Ragupathy Kannan: Salps to Shearwaters, August 22, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 22, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 40.74767
Longitude: -70.41857
Water temperature: 25.3°C
Wind Speed: 7.18 knots
Wind Direction: 229 degrees
Air temperature: 24°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1014 millibars
Sky: Cloudy

Science and Technology Log

Life aboard this research vessel is fast-paced and absorbing.  I feel like I am a child in a toy shop, eager to learn and blog about so many of the happenings around me!  I spend much of my time high above in the flying bridge (above the bridge) with a panoramic 360 degree view of the horizon, documenting seabirds and mammals with colleagues—more on this later.  We suspend our surveying when the ship reaches a sampling station.  We have about 150 random sampling stations out in the ocean, ranging from close to coast (depth about 15 m) to right at the edge of the continental shelf (up to 500 m so far).  Cruising about 9 knots (about 10 mph), the ship zigzags along a predetermined track, stopping anywhere between 15-30 minutes at each sampling station. 

sampling station map
A map of our sampling stations. The black circles indicate plankton sampling sites; Dots show oceanographic stations where conductivity and temperature measurements are taken along with water samples for carbonate chemistry and nutrient analyses

At each station, an array of measurements are taken or specimens sampled.   

In my previous blog, I described a state-of-the-art device called the Imaging FlowCytoBot (IFCB).  But plankton are also sampled using more traditional methods.  We deploy Bongo Nets for plankton sampling.  Can you guess why they are called Bongos?  See the photo below. 

bongo nets
Bongo nets being pulled out after sampling. The chief bosun and student volunteers are on watch.

Note that there is a pair of bigger bongos and a pair of “baby” bongos.  These nets are lowered by a j-frame (arm that can be extended off the side of the ship) and winch, at various depths into the water and towed for particular distances through the water.  The time spent inside the water (5 minutes minimum) and the depth traversed (up to 200 meters) varies with station depth, but there is a Flowmeter at the mouth of each net that counts volume of water sampled.  So all measurements are standardized by volume.  The mesh size is 333 microns (1 micron = 1 millionth of a meter; 1 meter = 3.3 feet), meaning anything over 333 microns will be trapped.  (To put that in perspective, most cells in your body are about 100 microns).

flowmeter
A flowmeter at the mouth of a bongo net–-note the spinning fins that activate the water volume counting device

When they are pulled out, research personnel swing into action.  Most of them are undergraduate volunteers from various universities eager to get their hands wet (literally and figuratively) doing marine science.  The bigger bongo nets are hosed to flush all organisms to the bottom.  Then the bottom is opened and contents flushed into a sieve.  These samples are then preserved in formalin for future examination in labs on the mainland. 

Jessica rinses bongo nets
Jessica, an undergraduate volunteer, spraying the bigger bongo nets to flush plankton to the bottom
David rinses baby bongos
David (another undergraduate volunteer) sprays the smaller bongos
TAS Kannan rinsing nets
I lend a helping hand spraying the nets
emptying bongo nets
Jessica opens the bottom of the net and empties contents into a sieve
net contents
Much of the contents are Salps: jelly-like planktonic tunicates
salps and larval hake
Closer look at Salps with a larval hake fish (probably a Red Hake) near the center. More on hakes below.
Facts about Salps
The abundant salps are a vital component of the ecosystem. Source: archives.nereusprogram.org
crustacean
We even caught this beautiful planktonic crustacean (amphipod or isopod). It’s related to our rolly-pollies.
arrow worms
We also get some tiny arrow worms in our plankton samples. These torpedo-shaped worms belong to a phylum of predatory marine worms called Chaetognatha (“bristle jaws”). Photo courtesy Zatelmar
plankton jars
Plankton from the bigger bongos are preserved in 5% formalin for future analyses in mainland labs.

What happens to the contents of the pair of smaller bongos?  Our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh freezes the sample from one of them into small ziplock bags for a Florida lab which will conduct Stable Isotope Analyses.  The other one’s contents are preserved in ethanol for genetic testing (Ethanol is far easier on DNA than formalin) to determine such aspects as taxonomy and phylogenetic (evolutionary) relationships and use in larval fish age and growth studies.

sample bag
Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh bags a sample for freezing
labels
All specimens are carefully labeled and catalogued

So what are Stable Isotope Analyses?  If you are a beginning college student, you may be unaware of this sophisticated and widely-used technique.  (My ecology students should be well aware of this!).  Basically, the ratio of isotopes of a chemical element in a given sample is used to yield insights into aspects such as food preferences of the organism or to reconstruct its past environmental conditions.  It can also be used to determine where the plankton originated and thus get insights into ocean circulation.  The analyses are done with a device called mass spectrometer. 


Career Corner

I spoke with our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh about his career, research, and his advice for students.

Q. Harvey, tell us how a man from land-locked Minnesota ended up as a top marine biologist.

A. When I graduated from college I looked for a job with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but they were very competitive. So I applied for several NOAA positions from North Carolina down to the gulf coast. I got a job offer in NC.  This was after my B.S. in Aquatic Biology from St. Cloud State University.

Q. You did an M.S. while working with NOAA?

A. Yes, I went back to school part-time and got my Masters. I then went to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute [WHOI]

Q. From WHOI you came back to NOAA?

A. Yes.

Q. Has ocean acidity changed since NOAA started EcoMon?

A. It is hard to say because of seasonal variability.  We need more long-term data.

Q. Is ocean acidity world-wide increasing?

A. That’s what I see in the scientific literature.

Q. How about temperature?

A. Yes, the Northeast has seen an increase in water temperatures, especially in the Gulf of Maine, where it has increased about 0.9°C in about 4 decades.

Q. Has EcoMon helped document declines in sharks or whales?

A. Again, we need long-term data for that.

Q. Can you name one recommendation from EcoMon that has benefited sea life?

A. We get larval fish data.  Recently we started calculating Atlantic Mackerel Egg Index in collaboration with Division of Fisheries and Ocean Canada and the data indicated that there is a decline in the adult population.  This aided in the determination to lower catch limits for that species.

Q. Has the politics of climate change influenced your work?

A. No.  I have not had anyone try to change my research or findings in any way.  We have within NOAA good scientific integrity rules. We feel we have the ability to publish sound science research without any interference.

Q. You are highly published.  One of your papers on larval fish otoliths was with my former student Michael Berumen.  How are larval otoliths helpful in research?

A. One of the projects we have is trying to use larval hakes to examine stock structure (fish stock is a group of fish of the same species that live in the same geographic area and mix enough to breed with each other when mature) and estimate spawning stock biomass (the amount of mature fish).  We have interns in the lab who remove otoliths and get daily growth increments. That allows us to estimate age of the larva and spawning seasonality. 

Q. Can you tell based on this where they hatched?

A. That’s where we are headed.  Once we get information on when they were born and where they were collected, we hope to use oceanographic conditions to see if we can back-calculate where they may have come from and thus plot spawning locations to aid in stock structure analysis.

Q. One of the findings of past warming episodes is shrinking of foraminiferans and other small shelled organisms.  Is NOAA monitoring size of plankton?

A. We are.  That’s one of the projects we have just started: estimating size of Calanus finmarchicus, or Cal fin [see photo below].  This is a copepod crustacean and an important food for the endangered Right Whales. We have a 40-yr time series and have seen evidence of declining size of late-stage and adult Cal fin. We are trying to see if this has resulted in a decline in their energetic value.  They are a lipid-rich zooplankton.  If their size is related to their lipid storage they may be less nutritious for their predators.

Q. One of your papers indicated that about a third of fish and plankton species assessed in the northeast are vulnerable to climate change.  Is that trend continuing?

A.  Yes, as we monitor we continue to see shifts in fisheries, plankton, seabirds, and mammals.

Q.  What is your advice to early college undergraduates interested in marine science? 

A. Be flexible.  When I first started I thought I’d stay in Minnesota and work on adult fish stocks. I ended up working on larval fish and zooplankton.  Not focusing on one skill set and being able to adapt and look at various aspects will help you in the long run.

At the end of the interview, Harvey gave me this card and encouraged students to contact him for volunteer opportunities with NOAA. 

information card
Information Card from NOAA’s Oceans and Climate Branch
Calfin
Calanus finmarchicus, a subject of Harvey Walsh’s research. From: https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/nauplius/media/copepedia
food web slide
Harvey also kindly shared this slide explaining the locations of Calfin, Baleen Whales, and even you, in the food web. The highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale feeds on plankton like calfins by filtering them through a sieve (baleen) in their mouths (slide: courtesy Harvey Walsh)


Personal Log

One of the best aspects of this voyage is the daily spectacular views of sunrises and sunsets.  I spend a lot of time high up on the fly bridge assisting in sea bird, sea mammal, and sea turtle surveys.  It’s also a treat to look around 360 degrees and see nothing but the horizon, nothing man-made except this big old ship gently bobbing up and down in the center, leaving a wide frothy wake behind.  Yet, in the vastness of the ocean, we are but a mere speck. It really is humbling to experience this vista.

The ship crew are very serious about safety.  We have periodic Fire and Emergency, Abandon Ship, and Man Overboard drills.  A billet posted on my door advises where to report in each of these scenarios.  We have “muster” points, meaning, where to meet, for each.  I was trained to get into my Anti Exposure Suit in less than two minutes.  That was easier said than done!

Kannan in survival suit
Here I am in my Anti Exposure Suit. I felt like an astronaut in it

The food continues to be sumptuous and delicious, cooked by two expert stewards Margaret and Bronley.  Never did I dream I will enjoy eggplant curry and coconut jasmine rice on a NOAA Ship far out into the sea.

Dinner menu
Dinner menu posted in the mess
stewards Margaret and Bronley
Margaret and Bronley are the two great cooks on board. Margaret makes her own Garam Masala, putting her unique fingerprint into her curry dishes (and delighting my Indian-American tongue)!
gym
I even get my daily work out in the ship’s small but well-appointed gym


Did You Know?

Hakes (see photo above) are lean whitefish belonging to the Cod family.  They are known as Gadoids (Order Gadiformes) and are grouped with cods, haddocks, whiting, and pollocks.  They are much sought-after for their delicate texture and mild flavor.  We get some hake larvae in our plankton tows.  Hake larvae are used by scientists for all kinds of studies.  For example, their otoliths (tiny ear bones) can enable identification of species and even help determine where they were hatched (by Stable Isotope Analysis—see above).  This information, combined with data on ocean currents and circulation, can help determine hotspots for hake reproduction to enable conservation and sustainable fisheries. 

Interesting animals seen lately

Fish:

Hammerhead Shark

Whale Shark

Tuna sp.

Mammals:

Pilot Whales

Minke Whales

Common Dolphins

Bottle-nosed Dolphins

Spotted Dolphins (riding the bow!)

Sea Birds:

Great Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Cory’s Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Audubon’s Shearwater

Wilson’s Storm-petrel

Band-rumped Storm-petrel

Leach’s Storm-petrel

Black-capped Petrel

Red-necked Phalarope

Northern Gannet

In addition, several land birds on their south-bound autumn migration rested briefly on the ship.  I was not expecting to see Prairie Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds on a pelagic (=ocean) cruise!

Linda Kurtz: Women in STEM-(at sea): Meet Iris Ekmanis, August 21, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Linda Kurtz

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather

August 12-23, 2019


Mission: Cascadia Mapping Project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northwest Pacific

Date: 8/21/2019

JO Iris Ekmanis
Junior Officer Iris Ekmanis on Bridge Watch


Women in STEM: Iris Ekmanis

Iris Ekmanis is currently a Junior Officer with the NOAA Corps

On this Teacher at Sea mission, Officer Ekman is currently on bridge watch, and is a training and small craft officer. 

Current Position:  Junior Deck Officer on Bridge Watch, training officer, small boats officer

3-4 other duties in addition to watch. 

Years/Experience:     

Years at NOAA:  2.5 months after a 4-month basic training

College and/or specialized training:

2017 Bachelors of Marine Science from University of Hawaii

Junior Officer Ekmanis worked as a deckhand on tourism boats, dive boats, whale watching, and worked on a small live-aboard cruise ship.

  1. When you were a child, what was your dream career?

I wanted to be a marine biologist – but then I fell in love with being out on the water and on boats. Surrounded by the science of hydrography, I really like driving small boats and like the navigation part of my job.

2. Do you have any plans to continue your education while working for NOAA?

We get the GI bill since we are uniformed service (after 3 years with NOAA) so I’m considering a master’s in marine biology.

3. What was your favorite subject in school?

My favorite subject was outdoor education. I went to high school in New Zealand so there were outdoor education, whitewater kayaks, rock climbing, caving. My favorite academic subjects were biology & geography.

4. At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to do the work you are doing now?

I heard about NOAA in college, so I applied, I completed basic training and have been working for 2 ½ months.

5. What would you tell an elementary school student about your work that is most important?

We are out here charting the seafloor to ensure safe navigation for other mariners who are traveling through the Pacific.  All kinds of cruise ships, fisherman, and cargo ships travel through the Pacific and must get there safely.  Also, it is important that we are researching the fault lines to learn more about earthquakes and tsunamis.

We navigate the ship to ensure safety and collaborate with the hydrotechs (hydrographic technicians) to make sure the ship’s travels are resulting in good hydrographic surveys.

6. What is the most enjoyable or exciting part of your work?

 I would say it is constantly learning new skills. Every day, I’m on the bridge learning about navigation, on the launchers learning about hydrography, and the “office view” changes every day.  Every single day is different, and most times wake up in a new place.  I’m learning something new every day!

7. Where do you do most of your work?

Mostly on the bridge 8 hours a day, rest of the time working on computers, or my training workbooks, plotting courses, planning our next route.  A lot of charting.

8. What tool do you use every day that you couldn’t live without?

Definitely the software systems that allow us to navigate, radar, etc.

9. What tool would you bring aboard to make your job easier? 

Multi beam sonar that could see in front of us instead of below us, since we are in uncharted waters that would alleviate the possibility of us running into something.

10. Is there any part of your NOAA job that you didn’t expect? 

The job is hands on right away, and the job is fast paced and very diverse.  You started doing the jobs right away.  I’m looking forward to learning more about hydro.

11.  How could teachers help student understand and appreciate NOAA science?

NOAA science is so broad, we are doing a small part in our survey missions, but the science of NOAA is extensiveCheck out the student opportunities and educational resources.

12. What is the favorite part of your day and why?

My favorite time was in Alaska, in the launches (small boats) and navigating a vessel though the Inside Channel. Navigating through SE Alaska was beautiful!  I also enjoyed seeing humpback whales and occasionally orcas.

13. What was your favorite book when you were growing up?

My favorite book series was Harry Potter when I was growing up.  My idols were Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle .

14. What would you be doing if you weren’t working for NOAA?

If I didn’t work for NOAA I would definitely be doing something in the marine science field or in the maritime industry, I love boats!  I would probably be working on a boat or doing something in the ocean.

15. Do you have an outside hobby?

My outside hobbies include: paddle boarding, surfing, scuba, free diving, outrigger canoes were my passion growing up, hiking, camping, anything outdoors. 

16. What is your favorite animal? 

Hawaiian spinner dolphin and whale sharks.

17. If you could go back in time and tell you 10-year-old self something, what would it be?

Keep pursuing your dreams, don’t take life too seriously, enjoy life and enjoy the ride.

Interested in a career as a NOAA Corps Officer like Junior Officer Ekamanis? Want to learn more? See the resource links below:

-NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps

NOAA Marine Operations

NOAA Student Opportunities

Callie Harris: Lots to See While at Sea, August 20, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Callie Harris

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 13-26, 2019


Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: 8/20/19

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 58° 27.67 N
Longitude: 152 ° 53.00 W
Wind Speed: 5.96 knots
Wind Direction: 152°
Air Temperature: 12.4°C
Sea Temperature: 15°C
Barometric Pressure: 1008 mbar


Science and Technology Log

I feel the need to start off by stating that the shark did in fact swim away. During our mid-afternoon trawl haul back, Chief Boatswain Ryan Harris called over the radio that we had caught a shark in the trawl net. We quickly put on our boots, hard hats, and life preservers and headed to the back deck. Unfortunately, a 3.2m female Pacific Sleeper Shark had gotten caught in our trawl as bycatch. Thanks to the quick response of our NOAA deck crew, we were able to release the shark back into the water alive.

Unlike most sharks, the Pacific Sleeper Shark is predominantly a scavenger and rarely hunts. They are slow swimmers, but move through the water quite gracefully without much effort of body movement. This lack of movement allows them to catch prey easy since they don’t make much noise/ vibrations in the water. They feed by cutting and suction. The sleeper shark’s large mouth allows it to suck its prey in. Its spear-like teeth help cut prey down into smaller pieces. It then swallows its prey by rolling its head. For more info about this cool shark, visit: https://www.sharksider.com/pacific-sleeper-shark/ .

Bycatch is defined as the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught (e.g. hooked, entangled or trapped) during commercial fishing for a different species. Bycatch is both an issue ecologically and economically. Bycatch can slow the rebuilding of overfished stocks. Organisms that are discarded sometimes die and cannot reproduce. These mortalities put protected species such as whales and sea turtles even further at risk. Bycatch can change the availability of prey and cause cascading effects at all trophic levels. Bycatch can also occur when fishing gear has been lost, discarded, or is otherwise no longer being used to harvest fish (aka marine debris).

Releasing shark from net
Releasing the shark from our trawl net.

NOAA Fisheries works hand in hand with fishing industries to better understand fishing gear, and to develop, test, and implement alternative fishing gear. For example, NOAA Fisheries and their partners developed turtle excluder devices to reduce sea turtle mortality in the southeastern shrimp trawl fishery. NOAA Fisheries funds the Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program that supports the development of technological solutions and changes in fishing practices designed to minimize bycatch. Laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act also uphold the reduction of current and future bycatch of species.


Personal Log

It’s hard to believe that today is already day eight at sea. To be honest, I don’t even notice that I am on a ship anymore. We have been very lucky weather wise and the seas are still very calm. I have been spending more time on the bridge assisting with the ‘marine mammal watch’. As I said in blog two, we must keep an eye out for any marine mammals in the area before conducting any water surveys. The bridge is amazing because not only do you get the best view, but you also get to observe how the ship operates in terms of headings, maneuverability, and navigation.

Shelikof Strait
Shelikof Strait

The Shelikof Strait is breathtaking. Chief Electronics Technician Rodney Terry pointed out the white ‘cloud’ above one of the snow-capped mountains was actually an active volcano with a smoke plume rising above it. It was incredible to be able to look out and see a glacier and an active volcano in the same panorama.

Map of Kodiak Island
Map of Kodiak Island and Shelikof Strait. Credit: Kodiak archipelago images.

During one of my marine mammal watches on the bridge, I noticed an oddly flat area of land in the middle of the mountain range that ran along the shoreline. NOAA Corps Officer LT Carl Noblitt explained to me this was actually where a glacier had once weathered down part of the mountain range over time. The glacier has since melted so now all that remains today is its glacial trough.

glacial trough
The remains of a glacial trough.


Animals Seen Today

Besides our unexpected visitor today in the trawl, I was thrilled to hear Chief Boatswain Ryan Harris call out from the scientific deck for Orcas on the horizon. Orcas (aka Killer Whales) have always been a dream of mine to see in the wild. They were pretty far away from the boat, but I was able to see the trademark black dorsal fin rising and sinking at the surface for a few minutes. Hoping to get a photo of one of these pods before our expedition ends.

orca dorsal
Orca dorsal fin. Photo Credit: gowhales.com

Another fun organism I got to see in person today was a Lanternfish that was caught in one of our deeper bongo net surveys. Lanternfish are a deep-water fish that gets its name from its ability to produce light. The light is given off by tiny organs known as photophores. A chemical reaction inside the photophore gives off light in a chemical process known as bioluminescence.

lanternfish
Note the photophores (silver dots).
lanternfish v pencil
This laternfish is full grown. Adults measure 5cm to 15cm in length typically.

Linda Kurtz: Bathymetry – Who Knew? August 20, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Linda Kurtz

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather

August 12-23, 2019


Mission: Cascadia Mapping Project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Pacific Northwest (Off the coast of California)

Date: 8/20/2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 41°04 N
Longitude:  124° 37 W
Sky Conditions:  Scattered Clouds
Present Weather:  Foggy
Visibility: 3 Nautical Miles
Windspeed: 2 knots
Sea Wave Height:  0
Swell Height: 2 feet
Temperature:  60° Fahrenheit


Bathymetry

What is Bathymetry and why is it important?  Bathymetry is the foundation of the science of hydrography, which measures the physical features of a water body. 

We covered Hydrography in the last blog post so we know it includes not only bathymetry, but also the shape and features of the shoreline and more.

Bathymetry is defined as “the study of the “beds” or “floors” of water bodies, including the ocean, rivers, streams, and lakes.” 

The term “bathymetry” originally referred to the ocean’s depth relative to sea level, although it has come to mean “submarine topography,” or the depths and shapes of underwater terrain.  In the same way that topographic maps represent the three-dimensional features of land, bathymetric maps illustrate the land that lies underwater.  Variations in sea-floor relief may be depicted by color and contour lines called depth contours or isobaths.  (Click here for source credit and more information from NOAA)

A bathymetric map looks like this (thanks Sam!):

bathymetric map
Latest bathymetric maps! Can you see the newly discovered undersea canyon?
(Southern coverage)
bathymetric map - north
Latest bathymetric maps! Can you see the newly discovered mud volcano?
(Northern Coverage)

Above are the first views of this part of the seafloor with a bathymetric map!  (Color coded for depth – see the chart on the left)


Science and Technology Log:

Among the NOAA officers Navigating the ship, Hydrographic Technicians, and wage mariners aboard Fairweather, and the Teacher at Sea, there are also two guest USGS scientists:  James Conrad, a research Geologist and Perter Dartnell, a physical scientist.  USGS stands for United States Geographical Survey.  The USGS was created by an act of Congress in 1879 and is the sole science agency for the Department of the Interior. 

As a Teacher at Sea, I had time to talk with these USGS scientists and learn more about Bathymetry and why it is important not only to scientists, but also how this information can be used to keep us safe. 

Discussion with James Conrad research Geologist who is utilizing the science of Bathymetry among others to map the Cascadia Region of the Pacific seafloor. The USGS scientists’ focus is mapping the Cascadia Subduction Zone where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is “diving” below the North American tectonic plate. Areas of particular interest to these scientists are finding new faults, faults that are known but we have little information about, mud volcanoes and subsequent “seeps,” and the overall goal is to understand the behavior of the mega thrusts in the Cascadia Region. 

map of tectonic plates
Image Credit: USGS scientists Peter Dartnell and James Conrad

About the visiting scientists:

James Conrad has a bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkley and a master’s degree from San Jose State and has been at the USGS for 38 years.

A conversation with Research Geologist James Conrad:

What do you want students to know about Geology?

Geology is a field where there is still so much to discover, especially if you are doing hazards research work-like earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, coastal change, and climate change issues

Were you always interested in geology?

Not as a child, but I became a geology major because I had taken an introductory course – and was guided to geology by the university.

I met you on a ship-where do most of your work?

Office is in Santa Cruz, but we go out in the field 1-4 times a year for a week up to 3 weeks. 

Geology is a very young science, the fact that continents move wasn’t proven until 1963.  There is very little known about the earth, and there is so much more to discover.

Peter Dartnell:

Peter Dartnell has Bachelor of Science in Oceanography from Humboldt State University and a Masters of Geography from San Francisco State and has been with the USGS for 28 years.

A conversation with Physical Scientist Peter Dartnell:

What does a physical scientist study?

Physical Science is a combination of the studies earth and computer sciences using computers & technology to study earth.

Physical Science allows you to do everything along the scientific “study train” from data collection, interpretation, to publications.

What are your publications used for? 

Scientific publications from the USGS (which is the science agency of the government) are used widely to inform about potential geohazards and changes in the earth.  We don’t make policy, but the information we provide may be used drive policies, especially safety.

Anything you want an aspiring physical scientist to know? 

Even though you are studying earth sciences in school, you’ll truly enjoy once you get out and start applying what you’ve learned in the field with hands on science. 

We’ve met on a ship, where is it you do most of your work?

I spend 75% of my time in the office and 25% in meetings or traveling to study

What is your favorite part of being a Physical Scientist?

Seeing part of the ocean that nobody has ever seen for the first time. We are the first ones to see these recently mapped parts of the sea floor. 

What types of technology you use in physical science?

We use specialized software to acquire data and analyze the data we collect.

We also use Multibeam sonar software – bathymetry and acoustic backscatter

GIS geographic information systems

Overlay/Compare and Contrast data

What do you think are some misconceptions about physical science?

Because we are working off shore and water covers 71% of the earth, marine geology is in its infancy — we really need to have a complete map of the sea floor which is vitally important to understand the geology of the earth. When we don’t have all of these details, we are essentially operating blind.  That’s why the work that NOAA is doing is so important and the research partnerships with USGS are so valuable.

Much of the geography of the seafloor is driven by the oil industry which is required to release their acquired data every 25 years.  A lot of the deep penetration data is all from oil surveys.  Sea floor mapping is limited for pure research purposes due to limited resources.

Interested in learning more from the USGS? 

Check out these resources for students and teachers:

Escape the POD challenge for grades 6-12

K-2 Resources

3-5 Resources

More about bathymetry and the NOAA and USGS mission:

I was lucky enough to attend a “Science Talk” by these USGS scientists which was titled the Subduction Zone Coastal & Marine Geohazards Project. The USGS scientists are guests aboard Fairweather like me. 

The focus of the USGS research is along the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone:                                                                                                                                  

study area
Map of Study Area. Image Credit: USGS scientists Peter Dartnell and James Conrad

This area is where the Juan de Fuca plate dives below the North American Plate at an approximate rate of 1.6 inches per year.

Subduction Zone
Subduction Zone Image Credit: USGS scientists Peter Dartnell and James Conrad

Why is this subduction zone so important and why is NOAA Ship Fairweather out surveying the ocean floor in this area?  That’s because the world’s largest and most destructive earthquakes occur along subduction zones.  If we know the potential hazards, we can prepare people and potentially save lives.

To properly prepare, we need the following details:

slide preparing for earthquakes
What We Need to Prepare for Future Earthquakes
Image Credit: USGS scientists Peter Dartnell and James Conrad

This is why the bathymetric maps of the sea floor are important, they can help predict the area and amount of shaking that may occur during an earthquake and predict the tsunami danger zones.  Then we can make decisions for building codes, infrastructure (like strength of bridges), and escape routes for Tsunamis.  I took the pictures below when I arrived in Newport, little did I know how the research the Fairweather is conducting and the science of hydrography and bathymetric maps play a part in warnings like these! (See below)

Through the hydrographic surveying being conducted aboard Fairweather, the NOAA crew and USGS scientists are creating bathymetric maps which have reveled exciting new finds, such as: new seafloor faults, mapping known faults in greater detail, discovering mud volcanoes and submarine landslides, and using the water column data to discover the “seeps” which are most likely releasing methane gas.  See below.

(Image Credits: USGS scientists Peter Dartnell and James Conrad)

When I first heard the term BATHYMETRY I had no idea how these detailed maps of the seafloor could hold so much critical information!  It’s fascinating to watch this science happen right here and see the discoveries in real time. 


Personal Log

This post begins the last week aboard Fairweather.  I’m surprised about how quickly the ship has begun to feel “normal” to me.  I know my way around backwards (aft) and forwards (bow) and enjoyed getting to know everyone better.  Sean the IT specialist makes an amazing pot of French press coffee around 10:00 am and is kind enough to share with all.  Bekah, Sam, Joe, and Michelle in Hydrography patiently answer dozens of questions and allow me to participate when possible.  And the officers on the bridge answer all the questions and are very welcoming and generous with sharing information and their amazing views!  Carrie and the kitchen crew make 3 amazing meals a day, and I’ve made some new workout buddies to try to stay healthy with all this wonderful food!  The visiting scientists have been very nice about answering all my questions about bathymetry and geology.  It’s great when you are writing and studying about geology to be able to turn around and ask a geologist a question!  

I can’t believe how well I sleep on a ship!  The ship is constantly rocking and for this teacher at sea, and for me, that means some seriously deep sleep.  One thing I learned is to make sure all my belongings are secure before I go to bed.  If you leave something unsecured, chances are they will be banging around in the middle of the night or get tossed off a shelf (not the best middle of the night surprise!).  My room is very dark at night and I really don’t hear anything beyond the noise of the engines.  You can barely hear the foghorn from my area towards the back of the ship which is lucky since those sleeping in the front of the ship could hear it all night!  (Those friends look a little weary today.)  I have to set an alarm, or I will just keep sleeping with the constant rocking motion that is so relaxing!  Only 3 more nights of good ship sleep for me!

Linda Kurtz
The fog horn sounds every 2 minutes when the conditions are, you know, foggy!

Following the excellent tutelage of the NOAA officers, hydrographers, and USGS scientists, it’s exciting to look at the screen in the hydrography lab and start a conversation about features of the sea floor that we are seeing (or seeing in detail) for the first time.  On this mission, there have been new faults, mud volcanoes, and underwater canyons discovered.  The science is so fascinating and so little is known about the research being conducted aboard Fairweather.  I honestly had to “Google” the terms I am now so familiar with like Hydrographic survey, multi beam echo sounders, bathymetry, water column data, just to name a few. 

That’s the thing about science that has been reinforced being a Teacher at Sea, no matter how much you think you know about the earth, you learn just how much we don’t know yet, and we’re just beginning to realize the vast amount that is left to discover. 

Did You Know?

-The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface, but we actually know more about the surface Mars than the Earth’s ocean floor- (Credit-Peter Dartnell)

-The Juan de Fuca Plate is part of the famous Ring of Fire, a zone responsible for volcanic activity, mountainous regions, and earthquake activity.

Question of the Day:

Do you know how many tectonic plates there are?  Did you know they are all constantly moving? 

Challenge Yourself

Can you name the Earth’s major tectonic plates?  Can you find on a map the Pacific and Juan de Fuca plates that we are surveying right now?

Animals Seen Today:

Northern Fur Seal

Callie Harris: More than Meets the Eye, August 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Callie Harris

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 13 – 26, 2019


Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: 8/18/19

Weather Data from the Bridge:

 Latitude: 57° 01.32 N
Longitude: 155 ° 01.21 W
Wind Speed: 14.56 knots
Wind Direction: 334°
Air Temperature: 15.5°C
Sea Temperature: 15°C
Barometric Pressure: 1017 mbar


Science and Technology Log

Today marks our sixth day at sea. We are headed north into the Shelikof Strait between the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island. We are continuing along our survey stations with bongo nets and midwater trawls. A bongo net consists of two plankton nets mounted next to each other. These plankton nets are ring nets with a small mesh width and a long funnel shape. Both nets are enclosed by a cod-end that is used for collecting plankton. The bongo net is pulled horizontally through the water column by a research vessel. 

bongo net diagram
Bongo Net Diagram. Image credit: Flanders Marine Institute
Bongo nets on deck
Bongo nets on deck

We are using a combination of four total bongo nets simultaneously to sample plankton. Two of our nets are 60 cm in diameter and the other two are 20 cm in diameter respectively. Depending on the depth at each station, the nets are lowered until they reach a depth of ten meters above the sea floor. Scientists and NOAA crew on the scientific deck must constantly communicate with the bridge via radio during this survey to maintain consistent wire angles. Ideally, the goal is to maintain the winch wire angle at 45° so that the water flow into the nets is parallel to the ocean floor.

Callie measuring bongo angle
Me measuring the bongo net wire angle. Photo by Matt Wilson.

Plankton are plants and animals that float along in the oceans’ tides and currents. Their name comes from the Greek meaning “drifter” or “wanderer.” There are two types of plankton: tiny plants called phytoplankton, and weak-swimming animals called zooplankton. Oceanic plankton constitute the largest reservoir of biomass in the world’s oceans. They play a significant role in the transfer of energy within the oceanic ecosystems. Ongoing plankton monitoring data is essential for evaluating ecosystem health and for detecting changes in these ecosystems.

Plankton ID
One of the plankton ID cards we use when identifying samples under the microscope

Once the nets are brought back onto the deck, we immediately rinse the nets so that all of the plankton collects in the cod-end (the plastic tube attachment at the bottom). We carefully remove the cod-end tubes and bring them into the wet lab for processing. Using sieve pans, we filter the cod-end sample (plankton) into glass jars. We add formaldehyde and sodium borate to each jar to preserve the plankton for future analysis and study. NOAA Chief Scientist Matt Wilson informed me that all of the sample jars we collect on this expedition will actually be sent to the Plankton Sorting and Identification Center in Szczecin, Poland. Check out their website for more info: https://mir.gdynia.pl/o-instytucie/zaklad-sortowania-i-oznaczania-planktonu/?lang=en .

At even numbered stations, NOAA scientists on board will conduct a RZA (rapid zooplankton assessment) of samples collected using a microscope. This rapid assessment of plankton yields current data that allows scientists to quickly evaluate present-day ecosystem health and changes while they await more in-depth sample results and analysis from Poland.


Personal Log

Everything is still going great on day six at sea. Seas are remaining relatively calm, which I am very thankful for. I am actually sleeping more than I do at home. I am averaging about nine to ten hours sleep at night which is amazing! Most mornings, I get up and head down to the gym to run on the treadmill for some much needed exercise. As I said in my second blog, our meals have been delicious. Chief Steward Judy leaves us out some late night treats to help us get through our long shifts. I thoroughly enjoyed some late night ice cream to help me power through the last trawl of the night. I really like lunch and dinner time on the ship because it brings everyone together for a few minutes to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Most of the scientists and NOAA crew and officers have traveled all over the world on scientific vessels. It is fascinating to hear about all of their stories and adventures. I have already decided to add the ‘PolarTREC’ (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating in Antarctica and/or the Artic) Program to my bucket list for a few years down the road. My most favorite organism that we have caught in the trawl so far was this Smooth Lumpsucker. 

Smooth lumpsucker
Smooth lumpsucker

Me and my buddy Mister Lumpsucker – Photos by Lauren Rogers


Did You Know?

The answers to day three blog’s temperature readings were 62.6°F for air temperature and 59°F for sea temperature.

All jellyfish are such weak swimmers that they too are considered plankton. There is also some scientific debate as to whether or not the Ocean Sun Fish (aka Mola mola) is considered a type of plankton. The sun fish is a passive planktonic creature which can only move vertically in the water column since it lacks a back fin. They have a long dorsal and anal fin that help them maneuver clumsily up and down in the water column.

David Madden: Waves – Dolphins, Flying Fish, Sea to Sky, August 19, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

David Madden

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

July 15-29, 2019 


Mission: South East Fisheries Independent Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, SE US continental shelf ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC (35°30’ N, 75°19’W) to St. Lucie Inlet, FL (27°00’N, 75°59’W)

Date: August 19, 2019

WAVES: Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces: Dolphins, Flying Fish (video has no dialogue, only music)

This video was captured during my NOAA Teacher at Sea cruise aboard NOAA Ship Pisces. During the cruise I spent lots of time outside on the deck gazing into the blue seascape. Here’s some of the footage I collected.

David Madden: Tiger Shark! Fish Trap Footage, August 19, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

David Madden

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

July 15-29, 2019


Mission: South East Fisheries Independent Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, SE US continental shelf ranging from Cape Hatteras, NC (35°30’ N, 75°19’W) to St. Lucie Inlet, FL (27°00’N, 75°59’W)

Date: August 19, 2019

Tiger Shark! NOAA Ship Pisces Underwater Camera Action (video has no dialogue, only music)

This video is a collection of fish trap camera footage recorded during my NOAA Teacher at Sea adventure aboard NOAA Ship Pisces. Very special thanks to the NOAA science team: Zeb Schobernd – chief scientist and especially Mike Bollinger and Brad Teer – camera and gear experts.