Julia West: Putting It All Together, April 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date:  April 3, 2015

The Math Challenge Answers

In case you’re wondering if you got the math right, here’s the answer to the volume of water that flowed through the each bongo net (3/29 post): 282.88 cubic meters. Your answer might vary slightly if you rounded off to fewer decimal places.

The answer to the math problem of 4/1: you can see 162.86 square nautical miles from the bridge. That’s a big area!

Coming into Port

As I finish writing this blog, I am still on the Gunter, in port. We got in this morning, and spent a few hours unloading. All of the science gear had to come off the ship. The next plankton cruise will not be on the Gunter, as she is headed north in a couple of weeks, up the east coast to New England, where she will be employed on a marine mammal research cruise. The Gunter will be in almost continuous use until late summer; that’s the next time the crew will get a break.

Breaking everything down was interesting. Both cranes were employed, and we carried a lot of things as well. Here are some photos of our arrival and unloading (click on one to get a slide show):

When we went back to the NOAA lab to unload our gear, I got another tour of the lab, and the sorting work that is being done there. One of the main projects going on now is a project for NRDA (Natural Resources Damage Assessment) project. NRDA is a department of NOAA. This project started after the BP oil spill in 2010 to study the effects of the spill on aquatic organisms, using SEAMAP data. The samples they are analyzing are from 2010 and 2011.

sorting plankton

Jessica Kirkham sorting the icthyoplankton (fish) from the invertebrates

sorting plankton

Not only do they separate the plankton, but they are very good at identifying them! This is Jennifer McDonald.

I got to see some cool fish eggs and larvae from the NRDA samples, and saw some enlarged pictures from the microscope projected onto a monitor. However, I am not allowed to share them with you on this blog because of the upcoming litigation with the BP case. None of the NRDA data, photos, or anything are allowed to be shared until the court case is all over. I ventured that once it is over, there must be a lot of researchers waiting to get hold of the data, and was told that they are lining up! So if you are interested in marine science, there are definitely some research opportunities for you in the future!

Odds and Ends about the Ship

I wanted to describe a couple more interesting tidbits. I didn’t get to know the engineers, and wasn’t able to get a tour of the engine room, but I still want to thank them for getting us where we needed to go! The Gunter is a diesel electric ship. There are four generators (plus a backup) that create electricity to turn the two propellers. Usually, we are using three of them. They also generate our electricity. Not only that, but the waste heat from the generators is used to distill salt water to make fresh water. There is a brominator that is used to help purify the water, along with some chlorine I believe – neither of which I could detect in the water. There are regular tests for bromine and chlorine in the water. The salt goes out with the outflow, back into the ocean.

And where does human waste go on a ship? Surely you must be wondering! If we are at least 12 miles from shore, it is discharged into the ocean, after being treated in some way (no chemicals). Food waste is thrown overboard, if we are at least 12 miles from shore. All food waste that is thrown over is measured and recorded (by the gallon). There are rules like this for organic wastes and other types of waste, specifying how far from shore they can be released. These rules clearly state that nowhere in any ocean is plastic allowed to be dumped. The ocean has enough plastic already, thanks to us.

Our Scientists

I want to thank the wonderful science team on this trip, for patiently teaching me the ropes and putting up with my unlimited questions. It is because of their knowledge that I was able to share the science work that we are doing. Likewise, thanks to the NOAA Corps officers who welcomed me and my questions on the bridge. And Jerome and the deck crew as well.

Here’s a little bit about our scientists.

GU scientists, winter plankton

There are the scientist on our cruise. From L to R: Kim Johnson, Madalyn Meaker, Chrissy Stepongzi, Andy Millett, Pam Bond (FPC), and me! Photo by LT Marc Weekley

Madalyn is a native to Mississippi. She got a degree in marine science at the University of Southern Mississippi, and started working with plankton with the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL), a facility with USM. Since December, she has worked in the plankton lab at NOAA, on the NRDA project described above. If she hadn’t just gotten off the ship after working 17 days straight, she would have been at one of the microscopes in the lab when I walked through. Madalyn lives in Gulfport, MS.

Chrissy also started in the same NRDA project, but is now working with the “trawl unit.” (I’ll explain that next.) During her 5 years with NOAA, she also worked for another department, the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory. Her project there also started after the BP oil spill; it involved checking samples of fish for oil contamination. They did this in a curious way: specialized “sniffers” (these are humans) with sensitive noses were hired to detect contamination in the samples! Anyway, Chrissy is from Louisiana, and has a biology degree from Louisiana State University. She’s going to be on several research cruises this year, working with Kim. Her favorite baby fish? Istiophorids (marlins), of course – “They are so cute! Look at those big eyes!”

blue marlin larvae

Istiophorid (blue marlin) larvae, A. 12.6 mm, B. 21.0 mm, C. 22.1 mm Strasburg (1970), Gehringer (1956), and Bartlett et al. (1968) in Development of Fishes of the Mid-Atlantic Bight – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Andy comes from Massachusetts, but now lives here in Ocean Springs, MS, with his wife. He has worked in the plankton unit for five years now, having started in plankton in college. (My question to everyone was, “So how long have you been in plankton?”) Andy has a BS in marine biology, and a MS in marine science. For his graduate work, he used SEAMAP data from the CUFES samples, studying community structure of invertebrates throughout the Gulf, and how they are affected by abiotic factors (such as temperature and salinity). This was interesting to me, because there is so much data available, and many options to analyze that data in new ways. Science doesn’t always mean you need to collect your own data! (See my note about the NRDA data above.) So now Andy specializes in invertebrate data analysis, using the data we collect. He is the FPC (Field Party Chief) for the spring and fall plankton research cruises this year. He and Pam take turns with that role.

Kim comes from Texas, and started with NOAA in 2001. She got a degree in marine fisheries, and through NOAA, was able to get her masters just a few years ago. NOAA offers nice opportunities for continuing education. Kim’s main focus is the juvenile fish – the size up from what we are working with here. They do summer groundfish surveys, which involve trawling. They catch things like commercial shrimp (that go down to the bottom at night), as well as snappers that hang out at the bottom. Kim will also be very busy at sea this year, and somehow even finds time for her husband and four young children!

Pam, our humble, kind, and intrepid leader, grew up in the Midwest, and has been “in plankton” for 23 years now! She started as a volunteer at GCRL, got hired, and spent 7 years working there before joining NOAA in 1999. I should clarify that GCRL, and several other facilities, are all part of SEAMAP, which is a cooperative project. Pam has been an FPC since 2001, as she puts it, “since the days of DOS and data sheets.” Can you imagine manually entering all your data into the computer data base?! She lives with two cats and her husband, also a federal employee with the USDA chemistry lab, in Wiggins, MS.

(Update on 4/3) – After I arrived too late at the airport this morning and missed my flight out, Pam felt so bad that she took me out to lunch and gave me a tour of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath along the coast. She was worried that I would say bad things about her on the blog post, but I still have nothing but good things to say, Pam, if you are reading this! You are awesome!

The Big Picture

I learned a bit about how all this goes together. We have the plankton surveys, which you know about. We have the groundfish surveys, which are done by trawling (dragging a net over the bottom). That catches the juveniles, but the adults tend to outswim the net.

Groundfish survey. Photo credit: SEFSC/NOAA

Deploying the net in the groundfish survey. Photo credit: SEFSC/NOAA

groundfish survey

A full net! Photo credit: SEFSC/NOAA

You can get some strange creatures in the ocean depths!

You can get some strange creatures in the ocean depths! Photo credit: Kim Johnson/NOAA

So then we have the longline surveys to catch the adult (pelagic) fish. In a sense, we are using the same techniques commercial fishermen do, in order to study the health of the species throughout the stages of development.

When plankton research started, it was all about learning as much as possible about individual species. Now (and if you check out the NOAA FishWatch website you will understand this better), all of the data becomes important. We know that for a successful fishery, we need a healthy and diverse ecosystem. The information about non-economically important species is crucial to understanding the entire community, as well as the information about abiotic (physical) factors such as the CTD provides. I find this focus encouraging; I feel we are learning something as we try to “manage” these incredible resources. The more we understand the big picture, the more we can take care of our precious Earth.

I could get all philosophical and talk about the importance of a broad education and a global awareness in the same light, but I’ll spare you. I’ll just say that it’s really important to put together the little pieces to form the whole puzzle. It’s not that we all need to know everything. Our data collecting scientists here have their important job, but they have informed me that they don’t know all about how the results of their work have changed fishing regulations. Others down the line have their job, and they don’t know the details of how the samples are collected. However, they all have a sense of their purpose – a sense of the whole picture – even though they don’t need to know everything. Even though the deck crew and the officers who drive the ship don’t know much about plankton, but they are aware of our general purpose, and know they have a crucial part in it. It reminds me of the janitor at NASA who, when asked “what do you do for a living?” answered “I put people on the moon.”

Would I do this again? Absolutely! I learned so much! Important things like why NOAA only allows shoes with closed toes on their ships (I would have stubbed my toes a thousand times!). I learned that flying fish and mano’wars are some of the most bizarre creatures at the surface of the ocean. I learned that I’m still not so sure about the seasickness thing. There were days that were spent in a very sleepy, off-feeling mode. I need more research on that! I learned that there’s a lot going on out on our oceans that we are unaware of, like why was that oil rig that we passed the other night on fire, and has anybody reported it? And I learned that there is so very, very much more to learn. Our world is so fascinating! Never stop wondering. Thanks for following along!

Sunset from the Gordon Gunter

Sunset from the Gordon Gunter

Julia West: This Is What Drives Us, April 1, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission:  Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: April 1, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Date: 3/31/2015; Time 2000; clouds 25%, cumulus and cirrus; Wind 205° (SSW), 15 knots; waves 1-2 ft; swells 1-2 ft; sea temp 23°C; air temp 23°C

Science and Technology Log

You’re not going to believe what we caught in our neuston net yesterday – a giant squid! We were able to get it on board and it was 23 feet long! Here’s a picture from after we released it:

giand squid

Giant Squid!

April Fools! (sorry, couldn’t resist) The biggest squid we’ve caught are about a half inch long. Image from http://www.factzoo.com/.

Let’s talk about something just as exciting – navigation. I visit the bridge often and find it all very interesting, so I got a 30 minute crash course on navigation. We joked that with 30 minutes of training, yes, we would be crashing!

From the bridge, you can see a long way in any direction. The visible range of a human eye in good conditions is 10 miles. Because the earth is curved, we can’t see that far. There is a cool little formula to figure out how far you can see. You take the square root of your “height of eye” above sea level, and multiply that by 1.17. That gives you the nautical miles that you can see.

So the bridge is 36 feet up. “Really?” I asked Dave. He said, “Here, I’ll show you,” and took out a tape measure.

Dave measuring height

ENS Dave Wang measuring the height of the bridge above sea level.

OK, 36 feet it is, to the rail. Add a couple of feet to get to eye level. 38 feet. Square root of 38 x 1.17, and there we have it: 7.2 nautical miles. That is 8.3 statute miles (the “mile” we are used to using). That’s assuming you are looking at something right at sea level – say, a giant squid at the surface. If something is sticking up from sea level, like a boat, that changes everything. And believe me, there are tables and charts to figure all that out. Last night the bridge watch saw a ship’s light that was 26 miles away! The light on our ship is at 76 feet, so they might have been able to see us as well.

Challenge Yourself

If you can see 7.2 nautical miles in any direction, what is the total area of the field of view? It’s a really amazing number!

Back to navigation

Below are some photos of the navigation charts. They can be zoomed in or out, and the officers use the computer to chart the course. You can see us on the chart – the little green boat.

navigation chart

This is a chart zoomed in. The green boat (center) is us, and the blue line and dot is our heading.

In the chart above, you’ll see that we seem to be off course. Why? Most likely because of that other ship that is headed our direction. We talk to them over the radio to get their intentions, and reroute our course accordingly.

navigation chart 2

Notice the left side, where it says “dump site (discontinued) organochlorine waste. There are a lot of these type dump sites in the Gulf. Just part of the huge impact humans have had on our oceans.

When we get close to a station, as in the first picture above, the bridge watch team sets up a circle with a one mile radius around the location of the station. See the circle, upper center? We need to stay within that circle the whole time we are collecting our samples. With the bongos and the neuston net, the ship is moving slowly, and with the CTD the ship tries maintain a stationary position. However, wind and current can affect the position. These factors are taken into account before we start the station. The officer on the bridge plans out where to start so that we stay within the circle, and our gear that is deployed doesn’t get pushed into or under the boat. It’s really a matter of lining up vectors to figure it all out – math and physics at work. But what is physics but an extension of common sense? Here’s a close-up:

setting up for station

Here is the setup for the station. The plan is that we will be moving south, probably into the wind, during the sampling. See the north-south line?

How do those other ships appear on the chart? This is through input from the AIS (Automated Information System), through which we can know all about other ships. It broadcasts their information over VHF radio waves. We know their name, purpose, size, direction, speed, etc. Using this and the radar system, we can plan which heading to take to give the one-mile distance that is required according to ship rules.

As a backup to the computer navigation system, every half hour, our coordinates are written on the (real paper) navigation chart, by hand.

Pete charting our course

ENS Pete Gleichauf is writing our coordinates on the paper navigation chart.

There are drawers full of charts for everywhere the Gunter travels!

Melissa and the nav charts

ENS Melissa Mathes showing me where all the navigation charts are kept. Remember, these are just backups!

Below is our radar screen. There are 3 other ships on the screen right now. The radar computer tells us the other vessels’ bearing and speed, and how close they will get to us if we both maintain our course and speed.

radar screen

The other vessels in the area, and their bearing, show up on the radar.

If the radar goes down, the officers know how to plot all this on paper.

maneuvering board

On this maneuvering board, officers are trained to plot relative positions just like the radar computer does.

Below is Dave showing me the rudder controls. The rudder is set to correct course automatically. It has a weather adjustment knob on it. If the weather is rough (wind, waves, current), the knob can allow for more rudder correction to stay on course. So when do they touch the wheel? To make big adjustments when at station, or doing course changes.

rudder controls

Dave’s arm – showing me the rudder controls.

These are the propulsion control throttles – one for each propeller. They control the propeller speed (in other words, the ship’s speed).

propeller speed throttles

Here are the throttles that control the engine power, which translates to propeller speed.

bow thruster control

This controls the bow thruster, which is never used except in really tight situations, such as in port. It moves the bow either direction.

And below is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). It prints out any nautical distress signal that is happening anywhere in the world!

GMDSS

Global Marine Distress and Safety System

And then, of course, there is a regular computer, which is usually showing the ships stats, and is connected to the network of computers throughout the ship.

checking the weather

ENS Kristin Johns checking the weather system coming our way.

In my post of March 17, I described the gyrocompass. That is what we use to determine direction, and here is a rather non-exciting picture of this very important tool.

gyrocompass

This is the gyrocompass, which uses the rotation of the Earth to determine true north.

As you can see, we have two gyrocompasses, but since knowing our heading is probably the most important thing on the ship, there are backup plans in place. With every watch (every 4 hours), the gyro compass is aligned the magnetic compass to determine our declination from true north. Also, once per trip, the “gyro error” is calculated, using this nifty device:

alidade

This is called the alidade. Using the position of the sun as it rises or sets, the gyro error can be computed and used to keep our heading perfectly accurate.

The reading off of the alidade, combined with the exact time, coordinates, and some fancy math, will determine the gyro error. (Click on a picture to see full captions and full size pictures.)

You can see that we have manual backups for everything having to do with navigation. We won’t get lost, and we’ll always know where we are!

driving the ship

Here I am, “driving” the ship! Watch out! Photo by ENS Pete Gleichauf

Back to Plankton!

These past two days, we have been in transit, so no sampling has been done. But here are a couple more cool micrographs of plankton that Pam shared with me.

invertebrate plankton

This picture shows several invertebrates, along with fish eggs. Madalyn and Andy, who are invertebrate people, got excited at this collection. The fat one, top left is a Doliolid. The U-shaped one is a Lucifer shrimp, the long one in center is an amphipod, at the bottom is a mycid, etc. There are crabs in different stages of development, and the multiple little cylinders are copepods! You can also see the baby fish inside the eggs. Photo credit Pamela Bond/NOAA

red snapper larvae

These are larval red snapper, a fall spawning fish species of economic interest. Notice the scale! You have to admit baby fish are awfully cute. Photo credit: Pamela Bond/NOAA

Interesting Fish Facts

Our main fish of interest in the winter plankton sampling are the groupers. There are two main species: gag groupers and red groupers. You can learn all about them on the NOAA FishWatch Website. Groupers grow slowly and live a long time. Interestingly, some change from female to male after about seven years – they are protogynous hermaphrodites.

red grouper

Red grouper. Image credit: NOAA

In the spring plankton research cruise, which goes out for all of May, the main species of interest is the Atlantic bluefin tuna. This species can reach 13 feet long and 2000 lbs, and females produce 10 million eggs a year!

school of bluefin tuna

School of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Photo credit: NOAA

The fall plankton research focuses on red snapper. These grow up to about 50 pounds and live a long time. You can see from the map of their habitat that it is right along the continental shelf where the sampling stations are.

red snapper

Red snapper in Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Image credit: NOAA

The NOAA FishWatch website is a fantastic resource, not only to learn about the biology, but about how they are managed and the history of each fishery. I encourage you to look around. You can see that all three of these fish groups have been overfished, and because of careful management, and research such as what we are doing, the stocks are recovering – still a long way from what they were 50 years ago, but improving.

I had a good question come in: how long before the fish larvae are adults? Well, fish are interesting creatures; they are dependent on the conditions of their environment to grow. Unlike us, fish will grow throughout their life! Have you ever kept goldfish in an aquarium or goldfish bowl? They only grow an inch or two long, right? If you put them in an outdoor pond, you’ll see that they will grow much larger, about six inches! It all depends on the environment (combined with genetics).

“Adult” generally means that they are old enough to reproduce. That will vary by species, but with groupers, it is around 4 years. They spawn in the winter, and will remain larvae for much longer than other fish, because of the cooler water.

Personal Log

I’ve used up my space in this post, and didn’t even get to tell you about our scientists! I will save that for next time. For now, I want to share just a few more pictures of the ship. (Again, click on one to get a slide show.)

 

Terms to Learn

What is the difference between a nautical mile and a statute mile? How about a knot?

Do you know what I mean when I say “invertebrate?” It is an animal without a backbone. Shrimp and crabs, are invertebrates; we are vertebrates!

Julia West: Science Is About the Details, March 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1600; clouds 35%, cumulus; wind 170 (S), 18 knots; waves 5-6 ft; sea temp 24°C; air temp 23°C

Science and Technology Log

We have completed our stations in the western Gulf! Now we are steaming back to the east to pick up some stations they had to skip in the last leg of the research cruise, because of bad weather. It’s going to be a rough couple of days back, with a strong south wind, hence the odd course we’re taking (dotted line). Here’s the updated map:

sampling stations 3/29/15

Here’s where we are as of the afternoon of 3/29 (the end of the solid red line. We’ve connected all the dots!

 

I had a question come up: How many types of plankton are there? Well, that depends what you call a “type.” This brings up a discussion on taxonomy and Latin (scientific) names. The scientists on board, especially the invertebrate scientists, often don’t even know the common name for an organism. Scientific names are a common language used everywhere in the world. A brief look into taxonomic categories will help explain. When we are talking about numbers, are we talking the number of families? Genera? Species? Sometimes all that is of interest are the family names, and we don’t need to get more detailed for the purposes of this research. Sometimes specific species are of interest; this is true for fish and invertebrates (shrimp and crabs) that we eat. Suffice it to say, there are many, many types of plankton!

Another question asks what the plankton do at night, without sunlight. Phytoplankton (algae, diatoms, dinoflagellates – think of them like the plants of the sea) are the organisms that need sunlight to grow, and they don’t migrate much. The larval fish are visual feeders. In a previous post I explained that they haven’t developed their lateral line system yet, so they need to see to eat. They will stay where they can see their food. Many zooplankton migrate vertically to feed during the night when it is safer, to avoid predators. There are other reasons for vertical migration, such as metabolic reasons, potential UV light damage, etc.

Vertical migration plays a really important role in nutrient cycling. Zooplankton come up and eat large amounts of food at night, and return to the depths during the day, where they defecate “fecal pellets.” These fecal pellets wouldn’t get to the deep ocean nearly as fast if they weren’t transported by migrating zooplankton. Thus, migration is a very important process in the transport of nutrients to the deep ocean. In fact, one of the most voracious plankton feeders are salps, and we just happened to catch one! Salps will sink 800 meters after feeding at night!

Salp

Salp caught in the neuston sample. Salps are a colony of tunicates (invertebrate chordates for you biology students – more closely related to humans than shrimp are!)

Now it’s time to go back into the dry lab and talk about what happens in there. I’ll start with the chlorophyll analysis. In the last post I described fluorescence as being an indicator of chlorophyll content. What exactly is fluorescence? It is the absorption and subsequent emission of light (usually of a different wavelength) by living or nonliving things. You may have heard the term phosphorescence, or better yet, seen the waves light up with a beautiful mysterious light at night. Fluorescence and phosphorescence are similar, but fluorescence happens simultaneously with the light absorption. If it happens after there is no light input (like at night), it’s called phosphorescence.

phosphorescence

An example of phosphorescence. We haven’t seen it yet, but I hope to! (From eco-adventureholidays.co.uk)

Well, it is not just phytoplankton that fluoresce – other things do also, so to get a more accurate assessment of the amount of phytoplankton, we measure the chlorophyll-a in our niskin bottle samples. Chlorophyll-a is the most abundant type of chlorophyll.

We put the samples in dark bottles. Light allows photosynthesis, and when phytoplankton (or plants) can photosynthesize, they can grow. We don’t want our samples to change after we collect them. For this same reason, we also process the samples in a dark room. I won’t be able to get pictures of the work in action, but here are some photos of where we do this.

chlorophyll lab

This is the room where we do the chlorophyll readings.

We filter the chlorophyll out of the samples using this vacuum filter:

chlorophyll filter

Each of these funnels filters the sea water through a very fine filter paper to capture the chlorophyll.

The filter papers are placed in test tubes with methanol, and refrigerated for 24 hours or so. Then the test tubes are put in a centrifuge to separate the chlorophyll from the filter paper.

filter paper for chlorophyll

Some of the test tubes for chlorophyll readings, and the filter paper. This box costs about $100!

The chlorophyll values are read in this fancy machine. Hopefully the values will be similar to those values obtained during the CTD scan. I’ll describe that next.

Fluorometer

This fluorometer reads chlorophyll levels.

While the nets and CTD are being deployed and recovered, one person in the team is monitoring and controlling the whole event on the computer. I got to be this person a few times, and while you are learning, it is stressful! You don’t want to forget a step. Telling the winch operator to stop the bongos or CTD just above the bottom (and not hit bottom) is challenging, as is capturing the “chlorophyll max” by stopping the CTD at just the right place in the water column.

Bongo graph

This is the graph that comes back from the SeaCAT on the bongo. We are interested in the green line, which shows depth as it goes down and comes back up.

The dry lab

Here I am trying my hand at the computers. The monitor on the left is the live video of what is happening on deck (see the neuston net?). Photo by A.L. VanCampen

 

CTD scan

This is the CTD graph after it has been completed. The left (magenta) line is the chlorophyll, and the horizontal red lines are where we have fired a bottle and collected a sample. Notice the little spike partway down. That is the chlorophyll max, and we try to capture that when bringing it back up. The colored chart shows columns of continuous data coming in.

Here’s another micrograph of larval fish. Notice the tongue fish, the big one on the right. It is a flatfish, related to flounder. See the two eyes on one side of its head? Flatfish lie on the bottom, and have no need for an eye facing the bottom. When they are juveniles, they have an eye on each side, and one of the eyes migrates to the other side, so they have two eyes on one side! Be sure to take the challenge in the caption!

Larval fish 2

There is a cutlass fish just right of center. Can you find the other one? How about the lizard fish? Hint – look back at the picture in the last post. Photo credit Pamela Bond/NOAA

Personal Log

It’s time to introduce our intrepid leader, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt, known as CO around here. CO lives (when not aboard the Gunter) in Bellingham, WA. He got his start in boats as a kid, starting early working on crab boats. He spent 9 years with the US Coast Guard, where he had a variety of assignments. In 2001, CO transferred to NOAA, while simultaneously serving in the US Navy Reserve. CO is not a commissioned NOAA officer; he went about his training in a different way, and is one of two US Merchant Marine Officers in the NOAA fleet. He worked as XO for about seven years on various ships, and last year he became CO of the Gordon Gunter.

CO is well known on the Gunter for having strong opinions, especially about food and music. He loves being captain for fish research, but will not eat fish (nor sweet potatoes for that matter). A common theme of meal conversations is music; CO plays drums and guitar and is a self-described “music snob.” We have fun talking about various bands, new and old.

CO Donn Pratt

CO Don Pratt on the bridge.

One of the most experienced and highly respected of our crew is Jerome Taylor, our Chief Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”). Jerome is the leader of the deck crew. He keeps things running smoothly. As I watch Jerome walk around in his cheerful and hardworking manner, he is always looking, always checking every little thing. Each nut and bolt, each patch of rust that needs attention – Jerome doesn’t miss a thing. He knows this ship inside and out. He is a master of safety. As he teaches the newer guys how to run the winch, his mannerism is one of mutual respect, fun and serious at the same time.

Jerome has been with NOAA for 30 years now, and on the Gunter since NOAA acquired the ship in 1998. He lives right in Pascagoula, MS. I’ve only been here less than two weeks, but I can see what a great leader he is. When I grow up, I want to be like Jerome!

Jerome Taylor

Chief Bosun Jerome Taylor, refusing to look at the camera. No, he’s not grilling steaks; he’s operating the winch!

 

Challenge Yourself!

OK, y’all (yes, I’m in the south), I have a math problem for you! Remember, in the post where I described the bongos, I showed the flowmeter, and described how the volume of water filtered can be calculated? Let’s practice. The volume of water filtered is the area of the opening x the “length” of the stream of water flowing through the bongo.

V = area x length.

Remember how to calculate the area of a circle? I’ll let you review that on your own. The diameter (not radius) of a bongo net is 60 cm. We need the area in square meters, not cm. Can you make the conversion? (Hint: convert the radius to meters before you calculate.)

Now, that flow meter is just a counter that ticks off numbers as it spins. In order to make that a usable number, we need to know how much distance each “click” is. So we have R, the rotor constant. It is .02687m.

R = .02687m

Here’s the formula:

Volume(m3) = Area(m2) x R(Fe – Fs) m

Fe = Ending flowmeter value; Fs = Starting flowmeter value

The right bongo net on one of the stations this morning had a starting flowmeter value of 031002. The ending flowmeter value was 068242.

You take it from here! What is the volume of water that went through the right bongo net this morning? If you get it right, I’ll buy you an ice cream cone next time I see you! 🙂

sunset

Sunset from the Gordon Gunter as we are heading east.

 

Julia West: CTD and much more, March 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 27, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1300; clouds 10%, cirrus; wind 330° (NNW), 10 knots; air temp. 18°C; water temp. 22°C; wave height 1 ft.; swell height 2-3 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We had some high winds (25 knots) these past couple of days, and the seas got too rough to work. Last night we headed closer to shore to find calmer water, and all ops were called off. Today we are back on (a new) course! Here’s the map with our rerouted course on it:

Sampling stations 3/27

Plankton sampling stations covered through 3/27/15

I want to start off this post answering two really good questions that have come up. Why do we send the samples all the way to Poland, only to have the data and some specimens come right back here? Is that typical U.S. outsourcing? Well, I had heard a rumor, and now I have a definitive answer about that, and it’s rather interesting! I had no idea I’d be learning history lessons on this journey, but this post has two important events in history.

If you have studied World War II, you may have heard of the Marshall Plan, otherwise known as the European Recovery Program, where the U.S. provided grants and loans for the rebuilding of war-ravaged European countries. Poland needed to pay off their war debt to the U.S., and the U.S. had a need. Here’s what I learned:

“The ‘father of the Polish Sorting Center’, Ken Sherman, visited a number European counties participating in the Marshall Plan looking for one that would be interested in setting up a Plankton Sorting and Identification Center. Poland was the one that took him up on the offer. Actually the leader of the Province of Pomerania in western Poland saw the economic possibilities for his state and thus was born the U.S.-Poland Agreement. By the way, the agreement lasted the entire time Poland was an eastern block country under the domination of the old Soviet Union. That in itself is a remarkable tale!” Information courtesy of Joanne Lyczkowski-Shultz, renowned Plankton scientist.

There you have it. Who knew? I think debt is paid off, but we have a great working relationship with the Polish Sorting Center, and they are good at what they do, so we continue.

Another good question was, why do we sample every year? Do the samples change? The reason is because just like for so many things (think of climate change as an example), it is by monitoring long term that we get the big picture and see change, if it is occurring. I asked if the samples change over time, but the answer isn’t known among the scientists on this ship. There are other departments that analyze the data; these scientists specialize in collecting it.

Today I want to introduce the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth) unit. This expensive (think $20,000 and up) piece of equipment provides a hefty amount of data about the water column in our 200 meter sampling range. This is the last unit we deploy when we get to a station, after the neuston net comes back on board. Here’s what it looks like (the actual CTD part is on the bottom):

Here are some close-up pictures:

niskin bottles

There are 3 niskin bottles on the unit now (one not visible). It can hold 12.

The niskin bottles collect samples of water at whatever depth we determine. They are lowered into the water with both ends open (see the top and bottom lids are cocked open), so water flows through them. When they get to a certain depth, we can “fire” a bottle, and an electric signal trips a little lever at the top, and the top and bottom lids spring shut. We collect samples at the surface, at the bottom of the photic zone (200 meters or the ocean floor if we can’t go that deep), and at whatever place in the water column there is the maximum amount of chlorophyll. How do we know that, you should be wondering? Well, that’s where this unit comes in. This is officially the CTD – the expensive part:

CTD unit

The CTD is the “brains;” it does all the technical work.

It’s hard to see because it is on a black mat. The CTD sends constant information back to our computers. Water is pumped through the unit (see the tubing?) It is recording temperature, depth (by water pressure), oxygen level, salinity, turbidity (water clarity) and fluorescence. The conductivity, or the ability to pass an electric current, gives a measure of the dissolved salts in the water, or salinity (there’s chemistry and physics for you!) Fluorescence is one indicator of chlorophyll content. If you have learned about photosynthesis, it is chlorophyll in plant leaves that absorbs the sunlight and makes a plant green. The chlorophyll, therefore, is an indicator of the phytoplankton, such as single-celled algae, that are in the water. Remember, some zooplankton (mostly the invertebrates) eat phytoplankton, and most of our baby fish eat the zooplankton, so it’s good to know what is going on at the base of the food chain.

All of these things create cool little lines on a graph as the CTD is lowered. After capturing water at the bottom, we bring it up to approximately what the chlorophyll maximum was on the way down, by watching the data feed as it comes in, and fire another bottle to grab a sample of that water. Then we do it again at the surface.

So far I’ve shared what we do on the deck – how we collect the samples. In another post I will share with you what all this stuff looks like in the lab on the computer screen. Remember I said there is constant communication between the lab, the bridge, and the deck? Well, in the lab (but not the deck) we know exactly where the bottom is, and we have to give the order to stop the descent of the CTD (or bongos). “All stop!” is the command on the radio. “All stop,” the winch operator repeats as he stops the winch. If conditions are not right, the bridge or the scientists can put off or call off a deployment. We had some strong winds and high seas these past couple of days, so working with flying nets can get dangerous. The neuston is the first to get cancelled – that’s a big net!

In the next few blog posts I’m going to share with you some micrographs (pictures taken through a microscope) of what we’ve been catching. It is awe-inspiring to see all these little specks that fill our sieves close up!

Again, here’s what they look like in a jar:

Bongo sample

This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!

And here’s what happens when they are sorted under a microscope:

Larval fish

These are all larval fish. Top left: lizard fish. The bigger one in center is cutlass fish. These are both 8-9mm long. Photo courtesy of Pamela Bond, NOAA.

Personal Log

The other day we saw pilot whales from the bridge. It was pretty cool – they were right in front of the ship. If it was a kind of slow moving whale, we would have slowed down to avoid hitting them, but pilot whales move fast, and got out of our way easily. I didn’t get pictures – sorry! But here is somebody who was taking refuge on the deck:

yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned night heron taking a rest.

Sometimes birds get blown off course, or get tired while crossing a big expanse of water. We had two big cattle egrets sitting up high on the deck a few days ago. And often songbirds land on deck, completely exhausted.

We had another fire drill and abandon ship drill; these happen once a week. This time we practiced crawling (because smoke rises) to the nearest exit with our eyes shut.

fire escape practice

Here I am feeling my way to the exit. Photo credit: A.L. VanCampen

abandon ship drill

Everyone gathers on deck with their survival suits (and hats required) in the abandon ship drill

Here’s a random picture that I took. Occasionally we get plastic in our nets, and all this is recorded, of course. But if a man o’war is plankton, and this mylar balloon acts like plankton, is it plankton?

Plastic

No, it’s pollution!

I’d like to introduce Tony VanCampen, our Electronics Technician (ET). Without him, operations would come to a stop around here. Tony is in charge of all the electronics on the ship. That includes things like the SeaCAT, the CTD, the computers, the radar, radios, GPS, meteorology gear, the internet connection….to name a few. Tony says “ET” stands for “Everything Tech.”

VSAT

Our internet! VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) – this is how I am posting to this blog.

Tony spent 20 years in the US Navy before joining NOAA. He spent 6 years on the USS Berkeley in the Pacific, followed by a couple of years of shore duty, during which time he went back to school to learn all the new equipment that was being used on the new ships. In 1994, Tony started a new tour on the brand new Navy ship USS Cole. He was on two deployments of the USS Cole. Where were you on October 12, 2000 – were you even born yet? Tony was on the Cole, in Yemen, when two men in a normal looking small boat came up to the ship, waved, and then blew themselves up, destroying a section of the Cole and killing 17 sailors and injuring another 40+. Tony was not visibly injured, but we now know that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a very real and serious affliction. Tony thought he was doing well until Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his wife realized he was not well at all. He credits his family and friends for seeking help and saving his life.

Why do I mention this? Because you never know, when you go to a new place, what the people you meet have been through. How important it is to remain sensitive and raise awareness of PTSD! Thanks to Tony for his willingness to share his story and thanks to those men and women who serve our country.

Lastly, here are a few pictures from our day with 5-7 foot seas. I have not been seasick – yay!

big waves

Big waves from the lower deck as we were trying to sample.

Gulf of Mexico

Gorgeous!

sunset on the Gulf

The day ends.

Julia West: Neuston! March 25, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 25, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 0900; mostly sunny, clouds 25% altocumulus; wind 5 knots, 120° (ESE); air 21°C, water 21°C, wave height 1-2 ft.

Science and Technology Log

We continue to zigzag westward on our wild plankton hunt. When we are closer to shore, navigation is tricky, because we are constantly dodging oil platforms, so we can never quite do the straight lines that are drawn on the chart.

Plankton stations 3/25/15

Here’s what we have covered through this morning. We’re making good time!

One of our Oak Meadow math teachers, Jacquelyn O’Donohoe, was wondering about math applications in the work that we are doing. The list is long! But don’t let that deter you from science – no need to fear the math! In fact, Commanding Officer Donn Pratt told me that he was never good at math, but when it came to navigating a ship, it all became more visual and much more understandable. I think it’s cool to see math and physics being applied. So, just for fun, I’ll point out the many places where math is used here on the ship – it’s in just about every part of the operations.

Today’s topic is neuston. As soon as we get the bongo nets back on board, the cable gets switched over to the neuston net. This net is a huge pipe rectangle, 1 meter x 2 meters, with a large net extending to the cod end to collect the sample. The mesh of this net is 1mm, much larger than the 0.3mm mesh of the bongo nets. So we aren’t getting the tiniest things in the neuston net, but still pretty small stuff! We lower the net to the surface, using the winch, and let it drag there for ten minutes. The goal is to have the net half in the water, so we have a swept area of 0.5 x 2 meters, or 1 square meter. (See, there’s some math for you!) That’s the goal. Sometimes with big waves, none of the net is in the water, and then all of it is, but it averages out.

Deploying neuston net

Here I am helping to deploy the neuston net. Photo credit: Kim Johnson

Neuston net

Neuston net in the water. Photo credit: Madalyn Meaker

Then we hose the net off thoroughly to get what is stuck to the net into the cod end.

Neuston net cleaning

Andy is hosing off the neuston net.

As I mentioned before, neuston is the array of living organisms that live on or just below the surface. Some of it is not plankton, as you can also catch larger fish, but mostly, the sample overlaps with the larger plankton that we catch in the bongos. There tends to be more jellyfish in the neuston net, so we sometimes wear gloves. Pam got stung by a man o’ war on the first day while cleaning out the net!

 

neuston sample

Pam is sorting an interesting neuston sample. See her smile – she clearly loves plankton!

Collecting neuston

Madalyn funneling the neuston into a jar with ethanol

Sometimes we end up with Sargassum in our nets. Sargassum is a type of brown “macroalgae” (seaweed) that grows in large clumps and floats on the surface. Have you ever heard of the Sargasso Sea? It is a massive collection of Sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, held in place by the North Atlantic Gyre.

Sargassum

Sargassum taken from a sample

Sargassum

Sargassum in the water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sargassum often collects in our nets. Sometimes we get gallons of Sargassum, and we have to carefully hose the organisms off of it, and throw the weeds back. We get the most interesting variety of life in the Sargassum! It supports entire communities of life that wouldn’t be there without it. If you want to know a little more about Sargassum communities, check out this website.

Here are a few examples of some of the photographable organisms we have collected in the neuston net. I’m working on getting micrographs of the really cool critters that are too small to see well with the naked eye, but they are amazing – stay tuned. All of the fish, except the flying fish, are very young; the adults will be much, much larger. (If you click on one of these, you will see a nice slide show and the full caption.)

Lastly, here is a really cool neuston sample we got – whale food!

copepods

This sample looks like it is almost entirely made up of copepods; this species is a beautiful blue color.

Personal Log

Now let’s turn to the other life form on the ship – the people. There are a total of 26 people on this cruise. Everyone is really great; it’s a community of its own. First, let me introduce the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship.

The NOAA Corps, or NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States (can you name the others?). It seems that many have never heard of the NOAA Corps, so it’s worth telling you a little bit about them. Officers are trained to take leadership positions in the operation of ships and aircraft, conducting research missions such as this one and much, much more! NOAA Corps has all the career benefits of the U.S. military, without active combat. Our officers all have a degree in some kind of science, often marine science or fisheries biology.

The crew members generally keep 4 hour watches, twice a day. I really enjoy going up to the bridge to hang out with them. It’s a whole different world up there, and they have been gracious enough to explain to me (as best as I can understand it) how they navigate the ship. Conceptually, I get it pretty well, but even if I was allowed to, I wouldn’t dare touch one of the buttons and dials they have up there!

Our XO (Executive Officer) on the Gunter is LCDR Colin Little. Colin has been with NOAA for eleven years now, and his previous assignments include Sea Duty aboard Oregon II and Oscar Elton Sette, and shore assignments in Annapolis, MD and Newport, OR. His background is in fish morphology and evolution.  His wife and two sons are currently living in Chicago.

ENS Kristin Johns has been on the Gunter for almost a year. She joined NOAA after getting a biology degree at Rutgers. She is currently being trained to be the next Navigation Officer. Kristin is the safety officer, as well as the MPIC (Medical Person in Charge). Kristin is the one who suggested I use the word “thalassophilia” as the word of the day – something she clearly suffers from!

Our Operations Officer (OPS) is LT Marc Weekley. Marc is in charge of organizing the logistics, and coordinating between the scientists and the crew. He’s been with NOAA for ten years (on the Gunter for two years), and has had some interesting land-based as well as offshore posts, including a year at the South Pole Station (yes, Antarctica) doing clean air and ozone monitoring.

ENS Melissa Mathes is newest officer with NOAA, but spent 6 years in the Army Reserves in college, and then 6 years of active duty with the Navy. Melissa loves archery and motorcycles, and she has been rumored to occasionally dance while on watch.

Melissa and Marc

ENA Melissa Mathes and LT Marc Weekley

ENS (which stands for Ensign, by the way) David Wang, originally from New York City, is our Navigation Officer (NAV). He’s been with NOAA for two years. His job, as he puts it, is “getting us where we gotta go, safely.” He is the one who charts our course, or oversees the other Junior Officers as they do it. Dave used to be a commercial fisherman, and when he’s not on duty, those are his fishing lines extending out from the back deck. He’s also an avid cyclist and ultimate Frisbee player.

ENS Peter Gleichauf has been on the Gunter since November, but finished his training over a year ago. He is also an aviator, musician, and avid outdoors person. In fact, for all of the officers, health, fitness, and active lifestyle is a priority. Pete is in charge of environmental compliance on the ship.

Dave and Pete

ENS Dave Wang and ENS Pete Gleichauf

King mackerel

Lead fisherman Jorge Barbosa and a king mackerel caught today on Dave’s line! It took 2 deck crew men to pull it in!

 

Term of the Day: USS Cole – you can look this one up. Next blog post I will explain what in the world it has to do with a plankton research cruise. I promise it will all make sense!

 

Julia West: Bongos! March 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C

Science and Technology Log

Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.

Stations covered 3/22

This is what we’ve covered so far. We’re doing well!

Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:

Kim labeling a sample

Kim Johnson (scientist) in the wet lab, labeling a sample. Notice the cardboard boxes – they are all full of sample jars, both empty and full.

Bongo sample

This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.

NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.

In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.

The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!

Bongos

The bongo nets just entering the water. They will be lowered to 200m, or near the bottom if it is shallower.

Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:

Bongos ready to deploy

These bongos are ready to go as soon as we get the OK.

Flow meter for bongos

This little whirlybird is the flow meter.

SeaCAT

The SeaCAT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.

I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!

Deploying the bongos

Here I am holding the “codends,” ready to drop them over the side. The crane does all the heavy lifting. Photo by Andy Millett

 

Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:

Measuring wire angle

Measuring the wire angle (angle of the cable) with the inclinometer. Photo by Madalyn Meaker.

The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!

Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.

Bongo cod end

This is a close-up of the “cod end” of the bongo, where the plankton get funneled into.

Plankton from the bongo

This is the sample from one of the bongo nets. Can you see why it’s hard to come up with pictures of individual organisms? There are thousands in here!

Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.

Personal Log

Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).

Margaret, chief steward

Margaret, assembling some spinach lasagna rolls while talking about her life.

Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.

Gunter dining room

The dining room, or “mess deck.”

condiment selection

World’s largest selection of condiments, including anchovy sauce and REAL maple syrup!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch spread

Decisions….

more food

and more decisions…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!

Challenge Yourself

What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?

Did You Know?

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)

Oil and gas platforms in the Gulf

Locations of the active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. From http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/

 

Julia West: It’s the Small Things in Life… March 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge, 0800, 3/20/15
Temperature: 25.5°C (78°F)
Wind direction: 90° (E)
Wind speed: 6 knots
Sky condition: cumulus (cu), 15% cloud cover

First:

Sunrise, Gulf of Mexico

Sunrise on our first morning at sea – a nice way to start a new adventure!

I’m really excited to see everyone commenting and asking questions, and I hope I do a good job answering them. If you don’t get your answer right away, remember that I am learning too! I will be answering lots of them in the blog posts, and others in the comments, and hopefully I’ll get to most or all of them! The internet out here is marginal at best, so when the satellite connection is good, I try to run with it. That’s why there might be gaps in our communication.

Science and Technology Log

If you haven’t guessed by now, there are several methods of sampling plankton. Each one is used several times a day, when we get to one of the sampling stations. Since the whole point of these research cruises are… well… doing research, it is fascinating to see the communication between the scientists and the NOAA Corps crew who run the ship. At the beginning of the cruise, Pam, the FPC (Field Party Chief, or chief scientist), discussed the stations we need to get to with LT Marc Weekley, the operations officer (OPS), and ENS Dave Wang, the navigations officer (NAV). Together they made a plan. Some of the decision is based on weather; for example, in the first leg of the cruise, which ended just before I got here, there was bad weather coming in, so they decided to work south, to skirt most of the weather coming from the northwest, and then work back northward. Here is a map of the entire sampling area:

winter plankton sampling stations

These are the winter plankton sampling stations. Most of the stations to the east of Pascagoula were covered in the previous leg of the research cruise. The dots are about 30 miles apart. The light solid lines show the edge of the continental shelf and the dotted line is the edge of U.S. waters. Credit: Pamela Bond/NOAA

On our leg, we are doing a little zigzagging south, and then will be zigzagging west all the way toward Texas. There is constant communication between the officers on the bridge, the scientists in the lab, and the deck crew, especially as we get toward the sampling station. There is a navigation chart on the monitor on the bridge, and a video feed of the chart to the lab and every TV monitor on the ship, so everyone knows exactly where we are and how close we are to the next station. There are also closed circuit video cameras in various places around the boat that can be viewed on the lab and bridge monitors. The scientists and crew can see everything that is going on as equipment gets deployed over the side. The bridge has to give the OK for anything to be deployed or recovered, even a plankton net.

Our plankton sampling stations

These are the stations we are sampling. The X’s are stations we have completed as of early on 3/20, and the lines that connect the dots are how we have traveled.

There’s also a camera on the bow of the boat, looking down at the water. With that camera you can sometimes see dolphins “bow surfing.” The bow of the boat pushes a wave ahead of it, something you’ve probably seen if you’ve been in any boat with a motor. Imagine a permanent, amazing surfing wave – one that you can ride for miles! If you fall off the wave, just a few tail strokes and you’re back on it. That’s life as a dolphin!

OK, now back to plankton:

Today I want to introduce CUFES, or “Continuous Underwater Fish Egg Sampler.” This unit is pumping in seawater continuously, agitating it to funnel any plankton and fish eggs into the collecting device. This device was first used on the west coast, where the fish eggs are larger. Here in the Gulf, eggs are very, very small, and not the priority, so the CUFES is used to collect whatever plankton are pulled into it. The intake is 3 meters below the surface.

CUFES

This is the CUFES. The blue thing near the top is the agitator, and it creates a foam layer that you can see below it.

The water is agitated, and then funneled into a sieve. The water is piped right back into the ocean, and the plankton collect on the sieve. Every 30 minutes (yes, they have a timer), the sieve is removed, and the sample is rinsed and transferred to a small bottle. The bottle is filled with ethanol as a preservative. This sampling method provides a continuous record of plankton, in contrast to the isolated stations that are used for the rest of the sampling, which are about 30 miles apart. In addition, the ship has another device that continuously records temperature and salinity. This unit is called the……..wait for it……. thermosalinograph! Every 30 minutes, when the CUFES sample is taken, the minimum, maximum, and average temperature and salinity for that half hour gets imported right into the CUFES “event” (the computer data sheet). Also recorded are the start and end positions of the ship, as well as the water depth. There is no shortage of data, and this is just one of the plankton sampling methods!

CUFES sieve

The water then gets funneled into this sieve, where the plankton collect.

 

Chrissy and the CUFES

Here is Chrissy in the “wet lab,” ready to stop the water flow to the sieve, so she can collect the sample.

 

Andy and CUFES

Andy is collecting the sample, picking any stragglers from the sieve with tweezers.

Personal Log

Now that I’ve been on the ship for 3 days, life is falling into a routine. The scientists work 12 hour shifts – noon to midnight, and midnight to noon. There are two scientists on each shift, and Pam works long days overseeing both shifts. Chrissy, pictured above, is one of the midnight-noon workers. I wasn’t required to stand a particular shift; I float between both shifts as well, so I can work with everyone and get to know them all. Also, this way I don’t have to ask the same questions over and over again to the same people – I can spread out my repetition and drive them all less crazy! I’m kidding, because they are all incredibly patient. One thing about scientists is that they invite questions. Science is all about questions. And you can bet I’ve asked a few that had them scratching their head a bit, but we always find the answers!

More about the ship – you can find out a lot on the Gordon Gunter’s web page. That’s where I go to find out when meal times are! The ship is 224′ long. My stateroom is on the port side of the 01 deck (the first deck with windows that you can walk around, if you’re looking at the picture), toward the forward end. Above that is the 02 deck, which has a smaller interior. The 02 deck is where the life rafts are kept. Above that is the bridge deck, smaller still, but fun to be up there at the control center of the ship’s world! And the very top is the fly bridge – a cool place to hang out and see far and wide. Below the 01 deck is the main deck (also known as 1 deck), where the galley (mess deck) and lounges are. Below that is the 2 deck, where the engine and generators are, as well as the laundry room and a gym. This is the heart of the ship.

Johns on the bridge

ENS Kristin Johns at the controls on the bridge

One last picture (next time I’ll have more pics) – we had our first fire and abandon ship drills. These are extremely important, and everyone takes them seriously. I forgot to bring my camera to the fire drill, but I’ll try to remember next time. I had to put on my “gumby” suit, which is the survival suit we all need if we have to abandon ship. It’s an incredibly thick neoprene dry suit, and I felt rather silly in it, but it’s serious business! Cute, don’t you think?

Gumby suit

I will survive!

Did You Know?

In the Gulf of Mexico, the continental shelf extends about 60-100 miles from shore. The average depth of the Gulf is 1615 meters, with a maximum of about 4000 meters.

Challenge yourself: Where is the “Sigsbee Deep?” Are we going there?

New Term for the Day

Thalassophilia – love of the sea!