Sarah Boehm: Home Again, July 10, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 10, 2013

Personal Log

The Oregon II pulled into port Sunday morning after a successful 2 week leg of the summer groundfish survey. The first thing I wanted to do when we got to land was to go for a walk. It did feel great to stretch my legs and move more than 170 feet at a time. Being on land again felt funny, as if the ground was moving under me. I thought this “dock rock” would pass quickly, but even two days later I had moments of feeling unsteady. On Monday I made my way back home to Massachusetts, arriving after 12 hours of planes and cars to a delightfully cool evening (although I hear it had been very hot while I was gone.)

I still have some photos and videos I wanted to share, so I thought I’d put together one more blog post with some amazing and fun creatures we saw.

We saw sharks swimming near the boat a few times, but this video shows the most dramatic time. This group of at least 8 sharks attacked the net as it brought up a bunch of fish, ripping holes in the net and spilling the fish. They then feasted on all that easy food floating in the water.

Adult puffer fish on the left from a groundfish trawl and a baby puffer from a plankton tow on the right
jelly nets
Icicles? Nope. Those are jellies that got caught in the net.
small flying fish
A very small flying fish with its “wings” extended.

One of my favorite fish is the flying fish. These fish have very long pectoral fins on the side of their bodies that act like wings. They can’t really fly, but they can soar an impressive distance through the air. We sometimes caught them in the Neuston net as it skimmed the top of the water. They are great fun to watch as groups of them will take to the air to get out of the way of the boat. Even more fun was watching dolphins hunting the flying fish! I was unsuccessful at getting a video, but you can watch them in this BBC clip.

flying fish
It must be the end of watch. Me with a flying fish.

Another cool animal we found were hermit crabs. The ones we caught were bigger than any I had found at a beach. The shell they live in was made by a gastropod (snail). As the hermit crab grows it has to find a bigger shell to move into.

hermit crab
A large hermit crab in its shell.
hermit crab without its shell
We had to take the hermit crab out of its shell to weigh it. The head and claws have a hard shell, but the back part is soft and squishy.
hermit and anemones
This hermit crab has sea anemones living on its shell.

Look closely at the spots of color on this video of a squid. You can see how the color and patterns are changing.

A few more cool critters we found:

This stargazer looks like a dragon, but fits in the palm of your hand. It buries itself in the mud and then springs out to grab prey.
mantis shrimp
We found many mantis shrimp. It gets its name because those front legs are similar to those of the praying mantis. Those legs are incredibly fast and strong to kill its prey.

I knew there were many oil rigs out in the Gulf of Mexico, but I was surprised by just how many we passed. There are almost 4,000 active rigs in the waters from Texas to Alabama. While we went through this area there were always a few visible. They reminded me of walkers, the long legged vehicles from the Star Wars movies, with their boxy shapes perched above the water. By comparison, the waters near Florida were deserted because offshore oil drilling is not allowed and there were few other ships.

oil rig
Oil rigs
evening rig
Work on an oil rig also goes on 24 hours a day.

It was fabulous spending this time out on the groundfish survey with the scientists and crew of the Oregon II. Now I have a greater understanding of the Gulf ecosystem and science in action.  I truly appreciate the time people on board spent to teach me new things and answer all my questions. I also have enjoyed all my students’ comments and questions. Keep them coming!

storm approaching
A storm approaches as we pull in to Pascagoula.

Sarah Boehm: Plankton, July 6, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 6, 2013

Weather at 21:21
Air temperature: 27°C (81°F)
Barometer: 1016 mb
Humidity: 82 %
Wind speed: 5 knots
Water temp: 26°C
Latitude: 30.13° N
Longitude: 87.96°  W

Science and Technology Log

cleaning up
The daily ritual of cleaning up the wet lab

We are steaming our way to port now after 14 days at sea. We will pull in to Pascagoula, Mississippi tomorrow morning. Research has finished and our last task today was to clean up the wet lab. Even though we haven’t had fish in the wet lab in days, a slight fishy smell lingers there and on the stern deck where the nets are stored. My nose must be fairly used to it by this point though, because it was far more noticeable the first days on the boat. A few students asked if the boat was smelly – I think at this point my shoes are the smelliest things on board, despite my efforts to wash off the fish slime and salty crust.

We finished all our trawling stations a few days ago and switched to plankton stations. So instead of pulling up big fish, we used smaller nets to pull up the tiny organisms that float about on ocean currents. We sample with two types of nets: the Neuston net skims the surface of the water and the bongo nets have a weight that pulls them down into deep water.

Neuston Net
The Neuston net gathering plankton at the surface
bongo nets
The bongo nets being lowered into the water.
jar of plankton
This batch of plankton has a lot of tiny shrimp and a few little fish

A lot of plankton is microscopic algae and protists that are the base of the ocean food web. This study is more interested in ichthyoplankton – baby fish. Most fish and marine invertebrates actually start life as plankton, floating about until they are big and strong enough to swim against the current. We collect plankton in the nets, transfer them over to glass jars and preserve them in alcohol. Back in the lab scientists will use microscopes to identify and study the little guys.

Tiny planktonic critters
Sargassum floating by

Sometimes the Neuston goes through sargassum, a free floating seaweed. The sargassum sometimes floats as small clumps, and sometimes vast mats cover the water. I watched a few pieces float by with fish seeking protection by carefully positioning themselves directly underneath the seaweed. The sargassum is great refuge for little critters and we have to pick through it carefully to pull out all the plankton, many of which are well camouflaged in the tangle of orange.

sargassum critters
Tiny fish living in the protection of floating sargassum. Notice how well they camouflage with the orange/brown of the sargassum.

Personal Log

The folks on board the Oregon II are knowledgeable, professional, and a whole lot of fun. I’d love to introduce you to everyone – but I’m out of time, so let’s go with the day watch science team.

Day watch
The science day watch team – Mara, Joey, Andre, Sarah, and Caitlin
Andre and the sting ray
Andre measures a sting ray.

Andre, our watch leader, is a biologist with the groundfish survey at the NOAA Pascagoula lab. He can identify and give the scientific names for an impressive amount of fish and invertebrates we pull up in the nets. Joey is also a biologist at the labs and while he works mainly with reef fish, he also knows a lot about everything from plankton to sharks. Andre and Joey are also good teachers who helped us learn those scientific names through lots of jokes and nicknames (Celine Dion, Tom Hanks, and Burt from Sesame Street each are now associated with a specific species of fish in my mind, and Mel Gibson is a lovely crab with purple legs).

Mara and Caitlin
Mara and Caitlin filling a jar with plankton

Also on our watch are two interns. Caitlin graduates at the end of the summer from University of Texas at Corpus Christi and is on the groundfish survey as part of her summer internship with the Center for Coastal Studies.  As part of her internship she dissected a few larger fish to examine their stomach contents, determining if that partially digested thing was a squid, crab, fish, etc.  The other member of our team is Mara Castro, from Puerto Rico where she is a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan working on her Environmental Health Masters degree. She is doing an internship at the Pascagoula labs this summer and came out for this leg of the groundfish survey. Her favorite part of being on the boat is working with the fish, especially trying to identify them. She also loves the unusual fish we pull up, from transparent plankton to large shark suckers.

I have loved being out at sea for two weeks, but sometimes I felt a little trapped in such a small space. Then I would go up to the top deck, the flying bridge, and enjoy the view and the wind. It is a great place to watch the water and clouds and look for dolphins and birds. On a regular day on land I would move my body a lot more through normal activities like walking around the grocery store or climbing the stairs to the 3rd floor office at school. When I found myself with pent up energy I’d drag out the rowing machine or yoga mat that are stored up on the flying bridge to get some exercise. I have mixed feelings about reaching port tomorrow. I am ready to be on land again, but will miss all the people I have gotten to know and the beauty of the sea.

CDCPS Science Students

Where do you think the bongo nets got their name?

What does ” ichthyo” mean? Two words that use this root are ichthyoplankton and ichthyologist.

Sarah Boehm: The Dead Zone, July 5, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2013

Weather at 19:13
Air temperature: 26°C (79°F)
Barometer: 1017mb
Humidity: 93%
Wind direction: 135°
Wind speed: 18 knots
Water temp: 27°C
Latitude : 28° 44’ N
Longitude: 85° 32’ W

Science and Technology Log

Mr. Cummiskey, the other science teacher at CDCPS, asked if we saw an influence from farming along the Mississippi River in the Gulf ecosystem. At first it seems crazy that something happening over a thousand miles away can have an impact on an ecosystem as vast as the Gulf of Mexico, but it really is happening and part of our research is to monitor the effects. The first clue I had that something was changing was the color of the water. In the deep waters off Texas the water was a beautiful clear blue. As we got closer to the Mississippi delta the sea water turned a murky brown–a mix of mud brought down by the river and the phytoplankton that was thriving in the nutrient dense waters. Just like eating too much food is bad for people’s health, too many nutrients is actually bad for an ecosystem.

The CTD instrument. The bottles on the top collect water and the instruments on the bottom take measurements.

Each time we get to a sampling station we start by taking measurements of the water quality with the CTD (conductivity temperature and depth). From the bridge the officers control the ship to keep it in one place. Then the deck crew uses a winch and pulley system to move the heavy CTD equipment overboard and down into the water almost to the sea floor. All the way down and back up the machine is taking dozens of readings a second that are transmitted back to a computer in the dry lab.

The CTD records the depth, water temperature, the salinity (how salty the water is), and the dissolved oxygen. We are most concerned with the oxygen level because it greatly impacts the organisms living in the water. Fish and marine invertebrates breathe oxygen molecules that are mixed in with the water. Without enough dissolved oxygen in the water they will suffocate and die. Healthy levels in the Gulf of Mexico are 4 to 6 milligrams of O2 per liter of water.  If there is less than 2 mg/L it is considered hypoxic, meaning there is not enough oxygen. This map uses the data we have collected this cruise to show dissolved oxygen levels in the bottom waters of the Gulf. The green and yellow colors shows the healthy areas, the orange areas are hypoxic.

Click on the map for a larger version. The map is updated as new data comes in.

hypoxia map

See those orange areas in close to the coast of Louisiana? That is known as the Dead Zone. Runoff of fertilizer and other nutrient sources wash down rivers and out to sea where they contribute to algae blooms. When the algae dies it sinks and is decomposed, a process that uses up a lot of oxygen. Check out this video to learn more. All my 6th graders should notice similarities between this situation and the virtual pond we worked with this spring.

Hypoxia video

Not only do the oxygen levels change, but the composition of the fish trawls changed dramatically too.  At station #144 we had an oxygen reading of 3 mg/L and an average sized trawl (26 kg) with a variety of species. At station #146 we had an oxygen reading of 1 mg/L (which is hypoxic) but pulled up a huge net of fish that filled 18 buckets. The total weight was 340 kg, but over 300 kg was just two species – croaker and butterfish. We were surprised by this catch and so did another oxygen reading and found while our nets started in hypoxic waters, during the 30 minute trawl we moved into better water with 3 mg/L of oxygen .  At station #147 we had a very low oxygen reading of only 0.2 mg/L. Our trawl only brought up 1.7 kg, most of which were jellies and crabs with just a few little fish.  There just wasn’t enough oxygen to support more life. Why was station #146 so huge? As the low oxygen waters spread out from the Mississippi River delta, critters were fleeing the hypoxia zone and moving to better water. So along the edge of the dead zone is an area with high population density; the oxygen refugees and the fish swooping in to eat them.  However, not all creatures can move themselves out of the way. Creature like bivalves and gastropods (clams and snails) don’t have the capability to move much and so get caught in the annual hypoxic zone of the Gulf.

big catch
Bringing up the big catch at station 146

Hypoxia zones caused by nutrient runoff from fertilizer and other man-made sources do not just happen in the Gulf of Mexico. They have also been recorded in the Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and at the mouths of rivers around the world. They can also happen in fresh water ponds and lakes.

The CTD is our main method of recording oxygen levels, but we need to make sure it is functioning properly. So each day we also take a water sample and use a titration method to find the amount of dissolved oxygen. Check out the colorful chemical reactions in this video.

Personal Log

People, like fish, need oxygen and water to survive. Out on the ship oxygen in the air is easy to come by, but fresh water is another story. We are surrounded by water of course, but cannot drink the salt water. I tracked down out Chief Engineer, Sean Pfarrer, to find out more about where all the fresh water on board comes from.

The reverse osmosis machine

Down in the engine room there is a reverse osmosis machine that processes salt water and turns it into fresh water. The salt water is pumped into the machine under 950 psi of pressure. The pressurized water is forced through a selectively permeable membrane that lets water molecules through, but not the larger salt molecules. (My 6th graders should find this all sounding familiar) The super salty water left behind is pumped back out to sea, and the fresh water is used on board. Our sinks, showers and laundry all use fresh water. We go through about 1,000 gallons a day, which is close to the 1,200 gallon limit of the RO system (but only about half what 30 average Americans would use on land). To conserve fresh water the heads (toilets in sailor speak) flush with salt water.

RO element
A rod from the RO machine. Water is pumped in the tube and forced through the yellow filter.

Which brings me to one of my favorite science teacher topics – poop. Thirty people over the course of fifteen days generate a fair amount of waste. What happens to all that poop? Just emptying it into the water would be harmful to the marine environment, so we have a little waste water treatment system right on board. When you flush, it all goes down to the marine sanitation device where poop eating bacteria consume our waste.  The waste water then passes by chlorine tablets that kill any bacteria before it gets dumped into the sea. I’ll admit I’m a little fascinated by the systems and technology that keeps our floating community operating in a rather comfortable fashion.

We completed our science work this afternoon and are now heading back to port. Check out the Ship Tracker to see where we have been.

CDCPS Science Students:

How did sailors long ago during the age of exploration deal with the drinking water problem?

What do you think we could do to lessen the hypoxia problem in the Gulf?

Sarah Boehm: Keeping the Ship Moving and Safe, July 3, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 3, 2013

Weather at 22:40
Air temperature: 27.7°C (81.7°F)
Barometer: 1018 mb
Humidity: 79 %
Wind direction: 142°
Wind speed: 18 knots
Water temp: 28°C
Water Depth: 20.5 m
Latitude: 28° 43’ N
Longitude: 83° 19’ W

Science and Technology Log

Currently there are 30 people on board the Oregon II. Eleven of us are on the science team, led by Brittany Palm our Field Party Chief.  The majority of people on board are the NOAA Corps officers and Wage Mariners (engineers, deck hands, and stewards) who actually operate the ship.  These men and women will spend 202 days at sea this year, bringing various teams of scientists out to conduct research from February to November.

LTJG Matt Griffin standing a Bridge watch

The Captain of the ship is Civilian Master Dave Nelson. He and the four NOAA Corps officers are responsible for navigating and controlling the ship, as well as coordinating operations on board.  They work on the bridge which is on the upper level where the visibility is better.The bridge has at least 12 screens displaying different information, including our location in latitude and longitude, radar showing boats and rigs in the area, a bathymetry display showing water depth, video monitors of the decks, and a weather map. There is a paper copy of a nautical chart as well as an electronic version that looks a bit like a big brother of the GPS navigator you may have in your car.

The team of engineers keeps the engines, generators and mechanical systems operating correctly. There is also a computer technician who keeps all the electronics up and running, including the navigation systems, the science equipment, and the internet connection. These jobs are essential, because keeping the ship running takes constant attention and you can’t just call in the repairman out here.

Brian Thomas
Brian Thomas our electronics technician

The deck department is responsible for running the heavy equipment that makes our research possible. They operate the cranes and winches that lower the nets and scientific equipment into the water and lift them back out. They do regular maintenance of the boat and fishing gear. They also stand lookout in the bridge in reduced visibility at night or during stormy weather.

Buddy and Mike
Deck hands Buddy and Mike bring the CTD on board

Several students asked about safety on the boat in a series of “what if” questions. Safety is an important part of operations here, and there is a plan (and a backup plan) in place for each of your “what if” scenarios. Just like we do fire drills at school, we do safety drills here on the boat. One major difference is that if a fire were to break out on board, the crew would have to fight the fire themselves. We practiced putting on our survival suits that would keep us warm if we needed to abandon the ship. They are supposed to go on quickly over clothes, but take a minute to figure out the first time.  Definitely not comfortable or fashionable, but I would want one if I ended up floating in the water for hours waiting to be rescued.

gumby suits
Mara and I try on our survival suits. Photo by Brittany Palm

I asked Captain Dave Nelson about what we would do in the event of a storm. With a length of 170 feet and a width of 34 feet, the Oregon II is large enough to handle normal summer storms like the one we sailed through today. But a tropical storm or hurricane is just too big to mess with. The officers keep a constant watch on the weather forecasts, and would steer us in to port if anything big was headed our way.

life raft
One of the life rafts

I took a tour of the safety features of the Oregon II with the officer in charge of safety, Navigation Officer LTJG Brian Adornato to learn more about what would happen in case of an emergency. There are 6 life rafts on board and each can hold 16 people. (This sounds like the beginning of a math problem, doesn’t it?) There are 3 positioned on each side of the boat and they will automatically float free and inflate if that side of the boat goes under water. There is also an orange rescue boat which would be used if someone fell overboard. It is more regularly used when crew members SCUBA dive to perform ship maintenance.

resuce boat
The rescue boat ready to launch if needed

It there ever was an emergency on the ship, it would be essential to send out a call for help. First they would try the radio, but if that didn’t work we also have a satellite phone, Epirbs (satellite beacons), and a radar reflector (that lets ships nearby know there is an emergency).  On the lower tech end of things there are emergency flares and parachute signals that would be launched into the air so other ships could locate us.

emergency signals
A case of emergency parachute signals

Personal Log

We had wonderful weather for the first 9 days of the cruise with partly cloudy skies, gentle breezes and calm waters. I had gotten my “sea legs” and was used to walking and working on the constantly moving boat. Last night the weather turned and today we have been rocking and rolling through waves and rain. Now that the seas are rough I am unsteady on my feet again, staggering about and clutching onto railings. We can’t move as fast in stormy seas, so the time between stations has stretched out. The weather was particularly bad this morning and it wasn’t safe to be out on deck operating the nets, so they had to skip a few stations. This weather is supposed to continue tomorrow, too.

calm seas
Calm seas last week
rough seas
Rough seas today

CDCPS science students – G0 ahead and do those math problems. How many total people can fit in the life rafts? How many life rafts would we need to fit everyone on board? Why do you think there are extra life rafts?

Which job on board would you like to have?

Sarah Boehm: Shrimp Galore, June 30, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 30, 2013

Weather at 20:40
Air temperature: 29.8 °C (85.64° F)
Barometer: 1007 mb
Humidity: 65   %
Wind direction:  221 °
Wind speed: 8.4  knots
Water temp: 29.2° C
Latitude: 29.05° N
Longitud: 88.69 ° W

Science and Technology Log

I have been on board for a week now and have learned a lot about the fish of the Gulf of Mexico. We have collected data on over 300 different species at 129 trawl stations So what happens with all this data?

Our work out here is part of SEAMAP – South East Area Monitoring and Assessment Program – a joint venture between NOAA and the states to better understand the populations of fish and invertebrates along the coast of the Gulf and Atlantic. The information we are collecting on Oregon II is combined with the data from other ships that do surveys in closer to land. The groundfish surveys began in the 1950s and happen each summer and fall. All this data tells a story of each species – how many individuals there are, how big they are, and where they prefer to live. This information can then be used to better manage the fishing industry so that marine populations stay strong.

We gather data about every species we pull up in our nets, but we pay special attention to the ones that are fished commercially like shrimp and red snapper. There are several shrimp species out here, but one we see a lot of is the brown shrimp.

Brown Shrimp
Brown Shrimp

The brown shrimp are found from Massachusetts to the Gulf. They live for about 1 ½ years and can be up to 7 inches long. Their lives start as eggs deep in the waters of the Gulf and Atlantic. After they hatch, tiny baby shrimp float in to the shallow water of estuaries (coastal areas where fresh river water mixes with sea water). They grow larger in the protected waters of the estuaries and eventually migrate out into deeper, saltier water.  They live on the bottom of the sea, moving out farther into deeper water as they grow larger. You can learn more about brown shrimp on NOAA’s Fish Watch website.

For most species we haul in we record length on up to 20 individuals, and weight and sex for only every 5th individual. But for brown shrimp we measure the length, weight and sex of up to 200 individuals. Sometimes we pull up a lot of shrimp like the 419 brown shrimp in just one trawl last night. To tell male from female you flip the shrimp over and check the spot in between its walking legs (in front) and swimming legs (in back).  A female has a wider plate. A male has extra fuzzy bits on the inside of the front swimming legs.

Male and Female Shrimp
The shrimp on the left is a female and the one on the right is male.

Shrimp fishing is a big industry here in the Gulf. Last year 221 million pounds of shrimp were taken by fishing boats from the states along the Gulf. Commercial fishing boats use similar nets to ours, but they are larger and trawl underwater for much longer. Just like we pull up many fish in addition to shrimp, shrimping boats have a large bycatch. Part of our research is to monitor the bycatch species to help make management decisions that protect them, too. NOAA works with the fishing industry to develop nets with Bycatch Reduction Devices that allow unwanted fish to escape.

shrimp boat
A fishing boat trawling for shrimp

Let me answer a few more student questions. Jared, we don’t wear lab coats; we mostly wear old t-shirts and shorts that definitely get wet, muddy and slimy working with the fish. A lab coat would help keep me clean, but it is hot and humid in our lab and the extra layer would be uncomfortable. Sabrina, we have found some plastic and other trash in the water, but have not seen any animals tangled in it. Deliana, we do all our work from the ship, so we don’t swim underwater with the fish. When they do surveys of reef fish earlier in the year they send a video camera underwater to learn more about the fish, but the scientists still stay on board.

silver fish
Clockwise from top: Rough Scad, Silver Jenny, Dusky Anchovy, Long Spine Porgy
brown fish
Shoal Flounder on the left and Big Eye Sea Robin on the right

Julissa asked about colors of our fish. Most of our fish come in two colors – silver or brown. We catch fish that live on the bottom of the sea or swim near the bottom and these colors help them camouflage with the sand and mud. But there are some that have splashes of color.

Dwarf Goatfish
Dwarf Goatfish
Lesser Blue Crab
Lesser Blue Crab

Personal Log

Several students had questions about food on board, so let me reassure you I am eating well.

the stewards
Stewards Walter and Lydell

The two stewards on board, Walter and Lydell, are responsible for feeding 30 people on board. The food is good, plentiful and there are several options at each meal. One challenge is that people on board are working different schedules and can’t always make meal times. If you ask ahead of time, they will save you a plate of food for later. There are also snacks and sandwich fixings available all the time. To give you an idea of what I am eating, yesterday I had a freshly baked muffin and juice for breakfast, a chicken fajita and Mexican veggies for lunch, fried rice, stir fry and a salad for dinner, and then some ice cream with fruit for a late night snack.

How much food does it take to feed 30 people for 2 weeks? Walter gave me a few numbers for this trip: 80 pounds of chicken, 35 dozen eggs, 100 pounds of potatoes, 12 gallons of ice cream, and a whole lot of coffee. Jennixa wondered what would happen if we ran out of food – the answer is that we would head back to land and buy more. But I’m pretty sure Walter has enough on board. Damian asked if we eat what we catch – and yes, some of the shrimp and red snapper have gone to the galley after being measured.  They were delicious.

CDCPS science students – How are the colors of fish an adaptation to survival?


Sarah Boehm: Groundfish Survey Basics, June 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 23 – July 7, 2013 

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 25, 2013

Air temperature: 29.4 C (84.9 F)
Barometer: 1015 mb
Humidity: 71%
Wind direction: 55°
Wind speed: 7 knots
Water temp: 29.6 C
Latitude: 27.99°
Longitude: 92.99°

Science and Technology Log

Greetings from the Oregon II in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. I am very impressed by all the questions my students have asked in comments on the first blog post. Now I guess I need to start answering some of them.

Oregon II
The Oregon II at the pier in Galveston. To answer Taina’s question, it is 170 feet long.


The Oregon II left the port of Galveston, Texas on Sunday afternoon. As we worked our way out to open water I enjoyed watching the pelicans, terns and frigate birds soaring and diving for fish. Occasionally a few dolphins would surface briefly, only to disappear again under the water. The shipping channels were packed with large ships, mostly oil tankers servicing the rigs that dot the Gulf of Mexico in this region. The farther we got from land, the less busy our surroundings became. With only a few boats and rigs on the horizon, the full moon rose in front of us as we cruised to the southeast.  You can follow the path the ship takes on NOAA’s Ship Tracker.

The Oregon II dwarfed by a cruise ship in the port of Galveston.
Terns visiting the ship as we leave Galveston.

We didn’t reach the first sampling site until nearly midnight. The ship functions on a 24 hour working cycle with the science crew broken into two shifts: the night shift works from midnight to noon and the day shift works from noon to midnight.   I am on the day shift, along with 2 scientists from the lab at Pascagoula, Mississippi and 2 student interns.

There are many different aspects to the fisheries research taking place on board. On my first shift yesterday I concentrated on the sorting and measuring of fish, so that is where I will start in this blog.

A net being pulled out of the water.

The net is dragged across the ocean floor behind the ship for a half hour, and then pulled up on board, bulging with fish. The net is emptied into buckets and the total catch is weighed. If it is a small catch we keep the whole thing to work up, but if the catch is large we keep some and throw the rest back in the water. The ones we will work with are emptied into the trough in the wet lab – a multicolored heap of writhing, slimy fish just waiting to be sorted. While the rolling of the ship didn’t bother my stomach, when faced with all those smelly fish I suddenly felt rather nauseous. I had a moment of doubt that I could really handle this work 12 hours a day for two weeks. But once I dipped my hands in and concentrated on sorting out the species my stomach settled.

sorting fish
Caitlin begins the sorting process.

While this seems a simple task, many species are similar in appearance. Looking carefully at shapes of jaws or the placement of spots, we sort them out with one species per container. Last night we had 40 – 60 different species in each trawl, with fish, crabs, shrimp, jellies and more. Once everything is sorted we count the number of individuals in each species and measure their total weight. All this information goes into the computer. The next step is to measure the individuals. There are two work stations for this step, each with a measuring board, a scale and a computer. We work in partners, with one person handling the fish and the other manning the computer. The measuring board is a fancy piece of technology that is attached to the computer. You line the specimen up and simply touch a magnetic stick to the board at the end of the fish. The computer then records the length in millimeters. Next you put the fish on the scale to record its weight. Like the measuring board, the scale is attached to the computer and it records in kilograms out to the thousandths place value. Then you determine if the fish is a male or female or “unknown”. We will bag, label, and freeze a few specimens if a scientist back at the lab has requested it, and then the rest of the catch is tossed back into the sea. By the time we finish all this, the ship has probably reached the next trawl site and the process begins again.

measuring shrimp
Measuring the length of a brown shrimp.

Nick asked about the largest fish we have found. Yesterday’s weight winner was this 5 kg red snapper.

red snapper
This red snapper was the largest fish of the first day.

The weirdest fish we found was a spotted batfish. It uses those odd fins to walk on the bottom of the sea. Its brown bumpy skin camouflages with the bottom. Suspended off its head is a fishing lure to attract prey.

spotted batfish
Spotted Batfish
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

Kevin wanted to know if we would see any sharks. We have caught a few small ones, and have seen a few larger ones off the stern (back) of the boat.

Personal Log

Jaelene asked if it would be cold, and the simple answer to that is no, not on the Gulf in summer. When I stepped out of the airport in Texas I was immediately hit by the hot, humid air. We have had a mild spring in Massachusetts – which is a blessing since most schools do not have air conditioning – and so the intensity of the sun, the heat and humidity combined to make me rather uncomfortable as I explored the port city of Galveston. Now that we are out on the water a constant breeze helps make things more comfortable…as does the air conditioning in the living quarters of the ship. The wet lab is not air conditioned, so all the fish work is rather hot and sticky.

Guillermo, Michelle and Doranny all asked about my room on board. It is a rather small space I share with Junior Officer Rachel Pryor. We each have a bunk and storage space. The room also has a sink and a chair. Rachel works a 4 hour shift early each morning and another 4 hour shift in the evening. This means when I finish work she is already asleep, but will be getting up for work in just a few hours. So being quiet and considerate of the other person is important. The curtain you can pull across your bunk is helpful to keep out light and provide privacy. Our room does not have a window, so it is dark all the time. This is helpful when people need to sleep at odd hours. It is also surprisingly quiet – or maybe a better way to describe it is that the constant background noise of the engines drowns out other noises. I have been sleeping great, even with the rocking and rolling of the ship. Kiara asked about falling out of bed, and that has not happened to me yet. I suppose it could if seas got really rough. I hope not to experience that.

My stateroom. The bottom bunk is mine.

CDCPS science students – Remember you should be reading and responding to two different blog posts (two responses to the same post is not enough). Also please re-read your writing to make sure it makes sense and has correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization.

Why do you think sharks hang out around our boat?

Can you read this clock? What time is it?

ship clock
A clock on board. Can you tell the time?

Sarah Boehm: Preparing for Sea, June 9, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sarah Boehm
Aboard NOAA ship Oregon II
June 23 — July 7, 2013

Mission: Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 9, 2013

Personal Log

Summer vacation is right around the corner – just one more week of school! Students and teachers alike are busy wrapping up the school year and dreaming of that long, delicious vacation. While summer is a vacation from the classroom, it is hardly a vacation from learning. That learning may look a whole lot different than the school year; it takes place at summer camp, your grandmother’s kitchen, or even the beach. This summer I have the fabulous opportunity to join scientists aboard the NOAA research ship Oregon II as they conduct surveys of the fish in the Gulf of Mexico. I am excited to learn more about this ecosystem and the organisms that live there. I am equally excited to participate in real scientific research and to learn more about how scientists gather and use information. That’s right – even teachers have new things to learn.

Kayaking Pictured Rocks
Last summer’s learning adventure: kayaking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Last summer my travels took me to the Great Lakes region where I camped, hiked, and explored. In the process I learned about the ecology and geology of the region (and swam in each of the Great Lakes). I also spent two weeks working on an organic farm, learning how to take care of vegetables and animals.

Checking on the bees
Last summer’s learning adventure: checking on the bee hive at Three Roods Farm
wolf track
Last summer’s learning adventure: hiking with wolves on Isle Royale

I discovered my love of teaching while working as an outdoor environmental educator, leading school groups on field trips to explore forests, ponds, and beach habitats. Kids are natural scientists out in the field, full of curiosity, with an ability to see things adults often miss, and a willingness to jump in and get their hands dirty. I made the transition into classroom teaching, bringing with me elements of that hands-on learning. I started out teaching 4th grade in Guilford, Vermont and then Brunswick, Maine. I currently teach at Community Day Charter Public School in Lawrence, Massachusetts and am thrilled to be the 4th – 6th grade science teacher. I also lead our Adventure Club, taking 6th – 8th grade students out hiking and camping in the nearby forests, mountains and coastlines. One of my goals is to make science more “real” for students by incorporating actual research into lessons and encouraging their own inquiry and exploration.  I am hoping my time with the Teacher at Sea program will give me new tools, knowledge, and inspiration to bring back to my students.

While on board the Oregon II I will be assisting the scientists as they gather data about the organisms and water quality of the Gulf. Their tools will be more sophisticated and the body of water larger, but I imagine it is much like one of my favorite science lessons – pond scooping. Just last week I had my 4th graders out exploring a pond habitat. As we approached the pond they all noticed the bigger animals like the birds calling overhead and the frogs along the pond’s edge. But hidden underneath the water is a whole other world rarely seen. With nets and buckets we set out to explore, finding salamander larvae, tadpoles, water beetles, caddisfly larvae, isopods, copepods, snails and so much more. The ocean is much the same; we are drawn to the organisms easily seen like the shells on the beach or playful dolphins. But hidden out there beneath the waves are all sorts of living things, each with an intriguing story and an important role in the ecosystem. So in two weeks I will be standing on the deck of the ship, with nets and buckets, alongside a team of knowledgeable scientists and crew, ready to learn all about the ocean ecosystem.

Pond Scooping
Scooping in the pond on a 4th grade field trip.

CDCPS science students:

Can you name the 5 states and 2 countries that border the Gulf of Mexico?

What questions do you have about living on a research ship?