On July 25, 2019 NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker and its crew navigated slowly under the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay. As the fog smothered entrance to the bay loomed ahead of us, I stood on the bow with the Chief Bosun and a few others listening to, of all things, sea shanties. We passed a couple of whales and a sea lion playing in the water, and we cruised right passed Alcatraz before arriving at our pier to tie up.
San Francisco did not disappoint! I walked a total of 20 miles that day stopping at Pier 39 to watch the sea lions, Ghirardelli Square to get chocolate ice cream, and Boudin Bakery to try their famous sourdough bread. I walked along the San Francisco Bay Trail, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then back to the ship.
Later that evening I went out for dinner with three of the science crew and the restaurant had a couple of local items that I hold near and dear to my heart now – sardines and market squid. It felt like everything came full circle when I ordered the fried sardine appetizer and grilled squid salad for dinner after having caught, measured, and weighed so many of them on the ship. I never would have stopped before to think about the important role those little critters play in our food chain.
The first entry for this blog posted almost two months ago framed an introduction to a journey. Even though I’ve been back on land for three weeks now, I couldn’t quite bring myself to title this entry “The Journey Ends.” Instead it feels like the journey has shifted in a new direction.
I spent a lot of time on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker thinking about how to integrate lessons from this project into my classroom and how to share ideas with other teachers in my district and beyond. Most of all this trip inspired me to reach out even more to my colleagues to collaborate and design instructional activities that push the boundaries of the traditional high school paradigm.
Weather at 1200 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 22 July 2019
When I walk outside onto the deck, the sky is a stunning shade of blue matching the color of Frost Glacier Freeze Gatorade. The sun is warm against my skin – I’m finally not wearing a jacket – and bright, but not so bright that I have to squint against the reflection of the water. I put my sunglasses on anyway since the polarized lenses help me see more defined colors in bright sunlight. The instruments show 15° Celsius right now with 25 knot winds. The horizon has a funny haze along its whole length even though the sky above me is absolutely clear. When I look over the long distance, I’m seeing cumulative aerosols – dust, water vapor, and other particles suspended in the air to form a haze along the horizon. I can’t see it directly above me even though it must be there.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen this whole trip, even when you take the coastline into account, are the squid. Never thought I’d write that sentence. But they sparkle and change colors! Last week we found a tiny octopus in something called a bongo tow (I’ll explain that in the science section). That little critter was even more awe inspiring. It had big turquoise eyes that reminded me of peacock feathers.
While I was in Newport, Oregon before the ship left, I was walking around Newport Marina and found a couple of guys painting a mural. The one who designed the mural is an art teacher at Newport High School. We started talking about his mural and the NOAA Teacher at Sea program. In addition to his career as an art teacher, Casey McEneny also runs his own art studio called Casey McEneny Art. The other guy helping him, Jason, has an art studio called Jay Scott Studios.
By painting the commissioned mural, he was connecting his career with his love of art and his community. His son even participated in the process by filling in a small portion of the mural while Casey worked on outlining the rest of it. Later he’ll go back and overlay the mural with color so it pops off the wall.
Ok, so the bongo tow. Do you remember as a kid (if you were a kid in the movies) when you used to run through fields of flowers catching butterflies in a butterfly net? I’m imagining a 6 year old girl with a flowing sundress. Well, take two oversized white butterfly nets and attach them to a metal frame that look like spectacles. Each hoop in this frame has a 71 centimeter diameter. These mesh nets each have a codend just like the trawl nets, except these codends are less than 1 foot long and are made out of extremely fine mesh. They’re designed to catch zooplankton – copepods, krill – and other smaller things that the net collects while traveling through the water column.
The juvenile octopus we found in the bongo tow last week was too difficult to identify at that young stage. It was only about 1 inch long. I searched through their identification books in the lab and tried to figure it out, but even the scientists said that the science community just doesn’t know enough yet about cephalopods (think octopus and squid species) to identify this beautiful creature until it’s an adult. We do know, since it has 8 arms and a fused mantle, that it’s at least an octopus and not a squid. Squid are not octopods, they’re decapods – in addition to the 8 arms they also have 2 long tentacles.
There are two species of octopus living in this area that look very similar even as adults. They are the Enteroctopus dofleini (Pacific Giant Octopus) and the Octopus rubescens (East Pacific Red Octopus). As adults, they’re both a dark red color almost like rust or brick. The artist I mentioned earlier, Casey, included a Pacific Giant Octopus in his mural at Newport Marina. But those are just two of many, many species of octopods in this area. Our little guy is probably neither of those. Still, I’m hoping it is a baby Octopus rubescens since they have a high density of chromatophores that make them sparkle!
The chromatophores are cells that both reflect light and contain different colors (pigment). They come in all different patterns and are distinct enough to use as identification tools for different species. They can be individually large or small and show up either in dense patches or scattered like freckles. Octopus and squid species contract and expand these special cells to change color based on necessity, if they need camouflage for example, or it’s thought that they even use color to communicate their mood. I’ve seen them sparkle in brilliant colors like a kaleidoscope but that’s probably, unfortunately, an expression of their agitated state since we’re catching them.
While there’s no way to tell exactly what they’re thinking, it is well known that octopus species are highly intelligent compared to other animals found in the ocean. They are curious, they sometimes play pranks on divers, and they seem to be more intentional than fish in their actions. Their intelligence made me think they’d have long lives, that they gained experience and personality over time, but octopus species typically only live a few years. Females will usually only reproduce once in their short life spans.
There are so many ways to connect cephalopods to the classroom! First, research shows octopus species may plan ahead and that they can learn and adapt to their surroundings. They’re problem solvers. They’re curious by nature. How often do I wish my students were more curious about learning and literacy! By reading about the resiliency and learning capabilities of an octopus, maybe it will inspire my students to see themselves as more capable of persevering through difficult challenges and adapting their learning styles to meet the needs of different disciplines. I can drive home the point that studying for biology might not look the same as studying for their upcoming test in civics, and that the more academic learning tools they have to employ from their toolbox, the more they’ll be able to master this whole “being a student” thing. If you’re at a loss for how to bring an octopus into the classroom, try starting with this activity from the NY Times Learning Network called Learning with “Yes, the Octopus is Smart as Heck. But Why?”.
Casey, the art teacher from Newport High School, shared an interesting activity from his art class. He recommends using images of zooplankton under microscope (we found plenty of these in our bongo tow!) to inspire abstract art projects similar to how Carl Stuwe intertwined science with art at the beginning of the 20th century. English teachers could share the same images to get students writing creative fiction or a mini lesson on imagery. Science and art provide a natural blend and plenty of opportunities for teachers to collaborate and combine our instructional force so we can integrate important concepts across the disciplines.
As a literacy teacher, I can’t help but think about how awesome it would be to teach my students the Latin prefixes and root words that are commonly used to name sea creatures. Names like Doryteuthis opalescens, Rossia pacifica, Octopus californicus, or Thysanoteuthis rhombus. Then, let them loose to name, design, describe, and share their own octopus species – yet to be discovered! While I’m sure their imaginations would come up with some elaborate ideas, few things are ever as fantastical as reality. Check out the Vampyroteuthis infernalis living in the deep, dark depths of the ocean.
We wouldn’t have found this creature or been able to capture its image without technology like Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and underwater submersible vehicles. There are clearly ways to link instruction to technology courses in addition to art, science, and literacy. Maybe students could take a sea creature that already exists and use mixed media to present an artistic representation of it like the Oregon Coast Aquarium did for their Seapunk exhibit. They could get their mixed media supplies from scrap leftover in the tech wing.
Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Friday 19 July 2019
We’re rockin’ and rollin’ out to sea. This transect carries us 138 miles off the coast, and the winds are steady at 35-40 knots. Waves keep slapping up over the deck outside our lab. I’m watching it through a window. As the boat rocks back and forth, the full frame of the window alternates between powder blue sky and foamy, purple blue sea. We’ve started tacking (zig-zag) through the water so we can minimize the effect of the roll. But with 12 foot waves, it’s only a minimal aide to our comfort. We’ve rolled a full 35° and pitched about 15° throughout the day. Though I haven’t been outside to compare it to other days, the temperature on the monitor reads 17° Celsius. With the strong breeze, I must assume it feels colder than that outside.
Let’s talk about seasickness. It rattles everyone from the novice to the career fisherman. It depends on sea state and state of mind. The rougher the weather, the more people seem to feel woozy and nauseated. There’s no pattern I can see between people who are new versus people who have been at this a while. It doesn’t seem to get any better with experience. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has taken some sort of motion sickness medication at some point over the last three weeks for some reason. I’d like to believe that the more healthy you are going into it – physically fit, decent diet – the more stoic your stomach will be, but I haven’t seen a connection in that respect either.
All I know, is that some people are sick and some are not. Differences? Medication is one. We’re all taking different types. Of those I’ve seen wearing a patch, they are not feeling well. I’ve been taking Bonine and I’ve felt great the whole trip. Bonine is a chewable tablet that you only need once each day. I took it for the first few days, stopped taking it, then started again when the weather forecast looked bleak. I’ve found that if it’s in my system before the waves get choppy, then I fair well through the storm.
Another difference is attitude. Of the people who are not feeling well, those who smile and take it in stride are able to spend more time out of their staterooms focused on the task at hand – whatever their role may be. Distraction is a bonus. It’s not like you have a virus that is running its course. If you can get yourself good and distracted, it eases the symptoms and provides some relief.
And also, sleep. There is a definite connection between quality of sleep and symptoms of sea sickness. I’ve seen a solid nap cure a couple people of their ails. Thankfully, due to a little bit of luck and a little bit of Bonine, the waves lull me to sleep each night so I wake feeling rested and I do not contend with nausea during the day. All in all, the best combination I could have hoped for.
And then there are the folks who need no meds at all and they feel fine. Lucky ducks.
Fifteen hundred years ago, a thousand years before Magellen’s crew successfully sailed around the world, sailors used otoliths to divine whether rough or fair seas awaited them on their journey. During the era of John Smith and Peter Stuyvesant, some Europeans recognized the otolith as medicinal with the ability to cure colic, kidney stones, and persistent fevers. If you’re truly interested in the legends associated with the otolith, you should read the brief and probably only account of Fish Otoliths and Folklore ever published. Though primarily informative, it reads with a touch of humor and it’s easy to tell that Christopher Duffin enjoyed researching the topic. As did I!
The science of otoliths as they’re used in the modern era is even more incredible than the folklore. You can determine the age of a fish by reading the annuli on its otolith under a microscope just as a botanist might count the rings on a tree to determine its age. The bands themselves can tell scientists how fast a fish grew and whether it went through periods of slower growth or not. The unique chemistry in each ring can also be studied to learn just about anything you’d want to know from that year – water temperature, migration patterns, what the fish ate, and how healthy it was. Since the shape of an otolith is unique to its species, we can even study the stomach contents and feces of other animals like sea lions or predatory fish to build a picture of their diets. Scientists use this information to craft complex food webs.
Anthropologists find otoliths in ancient scrap food piles called middens that are still intact and can shine light on the diets of bygone cultures. On this trip we’re saving fish for scientists at the San Diego Natural History Museum so they can compare bones from the coastal pelagic species with bones that they’ve excavated from archaeological expeditions.
But what is an otolith? Some call it an earstone. The otolith is a small structure of calcium carbonate that accumulates throughout a lifetime. Where humans have an ear canal, fish have an otic capsule that houses, actually, three symmetrical otoliths on each side of its head. When people say otolith though, they’re typically referring to the sagitta which is the largest one (in most fish) and is usually situated just behind the stem of the brain. Those are the ones we’re collecting during the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey. It takes such a concerted effort to collect them each night that one of the interns, Hilliard Hicks, started calling it the Otolympics!
To get to it is not pretty. The otoliths are situated within the brain cavity, posterior and ventral to the brain itself. The easiest way to get to them in a Jack Mackerel without breaking the otoliths is to first make a vertical incision where the base of the fish’s head meets its body. Then, turning the fish onto its side, you make another cut across the top of the fish’s head from one eye to the other. You’re essentially cutting off and removing a rectangular section at the top of the head to reveal the brain cavity. Then, after removing the brain, you get easy access to the otic capsule where the otoliths sit. Using small forceps or tweezers, we pull them out, dry them off, and encapsulate each fish’s sagittae in a vial for further study back on land. Multiply that process by about 75-100 and add weight and length measurements, and you get a sense of what our routine is after each trawl. We usually have 3-5 people attending to the task and it takes us roughly 45 minutes.
The main component of an otolith, calcium carbonate, is used today for lots of familiar medicines. While not derived from an otolith itself, it is still notable that calcium carbonate is a very common substance in pharmacology. We use it in antacids to neutralize the acid in our upset stomachs, to boost calcium thereby warding off osteoporosis, and to save us from enduring heartburn. It’s no wonder people used to pop otoliths in their mouth to cure what they identified as kidney stones. Maybe on some level, it really did help to assuage pain associated with their stomachs and digestion. In 2015, a team of scientists published a study in the Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research to share how they’ve been researching the use of otoliths with diabetes. There are far easier ways to collect stores of calcium carbonate, but the study shows that interest in otoliths stems not just to ichthyology, but also to climatology, anthropology, and pharmacology. It is an important little item.
Don’t have diabetes or an upset stomach? Not looking to see what the folks were eating in your neighborhood 500 years ago? Maybe you’d like to add an otolith to your wardrobe instead. In Alaska there are a couple of different places you could stop to purchase otoliths as jewelry. When used in earrings they look like tiny little feathers. A unique gift item for sure.
Stick with me for a minute while I get to my point. Earlier this week one of the scientists taught me about ctenophores (pronounced teen-a-fours with emphasis on the first syllable). They’re a type of zooplankton that look like translucent globes. If you’ve ever blown a bubble and watched it shimmer in the sunlight, that is exactly what they look like under a microscope. Except now visualize that bubble with eight longitudinal stripes lined with hundreds of little hairs. This orb is a living creature called a ctenophore.
Later, while I was reading on my own to research otoliths, I stumbled across the word ctenoids. A ctenoid scale on a fish has many little cilia (tiny hairs or spikes) all around its edge. “Cteno-“ can be traced back to Latin or Greek origins to mean “little comb” and I was able to use that understanding to help me visualize a ctenoid fish scale. So, here’s my point. If it weren’t for that short exchange with the scientist earlier this week about ctenophores, I would have breezed right past the word ctenoid while reading without ever having paused to visualize what the fish scale looked like. I would not have learned as much while I was researching on my own.
As teachers, we can’t possibly know all the things our students will come across in a day. By teaching them Latin and Greek word parts that align to our curriculum, they stand a better chance of connecting their lives outside the classroom to our class content.
Prefixes, suffixes, and root words are used in every discipline to help identify concepts and patterns. Don’t teach them in the abstract, instead teach them in word groupings so our students’ brains have something to latch onto. I particularly enjoy using root word tree images. Spending 15 minutes per week going over a root word tree with students, and providing them a digital link so they can look over it again at their leisure, is an excellent way to ignite a conversation in your discipline.
If I were a history teacher for example, I might choose to start a unit on modern democracy by passing out copies of the “dem: people” root word tree, telling each student to write a paragraph at the bottom of the page with whatever comes to mind while they’re looking at the tree. Then they could walk around the room sharing their writing with their classmates and highlighting patterns they find in the responses. They’ll hopefully never forget that a democracy is a government built of the people, by the people, and for the people (as the famous saying goes). At the very least, they’ll understand why the first three words of the preamble are “We the people…” and how a democracy is different from other forms of government like a monarchy, theocracy, and dictatorship.
Weather at 1000 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 17 July 2019
We’re expecting rougher weather at the end of the week. The wind is forecast to stay at 15 knots all day today with patchy fog. Then tomorrow and Friday winds double to 30 knots with waves of 12 feet. Currently the wind is 11 knots and the sea state is stable. The sunsets out on the water are spectacular! People gather on the fantail to watch the evening sun melt into the horizon when it’s exceptionally colorful or dramatic, and last night did not disappoint.
Most of the time during meals I sit with the science crew. Sometimes I’ll sit with my roommate, Lindsey, who works as an augmenter. Think of augmenters as floaters – they are employed full time but will move from one ship to another based on the needs of each ship. Lindsey helped me a lot this trip from learning how to do laundry and climbing in and out of a top bunk on a rolling ship (without falling) to understanding nautical terms. She’s also pretty good at spotting whales!
A couple of my meals have been spent talking with 2nd Cook Aceton “Ace” Burke. He normally is the Chief Cook on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, but he’s augmenting on this trip to fill in for someone who is on vacation. When he’s cooking for his crew, his favorite meal to prepare is pork ribs. He cooks them low and slow for hours until they’re fall-off-the-bone tender.
He and Kathy keep the kitchen spotless, the food hot, and the mealtimes cheerful. Kathy was kind enough to share some recipes with me and I intend to take every one of them home to cook this summer! For dinner one night soon I’ll make Kalbi Ribs with Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes and Macadamia Nut Cookies for dessert. I’ll reserve the Creamy Chicken Rice Soup for a cold winter weekend and be sure to add chopped, roasted red peppers and wild rice to the recipe like Kathy instructed.
INTERVIEW WITH A CHEF
After working in an office environment for a few years in Los Angeles, our Chief Steward Kathy Brandts realized she didn’t fit the nine to five lifestyle. Plus, who would ever want to commute to work in LA? So she left LA and moved back to Colorado to live with her sister for a while until she found something more appealing.
That’s when cooking began to kindle in her blood. Every night she would sift through cookbooks and prepare dinner in search of a way to express gratitude to her sister for helping her get back on her feet. But it would still be a few years before she started earning a living in the kitchen.
First came the Coast Guard. At 27 years old, she was less than a year away from the cutoff. If she didn’t enter basic training before her 28th birthday, a career with the Coast Guard would no longer be an option. It appealed to her though, and a recruiter helped her work a little magic. She made the cut! While she initially wanted to work deck personnel so she could maintain the ship and qualify as law enforcement (some Coast Guard personnel, in addition to belonging to a military branch, can simultaneously take on the role of federal law enforcement officers), she was too pragmatic for that. It would have taken her three years to make it to that position whereas cooks were in high demand. If she entered as a cook, she wouldn’t have to wait at all.
So the Coast Guard is where she had her first taste of formal training as a cook. She traveled on a two year tour to places like Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean visiting port cities in Hawaii and Australia to resupply. Ironically, to be out to sea a little less often, she decided to join NOAA as a civilian federal employee after her service with the Coast Guard ended. She’s not exactly out to sea any less than she used to be, but now she gets to go on shorter trips and she can visit family and friends while NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker is in port between cruises.
Kathy is a perfect example of someone who wasn’t willing to settle for a job. She spent the first half of her life searching for a career, a calling, to energize and motivate not just herself but all the people her meals feed throughout the day. She believes that food is one of the biggest morale boosters when you’re on a ship, and it’s clear at mealtime that she’s correct. I watch each day as the officers and crew beam and chatter while they’re going through the buffet line. I hear them take time to thank her as they’re leaving to go back to work.
A well-cooked, scratch meal has the power to change someone’s day. Not only does Kathy take pride in her work as a professional, I also get a touch of “den mother tending to her cubs” when I see her interact with everyone on the ship. She says she provides healthy, flavorful meals because she loves food and wouldn’t want to serve anything she wouldn’t eat herself. In turn, this seems to make everyone feel cared for and comforted. When you’re packed like sardines in a confined area for a month at a time, I can’t think of any better morale booster than that.
I think it’s hard sometimes for students to visualize all the steps it takes to get to where they want to end up. As with all people, teenagers don’t always know where they want to end up, so connecting the dots becomes even less clear. Take Kathy as an example. She started her adult life in an office and ended up in a tiny kitchen out in the middle of the ocean. I doubt that at sixteen years old, sitting in some high school classroom, she ever would have imagined she’d end up there.
So our job as teachers is not to push students in one direction or the other. Part of our job, I believe, is to help students get out of their own way and imagine themselves in settings they won’t hear about in their counselor’s office. One way to do this is to invite people from our communities to come in and share how their profession connects to our curriculum. I can think of plenty of people to invite – the local candy maker, a trash collector, a professor researching octopods, a farmer, a cyber security professional or white hat, a prison guard, military personnel, an airline pilot, or a bosun (even though I probably won’t find any of those in my local community since I don’t live near the water). Reading about the profession is one thing. Talking to someone who lives it everyday is another.
One lesson I’m taking from my day spent in the kitchen is the value of scenario based activities. If student teams are posed with a problem, given a text set to help them form their own conclusions and plan for the solution, and then asked to present their solution to the class for feedback, that is a much more enriching lesson plan than direct instruction. In November my students will be tasked with preparing a budget and presenting a plan to feed 30 people for a three week cruise. I like the idea of the cruise because they can’t just run out to the store if they forget a few things – the plan has to be flawless. This one activity, though it would take a week to execute properly, would have my students making inferences and drawing conclusions from text, communicating with one another using academic language and jargon specific to the scenario, solving a real-world problem, and critically evaluating an assortment of potential solutions.
We can prepare students for “the career” regardless of what that ends up being. Every career requires critical thinking skills, problem solving, patience, a growth mindset, and the ability to communicate with others. And all these skills are essential to the classroom regardless of grade level or discipline.
Weather at 1300 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 15 July 2019
We’re slowly coasting through a dense patch of fog. I can see about 20 meters off the deck before the horizon tapers to a misty, smoky haze. Then my eyes are affronted with a thick wall of white. It’s like we’re inside a room covered in white felt wallpaper – one of those rooms in a funhouse where the walls keep closing in on you as you walk through it. For safety, the ship keeps sounding a loud horn at least once every 2 minutes to announce our position for other boats in the area. It’s been like this for an hour now. It’s a little spooky.
On a brighter note, we saw whales earlier this morning! We were one mile off the coast of southern Oregon, and ahead of us we saw the backs of a few whales peeking out of the surface. I was able to grab a pair of binoculars sitting next to me on the bridge, and with those I could clearly see their dark bodies in the water! Every once in a while one would gracefully lift its tail above the surface as it prepared to dive. They were so cute!
Eventually we got closer to them and we started to see more whales on either side of the ship. I spent probably 15 minutes moving from one side of the bridge to the other with my binoculars to get a better look. I’m lucky the NOAA Corps officers are so accommodating! Otherwise I think my constant fluttering from one area to another could’ve been construed as a pain.
The officers like to see whales too, so they were happy to share what they knew with me. It turns out we were most likely watching Humpback Whales. LT Dave Wang, Operations Officer on the ship and trained as an ichthyologist (fish biologist), said most whales have a distinctive blow pattern, tail shape, and dorsal fin size that makes it easier to identify which kind he’s looking at. I had no idea before today that there were so many different species of whales. I knew Orca – Free Willy, Humpback, and maybe something called a Blue Whale? But that would’ve been the extent of it. In the marine mammals identification guide housed on the ship, there are 45 types of whales in the table of contents! And that’s probably not a complete list of all whale species.
At one point today, eventually, once the fog lifted, we were 36 miles off shore and started seeing shoals of coastal pelagic species all around the ship. We could pick them out easily because each shoal looked like a dark, churning, rippled inkspot on the otherwise smooth-as-glass surface. While the low wind conditions are partly what left us in a thick layer of fog all afternoon, it is what also kept the water smooth enough to pick out the shoals. So I guess not all was lost. We saw even more whale activity around these shoals than we saw this morning, and they were a lot closer to the ship!
One of the whales just off the starboard bow left a footprint. Larger whales like the Humpback produce larger footprints, and the calm sea state today allowed us to see them! It looked like a smooth patch of water in the center of concentric circles.
I’ve been trying to see whales and other marine mammals the whole trip. I saw a sea lion the other day, just one glimpse of it before it went under the water and we left the area, but now having seen the whales I feel pretty content. The Commanding Officer of the ship also told me that seals or sea lions like to hang out on the pier that we’ll be docking at in San Francisco, so there’s still hope yet!
If you’ve ever been whale watching on a boat, the type of whale you probably saw was a Humpback Whale. They can often be seen near the shore since they like to stay within the continental shelf, and they spend a lot of time near the surface compared to other whales. Not all whale species exhibit this same behavior. If whales had a personality, I would call the Humpback Whales the Jersey Shore cast of the sea. They do things that come across as attention-seeking behaviors to the outside observer – slapping their unusually long flippers on the surface of the water, smacking their tails against the water in agitation, flipping their tails in the air before diving, and sometimes breaching the surface with their whole bodies. Of course, they’re not doing it to get our attention. But it makes for easy and exciting observation!
They also have the advantage of something called countershading. One of the whales I saw today had a silvery-shiny underside to its fluke that glistened in the sunlight and contrasted greatly with the dark, almost black color of its back. A lot of fish and marine mammals like whales and porpoises use countershading to help camouflage them by having naturally darker backs (dorsal side) and lighter stomachs (ventral side). This way when something is looking down at the creature, it blends in with the dark depths of the ocean, and when something is looking up at the creature, it blends in better with the lighter, sunlit layer of water near the surface.
Anything from krill to small fish are fair game for Humpback Whales when they’re hungry. Sometimes a group of Humpback Whales will work together as a team to catch fish. One way they do this is by bubble net feeding. It’s rare to witness, but a bubble net is a pretty sophisticated way to catch fish. It reminds me of the trawling we do each night from NOAA Ship Reuban Lasker except in this case the whales use a circular pattern of bubbles to corral a bunch of fish into one area… then they thrust forward aggressively, quickly, to scoop up the masses. We use a trawl net to corral the little critters into a codend instead of swallowing them whole.
Baleen whales, like the Humpback, have a unique mouth that is hard to explain. If you can visualize a pelican’s beak, it looks a bit like that from the outside. These whales gulp a whole mouthful of water – including zooplankton, krill, and small fish – into their mouths, but they don’t swallow it down outright and they don’t exactly chew their food either. With all that saltwater and prey in their mouths, they use long rows of baleen attached to their upper jaw like a fine-toothed comb. And just like we would use a cheesecloth to strain the moisture off of runny yogurt, Humpback Whales filter the water out of their mouths through the baleen and keep the fishy goodness for themselves.
Watching the whales all day kept drumming up images in my mind from when I read Grayson by Lynne Cox. I wrote a review of Grayson in July 2014 on the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts (PCTELA) blog. This book, by far, is one of my favorite recommendations to read aloud to students.
If you’re not an English teacher, you probably didn’t spend a lot of late nights in college reading novels to cram for a test. It wasn’t part of your major. But you’re missing out! There are so many ways to use novels and literary nonfiction across the content areas. Grayson, for example, is artfully written. In the book review I wrote it tells Lynne’s “account of meeting a baby whale in the ocean during one of her early morning training swims. This lonely whale, separated from its mother, stays close to Lynne in the water while fishermen search for the mother. This true yet almost unbelievable story is hauntingly beautiful.”
Taking 15 minutes of class time to read an excerpt from this book aloud could enrich any classroom. There are many instances when she writes about wanting to give up and swim back to shore. The baby whale is ultimately not her responsibility. It was very cold. She’d been out there in the ocean for hours with nothing but her own strength and experience to keep her afloat. She hadn’t eaten all day. But she stayed with the baby whale. She resolved to see it through to the very end. Any teacher can use her stick-with-it attitude as an example to encourage students to work through academic challenges.
One of my friends, blogger Allyn Bacchus, is a middle school social studies teacher. He uses historical fiction in his class every year. He writes, “My 8th grade U.S. History class covers a unit on Industry and Urban Growth in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I have supplemented our unit with the historical fiction novel Uprising written by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It covers the story of 3 teenage girls and their involvement in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York in 1911. The author brings to life the living, working, and social conditions of the time period and allows my students to experience this unit through the eyes of girls who are living in it.”
Through the eyes of girls who are living in it. This is something a textbook cannot do.
No one knows your discipline, your students, and your intended classroom environment better than you. Take an hour to fall down the Amazon rabbit hole! Search for a topic you find interesting and relevant to your curriculum, read the book review, click on the comparable book recommendations… you get the point. Most of the time you can find a book preview to check out the text before purchasing – is the font too small? Too complicated? Too boring? Choose a short excerpt from a text you like for your first attempt at using literature in the classroom and build from there.
Since we’re talking about literature today, I’ll narrate the resource list.
We can search online for other educators who have already blazed the trail for us. Here is a blog post written by Terry McGlynn titled Assigning Literature in a Science Class. The post itself is well written, and if you take the time to read through 54 comments below it, you will find lots of other text recommendations for a science classroom. This article written by Kara Newhouse titled How Reading Novels in Math Class Can Strengthen Student Engagement shows why two math teachers read books in their high school classrooms. One of those teachers, Joel Bezaire, wrote a blog post with suggestions for other novel studies in math class. The other teacher, Sam Shah, shares a student example to explain how powerful it can be to use literature in a math class. It gets students to understand abstract and often elusive mathematical concepts.
I’ve written four nonfiction book reviews to accompany this NOAA Teacher at Sea experience and PCTELA is posting one review each week in July to the new media platform on their website. If not Grayson, then maybe you’ll find useful one of the books I read and reviewed to prepare for this trip. They include Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
And finally, I would be remiss to end this post without steering you toward The Perfect Storm written by Sebastian Junger about a small fishing vessel and crew caught in an Atlantic storm and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick – a captivating true story about the whaling industry which is thought to be the inspiration for Moby Dick.
Weather at 1600 Pacific Standard Time on Thursday 11 July 2019
Happy to report we’re back to a much calmer sea state! I finally made it up to the flying bridge again since it isn’t raining or choppy anymore. It’s the first time in two days I’ve needed to wear sunglasses. The ocean looks almost level with scattered patches of wavelets which indicates about a 5 knot wind speed. It reminds me of the surface of my palms after I’ve been in the water too long – mostly smooth but with lots of tiny wrinkles. Check out this awesome weather website to look at what the wind is doing in your area!
Stretch everyday. I should stretch everyday. I do not. On the ship it’s even more of a necessity. One of the scientists calls it “Boaga” – like mixing “boat” with “yoga.” Try doing yoga on the ship and the rocking might cause you to tumble, but I enjoy a good challenge. Fitness requires strength and flexibility, so if I do some yoga and have to work harder to stay balanced since the ship is rocking, all the better.
A combination of the good food, constant access to homemade snacks, and lack of natural ways to burn calories on the ship, I need to turn to deliberate exercise. I just haven’t started that routine yet. The ship does have a nice, albeit small, gym on the same floor as my stateroom. It includes free weights, kettlebells, a treadmill, and a few other pieces of equipment. Now that our first week is coming to a close, my goal for today – and everyday forward – is to develop a routine for stretching and cardio. Sigh. Otherwise the five pounds I’ve already gained will turn into fifteen. And I have no desire to work off fifteen pounds of belly fat when I get home.
“Trawl” has its origins in Latin. The original word meant “to drag” and it still carries a similar denotation. Fishermen use trawl as a noun, verb, and adjective. On NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker we use a Nordic 264 Surface Trawl to conduct the Coastal Pelagic Species Survey each night. The trawl is spooled onto a giant iron net reel which connects to the deck with sixteen 2.5 inch bolts and is securely welded. We try to get three trawls in per night, but sometimes we don’t quite make it. Poor weather, issues with the net, or sighting a marine mammal can all put a quick end to a trawl.
Now let’s use it as a verb. The origin “to drag” deals more with how you operate the net than the construction of the net itself. To trawl for fish like we do each night means to slowly unravel 185 meters in length of heavy ropes, chains, and nylon cord mesh into the water off the stern with an average of 15,000 pounds of tension while the ship steams at a steady rate of about 3 knots. Getting the net into the water takes about 15 minutes.
Scott Jones, Chief Bosun, took me on a tour of the equipment. Two reels below deck spooled with cable the diameter of my forearm, one even larger reel on the fantail to house the net and ropes, a winch to lift the weight of the trawl as it transitions from deck to water, plus two work stations for the Chief Bosun to manually monitor and control all those moving pieces. There are three additional nets on board in case they need to replace the one we’ve been using all week, but the deck crew are pretty adept at sewing and mending the nets as needed.
As I stand on the bridge watching the net snake its way into the water behind the ship, everything pauses for a brief moment so the deck crew can use daisy knots to sew floatable devices into the kites. Later, they attach two more of these floats to the headrope (top line). The floats keep the mouth of the net open vertically. A couple minutes later they stop to attach 250lb Tom weights to the footrope (bottom line) of the trawl opening. When fully deployed, this roughly 25 meter vertical opening is as tall as an 8-story building!
It’s like watching choreography – every detail must be done at exactly the right moment, in the right order, or it won’t work. The Chief Bosun is the conductor, the deck crew the artists. Hollow metal doors filled with buoyant wood core – together weighing more than a ton on land – are the last to enter the water. Each hangs on large gallows on the starboard and port side of the ship, just off stage, until they’re cued to perform. These doors are configured with heavy boots and angled in the water to act as a spreading mechanism to keep the net from collapsing in on itself.
If unspooled properly, the net ends up looking like an enormous largemouth bass lurking just under the surface.
Commercial fishermen use all kinds of nets, long lines, and pots depending on the type of catch they’re targeting, fishing regulations, and cultural traditions. But if we use “trawl” as an adjective, it describes a specific kind of net that is usually very large and designed to catch a lot of fish all at one time. It looks like a cone with a smaller, more narrow section at the very end to collect the fish.
I imagine something like a cake decorating bag that’s being used to fill a mini eclair. Except, instead of squeezing delicious icing into the pastry, we’re funneling a bunch of fish into what fishermen call a “codend.” This codend (pronounced cod-end, like the fish) houses the prize at the end of the trawl! When they haul everything back in – taking a little longer, about 45 minutes to complete the haul back – they end up with (hopefully) a codend full of fish to study.
A trawl net can either be used like we are to collect fish close to the surface or it can be weighted and dropped to the sea floor in search of groundfish. We’re searching for pelagic fishes that come up to the surface to feed at night, so it makes sense for us to trawl at the surface. Think of pelagic fish as the fishes in the water. Sounds funny to say, but these fishes don’t like to be near the seabed or too close to the land by the coast. They like to stay solidly in the water. Think of where anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and sharks like to hang out.
To catch groundfish on the other hand, we’d need to trawl the bottom of the ocean since they prefer to stay close to the ocean floor. Trawling the seabed in the Northeast Pacific Ocean would bring in flavorful rockfish and flounder, but we’re not looking for groundfish during this survey. One very lucrative and maybe less known groundfish in this area is the sablefish. In commercial fishing, they use bigger nets, and a trawl can bring in tens of thousands of pounds in just one tow. When I spoke to someone on board who used to work on a commercial trawl boat, he said catching sablefish are a pain! They live in very deep waters. Plus, the trawl must hit the seabed hard and drag along the bottom in order to catch them. This causes huge tears, many feet wide, in the mesh. He said they used to keep giant patches of mesh on the boat deck so they could patch up the holes in between trawls. When I get home, I’m definitely going to purchase sablefish and try it for dinner.
I’ve never once wondered how the fish I buy at the grocery store ends up on my plate. Now I can’t seem to stop asking the scientists and deck crew questions. There are all these regulations to follow, methods to learn based on what type of fish you’re targeting, and so much that someone would need to understand about traveling in the ocean before even attempting to fish commercially. I’ve been immersed in a world I don’t recognize, and yet the fishing industry impacts my life on a daily basis. We are so far removed from what we eat.
Like most teachers, I want my students to find a career that they love enough to practice with such diligence. I want them to find a vocation instead of just work to pay the bills. I feel very much led to making sure my students have access to as much information as possible about post-secondary career and training options. For that reason, I’m glad to have met these folks and learn from them so I can share their practice with the hundreds, possibly thousands of teenagers I’ll teach over the course of my career.
It’s easy for me to do this as a reading specialist since I can read career profiles with students, let them annotate the text, and then engage them in a discussion on a regular basis. Reading, analyzing, and discussing text are kind of my bread and butter. For other disciplines, it might take a bit of a re-work to fit this in, but certainly not impossible. A science, math, art, STEM, you-name-it teacher could post a career profile specific to their discipline to their digital classroom space each week for students to read at their leisure. Or you could bring discipline specific literacy skills into your classroom by incorporating short texts into your lessons a few times each quarter.
I’m planning now to read a career profile with my
students one time per week. I’ll keep the texts short so that reading,
annotating, and discussing the text will stay under 15 minutes. Some careers from the ship they might find
interesting are the Chief Bosun position or a NOAA
Corps Officer, but I’ll share a wide variety of career profiles from many
disciplines based on the students’ interests once I meet them this year.
Weather at 1100 Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday 10 July 2019
The winds picked up. Dreary is a good way to describe the sky – an overcast layer on top with smoky-gray smudges of smaller clouds just a little lower. According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, I can describe the sea as moderately choppy with 4’ – 8’ waves, white caps scattered throughout, and some spray. But on the scale that only accounts for 17-21 knots of wind. The instruments on the ship track the wind in real time, and it’s showing anywhere from 20 – 30 knots. Today I need a couple of light layers under a warm, cozy jacket to keep me feeling comfortable. And a hat to keep my hair in place while the wind blows all around us.
I didn’t want to get my hopes up in regard to food on the ship. Between the constant rocking, less than ideal conditions for fruits and vegetables, and confined space, I didn’t have high expectations. But once I got to NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker, the regulars on the ship thankfully put my worries at ease. They told me we have one of the best chefs on the NOAA fleet of ships.
Our Chief Steward, Kathy, is in charge of the kitchen. She makes her job look effortless, though I’m sure it’s not. She puts out an eclectic menu each day that would rival any popular restaurant. Since I’m a Food Network junky, I really think she belongs on Chopped. She’d blow her competitors out of the water! She seasons everything perfectly.
She always has snacks available like fresh baked macadamia nut cookies or homemade rice crispy treats. So far she’s served Peruvian chicken, kalbi ribs, chicken pad thai, open-faced meatloaf sandwiches, West African peanut soup, and chicken marsala. Oh, and pancakes, and omelets, and cheeseburgers, and Cuban sandwiches, and black bean soup, and… the list goes on. She always offers fresh fruit or a fresh salad bar. It’s clear she’s had a lot of experience working with the constraints this unique environment must put on her. I’m lucky to be on a ship with someone who so clearly loves to cook! The foodie in me is very happy.
The acoustics lab is something to behold. If you took a classroom and cut it in half lengthwise, it would be that large. Since we’re on a ship where space is limited, I get the sense that this equipment is important. And after working a shift in the room, I know why. The data collected in this room provides the backbone for the whole survey.
NOAA scientists use sonar to identify various types of fish in the water below us – and to the sides – as we travel along. Individual echoes from discreet targets – noise, small plankton, large fishes – show up on one screen as raw data. Through post processing, the system removes most of the unwanted echoes so that all we’re left with are echoes from the fishes of interest on a separate screen.
The Coastal Pelagic Species show up as a seemingly indistinguishable, colorful blob of dots on the screen, but our chief scientist Kevin Stierhoff interprets each blob with a fair amount of accuracy. He explained what looked like hocus pocus to me originally is really just simple logic. For example, pelagic species tend to stay relatively close to the surface. So if I see a blob of red and yellow that’s, let’s say, more than 100 meters below the surface, then I’m probably looking at a type of fish that prefers deeper waters near the rocky seabed. Those deeper blobs could indicate a species of Rockfish (of which there are plenty), but probably not one of the pelagic species we’re searching for.
Ever try searching for a needle in a haystack? Get frustrated and walk away? Yeah. NOAA is more strategic than that. Acoustic sampling is conducted during the day when the Coastal Pelagic Species are deeper in the water and schooled together. This makes them easier to see using the sonar equipment on board. Later we’ll return at night to noted areas of high activity to trawl for the anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel, and squid while they’re closer to the surface feeding. Plus, they can’t see the net at night and therefore won’t be able to avoid it like they would if we attempted to trawl for fish during the day.
Acoustic sampling allows us to efficiently survey a much larger area than we could without it. Its primary purpose is to more precisely determine the biomass of the pelagic fish community over a large area. NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center started using this style of acoustic data collection to enhance its fisheries mission about 15 years ago, but this is only the second year they’ve deployed saildrones – wind and solar powered unmanned surface vehicles – to extend the survey area both in shore where it’s more shallow and far off shore where Reuben Lasker will not have time to travel during this survey. The saildrones allow scientists to capture more acoustic data from a wider survey area.
One of the coolest things about education is that we can connect students not just to their local community, but to their global community. For the last three years, the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has written a blog to help classrooms and individuals follow the adventures of their latest saildrone missions. They’re intending to write another series of blog entries to track a mission in 2019 and 2020, but you could easily use one of the previous year’s text in the classroom if you can’t wait for the new entries to be posted. Read a few of these entries with your students and use them as a springboard to teach about cutting edge technology, stewardship, environmental science, storytelling, culture, math, or navigation.
Thankfully, almost any topic can be used to build literacy skills. When texts like this inspire me to connect my students to local and global community leaders in a particular field of interest, I usually reach out to the authors directly. Some teachers will find it more challenging to make these connections to their classrooms, but it is worth the effort. If I can find an email address or contact information for the person who wrote an article I enjoy, typically they can lead me to someone who is a dynamic speaker and willing to come into my classroom. Or sometimes they will offer to come out themselves if they live nearby. Then I find companion texts to read with my students before and after the person comes in to present.
The possibilities are almost too voluminous to count. In one direction, you could bring in a local scientist or graduate student doing interesting research to speak on some topic as it relates to your classroom content. You should also consider arranging a field site visit to a unique local gem if the funding is available. Usually local field trips are much less expensive. Our local communities are filled to the brim with places that relate to our class content. It takes a little leg work to find them sometimes, but if you choose the right place you’ll see a return on your investment for the full school year.
Last year I was lucky enough to coordinate a visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia which is one of the leading working dog training facilities in the nation. It’s housed in a tiny little building off some obscure road in Philadelphia. I never would have found it if I weren’t out there directly searching for something like it. Most places like this can be found and initially filtered online with a little bit of strategic searching. Something as small as a one-day site visit or facility tour, if it’s the right location, can motivate students to push themselves academically a little bit further than they thought they could go on their own.
This one visit ended up being the springboard for my students to read authentic nonfiction texts (like media release forms and liability release forms), to think critically and make decisions, to write a press release, to build background knowledge, to enhance their vocabulary, and to learn the value of reading not for the sake of a grade but because interpreting the texts and being able to share information with others (like younger students they ended up mentoring or like our district’s administrative team who were interested in their project) was vital to the success of their project. Most important, it provided a means of intrinsic motivation for my students – that elusive creature that often comes so close to my grasp but then flutters away again when I use less engaging methods of classroom instruction.
If you want to go in more of a global direction, you could ask a facility farther away in another state or country if they have the capacity to involve your students in an integrated learning experience via Skype or old school pen-pal style communication throughout the year. Students can participate in or monitor on-going research around the world all while learning about unfamiliar cultures and locations. And of course, bring your own diverse experiences and travel into the classroom! Apply for the NOAA Teacher at Sea program to get out of your own comfort zone and be a positive means of bridging your classroom to the global community.