm, then, if there is time, the type of fire is determined.  Did it start with grease in the kitchen?  Or is it coming from an unknown source, maybe like an electrical fire?  The type of fire will determine what can and cannot be used to put it out.   If the fire can’t be put out quickly, the next step is to…call…the…fire…department.  Now, think about this:  What would happen on a ship in the event of a fire?  Well, many people are typically on watch to ensure that fires don’t start to begin with.  But fires can start on board in all of the same ways they can start at home.  So, in preparation for this, the ship must be equipped not just for fire, but for all kinds of fire.  If the fire can’t be put out quickly, the next step is to…call…the…fire…department…but wait!  That really can’t be done.  Who, then, do we call?  (Not the Ghostbusters, but good try.)  The crew doubles as the fire department.   In fact, any person who is on the ship is a member of the fire-fighting team to a certain extent.  My job is to be accounted for and stay the heck out of the way so the pros can do their job.

All of the crewmen are trained in firefighting procedures.  There are two fire lockers, one fore and one aft of the ship.  Inside the fire locker is a treasure trove of nozzles, hoses, and fire axes.  They are ready for anything on the ship because they have equipped themselves with a variety of means with which to fight different kinds of fires.

fire gear
Here, two members of the Oscar Dyson practice changing out air supply tanks.

What I found both interesting and important is that all of the hose lengths must be able to reach any connection on the ship so that all parts of the ship are covered in the event of a fire.  This can easily be explained if you think about a poorly designed sprinkler system.  If your sprinklers don’t cover all areas of the yard, you end up with conspicuous brown patches in the grass where the water doesn’t reach.  However, if the sprinkler system is set up correctly, no brown patches exist.  The Oscar Dyson requires that all of the hoses are long enough so that there are no “brown areas” on the ship.  If appropriate and necessary, the hoses will pull seawater out directly from the ocean to fight a fire in favor of the purified water onboard.  Usually, they prefer to use carbon dioxide to fight the fire.  It’s relatively benign in terms of dangerous reactions that could potentially take place.  For example, if there was a grease fire onboard, it wouldn’t make much sense to put water on it, but Carbon Dioxide would be a great option.

Next, we were given a demonstration of all of the nifty features of the firefighting gear. Ensign David Rodziewicz, the head safety officer, gave pointers on how to effectively put fire-fighting gear on.  The goal is to be able to get in and out of fire gear in less than two minutes, with the ideal time being less than a minute.  ENS Rodziewicz indicated that the most important way to be successful with suiting up is to have the gear properly set up – if boots are tipped over and gloves are strewn all over the place, not much will be accomplished in the time frame allotted – and being able to fight a fire quickly, while critical in all areas, is imperative on a boat.  Where land-based fires are a tragic and sobering experience, there is often an escape.  One can leave and go to a wide parking lot or out to the street away from the flames.  On the ship, the only place to go if things really take a turn for the worse is the ocean.  This is why timing is so important.There are some neat features on the fire-fighting equipment.  The air supply tanks are equipped with a 45-minute supply of air.  Most fire fighters are not expected to stay in an active fire area for that long, but the supply is large enough just in case there is a problem.   There is no need to keep time while fighting fires.  A “heads-up” display is clearly visible in the fire mask, with green, yellow, and red indicator lights representing the percentage of air left in the tanks.  The batteries for the light displays are changed quarterly – an important thing to check off on a to-do list!  Of all of the things to remember to do on a ship, it seems to me like that would be an easy task to forget.  But, they never do.  Another interesting feature is the communications system.  Each fire-fighting mask has a built-in communications system, so there is no need to take a radio in to an area with flames.  It’s almost like having a fire-fighting Bluetooth.  Each coat is also equipped with a flashlight and an emergency nylon strap in case of an emergency.  The neatest feature to me was the emergency bypass for the oxygen tanks.  If a crew member runs out of air, he or she can “latch” on to another person’s tank by ENS Rodziewicz utilizing a connector hose from the back of the rescuing party’s tank.  This will give approximately a ten minute air supply, although  points out that if one finds    himself or herself in that kind of a situation, he or she should not be in a fire zone for an additional ten minutes.  The emergency air supply is to safely remove a crew member only – not for fighting fires.One of the most useful ways to fight fire on a ship is to simply cordon off the area and then let the fire run its course in the offending room.  On the ship, there are many fire-retardant walls built into the bulkhead.  At that point, the fire fighters will utilize a tactic known as “boundary cooling.”  When you shut off a single room in the ship, the above and below decks can still conduct heat.  Therefore, the crew will spray a layer of ocean water in the rooms directly above and below the target area to ensure that the fire does not spread above or below floors.  Water has a high specific heat, so it acts as an excellent energy absorber.   This tactic is called boundary cooling, and is used often used in fire-fighting on a ship.Afterward, we watched the crew practice putting on, activating, and utilizing their fire-fighting equipment.  Each person who is responsible for fire-fighting has a partner who assists him or her in getting suited up, changing out air supply tanks, and assisting in other duties as necessary.Here, Cat and I are pret-a-porte in our stylish life-saving devices. Will we go into the water? Check out my other blog to find out…

From there, the day got really exciting, but if you want to read about it, you’ll have to visit my other blog at– a quick hint:  it involves a gumby suit and a big splash!  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Here’s a preview in the picture to the left.  Also, be sure to check out Cat’s blog: to see what she’s been up to!  Cat does some incredible cartoons that are really funny and informative, so she is capturing this adventure in a completely different light.  We make a great team!

Personal Log

Will Cat and I make a big "splash?" Check out my other blog to find out!
Will Cat and I make a big "splash?" Check out my other blog to find out!

Yesterday, Cat and I went out to Fort Abercrombie.  Fort Abercrombie was an established World War II outpost that was designed to defend American soil in the event of an attack from the Axis Powers.  We found this really interesting interpretive trail called the Wildflower Trail.  Along the trail, there were informative signs about various wild flowers, their scientific name, their Inuit name, and uses for the roots, blossoms, stems, and leaves.  After encountering a sign, it was a sure bet that we would see the celebrity flower just a few clicks up the trail.  The trail carried us to a decrepit lookout post over the inlet that we could enter into and see what the defenders of our nation saw when they looked out on the glass blue waters of the bay.

The lookout
Here at Ft. Abercrombie, Marshmallow busied himself by taking post in the military lookout. He claims he was scanning the air for potential threats to our borders. Since there are not imminent threats to Alaska at this juncture, I maintain that he stole Cat's binoculars to look for Salmon.

Old buildings stood steadfast, fighting reclamation by the forest while many had a legacy left only by a sign pounded in to a rotting foundation.  Again, I found myself trying to tell the story of those who used to call this enchanted forest home.

We also (sound trumpets!) saw a Kodiak Brown Bear!  There is a difference between a Brown Bear, a Kodiak Bear, and Grizzly Bear – mainly demographic.  A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) is called a brown bear because it is found in coastal areas.  Kodiak Bears are the largest of the Brown bears and are found only on Kodiak Island.  Inland bears (like the ones you find in Yellowstone) are called Grizzlies (Ursus arctos horriblis).  Bears on boats are called Marshmallows.  All bears (excepting Marshmallow himself) are in the genus Ursus.   Brown bears, Grizzly Bears, and Kodiak Bears are Ursus arctos, while Marshmallow’s distant cousins to the north are Ursus maritimus.  After discovering this as his namesake, Marshmallow was quite revolted.  He has decided to write a strongly worded letter to the Linnaeus Society as the term maritimus paints a less menacing and voracious picture of polar bears than does the Grizzly’s namesake.

Mbear in the flowers
Marshmallow has been quite incorrigible since his discovery of his species name. I suggested that he attach this photo to his strongly worded letter, which paints him in a most frightening manner.

He has suggested instead to be called Ursus kickyerbuttus.    I maintain that Marshmallow should be renamed Ursus domesticus stuffedus wimpus, because the closest he has ever been to a salmon run is from the comfort of his 60 inch HDTV.  He has a stateroom for crying out loud.

As we drive along the road, we slow down to a crawl at all of the river crossings hoping to see Kodiak Bears.  Our luck was good that day, because we saw three in a matter of about 4 hours.  Here he is now.

Brown Bear
This bear is not a Marshmallow. Nor is he a Pooh or a Yogi. Let me break this down into a simple equation: No stuffing + large + curious and furtive glances at surrounding humans + large teeth and claws = I should probably be further away than I am right now.

A fisherman nearby hypothesized he was a juvenile male, about 2 or 3 seasons away from his mamma and on his own as a hunter.  He was pretty indifferent to the existence of people, but not menacing in any way.  He ambled along, chasing after magpies and hopping in and out of the water.  It was neat to see him up so close, but still have the safety of the bridge to keep us at a safe distance.  This was of course, until he decided to climb up onto the road.  He was quicker than I would have liked him to be!

After dinner, we were driving back to the ship along Women’s Bay and one ran out in front of the car!  His shoulder blade was at the same level as the roof of the Impreza we were driving – no fish tale.  He glanced casually at us and loped off into the trees toward the salt marsh.  The next creek up the bay hosted a third bear, but we only got a glimpse of him as he was gone by the time we turned the car around.  It was really a blessing to get to see (more than once!) such neat little critters.  And by little critters I mean large toothed, long clawed beasts that have the capability to chew your head off in one fell swoop.  Thankfully, they are more interested in salmon at this time of year, and really don’t have much of a taste for people.  (In defense of Mr. Kodiak, there are more casualties from dogs in a given year than there are fatal maulings in ten years from Kodiak Browns.  We would have much more to worry about if we tasted like Salmon or Salmonberries, as this is what comprises the majority of their diet.  However, they should be treated with a healthy respect – especially a momma bear with her cubs.)

It has been an action packed week so far.  We are hoping to learn as much as we can about the island while we are here, and we are making the best of being in port while we wait to set sail.  It’s been wonderful to walk out on the peninsula every morning and have some time to myself to show gratitude for all that has been done for me to get me out here and experience this first hand.  The standing joke when we witness something truly spectacular is to say “I think in my evaluation of the Teacher At Sea program I am going to suggest that they actually find places for us to go that aren’t so ugly.  This place is such an eyesore…”  I hope you sense the sarcasm dripping in my voice.

Trivia Question:

True or False?  Sea Stars are Echinoderms that can regenerate lost body parts.

Answer:  True.  “Sea stars are remarkable, as they are able to regenerate lost or damaged parts of their bodies. An arm that is broken off can be regrown. Some species can actually regrow a complete new body from a single severed arm, if it is attached to part of the central disc.”


Staci DeSchryver: An Underwater Petting Zoo, July 28th, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location:  57.43287 N, 152.28867 W
241.2 (Stationary)
Date: July 28, 2011

Science and Technology Log

Well, we are still in port as of today.  Hopefully we will get rolling in the next couple of days or so, but the time in port has offered a whole new dimension of experiences that we otherwise would not have had the chance to share in had we left on schedule.  So, this is a bit of blessing in disguise.

Yesterday, we went to the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center.  Here, important scientific research is performed on a number of different species.  For example, there are a number of studies currently being done on various crab species found in the Bering Sea.  In addition to this important work, the center has an outreach welcome center with an aquarium and a touch tank – what I termed the “underwater petting zoo.”  In the underwater petting zoo, I had the chance to handle multiple anemones, sea stars, crab, sea cucumbers, and sponges!  It was truly a unique experience.  The “petting zoo” has a continual supply of seawater flowing into and out of the tank, so the animals have a constant supply of fresh seawater where they can comfortably live.

touch tank
These are just some of the critters we got to handle in the underwater petting zoo called the touch tank. The green and red anemone in the upper right corner of the picture felt like a soft pillow! They do have stingers, but they are so small that human hands cannot feel their angry "zap."

What was exciting to me was that the species we were handling were all native species found in and around Alaska’s waters.  The tank was so bright and beautiful that my first assumption was that they were surely tropical animals in the tanks.  Even if I returned from my trip without believing anyone when they told me that they were endemic species to the area, I saw two sea stars in the bay on my way back from a run this morning which confirmed that no one was pulling my leg.

What was even more interesting was that we got a private, behind-the-scenes tour from Dr. Robert Foy, the director of the center.  We got to see multiple studies being conducted in the “back rooms” of the fisheries center, and I even got to “pet” an octopus.  Octopuses are extraordinary little creatures.  One experiment revealed that they were clever enough to unlatch doors separating it from prey.  Another experiment demonstrated that they have quite discerning tastes with respect to their diets – they have been observed “sniffing”  (they don’t really smell, but this is a good comparison) out prey in sealed jars, selecting the prey they wish to consume, unscrewing the cap on the jar, and having a feast.

Wanted: This is a photographer's rendition of an octopus last seen escaping from the AFSC. Be careful with identification, as it is equipped with the evolutionary ability to change both color and texture -- therefore, any confirmed octopus sighting may be the offending octopus mentioned herein. While extremely stealthy, octopus only eats what it wants to -- and it's usually not people.

One octopus in the lab actually accessed a tiny crack in the lid on the tank and “made a break for it”.  He is currently at large, although the scientists in the lab suspect that he pulled a “Nemo” and actually made it back out to the ocean.  If you do see a large, red octopus lurking in the streets of your hometown, do not try to apprehend it.  Call the appropriate authorities immediately.  He is most decidedly “armed” and dangerous.

Another fun little critter I had the chance to hold was a Chianoecetes bairdi, or a Bairdi crab.  It was a bit intimidating when Dr. Foy deftly scooped one out of the tank and informed us that if we got in the way of his claws, that we would “only” be badly cut up.  (Apparently, King Crab have penchant for finger removal).  This particular crab had a missing leg.  What we learned was that if a crab loses a leg unexpectedly (say, to melted butter, for example…) in a situation where it gets pulled off without warning, it is akin to any other animal losing a limb.  However, if the crab can sense that the leg is getting pulled off slowly, it can release the leg on its own, and its body will “cauterize” the wound, which will help the crab to survive.  Dr. Foy mentioned that at times, when crabs are pulled on board a ship under stressful conditions, they will “drop” all of their legs as a defense mechanism.  I imagine that to be quite an interesting sight!

Personal Log

Today we made the drive out to an area called Fossil Beach.  Fossil beach is called fossil beach because of its complete abundance of metamorphic rock which is geologically unsupportive of fossils.  Just kidding.  The beach, aside from being interesting from a scientific perspective, is a rare gem – visited by few, but appreciated by all who are lucky enough to discover it.  Mussels and snails clung ferociously to the sides of partially submerged stones, eagles glided soundlessly high above us, and seals curiously poked their heads out of the water, sneaking glances at those of us on the beach who were lucky enough to spot their quizzically inquisitive stares before retreating under the cover of opaque green waves.  After a stroll along the deserted, gray-black beach, we discovered a “Salmonberry Smorgasbord” along a roadside nearby.  The surf beach was a few miles away from the fossil hunting beach, and we stopped there to look at the herd of wild horses peacefully grazing along the backshore to spend some time alone in a world that made me feel peacefully small.

The beach is a place where two Titans meet. The first gleans his power from being stoic, rugged, and unyielding.  The second gains supremacy from flexibility – throwing her weight against any object upon which she desires to bend to her imposing will.  I watched an unending battle ensue at the boundary of their respective domains, knowing there will be no clear victor in the struggle for sovereignty.  With each incoming attack, parts of the unyielding god would decidedly give way to the relentless inertia of the empress of flexibility – only to return home with the next crashing swell.

surf beach
This is the beach - I assure you, the photo does it no justice, but watching the fog quietly roll in on the wave-cut cliffs was a sure highlight of my trip.

Evidence of the eternal war littered the interface – wave-cut cliffs, sea stacks, and islands were a fierce reminder of her relentless and obsessive power to gradually wear away her enemy.  Conversely, wide sandy beaches were a testament to his ability to remain steadfast in a quest to gain purchase from her murky depths.  It will be years, if ever, before a champion is determined – an infinite stalemate between two equally impressive and imposing giants.  As I walked along the beach, I embraced the loving reliability of Titan Earth, but did so in anticipation of a rendezvous with Titan Sea.  I appreciated them with both apprehension and respect, knowing I would depart from the one I’ve desperately clung to for all of my years in favor of the mysterious and untested depths of the unknown.  Both provide and claim that which is theirs, and I predict some personal difficulty in learning the vehicles by which this is done in the midst of an unfamiliar god.  Thankfully, I am in the confident hands of those who find the ocean as a friend despite her unpredictable and enigmatic nature.

Species Seen
Kodiak Bear
Arctic Tern
Wild Horses
Bairdi Crab
Sea Stars
Sea Cucumbers
Hermit Crab
Bull Kelp



Staci DeSchryver: Patiently Awaiting Departure, July 26th, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location:  57°43.287’N,152°28.867’W
Heading:  242.2° (But we are stationary)

Date: July 26, 2011

Weather Data From the Bridge
Cloudy and Light Drizzle
Air Temperature:  14.0°C
Relative Humidity:  approx 79%

Science and Technology Log

Well, I have arrived safely and soundly on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.  For the next three weeks, we will be catching, catching, catching as many walleye pollock as we possibly can to determine the health of the stock.  How is that done, you ask?  Well, they send the Teachers at Sea out to the stern of the ship where we gently call them over for processing.

“Here, Fishy, Fishy…”  Just kidding.

First, the scientists use acoustics to find concentrated masses of walleye pollock beneath the surface.  The echoes appear on a computer screen for the scientists to evaluate.  Once they determine that the acoustic signature is indeed pollock, they take a direct sample of the fish by dropping a large net, called a trawl, down to the location of the fish. The net then captures the fish and they are brought to the surface.  The procedure is more like “hunting” rather than “fishing” in that the scientists have sophisticated equipment to detect the locations of the fish – they aren’t just attaching a worm to a hook and hoping for the best.  They actively seek out locations where they know pollock exist – this helps preserve the stock populations because if they can “see” the echoes on the screen, they can be sure they are pulling up the right species.  In addition, the sample sizes that are taken are quite small in comparison to the commercial fishing industries – we take only what we need to get accurate data.

Here I am on the docks getting ready to see my "home away from home" for the first time!
Here I am on the docks getting ready to see my "home away from home" for the first time!

After the fish are caught, they are sent down a ramp for processing.  Unfortunately, most of the fish brought to the surface “donate their bodies to science,” as they don’t survive the trip up from depth to the surface.  Why don’t the fish survive?  Sometimes, it is simply the stress of being caught.  But another contributing factor is stress that is put on a special organ in the fish called a gas bladder.   It is easily explained using a reverse example.

Remember the video clip from Mythbusters on the “MeatMan?”  In the program, the myth claimed that a person’s body would indeed be crushed by the weight of ocean water at a depth of 300 feet.  If you recall, the myth was confirmed when “MeatMan’s” helmet caved in after the Mythbusters removed the pressurizing hose from the back of the diver’s suit after the “diver” was lowered to a depth of 300 feet.  With pollock, the reverse happens.  The pollock’s body is “conditioned” to being at a particular depth.  Inside the pollock is a swim bladder that is filled with air that pushes back on the water at the same pressure that the water pushes in on the fish – much like the pressurized diving suit.  As long as the pressure remains constant – both pushing outward on the surrounding water and inward on the swim bladder – the fish is fine.  When the fish is forced too quickly above a particular depth, the bladder will expand because the outward pressure is no longer strong enough to push in on the bladder – the exact opposite of what happened to the meat man – the bladder expands too quickly, and it can sometimes cause the fish  to die.  Pollock do have the ability to regulate their swim bladders, but when the are pulled too quickly to the surface by means of say, a net, for example, they can’t adjust to the pressure changes quickly enough.  I’ve shortened this complex idea into to a simple and digestible equation:

Person too deep = squish.  Fish too shallow = pop.

Despite the fact that the fish usually perish in their journey, they do so to benefit the overall health of the stocks.  Researchers gain a wealth of information from the catch.  They measure the size, age, sex, and sometimes the stomach contents of each of the fish! As the data gets collected, it is analyzed to determine the overall health of the population so that fishermen know how much is safe to catch and sell for profit without doing harm to the population.

Personal Log

Well, we haven’t left yet.  Some complications on the ship have kept us safely in the comfort of our harbor and will most likely keep us there until Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.  So, we’ve been keeping busy with tours of the ship, introductions to the ship’s crew, and trips to town to look around and sample the local fare.  We are staying on a Coast Guard base, so it’s a secure location that most civilians can’t access.  The base is really interesting.

Marshmallows Stateroom
It appears as though a stowaway has made it onboard the Oscar Dyson and overtaken my stateroom! Marshmallow has found his quarters to be comfortable and accommodating. He has also informed me that he would like his bedroom at home to henceforth be referred to as his Stateroom, as it sounds much more prestigious and astute.

I especially enjoy hiking around the peninsula that is attached to the base.  All along the road are freshly ripened Salmonberries (which coincidentally do not taste like Salmon.  They taste like delicious.)   Along the opposite side of the road is a rocky shale beach.  About a half a mile down the road is a rotting old dock that is commissioned only by grasses and pony-sized seagulls.  It is decaying in the most gorgeous manner – to witness an object simultaneously rusting, collapsing, and growing is a delicious paradox for the imagination.

Like an old World War II veteran, I imagine it not as it appears today, but as a majestic and commanding behemoth – an anchor and a doorway home for the ghosts of a time passed bustling about on its intact surface.   It’s a good thing there is no possible way to access it, otherwise I may have found myself out there teasing out the details of its surely magnificent story.

dock II
This is the old dock on the peninsula in the harbor. There are trees growing out of it!

When we do leave port, I will be working the night shift.  While to some that might seem a bit intimidating, I am actually quite excited.  If my shift does not end until 4am, that gives me the luxurious liberty to remain comfortably in my rack until ten am without anyone thinking less of me.  Interestingly enough, there are a decent number of people who work nights onboard.  This means that there is someone awake at any given hour somewhere on board.  It’s hard to feel alone when there is always someone up and about – which is a comfort in the foreign world of a research ship.

For now, there isn’t much to report on other than we are hurrying up and waiting to leave.  Hopefully the weather will be friendlier tomorrow for a hike to the top of Mt. Barometer where it is rumored that the view from the top rivals any Hollywood production.  Well, maybe except Avatar , but what landscape can compete with an alien land full of glowing trees?  I would like to be the judge of that.

Staci DeSchryver: Getting Ready to Sail! July 23, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: July 23, 2011

Personal Log

Hello, from Denver, Colorado!  My name is Staci DeSchryver, and I am an Honor’s Earth and Physical Science teacher at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, CO.  Our school is the newest addition to the Cherry Creek School District family, but starting our ninth year is hardly enough to make us the babies any longer.  We are an outstanding school with absolutely outstanding students, and I can’t wait to share this experience with them!  I will be starting my eighth year teaching this fall, and my seventh year at CTHS.  I’ve been around for a while, and Trail is definitely my teaching home.

Stephen and I
This is a picture of me and my husband, Stephen!

I applied tor the NOAA Teacher At Sea program because our oceans are vast, largely unexplored, and a critical planetary resource.  I love their mystery.  More importantly, I love that we have the technology to uncover what hides beneath the surface.  In addition, I am a firm and vocal believer that our ocean fish supplies are a lynchpin in our food supply.  How so, you ask?  I’ve broken it down into a simple and digestible equation:

Overfishing = fish can’t reproduce to keep up with the demand = fish become scarce = people starve = sad, hungry people.

Therefore, because few people on this planet enjoy being sad or hungry, NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) works tirelessly to ensure that we have sustainable fish populations now and in our future.

As part of this tireless work, I have the chance of a lifetime — to sail on the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson!  The Oscar Dyson will be completing a stock assessment survey (data collection) on Walleye Pollock, a smart-looking fish that is a staple of the American (and world) diet.  I am excited and nervous! I have never been on a ship before — not even a cruise ship!  Come to think of it, I have never entered the ocean past knee-depth.  (Thanks, Mom.)  While the training has prepared me well, I know nothing can prepare me for the size, depth, and wealth of knowledge and surprises that are surely in store for me.

This is our family mascot, Marshmallow Bear. He usually is a stealthy bear who manages to become a stowaway on all of our travels. Something tells me this isn't the last you will see of him!

Please be sure to check the links to the Ship and the Mission!  The sites there explain what we will be doing in clear detail.

As far as a little more information about myself, I am currently packing up, tying up loose ends at home, and making sure all of my electronic equipment is in working order before I leave.   I have also just learned from a fellow TASer that using the word “boat” for a “ship” is quite improper etiquette and akin to swearing.  How did I miss that?   Therefore, I am currently seeking out synonyms for “ship” and “vessel” to keep my writing nice and spicy without angering anyone who holds my life in their hands.

The next time you hear from me, it will be from the Gulf of Alaska on my mission to help protect our fish populations, spread the word about scientific careers, and develop killer lesson plans that teach our students the science of Oceanography!  Cheers!