Joan Le, TowCam & Crew, August 13, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Off the coast of Fenwick Island, Maryland
Date: August 13, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 24°
Wind Direction: 294
Weather Conditions: Mostly Sunny
Latitude: 38° 33.1870′
Longitude: 73° 10.9734′

Science and Technology Log

Week 2 started for me as it has for the past few days, at midnight. The camera was already on the seafloor taking pictures of Wilmington Canyon off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland when I arrived. It was the longest dive we’ve completed, spanning almost 10 hours of tow time. TowCam took us through some interesting terrain, and I’m excited to take a look at the new images she’s caught for us.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen prepares TowCam for its first dive.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen prepares TowCam for its first dive.

In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with TowCam these past few days. I’ve grown curious about where she’s been, where she’s going, and what she does when she’s not here on the Bigelow. Turns out, TowCam is well-travelled, and far from a one-trick pony.

TowCam’s Cam, Travels, and Talents

TowCam's camera is protected at depth by its sturdy casing.

TowCam’s camera is protected at depth by its sturdy casing.

This Nikon D7000 is a high-end off-the-shelf DSLR camera that has been modified to operate remotely. It can dive to depths of 6,000 meters thanks to its titanium casing made by Ocean Imaging Systems, which has a high strength-to-weight ratio. It streams low resolution images in real-time and can hold over 5,000 high resolution (16 MegaPixel) images to be retrieved after each tow.

TowCam has worked all over the world, at depths ranging from shallow coastal waters to 6,000 meters. Getting there requires a lot of planning and some interesting travel plans. TowCam arrived ready for deployment on the Bigelow by way of a flatbed truck from nearby Woods Hole, Massachusetts. But she is also no stranger to long journeys on freighter ships across the sea.

Besides taking beautiful pictures of deep-sea coral, TowCam can also “slurp” biological samples, take CTD data (salinity/conductivity, temperature, and depth), dissolved oxygen, turbidity (visibility), and collect water samples.

Click on each of the images below to learn more about each component of TowCam.

TowCam is owned by the Multidisciplinary Instrumentation in Support of Oceanography (MISO) which is a facility of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). During the planning of this cruise, Senior Scientist Dr. Fornari, an expert in deep-sea imaging, was contacted to discuss using the TowCam on this expedition. WHOI contracted the TowCam engineers from Seafloor Investigations, LLC (SFI) to operate the system, bringing Mr. Kurras and Dr. Christiansen and out to the Bigelow.

TowCam Crew

The TowCam narrative could hardly be considered complete without a brief word on TowCam’s operators. Without them, we could only guess at the wildlife beneath our feet. Dr. Lizet Christiansen and Gregory Kurras of SFI joined us from California and Hawaii respectively, and are an incredibly important part of the research team. Both spend much of their careers at sea studying the ocean floor as geophysicists, and own businesses back home. Kurras owns SFI, and Dr. Christiansen owns Gear & Grind Cafe in Tahoe City, where customers are treated to pour-over coffee and locally-made ice cream.

Personal Log

I’m still having a tough time adjusting to the midnight-noon schedule, but I’ll tell you why. Any time I can’t sleep, I get up and see something beautiful like this:

 If you look closely, you can see two Pilot Whales swimming just below the surface. Who could sleep through that?

 

Joan Le, Rolling in the Deep, August 11, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Southeast of Cape May
Date: August 11, 2014

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Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 24.2° C
Wind Direction: 140
Weather Conditions: Mostly Cloudy
Latitude: 38° 31.7′
Longitude: 73° 14.7′

Science and Technology Log

TowCam is back, and the deep sea pictures are in. The high resolution images from the last dive have been downloaded and many are stunning. We’ve spotted dozens of red crabs, flat fish, skates, eels, anemones, sponges and most importantly, coral. Clustered around the steeper rocky slopes, they greet us like tiny shrubs peeking around the corners of the rock.

But one of the reasons studying deep-sea coral is so important, is that they are part of a larger ecosystem. Documenting the diversity of organisms associated with the coral is equally as important and exciting as the coral sightings themselves. In fact, many conservation efforts have begun to shift their focus from single-species protection to focusing on the ecosystem as a whole. And now, without further delay, a few of TowCam’s high resolution images:

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Brilliance Under Pressure

While gathered around the control room today marveling at the beautiful fauna that thrives under the extreme environmental conditions of the deep sea, the video feed for our winch control went out. Without it, Dr. Lizet Christiansen would have been unable to safely maneuver the TowCam around the steep and rocky cliffs.

Stuck right in the middle of one our best dives yet, Brian Kinlan stepped in with a quick and brilliant save. Using two cell phones, video chatting, and a whole lot of duct tape, we were able to rig a new video feed and the dive continued. It reminded me again how difficult research can be while at sea, when you can’t simply run to the hardware store to fix broken equipment.

Electronic Technician Mike Peperato quickly restores video feed.

Electronic Technician Mike Peperato quickly restores video feed.

Thanks to our equally brilliant crew and tech support, the video feed returned shortly and the dive continued as planned.

Personal Log

After 4 midnight-noon shifts, I am starting to find my rhythm on the ship. My daily workout has finally moved from the stationary bike to the treadmill, as I can now walk (and even run) without falling over as the ship bobs back and forth. Though I’d rather be running in the absolutely beautiful sunshine that has daily graced our ship, my outdoor time is filled quite nicely writing my blog or simply searching for dolphins off the flying bridge of the ship. In honor of some late-night (early morning?) conversations around the true definition of a “hipster”, I decided to throw in a few hipster-esque shots of the sights around the ship.

And for the record, I’d like to state that if a hipster is someone that is driven by their passions, dances to the beat of their own drummer, and has met no obstacle that can slow them down in their pursuit of an important and meaningful life, then field scientists are true hipsters–in the best sense of the word. Skinny jeans = optional.

Joan Le, Lost At Sea Without ‘Em, August 9, 2014

Before and after each dive, TowCam stats must be recorded. Then we can bring in the camera and see what's inside.

Recording TowCam stats. Photo credit Dr. Martha Nizinski.

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: U.S. Mid-Atlantic Canyons
Date: August 15, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 21°
Wind Direction: 277
Weather Conditions: Clear Skies
Latitude: 39° 33.1345′
Longitude: 73° 10.9734′

Science and Technology Log

On the morning of my second-to-last watch, I awoke to learn that many changes had taken place since I last saw my team. In the night, fishermen laid long lines from Hendrickson to Lindenkohl Canyons, leading to a flurry of new plans and a reroute of the night’s dive plan. Long line fishing involves one long line laid parallel to the ocean surface, with several shorter lines called snoods hanging off the main line with hooks on the ends. With these long lines in place, our existing dive route needed a change.

After multiple discussions among the science team and between the chief scientist and the bridge, we decided on an alternate location for our 4 AM dive. Dr. Brian Kinlan (of video-chat fame), quickly produced a new dive plan and rearranged our dive schedule to make the most of our last day at sea. Changes with such short notice are not easy on a ship, but I am learning that they are none-the-less commonplace as the environment is constantly shifting. As my Teacher At Sea guide suggested, flexibility is of utmost importance while at sea.

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Matt Poti (left) and Dr. Brian Kinlan (right)

3D Models and Machine Learning

The ability to quickly adapt to changing situations can be attributed to the preparation that is done even before the ship left the dock. Dr. Kinlan and Matt Poti, both from the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Biogeography Branch in Silver Spring, MD, spent years before this cruise sifting through large repositories of data from NOAA, USGS, NASA and other government agencies to extract the specific environmental variables that may influence the distribution of deep-sea corals, including seafloor type, nutrients, temperature, salinity, currents and food particles.

These data came from a huge variety of scientific instruments ranging from satellites to underwater robots to sediment grabs and sensors attached to bottom trawls. They put these data together with information on where deep corals had been collected or observed in the past. When they had reached the limit of their human brains, they wrote a type of computer program called a “machine learning” algorithm to teach the computer to find corals.  This is a kind of predictive habitat distribution model often used as a tool for conservation. So far, Matt and Brian have written these models for the whole Atlantic coast of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico.  One of the goals of this cruise is to test these models, and ultimately to improve them, so that they can be used to better protect and conserve deep-sea corals.

The deep coral model is basically a three-dimensional map that predicts the likelihood of coral based on depth, slope and other characteristics of the environment like temperature and salinity. Because deep-sea corals do not benefit from photosynthesis as shallow-water corals do, they tend to prefer areas with high currents that can deliver food particles and also keep sediments from clogging the coral’s delicate feeding structures.

On the ship, Brian and Matt use special 3D visualization software called Fledermaus to view the model results in 3D overlaid on top of very accurate maps of the seafloor collected by an instrument called a multibeam sonar, the same technology used to find and map shipwrecks like the Titanic. Fledermaus software allows scientists to explore to complex 3D environments. The software can also connect directly to the ship’s navigation system to help guide TowCam to the exact spot needed to test the coral models.

All models have their limitations, and their ability to predict coral habitats is only as good as the data they are given. “Machine learning” only gets us in the neighborhood of good coral habitat, not to the specific address. Multibeam sonar gives us a detailed 3D picture of the ocean floor, and without it, we’d be lost searching for coral in the deep ocean.

Multibeaming

Multibeaming is a process used to gather data about the ocean floor. While you can certainly see many of the canyons we studied on Google Earth, the detail of its bathymetry (topography of the ocean floor) is still just an approximation and could not be used to locate the coral as we have done on this trip.

To build a more accurate chart of the ridges and valleys of the ocean floor, you would need to use the data generated by the Bigelow and several other NOAA ships with multibeaming capability. Much of this data is available to the public, and can be imported into the Geographic Information System (ArcGIS) software and even converted to KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files that can be used in Google Earth. I plan to create a lesson using this data, but the capabilities are numerous.

Tools of the Trade

Even with all this technology available, I was surprised to learn that paper charts and hand-held tools are still regularly used for navigation. While visiting the bridge one afternoon, I found Commander Miller in the midst of dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is a process that determines current position, and aids in the planning of future movements while in transit.

Straight pattern and one-handed dividers are tools used for dead reckoning.

Commander Miller first plotted our “fix” (or current location) directly on the paper chart with a pencil, then used the one-handed divider shown above along with known speed and heading to predict future locations along our path. Furthering my appreciation for the need for both preparation and flexibility at sea, paper charts are still used in conjunction with modern technology to ensure that unforeseen circumstances never interfere with navigation and safety.

Personal Log

During my online training for Teacher At Sea, I was also surprised to learn that the NOAA Corps is one of seven uniformed services of the United States. I was curious to learn more. The officers on the Bigelow were kind enough to take a few moments to talk with me about their experience and the path that led them to the NOAA Corps. After hearing their stories, I found myself wishing I had been aware of the NOAA Corps earlier as I am certain I would have applied myself.

I’d like to take a few moments to ensure that my own students know about this opportunity, and get a bit of advice for using their precious time in high school to set themselves up for success and a possible career in the prestigious NOAA Corps.

 

Commander G. Mark Miller was a Marine Science: Geology major. During college, he spent much time at sea through his participation in Semester At Sea, a research diving internship, and other opportunities. After calling the NOAA Dive Center, he learned of the corps. To any interested high school student, he recommends becoming well-rounded through participation in sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities, and to look for leadership opportunities.

Lieutenant Commander Chad Cary was an Environmental Science major, with a Master’s degree in Geography. He enjoyed science and was interested in a career that had an influence on sustainability. His advice to interested high school students is to “reach out to the NOAA Corps recruiting office, ” and to find opportunities to volunteer if near a NOAA port or office.

Lieutenant Jeff Pereira was a Meteorology major, and learned of the NOAA Corps through a college classmate. He states that he always wanted to work for NOAA, and thought that the corps “was the perfect combination of science and duty to country.” He recommends volunteering on a NOAA ship, because “more than likely, one of your first tours is going to be on a NOAA ship.

Lieutenant Kyle Jellison was a Mathematics major, and no stranger to the sea. Growing up in coastal Maine, Jellison worked as a deck hand on whale-watching ships while he was in high school and had his captain’s license by the time he graduated from college. “From all the ships I worked on, the research vessel was the niche I wanted.” The NOAA Corps was a perfect fit. To any interested high school student, he says, “Don’t be picky about the job you get, but be thoughtful about the job you get, because that job experience will help set the path of future job opportunities.”

Ensign Erick Estela Gómez was an Environmental Science major and spent time in the Peace Corps as well as working in ecotourism. Ensign Estela Gómez was drawn to the NOAA Corps through his love of science and the outdoors as well as his belief in public service. To any interested high school student, he suggests keeping up with math and science classes, and finding internship opportunities.

Joan Le, Touchdown for TowCam, August 8, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Off the coast of Assateague Island, Virginia
Date: August 8, 2014

Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 24° C
Wind Direction: 320° at 5 knots
Weather Conditions: Partly Cloudy
Latitude: 37° 49.460′
Longitude: 74° 03.380′


Science and Technology Log

Recording “zero winch” time (when TowCam splashes down). Photo credit Dr. Martha Nizinski.

After arriving at our first dive location yesterday at 16:00, we successfully completed our first dive. In the water for almost 8 hours, we collected 2,946 high resolution pictures and lots of data.

Deployment is a team effort, and everyone is on high alert. With steel toe shoes, hard hats, and life vests in place, the crew carefully raises TowCam off the deck by a winch wire and gently into the water below. Though I’m getting used to it, the bobbing of the ship while it holds position for deployment is noticeable. Keeping an eye on the horizon goes a long way to settle the stomach.

Because shorter wavelengths can’t reach our eyes through the moving water, you can see the yellow net on TowCam appear to turn green as it submerges.

As TowCam descends into the water, it is hard not to be impressed by the depth beneath us. For almost half an hour, the winch pays out cable at a rate of 35 meters per minute. Fuzzy images of the water column begin to arrive, and adds to the abyssal sensation of the water below.

Dr. Lizet Christiansen monitors the location of TowCam as images stream back to the lab

Finally, TowCam sends visual of the bottom, and logging of observations begins. At first, only a few images of soft sediment appear–one after the other, 10 seconds apart. And then, a red crab. Then a fish. I felt not unlike an astronomer receiving those first black and white images from Mars’s Curiosity. It was that exciting. We note the time, location, features of the seafloor, and tentative ids of the organisms we see. Later, we’ll match these up with the high-res images inside TowCam.

Chief Scientist Dr. Martha Nizinski monitors low resolution images as they stream from TowCam.

After about 8 hours, TowCam returns the way it arrived–slowly back up the water column. It’ll stay on deck just long enough to charge batteries and download the precious images while we make our way to the next dive location. Then, back to the drink it goes.

"Burping" TowCam's batteries.

“Burping” TowCam’s batteries to remove excess air. Photo credit Matt Poti.

An Unlucky Passenger

The TowCam is a pretty amazing instrument, but we didn’t know how alluring it might appear to the fish that come and go. Unfortunately for this little guy, he never did manage to leave until it was too late. Evolved to withstand life under pressure, this unlucky swimmer lost his innards while TowCam returned home.

Personal Log

The Moon rises over the water at the beginning of my shift at midnight.

The Moon rises over the water at the beginning of my shift at midnight.

The first watch was pretty exciting. It was strange to wake up at 11 PM and get ready for work, but the commute was sweet! Instead of my usual hour-long metro ride (okay, I usually just drive) I simply walked downstairs and greeted the folks that had just spent the previous 12 hours logging and monitoring the submerged TowCam. They were in surprisingly good spirits.

I also must say that not much can top the wonderfully eerie feeling of moving steadily along through the ocean in a moonlit night. The light from the deck makes the water a velvety blue, and if you’re lucky you can see dolphins slipping quietly by as the Sun begins to peek up over the horizon.

Joan Le, Getting Set to TowCam, August 5, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: 40 miles SE of Cape May, New Jersey
Date: August 5, 2014

In full survival gear during our first “abandon ship” drill.

Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 25.5° Celsius
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Wind Direction: 330°
Weather Conditions: clear
Latitude: 37° 37.7′ N
Longitude: 74° 06.8′ W

Science and Technology Log

After almost a full day at sea, we are only hours away from the first watch and the first glimpse of data. Preparations commence, and anticipation is high.

For the next two weeks, we’ll study the deep-sea corals that occur in submarine canyons off the east coast. They have been found in every region of the United States, but for this mission we’ll target canyons in the Northeast region, investigating canyons east of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Deep-Sea Corals are similar to the familiar shallow-water corals, but cannot harness sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they rely on nutrients from the water including detritus (non-living organic matter) and plankton. It is believed that Deep-Sea Corals find both shelter and bountiful grub on the steep-sided canyon walls where the faster-moving currents bring in the day’s meal. Surprisingly, many are just as beautiful and colorful as their shallow-water counterparts, like this bamboo coral photographed at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year.

This image was taken at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year. Photo credit NOAA.

Bamboo Coral (Jasonisis sp.) Photo credit NOAA.

Though not the hot snorkeling destination, the Deep-Sea Corals in this region are important habitat providers as well as sensitive indicators of ecosystem health. They are long-living but slow-growing and do not recover quickly. Both bottom trawling and possible energy harnessing (off-shore wind farms and oil and gas acquisition) are possible threats to their survival.

Because bottom trawling is so detrimental to the coral communities, we’ll use TowCam to survey the area. Deploying the TowCam is a delicate process, with sensitive and pricey equipment on the line. After a few test deployments yesterday, the team began picking our dive locations. There is plenty to consider when finding a dive spot, including the topography of the sea floor and slope of the canyon walls. We also use the results generated by a habitat suitability model that predicts where deep-sea corals are likely to occur. Scientists must strike a balance between the steeper, high-probability cliffs and the gentler slopes.

The crew prepares TowCam for the first test run.

The crew prepares TowCam for the first test deployment.

Brian Kinlan using Fledermaus to plan our first dive.

Brian Kinlan using Fledermaus to plan our first dive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personal Log

Life aboard a ship is surely not easy. The constant rocking and clanging of cold metal will take a while to get used to, and I will sadly miss many daytime hours with our 12 hours on-12 hours off watch schedule. And while waking at 3 AM to greet a deathly dark ocean view may not seem like summertime fun to most, this first morning underway has convinced me that a couple weeks at sea is a treat I won’t soon forget.

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Joan Le, Packing Up and Ready to Go, July 28, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean
Date: July 28, 2014

Personal Log

At Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Hello there! I am Earth Science teacher Joanie Le, from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. I couldn’t be more excited to join the Deep-Sea Corals research team in August, and spend two weeks on the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow out in the North Atlantic Ocean. My interest in the ocean started at James Madison University, where we studied the geology left by ancient inland seas. Standing next to giant shale formations, I would imagine how the whole area was once submerged in water and teeming with marine life. But if I’m going to be honest, I truly didn’t appreciate the importance of marine life until very recently. Squeezing in at the last minute from a packed wait-list, I was so fortunate to spend a week on the Chesapeake Bay learning from an exceptional group of educators through one of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation‘s Summer Immersion Courses, “Teachers on the Bay”. After spending days trawling, marsh-mucking, and breathing in the beautiful bay air, I am thrilled to take my studies even deeper into the Atlantic Ocean.

Beautiful morning view from Fox Island in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.

However, my departure from my home in Washington, DC will be bittersweet, I’m afraid. While email correspondence works well for my husband, my two dogs never gained the knack for it. We’ve spent so much of the summer exploring local rivers and beaches together that it’ll be tough to leave them behind. They will just have to keep each other company, I suppose.

Walter and Reginald.

So that’s it. Next post will be from the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow in the Atlantic Ocean. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any specific questions, or would like me to highlight anything in particular. I’ll look out for your comments below, or through my classroom Twitter account, @TheScienceRoom. See you soon!

NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow, and my home for two week.