Ragupathy Kannan: Back on Terra Firma, September 9, 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 U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Date: September 6, 2019

I’m glad to get my land legs back. As I reflect on the wonderful experience of 2 weeks out at sea with scientists, I wish to sum it all up by two images below.

ocean ecosystem diagram
The various threads in the fabric of the ocean ecosystem
Northwest Atlantic Food Web
We’re all in it together! We have no choice but to coexist in harmony. (Slide courtesy Harvey Walsh)

I re-posted (above) an important slide I presented earlier, that of a food web that includes plankton, krill, fish, birds, whales, and even us. Both the above images drive home the important message that all species are threads in this delicate fabric of life, coexisting and interdependent in a fragile planet with an uncertain and unsettling future. The loss of threads from this tapestry, one by one, however minuscule or inconsequential they may seem, spells doom for the ecosystem in the long run. The NOAA Corps personnel and NOAA scientists are unsung heroes, monitoring the ecosystems that sustain and support us. In this age of fake news and skepticism of science, they are a refreshing reminder that there are good folks out there leading the good fight to save our planet and keep it hospitable for posterity.

The Teacher at Sea (TAS) program gives hope that the fight to study and protect precious ocean ecosystems will be taken up by future generations. I was privileged to work with NOAA’s Teacher at Sea staff (Emily Susko et al.) in their enthusiastic and sincere work to set teachers on a stage to inspire students towards conservation and science. They too are unsung heroes.

And one final note. Why is the TAS program predominantly K-12 in nature? Why aren’t more college professors participating? In the past few weeks, I have directly connected with hundreds of college students, many with the impression that being a biology major was all about going to med school or other health professions. Research, exploration, and science are unfortunately not in their horizon. If the TAS program makes one Harvey Walsh (our Chief Scientist) or Michael Berumen (my former student!) or even the iconic Jacques Cousteau in the future, imagine the positive impact it will have on our oceans for decades to come. I urge readers to forward this blog to college teachers and encourage them to apply for this fantastic program. We owe it to our planet and to all its denizens (including us) to recruit more future marine scientists.

Post script

In my final blog from the ship, I included a poster on Right Whales that covered NOAA’s strict policy guidelines for ships when the endangered Right Whales are around. It turns out it was a timely posting. Just as our cruise ended, Right Whales were seen just south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. NOAA triggered an immediate bulletin announcing a voluntary vessel speed restriction zone (see map below). While I am sad that we so narrowly missed seeing them, it is good to know that they are there in the very waters we roamed.

voluntary speed restriction zone
Voluntary speed restriction zone (yellow block) around Nantucket following a sighting of Right Whales on August 30, 2019

Ragupathy Kannan: Petrels to Pilot Whales, August 30, 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 U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 30, 2019


Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 40.72218
Longitude: -69.45301
Water temperature: 19.8 degrees Celsius
Wind Speed: 5.25 knots
Wind Direction: 87.06 degrees
Air temperature: 23.2 degrees Celsius
Atmospheric pressure: 1006.85 millibars
Sky: Cloudy


Science and Technology Log

We’ve had a flurry of whale sightings as we passed over the famous Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  It’s a small underwater plateau in Massachusetts Bay flanked by steep drop offs.  Nutrients from the depths rise up by upwelling along the sides, feeding phytoplankton in the shallow light-abundant waters, and this creates perfect feeding habitat for whales.

Much of my time aboard this ship has been on the flying bridge (the highest point of access for us on the ship) scanning the seas for marine vertebrates.  I have basically been an extra pair of eyes to assist my colleagues Chris Vogel and Allison Black, the seabird observers on board.  From nearly 50 feet high above the water, the flying bridge gives nearly unimpeded 360° views of the horizon all around.  I call out any vertebrate animal seen—fish, birds, reptiles, or mammals.  Chris and Allison enter all of our data in a specific format in a software program called SeaScribe. 

To calculate densities of each species, we need an estimate of how far the animal is from the ship for each sighting.  For that we use a rather low tech but effective piece of equipment.  The pencil! 

Pencil as observation tool
Pencil as observation tool

This is how it works. The observer holds the pencil (photo above) upright with arm outstretched, aligning the eyes and tip of the eraser to the horizon (see photo below), and simply reads the distance band (Beyond 300m, 300-200, 200-100, or 100-50m) in which the animal is seen.  Thanks to some fancy trigonometry, scientists found a way to estimate distance by using the height of the observer’s eyes from the water surface, the distance from the observer’s eyes to the eraser tip of the pencil when it’s held upright with arm outstretched, and the distance to the horizon from the height of observer’s eyes above water.  I’ll spare you the trigonometric details but those curious to learn more can find the paper that introduced the technique here.

Kannan and range finder
Here I am using the range finder

Seabirds are a challenge for a rain forest biologist like me.  They move fast and vanish by the time you focus the binoculars! And the fact that the deck heaves up and down unexpectedly adds to the challenge.  But slowly I got the hang of it, at least the very basics.  I’ve recorded hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, boobies, gannets, jaegers, and skuas.  Whales (sea mammals) seen include Finbacks, Humpbacks, Minkes, and Pilots.  I am hoping to see a Right Whale but I know that the odds are against me.  Time is running out, both for our voyage, and for them.  Unfortunately, only a few 100 are left and the ocean is huge—the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh tells me that this year so far, 8 Right Whales have died due to accidental collisions or net entanglements.  Sadly, the future looks bleak for this magnificent animal.  (More on Right Whales at the end of this blog).

Great Shearwater ebird
Great Shearwater is one of the most common seabirds we have recorded. This bird nests only in a few islands in the South Atlantic Ocean and wanders widely. Photo by Derek Rogers, from ebird.org

I note that marine vertebrate biologists are good at extrapolating what little they can see.  Much of their subjects are underwater and out of sight.  So they have become good at identifying species based on bits and pieces they see above water.  All they need often is a mere fleeting glimpse.  Sharks are told by the size, shape, and distance between the fins that stick out, sea turtles by the shape and pattern on their carapace (top shell–see photos below); whales based on their silhouette and shape of back; and Molas based simply on the fact that they lazily wave one large fin in and out of the water as they drift by.  (I thought it was the pectoral fin they waved, but it’s actually the massive dorsal fin.  I’ve noted that the pectoral is rather small and kept folded close to the body). 

leatherback sea turtle A. Black
A fleeting glimpse is all that is needed to identify a Leatherback Sea Turtle, thanks to its diagnostic longitudinal ridges (Photo by Allison Black).
shark fins
We’ve had several shark sightings such as this. The size, shape, and the relative locations of the fins indicate that this could be a whale shark (Photo by Allison Black)

Scientists can identify individual humpbacks based solely on the indentations and color patterns on their tail flukes.  In effect, each individual animal’s tail fluke is its unique fingerprint. Since the tail fluke is often seen when the animal dives from the surface, scientists have a huge photographic database of humpback tail flukes (see photo below).  And they track individuals based on this.  My ecology students should know that scientists also estimate populations based on a modification of the capture-recapture method because each time an individual’s fluke is photographed, it is in effect, “tagged”.  We do a nice lab exercise of this method by using marked lima beans masquerading as whales in my ecology lab.

humpback tail flukes
Researchers use variation on humpback whale flukes to identify and track whales (from Wildwhales.org)
Finback whale
Finback Whales are easily identified by the fin on the back (From aboutanimals.com)


Career Corner

I spoke with Allison Black, one of our seabird observers on board.

Q. Tell us something about yourself

A. I really love seabirds.  I’m fortunate to have been able to do my Master’s work on them and observe them in their natural habitat.  I have an undergrad degree in zoo and wildlife biology from Malone University in Canton, Ohio. 

Q. You’re a graduate student now in which university?

A. Central Connecticut State University

Q. What’s your research project?

A. I conducted a diet study of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls on Tuckernuck and Muskeget Islands, Massachusetts.

Q. You have done these NOAA seabirds surveys before?

A. Yes, this is my third.

Q. What happens next, now that you are close to finishing your Masters?

A. I’m looking for full time employment, and would like to work for a non-profit doing conservation work. But until the right opportunity arises you can find me on a ship, looking for seabirds and marine mammals!

Q. What’s your advice to anyone interested in marine science?

A. I had a major career change after I did my undergrad.  I thought I’d always be a zoo keeper, which I did for about two years until I decided that birds are really my passion, and I needed to explore the career possibilities with them.  To focus on that avenue I decided to return to graduate school.  So I would encourage undergrads to really find what drives them, what they’re really passionate about.  I know it’s hard at the undergraduate level since there are so many fields and avenues under the Biology umbrella.  And it’s OK if you haven’t figured that out for a while.  I had a real change in direction from captive wildlife to ornithology, and I’m here at sea in a very different environment.  I’m so glad I did though because following my passion has opened up some exciting avenues.  I’m lucky to be getting paid to do what I really love right now.  So grab any opportunity that comes by. It’s never too late to evaluate your career path.

Allison Black
Allison Black entering our observations in SeaScribe


Personal Log

My feelings are bitter-sweet as this wonderful 16-day voyage nears its end.  My big thanks to NOAA, the ship’s wonderful command officers and staff, our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh, and my colleagues and student volunteers aboard for making the past 2 weeks immensely absorbing.  Above all, kudos to the ship’s designers, who have clearly gone out of their way to make life aboard as easy as possible.  In addition to the unexpected luxuries covered in my previous blogs, there is even a movie lounge on board with an impressive DVD collection of over 700 movies! Yesterday I saw our student volunteers play bean bag toss on the winch deck. Yes, you can throw darts too.  The ship’s command even organized a fun sea animals-bingo game one evening, with winners getting goodies from the ship store (see below).

movie lounge
The movie lounge on board
The ship’s store
The ship’s store


The engine rooms tour

As part of our grand finale, we were given a tour of the engine rooms (which are usually off bounds for non-crew members) by our genial First Engineer, Kyle Fredricks.

engine room
A glimpse of the intricate innards of the ship. To the right is the massive shaft that ties the two rudders together.
sensors and monitors
Sensors and monitors keep tabs on engine function 24/7
1st E Kyle Fredricks
First Engineer Kyle Fredricks explains the desalination system on board. It works by reverse osmosis. All explanations are done by gestures or written notes because of noise in the background. Note ear plugs on all of us!


Did You Know?

NOAA has strict policies to avoid collision with whales, especially the highly endangered Right Whale.

right whale ship strick reduciton rule
This poster is prominently displayed on board. Vessels have to comply with rules to avoid accidental strikes with Right Whales

Interesting Animals Seen Lately

South Polar Skua

Great Skua

Pomarine Jaeger

Black Tern

Manx Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Leach’s Storm-petrel

Northern Gannet

Brown Booby

Great Black-backed Gull

Humpback Whale

Pilot Whale

Ocean Sunfish

Ragupathy Kannan: Ocean Salinity to Ocean Sunfish, August 26, 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 U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 26, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 41.27688
Longitude: -67.03071
Water temperature: 18.4°C
Wind Speed: 14.8 knots
Wind Direction: 41°
Air temperature: 18.6°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1021 millibars
Sky: Cloudy


Science and Technology Log

We entered Canadian waters up north in the Gulf of Maine, and sure enough, the waters are cooler, the sea choppier, and the wind gustier than before.  And the organisms are beginning to show a difference too.  Our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh showed me a much longer arrow worm (Chaetognatha) from the plankton samples than we had encountered before (see photo below).  And there are more krill (small planktonic crustaceans) now. 

arrow worm
We got this beautiful arrow worm in our plankton sample as we entered colder waters

So far in my blogs, I have focused on sampling of biological organisms like plankton.  But recall that in an ecosystem monitoring survey like ours, we need to measure the abiotic (non-biological) aspects too because the word Ecosystem covers a community of organisms along with their biotic and abiotic environment. 

In today’s blog, I will highlight the ways various important abiotic components are measured.  You will learn about the interdisciplinary nature of science.  (Feel free to pass this blog on to physics, chemistry, and engineering majors you know—it may open up some career paths they may not have explored!).  I will come back to biotic factors in my next blog (seabirds and marine mammals!).

CTD

The CTD is a device that measures Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth.  We lower a heavy contraption called a Rosette (named due to its shape, see photo below) into the water. It has bottles called Niskin bottles that can be activated from a computer to open at specific depths and collect water samples.  Water samples are collected from various depths.  Electrical conductivity measurements give an idea of salinity in the water, and that in turn with water temperature determines water density.  The density of water has important implications for ocean circulation and therefore global climate.  In addition, dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) is also measured in labs later to give an idea of acidity across the depths.  The increased CO2 in the air in recent decades has in turn increased the ocean’s acidity to the point that many shelled organisms are not able to make healthy shells anymore.  (CO2 dissolves in water to form carbonic acid).  Addressing the issue of increasing ocean acidity and the resulting mass extinction of shell-building organisms has become a pressing subject of study.  See the photos below of CTD being deployed and the real-time data on salinity and temperature transmitted by the CTD during my voyage.

lowering the CTD
I assist lowering the CTD Rosette into the water. The gray cylinders are Niskin bottles that can be activated to open at various depths.
CTD data
This display shows the real time data from each scan the CTD sends back to the computer. The y-axis is depth in meters, with sea surface at the top. The instrument was sent down to 500 meters deep. The green lines show fluorescence, an estimate of phytoplankton production. Note that the phytoplankton are at the photic (top) zone where more light penetrates. The blue line shows water temperature in degrees Celsius and the red line shows salinity. (Photo courtesy: Harvey Walsh)

EK-80

The ship is equipped with a highly sensitive sonar device called EK-80 that was designed to detect schools of fish in the water. (See photo of it attached to the hull of our ship, below).  It works by sending sound waves into the water.  They bounce off objects and return.  The device detects these echos and generates an image.  It also reflects off the sea bottom, thus giving the depth of the water.  See below an impressive image generated by our EK-80, provided kindly to me by our amicable Electronics Technician, Stephen.

EK-80 display
A remarkable screen shot of the EK-80 display of our ship passing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel as we headed out to sea from Norfolk, Virginia. To the left is a huge mound of dirt/rock, and just to the right of the mound, is a ravine and the tunnel (has a small peak and spikes). To the right (seaward side of the tunnel) you can see dredge material falling from the surface. We observed the sand and silt on the surface as we were passing through it. (Courtesy Stephen G. Allen).

The Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP)

Scientists use this instrument to measure how fast water is moving across an entire water column. An ADCP is attached to the bottom of our ship (see photo below) to take constant current measurements as we move.  How does it work? The ADCP measures water currents with sound, using a principle of sound waves called the Doppler effect.  A sound wave has a higher frequency as it approaches you than when it moves away. You hear the Doppler effect in action when a car speeds past with a building of sound that fades when the car passes. The ADCP works by transmitting “pings” of sound at a constant frequency into the water. (The pings are inaudible to humans and marine mammals.) As the sound waves travel, they bounce off particles suspended in the moving water, and reflect back to the instrument. Due to the Doppler effect, sound waves bounced back from a particle moving away from the profiler have a slightly lowered frequency when they return. Particles moving toward the instrument send back higher frequency waves. The difference in frequency between the waves the profiler sends out and the waves it receives is called the Doppler shift. The instrument uses this shift to calculate how fast the particle and the water around it are moving. (From whoi.edu)

The University of Hawaii monitors ocean currents data from ADCPs mounted in various NOAA ships to understand global current patterns and their changes. 

hull of NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
The hull (bottom surface) of the ship showing the EK-80 and ADCP systems, among other sensors. Photo taken at the ship yard. (Courtesy: Stephen G. Allen)

Hyperpro

Hyperpro is short for Hyperspectral profiler, a device that ground truths what satellites in outer space are detecting in terms of light reflectivity from the ocean.  What reflects from the water indicates what’s in the water.  Human eyes see blue waters when there isn’t much colloidal (particulate) suspensions, green when there is algae, and brown when there is dirt suspended in the water.  But a hyperpro detects a lot more light wavelengths than the human eye can.  It also compares data from satellites with what’s locally measured while actually in the water, and therefore helps scientists calibrate the satellite data for accuracy and reliability.  After all, satellites process light that has traversed through layers of atmosphere in addition to the ocean, whereas the hyperpro is actually there. 

deploying hyperpro
A Hyperpro being deployed

Career Corner

Three enterprising undergraduate volunteers.

Volunteers get free room and board in the ship in addition to invaluable, potentially career–making experience.

undergraduate volunteers
David Caron (far side), Jessica Lindsay, and Jonathan Maurer having some much-needed down time on the flying bridge

David Bianco-Caron is doing his B.A. in Marine Science from Boston University (BU).  His undergraduate research project at the Finnerty Lab in BU involves a comb-jelly (Ctenophore) native to the West Atlantic but which has become an introduced exotic in the East Atlantic.  David studies a cnidarian parasite of the comb-jelly in an attempt to outline factors that could limit the comb-jelly.  The project has implications in possible biological control. 

Jessica Lindsay finishes a B.S. in Marine Biology later this year and plans to get her Small Vessels operating license next year.  This is her 2nd year volunteering in a NOAA ship.  She received a NOAA Hollings Scholarship which provides up to $9500 for two years (https://www.noaa.gov/office-education/hollings-scholarship).  It entailed 10 weeks of summer research in a lab.  She studies how ocean acidification affects shelf clams. 

Jonathan Maurer is a University of Maine senior working on a B.S. in Climate Science.  He studies stable isotopes of oxygen in ocean waters to understand ocean circulation.  The project has implications on how oceanic upwelling has been affected by climate change.  He intends to go to graduate school to study glaciers and ocean atmosphere interactions. 

See my previous blog for information on how to become a volunteer aboard a NOAA research ship.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing our Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Claire Surrey-Marsden.  Claire’s smiling face and friendly personality lights up the ship every day. 

XO Claire Surrey-Marsden
Our Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Claire Surrey-Marsden

Claire is a Lieutenant Commander in the NOAA Corps:

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is made up of 321 professionals trained in engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, fisheries science, and other related disciplines. Corps officers operate NOAA’s ships, fly aircraft, manage research projects, conduct diving operations, and serve in staff positions throughout NOAA. Learn more: https://www.omao.noaa.gov/learn/noaa-commissioned-officer-corps

Q. Thanks for your time, Claire. You’re the XO of this ship.  What exactly is your role?

A. The Executive Officer is basically the administrator on board.  We help with staffing, we manage all the crew, we have a million dollar budget for this ship every year that we have to manage.  Everything from food to charts to publications, all these get managed by one central budget. I’m kind of the paper work person on board.

Q. What’s your background?

A. I have a marine biology degree from Florida Tech. I’ve done marine mammal work most of my career. I joined NOAA in 2007, before that I was a biologist for Florida Fish and Wildlife [FFW].

Q. I heard you have done necropsies of marine mammals?

A. I was a manatee biologist for FFW for 3 years, we also dealt with lots of whales and dolphins that washed up on shore. I’ve also done marine mammal work in my NOAA career.  Worked with Southwest Fisheries Science Center on Grey Whales and dolphins, and worked with Right Whale management with the maritime industry and the coast guard.

Q. About a 100 college students, maybe even more are following my blog now.  What’s your advice to them, for someone interested in marine biology/NOAA Corps, what should they be doing at this stage?

A. Great question. Volunteer! Find all the opportunities you can to volunteer, even if it’s unpaid.  Getting your face out there, letting people see how good a worker you are, how interested and willing you are, sometimes you will be there right when there is a job opening. Even if it seems like a menial task, just volunteer, get that experience. 

Q. NOAA accepts volunteers for ships every summer?

A. Yes, ecomonitoring and other programs takes students out for 2-3 weeks, but there are other opportunities like the local zoo.  Even stuff that isn’t related to what you’re doing. Getting that work experience is crucial.

Q. What’s the most challenging part of your job as an XO in a ship like this?

A. Living on a small boat in the middle of the ocean can be challenging for people working together harmoniously.  Just making sure everyone is happy and content and getting fulfillment for their job.

At the end of the interview, Claire handed me a stack of brochures describing the NOAA Corps and how you can become part of it. Please stop by my office (Math-Science 222) for a copy.

Personal Log

The seas have become decidedly choppier the past few days.  It’s a challenge to stay on your feet!  The decks lurch unexpectedly.  Things get tossed around if not properly anchored.  I have fallen just once (touchwood!) and was lucky to get away with just a scratch.  I’ve had to take photo backups of my precious field notes lest they get blown away.  They came close to that once already.

The ship has a mini library with a decent collection of novels and magazines plus a lounge (with the ubiquitous snacks!).  I found a copy of John Grisham’s The Whistler, and this has become my daily bed time reading book. 

The lounge and library on board
The lounge and library on board

Interesting animals seen lately

I started this blog with a photo of an exceptionally long arrow worm.  The cold waters have brought some other welcome creatures.  I created a virtual stampede yesterday in the flying bridge when I yelled Holy Mola!  Everyone made a mad dash to my side to look over the railings at a spectacular Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) floating by.  The name Mola comes from the Latin word meaning millstone, owing to its resemblance to a large flat and round rock.  I have been looking for this animal for days!  Measuring up to 6 feet long and weighing between 250 and 1000 kg, this is the heaviest bony fish in the world.  The fish we saw was calmly floating flat on the surface, lazily waving a massive fin at us as though saying good bye.  It was obviously basking.  Since it is often infested with parasites like worms, basking helps it attract birds that prey on the worms.

mola mola
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola. We saw this behemoth lying on its side basking, waving its massive dorsal fin as though greeting us. They allow birds and other fish to pick their ectoparasites as they float (from baliscuba.com)

Another animal that almost always creates a stir is the dolphin.  Schools of dolphins (of up to 3 species) never cease to amuse us.  They show up unexpectedly and swim at top speed, arcing in and out of the water, often riding our bow.  Sometimes, flocks of shearwaters circling around a spot alert us to potential dolphin congregations.  Dolphins drive fish to the surface that are then preyed upon by these birds.  My colleague Allison Black captured this wonderful photo of Common Dolphins frolicking by our ship in perfect golden evening light.

common dolphins
Common Dolphins swimming by our ship (Photo by Allison Black)

Did You Know?

Molas (Ocean Sunfish) are among the most prolific vertebrates on earth, with females producing up to 300,000,000 eggs at a time (oceansunfish.org).

Parting shot

NOAA does multiple concurrent missions, some focused on fisheries, some on oceanography, and some hydrography.  It has a ship tracker that tracks all its ships around the world.  Our ET Stephen Allen kindly shared this image of our ship’s location (marked as GU) plus the locations of two other NOAA ships. 

location on shiptracker
Our exact location (GU) on 25 August 2019, captured by NOAA’s ship tracker (Courtesy Stephen G. Allen)

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!

Ragupathy Kannan: Starting with Plankton, August 18, 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 18, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 38.2494289
Longitude: -75.0853552
Water temperature: 26.3°C
Wind Speed: 4.92 knots
Wind Direction: 122 degrees
Air temperature: 27.1°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1015 millibars
Sky: Partly cloudy


Science and Technology Log

In my previous blog posting, I explained the importance of plankton as base of the ecological pyramid upon which much of marine life in this ecosystem depends.  The past few days, I have witnessed and experienced in-person how scientists aboard this sophisticated research vessel collect and analyze sea water samples for plankton. 

Yesterday I spent some time with Kyle Turner, a guest researcher from the University of Rhode Island doing his M.S. in Oceanography.  He operates a highly sophisticated device called the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB).  I was fascinated to learn how it works.  It is basically a microscope and camera hooked up to the ship’s water intake system.  As the waters pass through the system, laser beams capture images of tiny particles, mostly phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic drifters).  As particles do, they scatter the light or even fluoresce (meaning, they emit their own light).  Based on this, the computer “zooms in” on the plankton automatically and activates the camera into taking photographs of each of them!  I was amazed at the precision and quality of the images, taken continuously as it pipes in the water from below.  Kyle says this helps them monitor quality and quantity of plankton on a continual basis. 

Kyle Turner and IFCB
Kyle Turner with the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB)
Kannan and IFCB
Here I am examining a filamentous (hair-like) phytoplankton in the IFCB monitor.
IFCB computer screen
The various kinds of phytoplankton are neatly displayed on the IFCB’s computer screen. See my previous blog for a photo of the dazzling and colorful array of plankton out there! Plankton may lack the popularity of the more charismatic sea animals like whales, but much of life in the ocean hinges on their welfare.


Career Corner

Hello, students (especially bio majors).  In this corner of my blogs, I will interview some key research personnel on the ship to highlight careers.  Please learn and be inspired from these folks.

Here is my interview with Kyle Turner.

Q. Tell us something about your graduate program.

A. My research focuses on phytoplankton using bio-optical methods. Basically, how changes in light can tell us about phytoplankton in the water.

Q. How does this IFCB device help you?

A. It gives me real time information on the different types of phytoplankton in the location where we are.  We can monitor changes in their composition, like the dominant species, etc.

Q. Why are phytoplankton so important?

A. They are like trees on land. They produce about half the oxygen in the atmosphere, so they’re super important to all life on earth. They are also the base of the marine food web.  The larger zooplankton eat them, and they in turn are eaten by fish, and so on all the way to the big whales.  They all rely on each other in this big ocean ecosystem.

Q. How are phytoplankton changing?

A. The oceans are warming, so we’re observing shifts in their composition.

Q. What brought you into marine science?

A. I grew up on the coast.  I’ve always liked the ocean. I love science.  So I combined my passions.

Q. What is your advice to my students exploring a career in marine science?

A. Looking for outside research opportunities is important.  There are so many opportunities from organizations like NASA, NSF, and NOAA.  I did two summer research internships as an undergrad.  First was with NASA when I was a junior.  I applied through their website.  That was a big stepping stone for me. A couple of years later, I did another summer project with a researcher who is now my advisor in graduate school.  That’s how I met her.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I’d love to get into satellite oceanography to observe plankton and work for NASA or NOAA.


Personal Log

I am pleasantly surprised by how comfortable this ship is.  I was expecting something more Spartan.  I have my own spacious room with ample work and storage space, a comfortable bed, TV (which I don’t have time for!), and even a small fridge and my own sink. Being gently rocked to sleep by the ship is an added perk! 

My own cozy stateroom
My own cozy stateroom
Sunrise view
A room with a view—sunrise from my window

The food is awesome.  We have two expert cooks on board, Margaret and Bronley. 

lunch
My first lunch on board
mess
The ship’s mess is a nice place to eat and interact with people. There’s always food available 24/7, even outside of meal hours.


Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter played a big role in recovery operations following Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

Barograph
This photo is displayed in the galley. Note the sharp decline in atmospheric pressure as Katrina thundered through.


Some interesting animals seen so far

  • Flying fish (they get spooked by the ship, take off and fly several yards low across the water!)
  • Cow-nosed Rays (see photo and caption below)
  • Leather-backed Sea-turtle (I’m used to seeing them on the beach in Trinidad—see my previous blog.  It was a treat to see one swimming close by.  I was even able to see the pink translucent spot on the head).
  • Bottle-nosed Dolphins
  • Seabirds (lots of them…. four lifers already—more on this later!)
school of cow-nose rays
We saw large schools of Cow-nosed Rays closer to the coast. These animals feed on bivalve mollusks like clams and oysters with their robust jaws adapted for such hard food. They are classified as Near Threatened due to their reliance on oyster beds which are themselves threatened by pollution and over exploitation.

Ragupathy Kannan: From Arkansas to the Atlantic, August 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 14 – 30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 1, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

I’ll update this when I get on board.


Greetings from land-locked Arkansas!

I am thrilled at the chance to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. In the latter half of August, I will be aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter assisting scientists on a Summer Ecosystem Monitoring Survey of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Ecosystem.  I am particularly excited about surveying for marine mammals and sea turtles, although a lot of our work will involve monitoring spatial distribution of plankton.  I cannot wait to learn novel techniques and measurements that I can later incorporate into my classes at the University of Arkansas—Fort Smith. 

While aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter I will blog about my experiences.  My students will follow my blogs and hopefully learn a lot from them.  I hope to make my blog postings fun and informative at the same time.  I will cater to a broad audience, from biology majors and non-majors (college students), to even some school children who are keen on following me and exploring potential science careers.  So don’t be offended if I define basic terms or explain concepts you may have learned decades ago!    

Science and Technology log

I will be embarking on an Ecosystem Monitoring mission.  As my ecology students should know, the term ecosystem refers to a community of organisms along with their physical (or abiotic) environment.  And a community is a group of organisms living and interacting in an area.  To monitor the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf ecosystem, we will take extensive data on various components, both biotic (biological) and abiotic (physical).  Such measurements are important because they alert us of possible changes in our environment and what that could mean to our well being and that of other life forms.  In effect, we keep a finger on the pulse of our planet.

What is continental shelf?  It’s the relatively shallow (generally up to about 100m or 330 feet depth) area of seabed around land.  Much of this was exposed during glacial periods when water was locked up as ice. This zone teems with life because of its shallow nature, which allows light to penetrate and photosynthesis to occur.  It is therefore vital for the fisheries industry in which many coastal human communities depend on for livelihood.

The Project Instructions document we were all sent (by the Chief Scientist, Dr. Harvey Walsh) indicates that the principal objective of the survey is to assess the “hydrographic, planktonic, and pelagic components” of the ecosystem.  Hydrography (Ancient Greek–hydor, “water” and graphō, “to write”) is a branch of the applied sciences that deals with measurements and descriptions of the physical features of water, like ocean currents and temperature.  Plankton (Greek—errant or wanderer) are organisms, both plants and animals, in the water that drift in the currents (most of them are microscopic).  Pelagic (Greek—of the sea) means oceanic, or belonging to the open seas.

I will be part of an elite multi-disciplinary team, meaning, we will have experts from various disciplines of science. We will be measuring the distribution of water currents and water properties, plankton, sea turtles, sea birds, and marine mammals.  Much of my career I have focused on ecology and behavior of vertebrates, especially birds.  The chance to learn hands-on and in-depth on aspects like water chemistry and plankton biology challenges and excites me.  It gets me out of my comfort zone and has the potential to make me a better-rounded biologist.  After all, I regularly teach the impacts of global warming and ocean acidification on coral reef organisms.  Can there be a better way to hone my teaching skills than actually do these studies hands-on, in the company of world’s leading experts, in a state-of-the-art research ship?

Since much of the survey focuses on measuring plankton distribution and abundance, it begs the question: 

Why are plankton important?

plankton
The wonderfully diverse, beautiful plankton. From planktonchronicles.org

Well, consider this.  Phytoplankton, the plant-like photosynthetic drifters, produce half of all oxygen on earth.  That’s about the same as ALL oxygen produced by land plants!  So that alone should convince you why they are vital. 

But there is more.  Their productivity (meaning, photosynthetic activity that converts sun’s energy into fuel) forms the energetic foundation of the food pyramid, and most of life in sea depends on it. 

So, you take away plankton, and much of oceanic life will collapse.  No fish, no whales, no sea turtles, no sea birds.  Ultimately it will affect all life on earth, including humans. 

The disturbing news is, plankton are in trouble.  Phytoplankton have declined 40% since the 1950s.  Since the beginning of the industrial age, they have dwindled about 1% a year.  There seems a connection between warming waters and this decline.  In the North Atlantic, the melting of Greenland ice has changed the physics and chemistry of ocean waters.  This has resulted in a decline in ocean circulation and its upwelling of nutrients that the phytoplankton depend on. 

So as you read this and take breaths of air, contemplate this: that oxygen you just took in probably came from phytoplankton.  That’s why we need to start with measuring them to monitor our planet’s health.  Our future depends on their well-being!

So I will be blogging quite a bit on these minuscule creatures—what kinds there are out there, how they appear, how to measure their abundance, and so on.  Stay tuned.

Personal Log

For nearly 40 years, I have been mainly a terrestrial ecologist.  I love taking people outdoors and making them into naturalists and field biologists.  My forays into the oceanic realm have been limited.  I once went on a sea birding cruise, which I described in this article.

birding in Trinidad
Here I am leading a birding outing in Trinidad

Earlier, in my college days, I did a number of “turtle walks” – 10 km walks along the beach in my hometown of Chennai, India, to collect Olive Ridley Seaturtle eggs and relocating them to a protected hatchery.  Since 2009, I have taught a tropical biology course in Trinidad, West Indies, where I take the class to a remote beach to observe massive Leatherback Seaturtles nest. A letter of mine on this appeared in the September 2009 issue of National Geographic (below).

National Geographic Note
National Geographic Note by Ragupathy Kannan

Kannan and sea turtle
Here I am with my tropical biology class and a nesting Leatherback Sea Turtle in Trinidad–note the translucent spot on top of head, believed to let light in and help them navigate

So, my exposure to the other 70% of the earth’s surface, the ocean, has been rather limited.  I hope that this NOAA program helps in my quest to fill that void.

My home for two weeks – NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. From http://www.omao.gov.

This is an ultramodern oceanographic research vessel whose main mission is to study marine mammals and other living resources.   “Bigeye” 25 x 150 binoculars are used by scientists to scan for marine mammals.  This includes a scale to enable distance measurement. A hydrophone array is towed to hear and record marine mammal sounds 24 hours a day. 

She was once USNS Relentless, designed to assist the US Navy in collecting underwater acoustical data in support of Cold War anti-submarine warfare operations. After the end of the Cold War, she was transferred to NOAA. In 2010, NOAA used this ship to define the subsurface plume near the BP Deepwater Horizon site. 

I am honored to be assigned to this vessel. I hope you will join me and enjoy and learn from my adventure out in the seas in this amazing ship.