NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 7 – June 20, 2018
Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 10, 2018
Having spent a few days on the ship now, I’ve come to realize that NOAA Ship Oregon II is a lot like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Han describes the Falcon by saying, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” Every crew member and scientist that I’ve talked to talks about Oregon II like Han does about the Falcon. The typical conversation starts with them saying that she “may not look like much,” being the oldest and one of the smallest research vessels in the NOAA fleet. But without fail, they immediately begin talking about how versatile the boat is, thanks to the many modifications that have been made over the years (some even joke about how the boat itself may be 50 years old, but none of its parts are). The boat is covered with its many awards and achievements, and has the lowest crew turnover in the NOAA fleet (many of the crew members have worked on the ship for over 20 years!).
On Thursday, we began our two-day “steam” from the NOAA Ship Oregon II’s home port in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Brownsville, Texas (near the border between the US and Mexico). Upon reaching Brownsville we’ll drop our first trawling nets at various stations, which are randomized locations where we’ll make our measurements.
The data we collect is part of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey, which the Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida depend on to assess the health and vitality of groundfish in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the commercial shrimp season for both the state and federal waters “is based on an evaluation of the biological, social and economic impact to maximize the benefits to the industry and the public.” Knowing that I helped with the “biological evaluation” they refer to makes the work feel important.
Casting off from Pascagoula felt like getting a “best of” tour of the Mississippi Gulf. The first hour of sailing was filled with incredible views of wildlife: groups of pelicans buzzing the ship, terns hovering above the deck, and flocks of seabirds chasing after fishing ships hoping to catch a meal. Every few hours we also see pods of bottlenose dolphins playing in the boat’s wake, and schools of flying fish gliding alongside the boat. The diversity and abundance of life reminded me that the Gulf of Mexico is a fertile ecosystem, with so much to explore.
Dolphins chasing our boat!
Without stations to take measurements, I don’t have many responsibilities yet on the ship, so I spend most of my time getting to know the crew, reading, watching the ocean, and working out. I was worried about what two weeks at sea would do to my triathlon training (it’s the middle of racing season!), but luckily I found a stationary bike with an incredible view. The term “stationary” bike feels almost tongue-in-cheek though, as the boat’s rocking and rolling have caused me to tip over more than once. On the bright side, I’m getting more of an ab workout?
Space is very limited on the boat, so there are a number of pieces of etiquette you learn quickly:
- If someone is coming down the stairs or a hallway, pull over – you can’t fit two people in any passageways
- With 30 people on board, but only 12 seats in the galley, make your meals short so others can get in and sit down
- Don’t sit up too quickly in bed (the pic below is my bed!)
The boat is also constantly moving and humming. You learn quickly that you can’t move too quickly because of the large waves rocking the boat. While the gentle rocking of the ship can help lull you to sleep, every hour or so the waves get so rough that things start falling off of tables, which makes dinner time… fun?
One thing is for sure: the sunsets on the Gulf are unparalleled.
Did You Know?
British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set text about the sea from American Poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in his Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” for chorus and orchestra. In the piece, Vaughan Williams paints a symphonic picture of the sea that transports the listener, making you feel as if you were at sea. Since setting sail a few days ago, I can’t get this piece out of my head. Have a listen!
Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the
green and blue,
See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book XIII: Song of Exposition