Catherine Fuller: Maintaining Balance, July 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 1 July 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60’ 15” N
Longitude: 145’ 30” N
Wave Height:
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Wind Direction: 101 degrees
Barometric Pressure: 1020 mb
Air Temperature:  13.2° C
Relative Humidity: 94%
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

When I read some the material online about the NGA LTER, what struck me was a graphic that represented variability and resiliency as parts of a dynamic system.  The two must coexist within an ecosystem to keep it healthy and sustainable; they must be in balance.  On board, there is also balance in the studies that are being done.  The Main Lab houses researchers who are looking at the physical aspects of the water column, such as sediment and plankton.  The Wet Lab researchers are looking at the chemical aspects and are testing properties such as fluorescence, DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon), and DOC (dissolved organic carbon). 

Working deck
This is the working deck of the ship, where the majority of equipment is deployed

Today we deployed Steffi’s sediment traps, a process during which balance was key. First of all, each trap was composed of four collection tubes arranged rather like a chandelier. 

collection tubes
These are the collection tubes that will be staged at selected depths to collect sediment

These were hooked into her primary line. Her traps were also attached to two sets of floaters: one at the surface and one as an intermediary feature on her line.  These allowed her traps to sit at the proper depths to collect the samples she needed.  The topmost trap sat 80m below the surface, while the next three were at subsequent 25m intervals. 

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Sediment trap #Sikuliaq

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Bern’s time lapse of the sediment trap deployment
hazy sound
Steffi’s traps were released against the background of the smoky sound.

We also collected more samples from another run of the CTD today.  Again, the Niskin bottles (collection tubes) were “fired” or opened at various depths, allowing sampling through a cross section of the water at this particular data point PWS2. Unlike our previous collection, these samples were filtered with .45 micron mesh to eliminate extraneous particles.  This is a very careful process, we needed to be very careful to eliminate air bubbles and replace the filters regularly as the clogged quickly.  For one depth, we did collect unfiltered samples as a comparison to the filtered ones.  Many groups use the CTD to collect samples, so there must also be careful planning of usage so that there is enough water for each team.  Collection is a complicated dance of tubes, syringes, bottles, labels and filters all circling around the CTD. 

Steffi and buoys
Steffi looks over the sound as the buoys marking her traps recede into the distance.

Later this evening, we’ll have the chance to pull up Steffi’s sediment traps and begin to prepare her samples for analysis. 


Personal Log

Balance is key in more ways than one when you’re living aboard a research ship. Although it’s been very calm, we experience some rolling motion when we are transiting from one site to the next.  The stairways in the ship are narrow, as are the steps themselves, and it’s a good thing there are sturdy handrails!  Other than physical balance, it’s important to find personal balance.  During the day, the science work can be very intense and demanding.  Time schedules shift constantly, and it is important to be aware of when your experiments or data collection opportunities are taking place.  Down time is precious, and people will find a quiet space to read, go to the gym (a small one), catch up on sleep or even watch a movie in the lounge. 

A couple of weeks before I left, the Polynesian Voyaging Society hosted a cultural group from Yakutat, who had shipped in one of their canoes down for a conference.  We were able to take them out sailing, and the subject of balance came up in terms of the worldview that the Tlingit have.  People are divided between being Eagles and Ravens, and creatures are also divided along the lines of being herbivorous and carnivorous.  Rather than this being divisive within culture, it reflects the principle of balance.  Both types are needed to make an ecosystem whole and functional.  And so, as we progress, we are continually working on maintaining our balance in the R/V Sikuliaq ecosystem. 


Animals seen today:

A few dolphins were spotted off the bow this evening, but other than that, Prince William Sound has been relatively quiet.  Dan, our U.S. Fish and Wildlife person, remarked that there are more boats than birds today, which isn’t saying much as I’ve only seen three other boats.

Catherine Fuller: A Tropical Fish in an Alaskan Aquarium, June 30, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 30 June 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60.32 N
Longitude: 147.48 W
Wind Speed: 3.2 knots
Wind Direction: 24 degrees
Air Temperature: 72 °F
Sky: Hazy (smoke)


Science and Technology Log

We arrived in Seward mid-day on Thursday, June 27th to find it hazy from fires burning north of us; the normally picturesque mountain ranges framing the bay were nearly obscured, and the weather forecast predicts that the haze will be with us at sea for a while as well.  Most of the two days prior to departure were busy with loading, sorting, unpacking and setting up of equipment. 

Ready to load
All equipment and supplies are placed on pallets to load on board

There are multiple experiments and different types of studies that will be taking place during the course of this cruise, and each set of researchers has a specific area for their equipment.  I am on the particle flux team with Stephanie O’Daly (she specifically requested to have “the teacher” so that she’d have extra hands to help her), and have been helping her as much as I can to set up.  Steffi has been very patient and is good about explaining the equipment and their function as we go through everything.  Particle flux is about the types of particles found in the water and where they’re formed and where they’re going.  In addition, she’ll be looking at carbon matter: what form it takes and what its origin is, because that will tell her about the movement of specific types of plankton through the water column.  We spent a part of Friday setting up a very expensive camera (the UVP or Underwater Visual Profiler) that will take pictures of particles in the water down to 500 microns (1/2 a millimeter), will isolate the particles in the picture, sort the images and download them to her computer as well. 

Steffi’s friend Jess was very helpful and instructive about setting up certain pieces of equipment.  I found that my seamanship skills luckily were useful in splicing lines for Steffi’s tows as well as tying her equipment down to her work bench so that we won’t lose it as the ship moves. 

As everyone worked to prepare their stations, the ship moved to the refueling dock to make final preparations for departure, which was about 8:30 on Saturday morning. 

Day one at sea was a warm up for many teams.  Per the usual, the first station’s testing went slowly as participants learned the procedures.  We deployed the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) at the second station.  A CTD is a metal framework that carries various instruments and sampling bottles called Niskin bottles.  In the video, you can see them arranged around the structure. The one we sent on June 28 had 24 plastic bottles that were “fired” at specific depths to capture water samples.  These samples are shared by a number of teams to test for things like dissolved oxygen gas, and nutrients such as nitrate, nitrites, phosphate and silicate, and dissolved inorganic carbon.  

Video coming soon!
The CTD is lowered over the side of the ship long enough to fill sample bottles and then is brought back on board. (This still photo is a placeholder for the video.)

One of my tasks today was to help her collect samples from specific bottles by attaching a tube to the bottle, using water from the sample to cleanse it and them fill it.  Another team deployed a special CTD that was built completely of iron-free materials in order to run unbiased tests for iron in the water. 

By late Saturday night, we will be in Prince William Sound, and will most likely spend a day there, before continuing on to Copper River.  Usually LTER cruises are more focused on monitoring the state of the ecosystem, but in this case, the cruise will also focus on the processes of the Copper River plume, rates and interactions.  This particular plume brings iron and fresh water into the Northern Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, where it is dispersed by weather and current.  After spending some time studying the plume, the cruise will continue on to the Middleton Line to examine how both fresh water and iron are spread along the shelf and throughout the food web.  


Personal Log

As the science team gathered yesterday, it became evident that the team is predominantly female.  According to lead scientist Seth Danielson, this is a big change from roughly 20 years ago, and has become more of the norm in recent times.  We also have five undergraduates with us who have never been out on a cruise, which is unusual.  They are all very excited for the trip and to begin their own research by assisting team leaders.  I’ve met most of the team and am slowly getting all the names down. 

I have to admit that I’m feeling out of my element, much like a fish in a very different aquarium.  I’m used to going to sea, yes, but on a vessel from another time and place.  There is much that is familiar about gear, lines, weather, etc., but there are also great differences.  The ship’s crew is a separate group from the science crew, although most are friendly and helpful.  Obviously, this is a much larger and more high tech vessel with many more moving parts.  Being on the working deck requires a hard hat, protective boots, and flotation gear.  There are viewing decks that are less restricted. 

I am excited to be at sea again, but a little bit nervous about meeting expectations and being as helpful as I can without getting in the way.  It’s a little strange to be primarily indoors, however, as I’m used to being out in the open! I’m enjoying the moments where I can be on deck, although with the haze in the air, I’m missing all the scenery! 

Did you know?

Because space is limited onboard, many of the researchers are collecting samples for others who couldn’t be here as well as collecting for themselves and doing their own experiments.

Something to think about:

How do we get more boys interested in marine sciences?

Questions of the day (from the Main Lab):

Do whales smell the smoke outside?

Answer: Toothed whales do not have a sense of smell, and baleen whales have a poor sense of smell at best.

Do scorpions get seasick?

Catherine (Cat) Fuller: An Introduction, June 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

(Not Yet) Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (NGA-LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 18 June 2019

Weather Data

(From Honolulu, HI)

Latitude: 21.33 N

Longitude: 157.94 W

Wind Speed and Direction: NE 15 G 23

Wind Swell Height and Direction: NE 3-5 ft

Secondary Swell Height and Direction: SSW 2-4 ft

Humidity: 47%

Barometric Pressure: 1016.1 mb

Heat Index: 93 F (34 C)

Visibility: 10.00 nm

Weather: clear and sunny

(From Seward, AK)

Latitude: 60.12 N

Longitude: 149.45 W

Wind Speed and Direction: S 9

Swell Height: 2 ft

Humidity: 77%

Barometric Pressure: 1016.0 mb

Heat Index: 56 F (13 C)

Visibility: 10.00 nm

Weather: Overcast

Personal Log

Aloha kākou! Greetings everyone! In about a week, I will be exchanging currently very warm and sunny Honolulu for the vastly different climate and ecological zone in Seward and the Northern Gulf of Alaska.  I will be embarking on R/V Sikuliaq there to participate in one part of a long-term study of the variability and resiliency of species in the area, but I will get to that in a bit.

In August, I will begin my seventeenth year as a sixth grade social studies teacher at ‘Iolani School, an independent K-12 school that is academically competitive at a national level.  In sixth grade social studies, our students focus on the development of the modern world from ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  I enjoy challenging my students to broaden their worldviews, especially about the impacts ancient civilizations have had on today’s world. We cover those for three quarters, and in the fourth quarter we examine the choices these civilizations have made and whether or not they contribute to a sustainable society.  I want my students to understand that sustainability is more than just picking up trash and conserving water, but it is also about choices in government, society, culture, behavior and environment. The content of our fourth quarter is predicated on the reality that we live in Hawai’i, an island group that is roughly 2000 miles from any other major point of land.

Living in Hawai’i can be just as idyllic as advertisements make it seem, with daily rainbows, colorful sunsets and blue ocean waves.  However, it also comes with challenges that we all have to face.  Our cost of living is among the highest in the nation, and we face constant struggles between maintaining culture and environment in a place with limited room for population growth.  We have a high homeless population, yet many of us joke that the (construction) crane is our state bird.  We are also braced to be at the forefront of climate change.  With a rise in sea level of 3 feet, most of Waikiki and much of downtown Honolulu is at risk of inundation.  In addition, changes in sea surface temperature affect our coral reefs and fish populations as well as minimizing or eliminating our trade winds through changes in weather patterns.  For these reasons, I hope to plant the awareness in my students that their generation is poised to make some major decisions about the state of the world.

My passion for sustainability and ocean health stems from the amount of time I spend in and on the water.  I have been a competitive outrigger canoe paddler for the last 30 or so years, and in the summers, I paddle five to six days a week.  I go to six-man team practices as well as taking my one-man canoe out with friends.  I also have coached high school paddling at ‘Iolani School for the last sixteen years. Being on the ocean so much makes me much more aware of the wildlife our waters shelter: monk seals, dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales.  It also makes me aware of the trash, especially plastics that are more and more present in the ocean.  I’ve picked up slippers, coolers, bottles, bags and even pieces of cargo net out of the water on various excursions.  Being on the water so often also fuels my interest in meteorology; you need to know what weather and ocean conditions to expect when you go to sea.  One major impact that being on the water has is that it allows you to see your island from offshore and realize that it is an ISLAND, and not a very big one at that!

Cat on Canoe
Me on my one-man canoe off He’eia, O’ahu

Some of the biggest lessons about the ocean that I’ve learned have come from my experiences with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 to recreate the original settlement of Hawai’i by ocean voyaging canoes, as well as revive the ancient art of non-instrument navigation.  PVS is most well known for the voyaging canoe Hõkūlea, which sailed to Tahiti (and back again) in 1976 to prove the validity of these cultural arts.  I began working with the organization in 1994, helping to build a second voyaging canoe, Hawai’iloa, and have been there ever since.  As a part of this organization, I have sailed throughout the Pacific, to locations such as Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Mangareva, and the Marquesas.  With Te Mana O Te Moana, another voyaging canoe initiative, I sailed to the Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. I’ve seen many faces of the Pacific Ocean on my travels and I look forward to seeing another. 

Between 2012 and 2017, PVS sent Hõkūle’a on a journey around the world.  The name of the voyage was Mālama Honua (To Protect the Earth) and the goal was to visit with indigenous communities to learn what challenges they face and how they work to preserve their lands and cultures.  One of the founding principles for this voyage is a Hawaiian saying, “he wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a”, which means “the canoe is an island and the island is a canoe”.  The saying refers to the idea that the choices we make about positive behavior, bringing what we need as opposed to what we want, and what we do with our resources and trash while living in the limited space of a voyaging canoe are a reflection of the choices we need to make living on the islands of Hawai’i as well as living on island Earth.  I strive every day to make my students aware of the consequences of their choices.

voyaging canoe
Hõkūle’a en route to Aotearoa, 2014


Science and Technology Log

I’m pretty excited to go to Alaska, first of all, because I’ve never been there!  Secondly, we have species in Hawai’i (birds and whales) that migrate between our shores and Alaska on an annual basis.  Although the two locations are distant from each other, there are connections to be made, as Hawai’i and Alaska share the same ocean. 

The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). R/V Sikuliaq is an NSF ship working with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.  LTER encompasses 28 sites nationwide, of which the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) is one.  In this area, three surveys a year are made to monitor the dynamics of the ecosystem and measure its resilience to environmental factors such as variability in light, temperature, freshwater, wind and nutrients.  The origins of the NGA portion of this project have been in place since 1970 and have grown to include the Seward Line system (s series of points running southeast from Seward).

On our trip, we will be looking at microzooplankton and mesozooplankton as well as phytoplankton, the size and concentration of particles in the water, and the availability of nutrients, among other things.  Information gathered from our study will be added to cumulative data sets that paint a picture of the variability and resiliency of the marine ecosystem. I will be a part of the Particle Flux team for this expedition.  I have a general idea of what that entails and the kind of data we’ll be gathering, but I certainly need to learn more!  If you’re curious, more detailed information about ongoing research can be found at https://nga.lternet.edu/about-us/.

I always ask my students, after they complete preliminary research on any project, what they want to learn.  I want to know more about particle flux (as previously mentioned).  I would like to learn more about seasonal weather patterns and how they influence the NGA ecosystem.  I would like to find out if/how this ecosystem connects to the Hawaiian ecosystem, and I REALLY want to see the kinds of life that inhabit the northern ocean! For my own personal information, I am really curious to see how stars move at 60 degrees north and whether or not they can still be used for navigation. 

Mahalo (Thank you)

I’m spending my last week sorting through my collection of fleece and sailing gear to prepare for three weeks of distinctly cooler temperatures.  I’m going to be doing a lot of layering for sure!  My two cats, Fiona and Pippin are beginning to suspect something, but for now are content to sniff through the growing pile on the couch. While packing, I’m keeping in mind that this is just another type of voyage and to pack only what I need, including chocolate.  As departure gets closer, I’d like to thank Russ Hopcroft, Seth Danielson, and Steffi O’Daly for their information and help in getting to and from Seward.  I’m looking forward to meeting you all soon and learning a lot from each of you!  Thanks also to Lisa Seff for her on board life hacks and detailed information…much appreciated!