Emilisa Saunders: Sargassum City, May 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14 2013 – May 30, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Saturday, May 25 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind speed 15.7 knots; Surface water temperature 25.40 degrees Celsius; Air temperature 26.3 degrees Celsius; Relative humidity 85%; Barometric pressure 1017.3 mb

Holding the line

Holding the line as the MOCNESS goes in.

Science and Technology Log:

For the last couple of days, as the ship moves toward Texas, we’ve encountered lots of sargassum.  Sargassum is a type of macroalgae, or seaweed.  Some types of sargassum are benthic; as you remember, this means they live and grow on the bottom of the ocean.  Out here on the Oregon II, we’re seeing  planktonic  sargassum – the drifting kind – and lots of it.  This sargassum drifts around the surface of the Gulf, thanks to the tiny, air-filled float pods all throughout its leaves.  When pieces of sargassum meet up, they become entangled and start to drift together.  Before long, vast blankets or mats of sargassum form.  We’ve seen some impressive mats in the past few days, some almost as long as the ship itself!

Sargassum

Blanket of sargassum

Sargassum

Sargassum City

These mats create a bit of a challenge when it comes to dropping the nets.  The Bongo Net and the Subsurface Neuston stay below the surface, so typically they don’t catch much sargassum, unless some slips in just as the nets enter or leave the water.  However, the regular Neuston net stays on the surface for the duration of the drop.  This is a perfect opportunity for sargassum to slide right in.  Ideally, we want this net submerged for 10 minutes, but when the sargassum is thick, we have to cut this down to five.  Even then, we’ve had as much as 30 gallons of sargassum show up in one drop.

Handful of sargassum

You can find so much life in one handful of sargassum

When we get sargassum, we have to spray it off with sea water and sort through it to collect any plankton that are tangled in the leaves.  This is quite a bit of work when we get a lot of sargassum, but I have come to really enjoy it because of the amazing little creatures that we find.  A piece of sargassum can be like a little city, teeming with life, with a large variety of species.  Many of these are big enough that you can easily see them with the naked eye.  These sargassum communities contain everything that their residents need to survive, including a food web and plenty of shelter.  It’s also a great lesson in adaptation.  The animals that live in sargassum blend in so well that we have to look very carefully to find them.  Most of them are either transparent, or they exactly match the color of the seaweed, and there are tons of nooks and crannies for hiding.

Here are just a few of the delightful little animals that we’ve found in the sargassum:

Sargassum fish:  These little guys are pretty amazing.  They look fairly harmless, but they are actually ambush predators.  They have two small foot-like fins on their undersides, which they use to move around and perch in one place in the seaweed.  When a smaller animal comes close, the sargassum fish open their mouths wide and suck the unsuspecting prey in, just like a vacuum cleaner.  They’ll even eat other, smaller sargassum fish!  Some of them even have a piece of flesh called an esca that dangles from their head, which they use as a lure to attract prey.

Sargassum fish

A large sargassum fish from a Neuston net. See the little pectoral fin “feet?”

Small sargassum fish

This is the typical size for the sargassum fish that we’ve found (about one inch).

Sargassum swimming crabs:  These tiny crabs are capable of walking on land, but they are also excellent swimmers, thanks to their paddle-shaped back legs.  They are also ambush predators; they stalk smaller sargassum dwellers and give their prey a nasty jab to catch and kill them.

Sargassum swimming crab

Sargassum swimming crab. See its paddle-shaped hind feet?

Sargassum nudibranch:  Nudibranchs are a type of mollusk that have a shell in their juvenile stage, but lose the shell as they mature.  Sargassum nudibranchs are so well camouflaged that we sometimes feel their soft bodies in the sargassum before we see them.  They stay mainly in the sargassum, but if they happen to get washed out, they can flex their bodies back and forth to swim back to the seaweed.  It’s really quite amazing to watch!

Sargassum nudibranch

A little sargassum nudibranch. Looks like a blob here, but they are very graceful swimmers!

Challenge Yourself:  Hey there, Nature Exchange traders!  Can you think of an animal that blends into its environment in the Mojave Desert?  What about a creature that is an ambush predator?  Draw a picture or write down some facts and bring it in to the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Be sure to tell them that Emmi sent you!

Personal Log:

Yesterday, I saw some evidence of the impact that we have on our oceans.  While sorting through some sargassum, I found a plastic ribbon with a balloon fragment attached wrapped around a piece of sargassum.  We were hundreds of miles from shore when I found it.  It was sad for me to see a piece of human trash tangled around this little sargassum community.  I know it’s still pretty common for people to organize balloon releases to honor a special person or occasion, but I wonder if there might be another way to do so.  Maybe instead of a balloon release, we can plant some trees, release ladybugs in a garden, organize a clean-up day at a local trail or park, etc.  All of these things could impact the environment in a positive way.  Just something to think about.

Trash in the Sargassum

A piece of balloon and ribbon tangled up in the sargassum.

Now that I have adjusted to working the midnight to noon shift on the Oregon II, I am finding that I really enjoy it.  In the past few days as we’ve approached a full moon, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the moon reflect on the water, making it look like liquid mercury.  For the first several days of this cruise, the sky was so dark that we could only see as far as the ship’s lights would allow, and maybe the distant lights from an oil rig or two.  It was the darkest dark I’ve ever seen.  Now, the moon lights up the sky enough that we can actually see the horizon.  Then, a few hours into the shift, we get to watch the sun rise, which is spectacular every time.  I’ve taken so many pictures of the sunrise, I can’t choose a favorite!

Sunrise

Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico

We’re in the last few days of the survey, and we’ve taken the turn back east now.  Until next time, be sure to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Emilisa Saunders: We Do Science Here! May 21, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14, 2013 to May 30, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Weather Data: Wind speed: 19.02 knots; Surface water temp.: 24.7 degrees C; Air temp: 25.7 degrees C: Relative humidity: 91%; Barometric pressure: 1007.4 mb.

Science and Technology Log:

Plankton jar

A nice jar of plankton from an early morning tow.

Getting just one small jar of plankton back to the lab on shore requires a lot of work. First comes all of the net-dropping work I described in the last post, which is a team effort from everyone on board, just to bring the samples onto the ship. From there, we have to take several more steps in order to preserve the sample.

Step 1: After the nets are brought back onto the bow of the ship, we hose them down very thoroughly using a seawater hose, in order to wash any clinging plankton down into the cod end.

Here I am, hosing down the Bongo nets. Photo by Alonzo Hamilton

Here I am, hosing down the Bongo nets. Photo by Alonzo Hamilton

Then we detach the cod end and bring it to the stern of the ship, where a prep station is set up. The prep table is stocked with funnels, sieves, seawater hoses and jars, and the chemicals that we need to preserve the plankton that we collect – formalin and ethyl alcohol.

Prep station

Prep Station

Step 2: We carefully pour the specimen through the fine-mesh sieve to catch the plankton and drain out the water. It’s amazing to see what’s in the sample. This, of course, includes lots of tiny plankton; all together, they look kind of like sludge, until you look very closely to see the individual creatures. Lots of the fish larvae have tiny, bright blue eyes. (On a funny note, my breakfast granola has started to look like plankton after a week of collecting!)

Plankton in a sieve

Plankton in a sieve

Getting to see what makes it into each sample is kind of like a treasure hunt.  Sometimes bigger organisms like fish, sea jellies, eel larvae, pyrosomes and snails end up in the sample. Quite frequently there is sargassum, which is a type of floating seaweed that does a great job of hiding small creatures. Take a look at the pictures at the end of the post to see some of these!

Step 3: Next, the sample goes into a jar. We use seawater from a hose to push the sample to one side of the sieve, and let the water drain out. Then, we put a funnel in a clean, dry jar and use a squeeze bottle of ethyl alcohol to wash the sample into the jar through the funnel. We top the jar off with ethyl alcohol, which draws the moisture out of the bodies of the plankton so that they don’t decompose or rot in the jar. The sample from the left bongo – just this sample and no other – is preserved in a mixture of formalin and seawater because it goes through different testing than the other samples do once back on shore. We top all of the bottles with a lid and label them: R for Right Bongo, L for Left Bongo, RN for Regular Neuston, and SN for Subsurface Neuston.

plankton

Plankton Ready to go in the Jar

Step 4: After the jars are filled, Alonzo and I bring them back to the wet lab, where Glenn attaches labels to the tops of the jars, and puts a matching label inside of each jar as well. The label inside the jar is there in case the label on the lid falls off one day.  These labels provide detailed information about where and when the sample was collected, and from which net.

Plankton jar label

A label on the jar gives detailed information about the plankton inside

Step 5: After 24 hours, it’s time to do transfers. Transfers involve emptying the samples from the jars through a sieve again, and putting them back into the jars with fresh ethyl alcohol. We do this because the alcohol draws water out of the bodies of the plankton, so the alcohol becomes watered-down in the first 24 hours and is not as effective. Adding fresh alcohol keeps the sample from going bad before it can be studied. Once the transfers are done, we draw a line through the label to show that the sample is well-preserved and ready to be boxed up and brought back to the lab!

Jars of Plankton

Boxes full of plankton samples ready to be brought back to shore

Personal Log:

I have the great fortune of working with some intelligent, knowledgeable and friendly scientists here on the Oregon II.  Jana is my bunkmate and one of the scientists; she pointed out to me that just about every animal you can imagine that lives in the ocean started off as plankton. As a result, while the scientists who work with plankton do each have a specialty or specific type of plankton that they focus on, at the same time, they have to know a little bit about many types of organisms and the basics of all of their life cycle stages. In a way I can relate to this as a Naturalist; I need to have a bit of knowledge about many plants, animals, minerals and fossils from the Mojave Desert and beyond, because chances are, my smart and curious Nature Exchange traders will eventually bring them all in for me to see and identify!

Team Plankton

The science team, from left to right: Andy, Alonzo, Glenn, me, Jana and Brittany.  Photo by Brian Adornado

I want to take a few moments to introduce all of the members of the science team. I thought I’d have fun with it and use my own version of the Pivot questionnaire:

Meet Alonzo Hamilton

Alonzo Hamilton

Alonzo Hamilton, scientist, testing water samples in the Wet Lab.

Alonzo is a Research Fisheries Biologist; he has been working with NOAA since 1984.  Alonzo earned an Associate’s degree in Science, a Bachelor’s degree in biology, and a Master’s degree in Biology with an emphasis in Marine Science.  Alonzo was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Mississippi.

What is your favorite word? Data

What is your least favorite word? No or can’t.  There’s always a solution; you just have to keep trying until you find it.

What excites you about doing science? Discovery

What do you dislike about doing science? The financial side of it.

What is your favorite plankton? Tripod fish plankton

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? The main engines

What sound or noise do you hate? The alarm bells

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? An electrician.  There are some neat jobs in that field.

What profession would you not like to do? Lawyer.  There’s a risk of becoming too jaded.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? A coelacanth.  What is your life history?  What’s a typical day of feeding like?  Is there a hierarchy of fish, and what is it?  What determines who gets to eat first?

********************

Meet Glenn Zapfe

Zapfe

Glenn Zapfe, scientist, contemplating the plankton samples.

Glenn is a Research Fisheries Biologist; he worked with NOAA as a contractor for 8 years before being hired on as a Federal employee three years ago.  Glenn earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Life, and a Master’s degree in Coastal Science.  He grew up in the Chicago area.

What is your favorite word? Quirky

What is your least favorite word? Nostalgia

What excites you about doing science? Going to sea and seeing organisms in their natural environment.

What do you dislike about doing science? Statistics.  They can sometimes be manipulated to fit individual needs.

What is your favorite plankton? Amphipods

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? The hum of the engine

What sound or noise do you hate? The emergency alarm bells

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Glenn grew up wanting to be a cartoonist – but he can’t draw.

What profession would you not like to do? Lawyer

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? A cuttlefish, to ask about how they are able to change the color of their skin.

*************************

Meet Jana Herrmann

Jana Herrmann

Jana Hermann, scientist and volunteer, aboard the Oregon II

Jana is a Fisheries Technician with the Gulf Coast Research Lab, and is on this cruise as a volunteer.  She has worked with the Gulf Coast Research Lab since February 2013, but worked within the local Marine Sciences field for 8 years before that.   Jana earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and Environmental biology, and will be starting graduate school in the fall of 2013.  Jana grew up in Tennessee.

What is your favorite word? Pandemonium

What is your least favorite word? Anything derogatory

What excites you about doing science? Just when you think you have it all figured out, something new comes up.

What do you dislike about doing science? Dealing with bureaucracy and having to jump through hoops to get the work done.

What is your favorite plankton? Janthina

What sound or noise on the ship do you love? This is Jana’s first cruise on the Oregon II, so she doesn’t have a favorite noise yet.

What sound or noise do you hate? Any noises that keep her from sleeping.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? A baker or pastry chef.

What profession would you not like to do? Any mundane office job with no creative outlet.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it? She would ask a blue whale if it is sad about the state of the environment, and she would ask it if mermaids are real.

 ******************

Meet Brittany Palm

Brittany Palm

Brittany Palm, scientist, aboard the Oregon II

Brittany is a Research Fisheries Biologist; she has worked with NOAA for 4 years.  Brittany earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology, and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Marine Science.  Brittany grew up on Long Island.

What is your favorite word? Midnattsol – the Norwegian word for “midnight sun”

What is your least favorite word? Editing.  That’s not a fun word to hear when you hand in drafts of your thesis!

What excites you about doing science?  Constantly learning.  All of the fields of science, from chemistry to physics to biology, are interwoven.  You have to know a little bit about all of them.

What do you dislike about doing science?  Also, constantly learning!  Every time you think you know something, a new paper comes out.

What is your favorite plankton? Glaucus

What sound or noise on the ship do you love?  The ship’s sound signal, which is a deep, booming horn that ships use to communicate with each other.

What sound or noise do you hate? When she’s trying to sleep in rough seas and something in one of the drawers is rolling back and forth.  She has to get up and go through all of the drawers and cabinets to try to find it and make it stop!

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Opening a dance studio.  Brittany competed on dance teams throughout high school and college.

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in the health field, because she empathizes more with animals than people.

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it?  The Croaker fish.  Brittany is studying Croaker diets and has dissected over a thousand stomachs.  She would like to be able to just ask them what they eat!

*********************

Meet Andy Millett

Andy Millett

Andy Millett, scientist, in the Dry Lab of the Oregon II.

Andy is a Research Fisheries Biologist, and is the Field Party Chief for this cruise.  He has worked with NOAA for 3 years.  He has a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and a Master’s degree in Marine Science.  Andy grew up in Massachusetts.

What is your favorite word? Parallel

What is your least favorite word? Silly

What excites you about doing science?  When all of the data comes together and tells you a story.

What do you dislike about doing science?  Having to be so organized and meticulous, since he is typically pretty disorganized.

What is your favorite plankton? Pelagia

What sound or noise on the ship do you love?  Spinning the flowmeters on the nets.  It sounds like a card in the spokes of a bicycle.

What sound or noise do you hate?  Alarms of any kind, whether they are emergency alarms or alarm clocks.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Video game designer

What profession would you not like to do? Anything in retail or customer service

If you could talk to any marine creature, which one would it be, and what would you ask it?  A giant squid, because we don’t know much about them.  Andy would ask what it eats, where it lives, and other basic questions about its life.

******************

Challenge Yourself:  Hey, Nature Exchange traders!  The scientists shared their favorite plankton types; all of them are truly fascinating in their own way.  Research one of these animals and write down a few facts.  Or, pick your favorite Mojave Desert animal and write about that.  Bring your research into the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Tell them Emmi sent you!

Don’t forget to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Animals We’ve Seen (and one plant):

Bristletooth Conger Eel Larva

Bristletooth Conger Eel Larva.  See its tiny little face on the left?

Sargassum

Sargassum is a floating seaweed that often ends up in our Neuston nets. We record its volume and throw it back.

Sea Jelly

Sea jelly

Sargassum fish

Sargassum fish – they hide in the sargassum!

Porpita jelly

Porpita jelly

Myctophid

Myctophids are shiny silver and black, and quite pretty!

Flying fish

A juvenile flying fish. I’ve seen some adults gliding through the air as well!

Filefish

Alonzo holding a juvenile filefish

Emilisa Saunders: Finding the rhythm aboard the Oregon II, May18, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Emilisa Saunders

Aboard NOAA ship Oregon II

May 14, 2013 – May 30 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey

Geographical Area of Cruise:  Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 18, 2013

Weather Data: Wind Speed: 13.94 knots; Surface water temperature: 25.4;  Air temperature: 26.4; Relative humidity: 87%; Barometric pressure: 1,015.33 mb

IMG_1991

Science and Technology Log:

For the scientists on board the Oregon II, each shift follows roughly the same routine.   When we start our shift, we check in at the dry lab to see how much time we have until the next sampling station.  These stations are points on the map of the Gulf of Mexico; they were chosen to provide the best coverage of the Gulf waters.  Our ETA, or estimated time of arrival, is determined by how fast the ship is moving, which is influenced by wind and currents, which you can see in the map below.  A monitor mounted in the dry lab shows us a feed of the route mapping system that is used by the crew on the Bridge to drive the ship.  This system allows us to see where we are, where we are headed, and what our ETA is for the next station.  We also get warnings from the Bridge at one hour, at thirty minutes, and at ten minutes before arrival.

Gulf Currents

The currents in the Gulf of Mexico, plus our planned route.  Image courtesy of NOAA.

At the 10-minute mark, we put on our protective gear – more on that later in this post – and bring the cod ends up to the bow of the boat, where we attach them to the ends of the appropriate nets.  Then, we drop the Bongo nets, the regular Neuston net, the Sub-surface Neuston net, and the CTD into the water, in that order.  These all go down one at a time, and each one is pulled out and the samples collected before the next net goes in.

Neuston

Towing the Neuston net on the night shift

The idea of dropping a net into the water probably sounds pretty simple, but it is actually a multiple-step process that requires excellent teamwork and communication amongst several of the ship’s teams.  The scientists ready the nets by attaching cod ends and making note of the data that tracks the flow of water through the net.  Because the nets are large and heavy, and because of the strong pressure of the water flowing through the nets, they are lifted into the water using winches that are operated by the ship’s crew.  The crew members operate the machinery, and guide the nets over the side of the ship.  While this is happening, the crew members communicate by radio with the Bridge, providing them with information about the angle of the cable that is attached to the net, so that the Bridge can maintain the a speed that will keep the net at the correct angle. At the same time, a scientist in the dry lab monitors how deep the net is and communicates with the deck crew about when to raise and lower the nets.  This communication takes place mostly over walkie-talkies, which means that clear and precise instructions and feedback are very important.

Operating the winches

Crewmember Reggie operating the winch, while crewmember Chris measures the angle of the cable

When each net is pulled back out of the water after roughly 5-10 minutes, we use a hose to spray any little creatures who might be clinging to the net, down into the cod end.  At stations where we run the MOCNESS, we head to the stern of the ship, where the huge MOCNESS unit rests on a frame.  Lowering the MOCNESS takes a strong team effort, since it is so large.  After we retrieve each net, we detach the cod ends and bring them to the stern, where a station is set up for us to preserve the specimens.  I’ll go into more detail about the process of preserving plankton samples in a later post.

Hosing down the nets

Alonzo, hosing down the Bongo nets before bringing them aboard.

We’ve had a couple of nights of collecting now, and so far it has been completely fascinating.  I’m in awe of the variety of organisms that we’ve come across.  The scientists on my shift, Glenn and Alonzo, are super knowledgeable and have been very helpful in explaining to me what we are finding in the nets.  Although this is a Bluefin Tuna study, we collect and preserve any plankton that ends up in the nets, which can include copepods, myctophids, jellies, filefish larvae and eel larvae, to name a few.  When we get the samples back to shore, they will be sent to a lab in Poland, where the species will be sorted and counted; then, the tuna larvae will be sent back to labs in Mississippi or Florida for further study and sometimes genetic testing.

My favorite creature find so far has been the pyrosome.  While a pyrosome looks like a single, strange creature, it is actually a colony of tiny creatures called zooids that live together in a tube-shaped structure called a tunic.  The tunic feels similar to cartilage, like the upper part of your ear.  Pyrosomes are filter feeders, which means they draw in water from one opening, eat the phytoplankton that passes through, and push out the clean water from the other end.  So far on the night shift, we’ve found two pyrosomes about four inches in length and one that was about a foot long; the day crew found one that filled two five-gallon buckets!

Me holding a pyrosome.  So neat!

Me holding a pyrosome. So neat!

Alonzo and the pyrosome

Alonzo holding the pyrosome

Challenge Yourself:

Hello, Nature Exchange Traders!  Pick one of the of the zooplankton listed in bold above, and research some facts about it: Where does it live?  What does it eat?  What eats it?  Write down what you find out and bring it in to the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Be sure to tell them Emmi sent you!

Gumby Suit

In the Gumby suit, practicing the Abandon Ship drill. Photo by Glenn Zapfe

Personal Log:

Safety is the top priority on board the Oregon II.  We wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of our scientific goals if people got hurt and equipment got damaged.  We started our first day at sea with three safety drills: the Man Overboard drill, the Abandon Ship drill and the Escape Hatch drill.  For Man Overboard, everyone on board gathered, or mustered, at specific locations; for the Science team, our location was at the stern, or back of the ship.  Aft is another word for the back.  From there, we all scanned the water for the imaginary person while members of the crew lowered a rescue boat into the water and circled the Oregon II to practice the rescue.

For the Abandon Ship drill, we all grabbed our floatation devices and survival suits from our staterooms and mustered toward the bow, or front of the ship.  I got to practice putting on the survival suit, which is affectionately called a Gumby suit.  In the unlikely event that we would ever have to abandon ship, the suit would help us float and stay relatively warm and dry; it also includes a whistle and a strobe light so that aircraft overhead can see us in the water.

For the Escape Hatch drill, we all gathered below deck where our staterooms are, and climbed a ladder, where crew members helped pull us up onto the weather deck (the area of the ship exposed to weather) on the bow of the ship.  This is meant to show us how to escape dangers such as fire or flood below deck.

Safety gear

Safety gear on; ready for station!  Photo by Glenn Zapfe

But safety isn’t just practiced during drills; it’s pretty much a way of life on the ship.  Whenever winches or other machinery are in operation, we all have to wear hard hats and life jackets; that means that we wear them every time we reach a station and drop the nets.  We are also all required to wear closed-toed and closed-heeled shoes at all times, unless we’re sleeping or showering.  Another small safety trick that is helpful is the idea of, “keep one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.”  That means we carry gear in one hand and leave one free to hold onto the swaying ship.  This has been really useful for me as I get used to the ship’s movements.

Until next time, everyone – don’t forget to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Emilisa Saunders: Away We Go! May 13, 2013

NOAA Teacher st Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14th – 30th, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Plankton Study
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, May 13th, 2013

Science and Technology Log:

Boarding the Oregon II

Me and the Oregon II (and the silly crewmember in the background). Photo by Kaela Gartman

I’m finally aboard the Oregon II!

Today I got a sneak preview from the lead scientist, Andy, of the labs and some of the equipment that we’ll be using to collect plankton once we’re underway.  There are three labs where we’ll be doing science for the next 17 days: the dry lab, the wet lab, and the chem lab.  The dry lab, where I’m sitting and typing right now, is a room with computers that are used to remotely monitor the depths of the nets once they have been dropped, and to record data about those drops.  The wet lab is where samples of plankton are preserved in jars to be sent back to shore and studied.  The chem lab is where chlorophyll is separated from plankton samples.

I got to see the CTD, which is a unit that collects water at specific depths in order to measure physical characteristics of the water, such as salinity, fluorescence, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.  I’m looking forward to learning more about this physical data and why it is important once we are underway.

CTD

The CTD collects water samples for testing

Andy also showed me the nets we will use to collect plankton.  All of the nets are large and heavy and are raised and lowered by winches that are operated by the ship’s crew.  The first is a Bongo net.  If you’ve ever seen bongo drums, you can get a sense of what this unit looks like: two side-by-side nets with round openings.  The nets themselves are shaped like cones, and we’ll attach a bottle called a cod end on the end of each to capture all of the plankton from the nets.  Then there are two Neuston nets, which have large, rectangular openings.  The regular Neuston net will be towed along the surface, and the Subsurface Neuston will be towed in a pattern at various depths, as will the Bongo.  The unit that I am most excited about is the MOCNESS.  This big frame holds up to ten nets, which can be opened and closed at certain depths; that way, we can collect samples from various depths and monitor plankton at separate locations and at specific depths in the water column.  In the other nets, you know what you get and where it came from, but not how deep it was.

Bongo nets

Bongo nets

Subsurface Neuston

Subsurface Neuston Net

The water column is an idea that scientists use to think about and study the ocean from top to bottom, or from the surface to the ocean floor.  When you think about the water column, imagine the ocean as an aquarium, and you’re looking into it and seeing the organisms that live at different depths and what the water is like at those depths.

The reason that the MOCNESS is so exciting to me is that it reminds us that the water in the ocean is not just a uniform mixture all throughout; different creatures live at different depths, and in different numbers at those depths.  It’s easy to imagine that creatures that are benthic – meaning, they live on the ocean floor – will vary depending on where they are in the world and how deep the ocean floor is in that spot.  It’s harder to imagine that pelagic organisms – those that live in the water column, neither at the very surface, nor at the bottom or at the shore – will also vary greatly depending on depth and location.  The water itself is different as well; the temperature of the water and the amount of salt, light and oxygen changes with depth.

Challenge Yourself:  Here’s a challenge for my Nature Exchange Traders: go on into the Nature Exchange and explain the terms water column, benthic and pelagic to earn some bonus points.  Tell them Emmi sent you!

NOAA Oregon II

The journey begins! Photo by Kaela Gartman

Personal Log

Flying over Alabama on the descent into Mobile on Sunday, I was struck by how much water there was everywhere below me.  Everywhere I looked, there were slow, meandering rivers, sparkling ponds, lakes and streams.  At times when I thought I was looking down on a forest, I saw the sun reflecting off of water blanketing the ground beneath the trees and shrubs.  I was even struck by the number of puddles in parking lots and lining the streets.  I kept thinking that, living in the desert, I’m just not used to seeing so much water – and I hadn’t even reached the harbor yet!  It was as if I was being slowly introduced to the world that I’m about to live in for the next 17 days.

I’ve been aboard the Oregon II at dock for just a few hours now, and I’m already overwhelmed with fascination, excitement, curiosity, and anticipation.  I started the morning at my hotel feeling very nervous, knowing that I was about to experience a rush of newness: new people, places, sights, sounds, rules, routines, you name it.  I told myself just to take a deep breath and take it in one thing at a time, and that really helped me to enjoy the experience.  Now the nerves are mostly gone and I’m just very much looking forward to the ship’s departure tomorrow afternoon!

To my great fortune, I’ve already found everyone I’ve met to be incredibly kind and friendly.  I got to meet some of the NOAA lab scientists who study the plankton that is collected from the Gulf, as well as field scientists Alonzo and Glenn, with whom I’ll be working the night shift on the Oregon II.  Last but not least is Andy, the lead scientist for this cruise, who helped plan logistics for my arrival, gave me a tour of the ship and helped me get situated on board.

The folks I’ve met on board are from all over the United States.  Some of them came to Pascagoula to work for NOAA to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; some came as part of their graduate school studies.   Everyone I’ve met either has or is pursuing an advanced degree, so the intelligence on board the ship is impressive.  As challenging as it can be to for the scientists to be away from home for more than a hundred days out of the year, all of them have some level of appreciation for doing field work.  Not all of the scientists who study plankton in Pascagoula are able to leave the lab to go on the cruises, so I am even more grateful that I have the honor of taking part.  I’m also extremely grateful to learn that I will be of help to the team.  Because of limited staffing and budgets, the science team depends on teachers, like me, to provide extra sets of hands during the field work.

Stateroom 5

My stateroom on the Oregon II

I’ll be staying in Stateroom 5 for this cruise, which I’ll share with a volunteer scientist named Jana.  “Stateroom” is the word used for a bedroom on a ship.  The stateroom is small, as expected, but it actually feels like it’s the perfect size.  All of my belongings are unpacked in drawers and cabinets, and they all fit just fine.  There’s a bunk with two beds, a sink, and three storage cabinets.  Two of the cabinets are entirely for our use, and one mostly holds safety gear and flotation devices.  There is enough floor space that I could lay on the floor and do snow angels, so there will be plenty of room to move around.  I don’t expect to be spending all that much time in the stateroom once we are underway.

Time has taken on a whole new meaning in the past two days.  Yesterday morning I left Las Vegas in the Pacific Time Zone and flew to Atlanta in the Eastern Time Zone, then to Mobile in the Central Time Zone.  It was almost like time travel.  After we embark tomorrow, I’ll start my work schedule, which will have me on duty from midnight to noon every day.  Work goes on around the clock on NOAA vessels.  This schedule will take some getting used to, but as a morning person, I am excited that I’ll be awake and active for my favorite part of the day, and I’ll get to watch the sun rise.  Right now, I’m attempting to stay awake for my entire first night on the ship so that I can get on my work schedule right away.  To add another level of confusion to my sense of time, ship crews observe 24-hour military time instead of using AM and PM.  Numbers are difficult for me and don’t come naturally, so this will take some getting used to.

Military time

The clocks on the ship show the 24-hour military time system.

Just being on the ship feels quite surreal.  As I write this at 23:33hrs, there are just a handful of people on board, and we are still at dock.  Every once in a while some subtle movement reminds me that this is a ship in the water, but mostly it feels like solid ground.  I know that will change once we get moving.  Aside from the obvious signs, there are other little reminders that this is a ship, where everything must be secured for rougher waters.  Computers and monitors are strapped and bolted to the tables, there are gripper pads spread out on tables and in drawers, and every door, from drawers and cabinets to staterooms, has to be latched shut and unlatched to open, and open doors have to be secured with a hook so that they don’t slam shut when the ship shifts.   There’s also a constant hum of noise on the Oregon II.  I’m interested to see how loud it is when we’re actually moving!

The adventures in science begin tomorrow!

Sunset at Dock

Sunset at dock, from the dry lab of the ship

Did you know?

Bluefin tuna plankton are a type of ichthyoplankton, which comes from the Greek words for “fish drifters.”  For those of you in Nevada, think of our state fossil, the ichthyosaurus, which means “fish lizard!”

Emilisa Saunders: A Desert Dweller Goes to Sea, April 30, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14 – 30, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Personal Log

Hello, and welcome to my blog! My name is Emilisa, but you can call me Emmi. I’m about to go on the adventure of a lifetime, and I’m so glad you’ve decided to join me.

Annular Eclipse

Standing in the light of an annular eclipse at the Springs Preserve.

For six years now, I’ve worked at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada, where I have the best job: I’m a Naturalist, which means I get to teach kids and their families about nature. Some of you may know me from the Nature Exchange, which is a natural item trading center where kids bring items they’ve collected from nature – rocks, fossils, sea creatures, dead bugs, plant parts, etc. – to learn about those objects and trade them for other natural items from all over the world. This program is so much fun, more than 8000 kids have signed up to trade in the past six years. It’s a ton of fun for me, too. Every day I soak up whatever knowledge I can about the natural world so that I can show kids all that there is to love about nature, science and learning.

Last Fall, I heard about a program that lets teachers explore nature and science in the most amazing way: the teachers help scientists study sea creatures from aboard an actual research ship at sea! This program is called Teacher at Sea, and it is offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. NOAA is in charge of studying the weather, climate, oceans and shores. They share what they learn with all of us, and help to protect our environment and natural resources. Through the Teacher at Sea program, NOAA chooses 25-30 teachers each year to spend several weeks aboard ships, learning about how NOAA scientists study amazing ocean environments, about the jobs that people do at sea, and about how teachers can use science skills to study the natural world.

As soon as I heard about the Teacher at Sea program, I knew I had to apply. What an amazing opportunity! I sent my application and waited very impatiently for a couple of months. I checked my email every day, even when I knew it was far too early to find out. Finally, I got the email I had been waiting for: I had been chosen for the program! On May 14th, I’ll be heading out to sea to study plankton in the Gulf of Mexico on the NOAA ship Oregon II!

NOAA Ship Oregon II

NOAA Ship Oregon II, courtesy of NOAA

The Oregon II is like a floating science lab. It sails out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and is 170 feet long, which is more than half the length of a football field. On the ship, scientists collect samples of living creatures from the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean, so that they can study how healthy the oceans are. There are labs right on board the ship, and the scientists bring samples back to be studied in labs on shore, too.

You can actually track the ship while it’s at sea to see where we are in the Gulf! Just click here and select the Oregon II: NOAA Ship Tracker

The Narrows

Hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park with my husband, Doug.

Now, I love adventures that let me spend time in nature. I love to hike and go for long runs, and I’m even learning to SCUBA dive with my husband, Doug. Even so, this is going to be a very new experience for me. I grew up in the tiny state of Vermont, which has lots of mountains and snow, but no oceans. I spent my summers swimming in lakes and ponds and only traveled to the Atlantic Ocean a few times. I spent just a few hours here and there on whale watching boats, and that’s it! Then, nine years ago, I moved even farther away from the ocean to Las Vegas, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, where I fell completely in love with the hot, dry land and the tough creatures, large and small, that survive here.  I love to take trips to the ocean as often as possible, but I definitely spend most of my time landlocked!

When I’m on the Oregon II, I’ll be seeing, doing and learning things I never have before. I’ll get to know what it’s like to eat, sleep, work and live on a ship, and I’ll meet all the people who work hard to make the ship run. For the first time, I’ll also get to work with scientists and learn about the skills and tools they use to study creatures in the ocean. I can’t wait to meet all of these people who work at sea!

On this cruise, we’ll be collecting and studying plankton, which are the tiny plants and animals that drift in the ocean currents. Some of them are so small that we can’t see them without a microscope, but the entire ocean depends on them for food, and the whole world depends on them for the oxygen that we breathe. The plankton that we’ll be looking at the most closely are bluefin tuna eggs and larvae; larvae are very young fish. I still have a lot to learn about plankton, but I came across this amazing video; it’s beautiful to watch and is very interesting, too!

But there is one thing that I’ve learned by studying nature and teaching kids about the environment: everything is connected. Even though I’ll be travelling far away and studying ocean life, I’ll be able to come back to Las Vegas and teach families all about how our actions here in the desert affect other habitats all over the world. I am so excited that being a Teacher at Sea will help me show the kids I meet at the Springs Preserve all about how healthy oceans keep our desert healthy, too, and how they can grow up to be the scientists or ship crewmembers who protect our oceans.

I hope you check back on this blog from time to time to learn more about NOAA, plankton, and life at sea! I can’t wait to get started!