Michael Wing: What’s there to see out there? July 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Date: July 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 5 to 15 knots, wind waves 1’ to 3’, west swell 3’ at 14 seconds, patchy fog.

Science and Technology Log

I’ve been putting in long hours on the back deck, washing plankton in sieves and hosing down the hoop net. Often by the time the sample is safely in its bottle and all the equipment is rinsed off, it’s time to put the net down and do it all again.

On the back deck

Here’s where I wash plankton on the back deck

But, when I look up from the deck I see things and grab my camera. The surface of the ocean looks empty at first glance but it isn’t really. If you spend enough time on it, you see a lot.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross

Black footed albatrosses turn up whenever we stop to collect samples. They probably think we are a fishing boat – we’re about the same size and we have a cable astern. They leave once they find out we didn’t catch any fish. Kirsten tells me these birds nest on atolls east of Hawaii, and that most of the thirty or so species of albatross live in the southern hemisphere.

Mola

Mola

We also see lots of molas, or ocean sunfish. These bizarre looking fish lie on their side just under the water’s surface and eat jellyfish. They can be really large – four feet long, or more. I wonder why every predator in the ocean doesn’t eat them, because they are big, slow, very visible and apparently defenseless. The scientists I am with say that sea lions sometimes bite their fins. Molas are probably full of bones and gristle and aren’t very appetizing to sharks and seals. There are more molas than usual; one more indicator of the extra-warm water we’re seeing on this cruise.

Spouting whales

Humpback whales; one has just spouted

whale back

The back of a humpback whale

And of course there are WHALES! At times we a have been completely surrounded by them. Humpback whales, mostly, but also blue whales. The humpbacks are black with white patches on the undersides of their flippers and barnacles in places. They are playful. They breach, slap the water with their flippers, and do other tricks. The blue whales are not really blue. They are a kind of slate grey that may look blue in certain kinds of light. They are longer and straighter and bigger than the humpbacks, and they cruise along minding their own business. Their spouts are taller.

Humpback whale flukes

Humpback whale flukes

When we see one whale breaching in the distance, we call out. But, when a bunch of whales are all around us, we speak in hushed voices.

Personal Log

Orange balloon

Orange balloon

I have seen six balloons floating on the water, some dozens of miles offshore. Four of them were mylar, two like this one. The scientists I am with say they see the most balloons in June, presumably because June has more graduations and weddings. Maybe it’s time to say that balloons are not OK. When they get away from us, here’s where they end up.

Container ship

Container ship

We see container ships on the horizon. Sometimes they hit whales by accident. Every t-shirt, pair of sneakers, toy and electronic device you have ever owned probably arrived from Asia on one of these. Each of those boxes is forty feet long.

This is my last post from the R/V Fulmar. I go home tomorrow. I sure am grateful to everyone on board, and to NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary for giving me the opportunity to visit this special place.

Common murre

Common murre

Did You Know? When common murre chicks fledge, they jump out of their nests onto the surface of the sea. The drop can be forty or fifty feet. At this point they can swim, but they don’t know how to fly or find food. So, their fathers jump in after them and for the next month or two father and chick swim together on the ocean while the father feeds the chick. These are small birds and they can easily get separated in the rough seas. When this happens, they start calling to each other. It sounds sort of like a cat meowing. We have heard it often on this cruise.

Murre with chick

Adult murre with almost-grown chick

Michael Wing: Introduction to El Niño, July 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Bodega Bay, California
Date: July 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 15-25 knots, wind waves 3’-5’, northwest swell 4’ – 6’ at eight seconds, overcast.

Science and Technology Log

UC Davis graduate student and Point Blue Conservation Science intern Kate Davis took some plankton we collected to the Bodega Marine lab in Bodega Bay. She said she is seeing “tropical” species of plankton. A fellow graduate student who is from Brazil peeked into the microscope and said the plankton looked like what she sees at home in Brazil. The flying fish we saw is also anomalous, as is the number of molas (ocean sunfish) we are seeing. Plankton can’t swim, so some of our water must have come from a warm place south or west of us.

Farallones

The Farallon Islands are warmer this year

The surface water is several degrees warmer than it normally is this time of year. NOAA maintains a weather buoy near Bodega Bay, California that shows this really dramatically. Click on this link – it shows the average temperature in blue, one standard deviation in gray (that represents a “normal” variation in temperatures) and the actual daily temperature in red.

NOAA buoy data

Surface seawater temperatures from a NOAA buoy near Bodega Bay, California

http://bml.ucdavis.edu/boon/climatology.html

As you can see, the daily temperatures were warm last winter and basically normal in the spring. Then in late June they shot up several degrees, in a few days and have stayed there throughout this month. El Niño? Climate change? The scientists I am with say it’s complicated, but at least part of what is going on is due to El Niño.

Ryan at flying bridge

San Francisco State University student and Point Blue intern Ryan Hartnett watches El Nino

So what exactly is El Niño?

My students from last year know that the trade winds normally push the surface waters of the world’s tropical oceans downwind. In the Pacific, that means towards Asia. Water wells up from the depths to take its place on the west coasts of the continents, which means that places like Peru have cold water, lots of fog, and good fishing. The fishing is good because that deep water has lots of nutrients for phytoplankton growth like nitrate and phosphate (fertilizer, basically) and when it hits the sunlight lots of plankton grow. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton; fish eat the zooplankton, big fish eat little fish and so on.

During an El Niño event, the trade winds off the coast of Peru start to weaken and that surface water bounces back towards South America. This is called a Kelvin wave. Instead of flowing towards Asia, the surface water in the ocean sits there in the sunlight and it gets warmer. There must be some sort of feedback mechanism that keeps the trade winds weak, but the truth is that nobody really understands how El Niño gets started. We just know the signs, which are (1) trade winds in the South Pacific get weak (2) surface water temperatures in the eastern tropical pacific rise, (3) the eastern Pacific Ocean and its associated lands get wet and rainy, (4) the western Pacific and places like Australia, Indonesia, and the Indian Ocean get sunny and dry.

This happens every two to seven years, but most of the time the effect is weak. The last time we had a really strong El Niño was 1997-1998, which is when our current cohort of high school seniors was born. That year it rained 100 inches in my yard, and averaged over an inch a day in February! So, even though California is not in the tropics we feel its effects too.

Sausalito sunset

Sunset from the waterfront in Sausalito, California

We are in an El Niño event now and NOAA is currently forecasting an excellent chance of a very strong El Niño this winter.

NOAA map

Sea surface temperature anomalies Summer 2015. Expect more red this winter.

What about climate change and global warming? How is that related to El Niño? There is no consensus on that; we’ve always had El Niño events and we’ll continue to have them in a warmer world but it is possible they might be stronger or more frequent.

Personal Log

So, is El Niño a good thing? That’s not a useful question. It’s a part of our climate. It does make life hard for the seabirds and whales because that layer of warm water at the surface separates the nutrients like nitrate and phosphate, which are down deep, from the sunlight. Fewer phytoplankton grow, fewer zooplankton eat them, there’s less krill and fish for the birds and whales to eat. However, it might help us out on land. California’s drought, which has lasted for several years now, may end this winter if the 2015 El Niño is as strong as expected.

Golden Gate Bridge

Rain will come again to California

Did You Know? El Niño means “the boy” in Spanish. It refers to the Christ child; the first signs of El Niño usually become evident in Peru around Christmas, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The Spanish in colonial times were very fond of naming things after religious holidays. You can see that in our local place names. For instance, Marin County’s Point Reyes is named after the Feast of the Three Kings, an ecclesiastical holy day that coincided with its discovery by the Spanish. There are many other examples, from Año Nuevo on the San Mateo County coast to Easter Island in Chile.

Window selfie

Michael Wing takes a selfie in his reflection in the boat’s window

Michael Wing: How to Sample the Sea, July 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Marin County, California
Date: July 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ four seconds apart.

Science and Technology Log

On the even-numbered “lines” we don’t just survey birds and mammals. We do a lot of sampling of the water and plankton.

Wing on Fulmar

Wing at rail of the R/V Fulmar

We use a CTD (Conductivity – Temperature – Depth profiler) at every place we stop. We hook it to a cable, turn it on, and lower to down until it comes within 5-10 meters of the bottom. When we pull it back up, it has a continuous and digital record of water conductivity (a proxy for salinity, since salty water conducts electricity better), temperature, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence (a proxy for chlorophyll, basically phytoplankton), all as a function of depth.

CTD

Kate and Danielle deploy the CTD

We also have a Niskin bottle attached to the CTD cable. This is a sturdy plastic tube with stoppers at both ends. The tube is lowered into the water with both ends cocked open. When it is at the depth you want, you clip a “messenger” to the cable. The messenger is basically a heavy metal bead. You let go, it slides down the cable, and when it strikes a trigger on the Niskin bottle the stoppers on both ends snap shut. You can feel a slight twitch on the ship’s cable when this happens. You pull it back up and decant the seawater that was trapped at that depth into sample bottles to measure nitrate, phosphate, alkalinity, and other chemical parameters back in the lab.

Niskin bottle

Niskin bottle

When we want surface water, we just use a bucket on a rope of course.

We use a hoop net to collect krill and other zooplankton. We tow it behind the boat at a depth of about 50 meters, haul it back in, and wash the contents into a sieve, then put them in sample bottles with a little preservative for later study. We also have a couple of smaller plankton nets for special projects, like the University of California at Davis graduate student Kate Davis’s project on ocean acidification, and the plankton samples we send to the California Department of Health. They are checking for red tides.

Hoop net

Hoop net

We use a Tucker Trawl once a day on even numbered lines. This is a heavy and complicated rig that has three plankton nets, each towed at a different depth. It takes about an hour to deploy and retrieve this one; that’s why we don’t use it each time we stop. The Tucker trawl is to catch krill; which are like very small shrimp.  During the day they are down deep; they come up at night.

Tucker trawl

Part of the Tucker trawl

 

krill

A mass of krill we collected. The black dots are their eyes.

What happens to these samples? The plankton from the hoop net gets sent to a lab where a subsample is taken and each species in the subsample is counted very precisely. The CTD casts are shared by all the groups here – NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the University of California at Davis, San Francisco State University. The state health department gets its sample. San Francisco State student Ryan Hartnett has some water samples he will analyze for nitrate, phosphate and silicate. All the data, including the bird and mammal sightings, goes into a big database that’s been kept since 2004. That’s how we know what’s going on in the California Current. When things change, we’ll recognize the changes.

Personal Log

They told me “wear waterproof pants and rubber boots on the back deck, you’ll get wet.” I thought, how wet could it be? Now I understand. It’s not that some water drips on you when you lift a net up over the stern of the boat – although it does. It’s not that waves splash you, although that happens too. It’s that you use a salt water hose to help wash all of the plankton from the net into a sieve, and then into a container, and to fill wash bottles and to wash off the net, sieve, basins, funnel, etc. before you arrive at the next station and do it all again. It takes time, because you have to wash ALL of the plankton from the end of the net into the bottle, not just some of it. You spend a lot of time hosing things down. It’s like working at a car wash except with salty water and the deck is pitching like a continuous earthquake.

The weather has gone back to “normal”, which today means 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ only four seconds apart. Do the math, and you’ll see that occasionally a wind wave adds to a swell and you get slapped by something eight feet high. We were going to go to Bodega Bay today; we had to return to Sausalito instead because it’s downwind.

sea state

The sea state today. Some waves were pretty big.

We saw a lot of humpback whales breaching again and again, and slapping the water with their tails. No, we don’t know why they do it although it just looks like fun. No, I didn’t get pictures. They do it too fast.

Did You Know? No biologist or birder uses the word “seagull.” They are “gulls”, and there are a lot of different species such as Western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls and others. Yes, it is possible to tell them apart.

Michael Wing: Seabirds to starboard, whales and seals to port, July 18, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of the Golden Gate Bridge
Date: Saturday, July 18, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind Southeast, ten knots. Wind waves less than two feet. Swell 4-6 feet ten seconds. Patchy morning fog.

Michael Wing and Fulmar

Michael Wing and the R/V Fulmar

Science and Technology Log

We loaded the boat yesterday at 3:00 PM and I met a lot of people including the three co-principal investigators Jan Roletto of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Danielle Lipski of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and Jaime Jahncke of Point Blue Conservation Science. There are others, including volunteers and visitors, and I will try to introduce some of them in future posts.

Today we didn’t collect water or plankton samples. We’ll do that tomorrow.  We sailed west from the Golden Gate Bridge on a track called “Line 5” at ten knots until we passed the edge of the continental shelf and then dropped south and cruised back to our dock in Sausalito on another line called “Line 7.” Plankton and water samples are for the even-numbered lines. Our purpose today was to count seabirds, whales and seals and sea lions. It’s not simple. By 7:30 AM we are assembled on the “flying bridge” (the highest part of the boat) with Jaime and the Greater Farallones Association’s Kirsten Lindquist on the starboard side and volunteers Jason Thompson and Rudy Wallen on the port. Kirsten notes birds, focusing just on the area from dead ahead to the starboard beam and calls out things like “Common murre, zone two, thirteen, flying, bearing 330 degrees.” This means she saw thirteen common murres flying northwest together not too far from the boat. This time is called being “on effort” and she is really focused on it. I don’t talk to her unless spoken to. Jamie enters all this into a database on his laptop.

On bird patol

On bird patrol

The guys on the port side are doing the same thing for marine mammals and saying “Animal, by eye, bearing 320, reticle seven, traveling, immature California sea lion, one-one-one.” These last numbers are estimates of the most probable number of animals in the group, and maximum and minimum estimates. Obviously, in this example just one animal was seen.

I am in awe of their ability to identify species, maturity and other things from just a glimpse. Kirsten can tell the difference between a Western gull and a California gull from hundreds of feet away, even if the gull is flying away from her. They also record floating trash, dead animals, and boats and ships.

So what are we seeing? Common murres, western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls, sooty shearwaters, pink footed shearwaters, storm petrels, black footed albatrosses, red necked phalaropes, tufted puffins, Pacific white sided dolphins, northern fur seals, a bottlenose dolphin, humpback whales, a dead seal, Mola molas (ocean sunfish), one flying fish, mylar balloons (4), a paper cup, a piece of Styrofoam. The flying fish was totally unexpected because they are mostly tropical and everyone talked about it all afternoon.

Port side

The port (left) side is for spotting marine mammals

Some of these birds have come here from Chile, New Zealand, or Hawaii in their “off” (non-breeding) season because there is a world-class food supply here for them. The sooty shearwaters start in New Zealand and fly to Japan, to Alaskan waters, and then down the west coast of North America before returning to New Zealand across the Pacific! However, a lot of these were far away. Visually, the ocean looks pretty empty from the flying bridge.

striped crab

This little crab was clinging to a piece of kelp we caught with a boat hook

Personal Log

The specter of seasickness haunts us on the first day of a cruise. Most of us are snacking on starchy treats like pretzels and Cheez-Its and drinking carbonated drinks. Paradoxically, these foods help prevent nausea. I have not taken any seasickness medicine and I am feeling a little queasy during the morning, but by noon I feel great. Nobody throws up. The Fulmar doesn’t roll from side to side very much but she does lurch when smacked head-on by a wave. It helps that the waves weren’t very big today. Soon we’ll all get our “sea legs.”

Also, you might appreciate these photos of me getting into a “Gumby suit” in under a minute, as part of my safety training. This is a survival suit meant to keep you from freezing to death if the boat sinks. You have to be able to get into it in less than a minute.

survival suit

Getting into the survival suit. I have 1 minute, and the suit is stiff. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett

into survival suit

I am into the survival suit. Photo credit: Ryan Hartnett

Did You Know? Here’s what you need to untangle fishing nets from a frustrated humpback whale: Boathooks, sharp knives, and a GoPro digital camera on the end of a pole. The GoPro helps you study the tangles so you can decide where to make that one cut that causes the whole mess to fall apart and off the whale.

 

life ring

R/V Fulmar’s life ring

Bill Henske, Sharks and Minnows, June 25, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Bill Henske
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
June 14 – 29, 2015

Mission: Spawning Aggregation Survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

Date: Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: East to southwest winds 15-20 kts. Decreasing to 10 to 15 kts.  Seas 3 to 5 ft. Isolated showers and thunderstorms.

Science and Technology Log

Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Animals of the Gulf Coast

One of the best games you can play in the pool is Sharks and Minnows. The premise of this game is that you and your school are small fish that have to travel from one side of the pool to the other without getting caught by the shark. If you are caught you get turned into a shark for the next round.  Eventually the sharks are well distributed, preventing any minnows from getting through.

Acoustic Monitoring Arrays in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Acoustic Monitoring Arrays in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

I am reminded of this as the fin fish team from FWC sets up a grand game of sharks and minnows for fisheries science.  Over the past week we have been setting up several arrays of acoustic receivers that catch tagged fishes’ signals as they swim through the Florida Keys reef system.  The plan is designed to capture fish moving within and between different parts of the ecosystem.  Any tagged fish coming into Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary should come into contact with one of the receivers, as will any fish traveling out.  The placement of the receivers on the west and east of the sanctuary create and “entrance” and “exit” for tagged fish.

Within the sanctuary there are now several concentrated grids of receivers in places that make for good fish habitat (aka good fishing spots).  The VR2 receivers can record the identification number of the tagged fish as well as the time and date they connected to the receiver and their distance from the receiver.  When the receivers are collected, that data can be downloaded and a picture of fish movement created.  The data from the FWC’s arrays and tagged fish will be incorporated into a more extensive project called ITAG (Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Animals of the Gulf Coast).   In this project, collaborators share their acoustic tag data and receiver logs with each other, extending the reach of all project.   In the vastness of our marine environments, any one project will produce only a small snapshot of what is happening.  By collaborating between projects, the complexity of fisheries and ecosystems might be more easily untangled.

Sonar profile of one of our sites for an acoustic release receiver.

Sonar profile of one of our sites for an acoustic release receiver.

Today we set up individual stations of a new device which uses an acoustic release.  These are for much deeper sites containing “humps” which are relief features rising 100 to 200  feet about the surrounding sea floor.  Because of the relief, humps offer a large variety of habitats in a small amount of space, creating a highly diverse area for aquatic life.  Since these deeper areas are inaccessible to most divers, the receivers we set out can be triggered to return to the surface.  When data is ready to be collected in a few months, a device will be lowered into the water that communicates with the receiver using sound.  This device, called a VR100, can trigger the receivers to jettison themselves to the surface with the help of two small floats.  At that time the receivers can be collected from a small boat.

Joel from FWC checks the connection to an acoustic receiver that has just been dropped to the sea floor.

Joel from FWC checks the connection to an acoustic receiver that has just been dropped to the sea floor.

This video below shows our deployment of the acoustic release receiver from the side of the Nancy Foster.

 

Personal Log

City in the Sea

The Nancy Foster has been at sea since February of this year.  While it resupplies every few weeks, most of the vital functions for human habitation are performed on board.  The ship is, for its officers, crew, and science passengers, a small floating city.

View of the engine room control panels.

View of the engine room control panels.

Electricity requirements for a large ship are quite high.  If you factor in air conditioning, navigation systems, lighting, motors and pumps, kitchen, and scientific tools, the energy consumption equals a small hamlet.  Amazingly, this electricity is all created on board with the ship’s generator and a copious amount of marine diesel.

The Nancy Foster has a main engine for thrust but several others that act as generators for the thrusters, electricity, and backup power.

The Nancy Foster has a main engine and several others that act as generators for the thrusters, electricity, and backup power.

Food is loaded on at ports but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fresh and delicious.  Each day Bob and Lito prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all of the scientists and crew.  These delicious multi-course meals keep all the members of this floating city very happy.  Just like the hungry generators, the humans energy levels are kept well stocked.

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink, except on the Nancy Foster you can just distill it using excess engine heat.

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink, except on the Nancy Foster you can just distill it using excess engine heat.

There is no sewage processing on board the ship.  Ship waste is carried in large tanks until it can be released into open ocean, far from land.  Once in the ocean, its nutrients are quickly consumed by hungry phytoplankton and converted into energy for the next level of the food chain.  Food waste is also separated from recycling and “garbage”.  Food waste, after being ground, is composted at sea.

With 40 people on board eating, showering, and using the head, the ship needs to produce water on a continual basis.  The ship keeps a reserve supply and when it goes down, The Nancy Foster has a device that uses excess heat from the engines and generators to distill water from the ocean.

Every day the Science Chief and project leaders determine a schedule and make staff assignments.

Every day the Science Chief and project leaders determine a schedule and make staff assignments.

Cities need organization and a specialized workforce to get all of these things done.  The NOAA Corps Officers make sure the ship stays on course and its mission objectives are met.  The ships crew ensures the small craft are launched safely, everyone is fed, and the ship keeps humming and running smoothly.  The science staff are visitors, enjoying all of the amenities of the ship while using its resources to complete their scientific missions.  Many of the science staff cruise with the Nancy Foster every year, while for some, it is their first time.

How did you get here?

I asked several of the scientists on board what they wanted to do when they were in middle school and how they became involved in marine science and research.  My middle school students are just starting to think about who they are and who they want to be.  I wanted to get some background information on how some of the scientists here got their start.

J. – A biologist had no clue what he wanted to do when he was in middle school and this trend continued until college! He loved fish and applied for an entry level fisheries job and has been at it ever since.

R. – Thinks she wanted to be a writer in middle school based on a paper she read from back then.  After pursuing her interest in ecology she is now writing about conservation issues for NOAA.

S. – She always loved science and math – After studying geology she had a chance to go to sea.  Loved it more than her geology work and now scans the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.  She won’t tell you where the treasure is!

P. – He took a test when he was in middle school that said he was not particularly interested in anything.  What he always liked was fish. After a couple related jobs he has worked in fisheries for many years.

S. – When he was in middle school he wanted to be rich and work in biology.  He now works in biology!

One of the major commonalities among the scientists is that they followed, or in some cases, rediscovered their interest.  As a teacher, I hope I can help my students find what they are passionate about.

By the numbers:

226 scuba dives
5 ROV dives
5 Reef Visual Census (RVC) surveys
20 Drop camera ‘dives’
40 New stands and receivers deployed
4 sea turtles
61 square miles of seafloor mapped
1 Teacher at Sea Hat not lost

Bill Henske, Turns Out You Might Need That Skill, June 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Bill Henske
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
June 14 – 29, 2015

Mission: Spawning Aggregation Survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

Date: Monday, June 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: East winds 10-15 kts.  Seas 2-4 ft (1 ft inside reef) Isolated showers and thunderstorms)

Science and Technology Log

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)

We were talking on board today about the olden days, you know, when Jaques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins could reliably be found on a majority of American televisions.  Remember Generation X?

Jeff from FWC at the controls of the ROV searching for signs of spawning aggregations.

Jeff from FWC at the controls of the ROV searching for signs of spawning aggregations.

Yes- we are in our 40s now.  Kids my age had the spirit of scientific adventure to look forward to on Sunday nights.  The same generation of kids grew up with monitors and joysticks, interacting with worlds that were somewhere beyond the “real world” on our Ataris and Commodore computers.  Our 1980s parents might be incredulous to learn that we are now doing these same things to investigate critical habitat, monitor fish populations, and gather geographic data.  I know many futurists predicted it would happen but the grownups I knew were skeptical, to say the least.

NF3 Dive Boat loaded for ROV Mission

NF3 Dive Boat loaded for ROV Miss

The remotely operated vehicle has been a staple of marine research for many years now.  Called an ROV for short, these devices are human operated machines that can do many of the same things humans divers can do but in much more difficult circumstances, for much longer periods of time, and at greater depths.  ROVs are “employed” by resource managers, marine scientists, construction crews, engineering companies, and just about anyone else who has work to do under water.

Loading ROV gear into dive boat.

Loading ROV gear into dive boat.

We have been using an ROV on our current mission on the Nancy Foster to  collect fisheries data.  With the ROV we can investigate different areas identified on hydrographic maps and from previous studies without labor intensive dive operations.  The ROV does not need to stick to a dive schedule and as long as it has power and a willing operator, it can do its job.  The ROV has several components that must all be brought onto our dive boat in order to operate.

The primary need of the ROV is electricity.  Rather than running on combustion or cellular respiration, which both require oxygen, the ROV needs a steady supply of electrical current.  Because many variables can affect the power demands of an ROV such as speed, depth, wind, and current, the FWC team has chosen to operate a small generator to power their ROV.

ROV being set up for deployment.  Note the spool of tether cable and control panel.

ROV being set up for deployment. Note the spool of tether cable and control panel.

The ROV has a specialized cable that carries the electricity from the boat to the motors. This cable, called a tether, also carries the signal from the controller to the motors to tell the ROV where to go.  The video input the ROV gathers is relayed through this cable in order to allow the operator to see through the “eyes” of the ROV, and, of course, record what it sees.

Operating the ROV requires a good deal of coordination.  The craft is controlled much like a slow, unresponsive airplane.  It can move forward, reverse, side to side, up and down, and operate at a tilt.  This dizzying array of motions are necessary to track and study the reef fish as they travel through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Jeff from FWC records the coordinates before beginning ROV survey

Jeff from FWC records the coordinates before beginning ROV survey

Jeff Renchen of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is, among many other things, our ROV operator on this cruise.  He is using the small ROV to collect data on spawning aggregations of several important fish species.  Jeff explained that the ROV allows researchers to explore deeper than divers are able to easily go.  ROV camera operations can follow aggregations of fish and provide insights into the behaviors and conditions of spawning fish, as well as structures and locations that are important for spawning behavior.

With the ROV in the water Jeff takes it for a swim away from the boat. Once the ROV’s line has 50 feet of slack, the tether is attached to a drop line. In strong currents, it is possible for smaller ROVs, like the one here, to get carried off.  The drop line allows us to raise or lower the ROV in the water column faster, increasing our ability to focus in on fish of interest or specific depths.

ROV swimming away.

ROV swimming away.

 


Personal Log

There are some things that seem special no matter how many times you have seem them before.  I remember a long time student of Appalachian ecology saying that he could not remember what he had for lunch but he could describe every time he had seen a bear.   There are some things in our world that have that the ability to mesmerize us, silencing the combating thoughts that often clutter our minds and setting a reset button somewhere in our brain stem.

One of those things that stands out for me, and kindly keep it to yourself if you disagree, is seeing dolphins interact.  We came in from some drop camera operations on Wednesday evening and found this pod of dolphins playing in the wash of the Z-Drive motors of the Nancy Foster.  There would more footage but if you are taking video rather than living in this moment, you are probably doing it wrong.

Watching dolphins play and interact appeals to so many of us.  I think it reminds us of the pleasure of physicality and the joy that can be had as social creatures.

Then there is the thrill of hearing “There’s a shark” from the scientist monitoring the camera you have been steadily lowering below a 17 foot dive boat bobbing in the small but steady waves.

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The enormities of life at sea give us an awe inspiring sense of scale.  Every day at sea there is at least one endless horizon and yesterday they surrounded us on all sides.  Just past sunset I caught this small cumulonimbus that had previously drizzled on our afternoon drop camera trip.  I thought about the thermal energy required to make such a structure.  I wondered at the amount of fresh water it carried.  And then my brain quieted down and I just watched it.

Cumulonimbus with 2 layers of rain.

Cumulonimbus with 2 layers of rain.

Bill Henske, Mind if We Drop in? June 19, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Bill Henske
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
June 14 – 29, 2015

Mission: Drop camera operations
Geographical Area: Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas

Date: Friday, June 19, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: East wind 10-15 kts.  Seas 3-4 ft (2 ft inside reef).  Isolated showers and thunderstorms

Science and Technology Log

Drop Camera Operations

We have so many ways to see our planet using scientific tools.  The Nancy Foster, for example, uses radar to see boats and weather in the direct vicinity.  The ship uses satellite images to prepare for missions and to support surface information. Onboard, the Nancy Foster uses sonar to measure ocean depths and detect the undersea activity of marine organisms, and map the physical characteristics of the seafloor.

The ship collects hydrographic information by making repeated passes over  an area of interest.  This is the product.

The ship collects hydrographic information by making repeated passes over an area of interest. This is the product.

This technology all relies on our acceptance that a pixel of light with a specific value equals some tangible unit of mass or energy in our ocean.  The equations and processes that help us determine the relationship between the data collected and what is meaningful to us must be worked out through careful analysis and study.  In our case, we are trying to work out the relationship between certain patterns of sonar feedback and what habitat is present on the seafloor.

Don Checking Drop Camera Setup before lowering down into Warsaw Hole.

Don Checking Drop Camera Setup before lowering down into Warsaw Hole.

Don Field of NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science calls himself a pixel-pusher.  Deciphering the images and data that show up on a monitor means having an astute understanding of what each bit of data means.  Part of Don’s research involves squeezing more data from the bits collected by looking for associations between these bits of light and the real world.  Identifying the relationship between these sonar profiles and the habitat on the seafloor means matching up pixels from a screen with what exists in the actual environment.  If we can reliably identify seafloor type by sonar, for example, we could begin to quantify habitat for individual species rather than relying on approximations.

Me pushing pixels on one of the sonars. I can't get it to work though. (Scott Donohue, NOAA)

Me pushing pixels on one of the sonars. I can’t get it to work though. (Scott Donahue, NOAA)

Don calls this ground-truthing.  This means a researcher on the ground (or in the ocean in our case) must connect the features from satellite and sonar with images and data collected from onsite.  Our project on this mission involves deploying a drop camera from one of our small vessels and determining what is there.  Several coordinates are chosen from sonar and satellite pictures.  These coordinates are entered into the GPS of the small dive boats allowing us to pinpoint the exact location within just a few meters.

The drop camera is a fairly self descriptive term.  This is a specially designed black and white camera that is deployed from the side of the small vessel.  The camera is mounted within a protective cage with weights attached to facilitate its trip to the bottom.  While the turbidity of the water is very low, light is still limited at deeper depths.  The camera has lights that enable viewing in low light or during nocturnal missions.  The reason we use a black and white camera is that they can operate in much lower light levels than color cameras.  Think about your own color vision and how it diminishes as the sun goes down.

This is our drop camera.  The two brass devices attached to the left are for lasers which allow the operator to determine depth as well as relative size of objects in the field of view.

This is our drop camera. The two brass devices attached to the left are for lasers which allow the operator to determine depth as well as relative size of objects in the field of view.

The camera rig is tethered to the GPS and video recorder with a 300 foot long coaxial cable.   This cable is specially designed for this application with corrosion resistant terminals and kevlar sheathing along the entire length.  We also attached a downrigger to the camera apparatus to reduce the wear and tear on the cable and to speed retrieval of the unit.

On board, we monitor the camera as it is lowered almost to the sea floor at each chosen coordinate.  Our equipment records and geotags the video with the exact location so it can be aligned with mapping data back in the lab.

The controls of the drop camera.

The controls of the drop camera.

On the drop camera, we also utilize a fairly “off the shelf” GoPro camera.  This camera doesn’t feed information back up to the vessel and isn’t connected to GPS but it can provide other useful information about the species encountered along the trip down.  This biological information can be used for other projects and adds to the overall value of the mission.

One of the critical things for all field scientists is to check the functioning of gear before heading out. Don and I set everything up in the drylab and on deck.  There were several bugs to work out of the procedures before heading out to our first coordinates.  Once we addressed the issues we had with the equipment, our dropcam was ready to go.

Heading out to Warsaw Hole with our drop camera and equipment..

Heading out to Warsaw Hole with our drop camera and equipment.

We headed out to the locally famous Warsaw Hole.  This spot is known for spawning populations of several important fish.  We wanted to determine if the seafloor with in this structure held any clues to why it was so important to fish.  At over 300 feet deep, this area is not conducive to exploratory dives.  This inaccessibility made it a good candidate for our mission.

After heading out to the coordinates we unpacked the camera, GPS, and computers.  There was a sudden loss of power to the camera.  A little trouble-shooting and we determined it was the fuse.  Saltwater is tough on electronic components!   A blown fuse was not one of the things we prepared for the day before.  We radioed the ship with our fuse requirements and after a short shuttle back to the Nancy Foster, we were back in business.

What could be in the mysterious Warsaw Hole?  At 100 feet deeper than the surrounding seafloor, what was it about this place that encourages aggregations of the Warsaw grouper (Epinephelus nigritus)?  As the camera was lowered deeper, we were able to see everything in the water column as it swam to one side or the other.

We reached our destination depth and discovered that Warsaw Hole is a plain, ordinary sandy bottom.  In the world of science this unexceptional discovery is called “zero data”, but it is valuable information nonetheless, as we try to characterize all of the habitats in the area.

Personal Log

The Dry Tortugas is one of the most out-of-the-way National Parks in the US.  This former Civil War era fort and the surrounding small keys are a paradise of colorful fish and raucous colonies of seabirds.  While the camp site was busy, it was definitely not crowded after the Key West ferry had gone home for the day.  If you decide to spend the day or camp over night, bring water.  It is named for the fact that there is no fresh water!

We were able to snorkel almost entirely around the fort.  The submerged walls of the old fort are encrusted with corals, sea fans, annelids, and sponges of every shape and color.  The remnants of former building materials are almost unrecognizable as human detritus, instead housing a great diversity of interesting reef organisms.

Unfortunately, we did not see the infamous crocodile.  Tick Tock.

Here it is official as I stand in front of the Dry Tortugas National Park Sign.

Here it is official as I stand in front of the Fort Jefferson – Dry Tortugas National Park Sign.

By the Numbers

  • Sea Turtles – 1
  • Square miles of seafloor surveyed – 21.02
  • Treadmill Miles – 6.25
  • Drop cam dives – 6
  • Teacher at Sea Hat Recoveries – 2