Marian Wagner: My Final Words and Hurricane Irene’s in Charge, August 23, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Fine Bunch to Live with at Sea: Front: Katie Rowe (Scientist), Sarah Goldman (Scientist Watch Chief, Night), Stephen Long (Scientist), Warren Mitchell (Lead Scientist). Middle: Marian Wagner (Teacher-at-Sea), Shelly Falk (Scientist), Christina Schobernd (Scientist, Video). Back: John Bichy (Marine Technician), Richard Huguley (Engineer), Harry Carter (2nd Mate), Raymond Sweatte (Captain), Michael Richter (1st Mate), David Berrane (Scientist Watch Chief, Day), Mike Burton (Scientist). Missing: Joel Formby (Master of the Galley)

Weather Data from the Bridge (the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)

E-NE Wind at 10 knots  (This means wind is travelling 10 nautical miles per hour,
1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)

Sea depth where we traveled today ranged from 33 meters to 74 meters

Seas 2-4 feet (measure of the height of the back of the waves, lower the number = calmer seas and steadier boat)

Science and Technology Log

IRENE: On Tuesday evening, we discussed the impact of Hurricane Irene on our cruise plans, and scientists and crew needed to make a decision about when we should return to dock. Originally, the plan was to return in the morning on Friday, August 26, but due to projections of Irene, they predicted that the seas would be too rough for us to lay traps beyond Wednesday (8/24).  When the seas are too rough, the traps bounce around and cameras do not pick up a steady, reliable picture.  When seas get to be 6-7 feet+ on a boat the size of the R/V Savannah (92 feet long), it also makes our work (and life) on the boat very difficult. Additionally, with Irene’s landfall projected in North Carolina, where half of the scientists live, they would need to get home in time to secure their homes and potentially evacuate.  Not in the case of Irene, but if a hurricane was expected to hit Savannah/Skidaway, where the boat moors, the ship’s crew would need to prepare for a hurricane-mooring.  To do this, they would run the ship up the Savannah River and put on a navy anchor that weighs 3,000 pounds.  Even with the use of the electric crane, it’s not an easy task to pull a 3,000 pound anchor onboard.  This would not be done unless a direct hit to the area was expected.  It has been done once before to the Savannah in the 10 years of her existence.  The forecast did not project Savannah to be affected by Irene, so we did not need to prepare for a hurricane mooring.

After difficult deliberation on Tuesday night about hurricane Irene’s potential Category (see how hurricanes are ranked here), and considering the success of the research accomplished on the trip already, scientists decided the most practical and reasonable decision was to dock Tuesday night, unpack Wednesday morning, and allow North Carolina scientists to return to their homes by Wednesday night.  (From reports I received post-Irene, there was landfall of the hurricane eye over their houses, but the storm weakened between Wednesday night and Saturday and was Category 1 when it came ashore.  None of them sustained significant loss.  Many downed trees and three days without power, but no floods or structure damage. Phew!)

NOAA’s National Weather Service is the sole official voice of the U.S. government for issuing warnings during life-threatening weather situations.  Follow Seattle’s “Weather Story” at NOAA’s National Weather Service.


Here on my final blog entry, I want to finish the story of our research process.  Here’s the story I’ve told so far, in outline form:

  1. research begins with baiting fish traps and attaching cameras, and we stand-by on deck
  2. when we arrive at a research location with reef fish habitat (as observed via depth sounder and GPS), we drop the trap to the bottom and it sits for 90 minutes; buoys float above each trap so we can find and retrieve them near where traps were deployed, we run the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth Profiler (CTD) to get information about abiotic conditions at each sampling site. The CTD takes vertical water column profiles, measuring: Pressure, Temperature, Conductivity/Salinity, Chlorophyll fluorometer, Color dissolved organic matter fluorometer (CDOM), Photosynthetic Active Radiation (PAR), Backscatter, Dissolved oxygen, and Transmissometer -10 and 25 cm path lengths
  3. after 90 minutes have passed, we return to the traps and pick them up, and secure the fish caught
  4. we identify each fish, measure length, weight, and frequency (how many fish were      caught), and then keep the fish that our research is targeting
  5. in the wet lab, we dissect target fish, removing parts of fish that are sent back to the lab for further research

AT THIS POINT, WE ARE DONE with our research with the bodies of the fish, but we have 99% OF THE FISH’S BODY LEFT! What should we do?

I was very impressed with the compassionate and humane action the scientists do with the fish after research.  Scientific research guidelines don’t dictate what a research study should do with edible fish flesh. We could have just discarded fish back into the ocean. However, scientists see an opportunity to provide food to people in need of  nutritional support in our communities, and they coordinated with a regional food bank in Savannah to do just that. Despite the work and time it takes to process the fish for donation, it did not seem to be considered a burden at all by any of the scientists.

I am perfecting my fillet!
Fresh fish fillets ready for food bank distribution

To process the fish for donation, we cut fish into fillets, wrap the fillets in butcher paper, and freeze them onboard the ship.

When we reached land, Warren
contacted the regional food bank, who came out to the dock with a refrigerated truck to pick up fish.  Within a few days the fish was distributed through charitable organizations in the region to people who were most in need.

These scientists are not just natural scientists but social scientists too! (just as I fancy myself!)

Personal Log

Captain Raymond Sweatte and First Mate Michael Richter

Interview with Raymond Sweatte, captain of R/V Savannah

Marian: What  makes a good crew?

Raymond: A crew that sees things that need to be done and does them because they know it all goes smoother when they do.


M: Have you ever run into or had a close call running into another ship?

Raymond: No, but the closest I came was when I was passing under the bridge at the Skidaway when a barge was coming through at the same time. Because it was easier for me to maneuver, I pulled over to side to let the barge use the majority of the channel. But the barge stayed on my side of the channel and was coming right at me. My boat was leaning upon the bank so there was no where for me to go.  I got him on the horn and asked, “What’s going on?”  He pulled over right away. He was new and very apologetic. 

M: Have you ever been in a terrible storm before?

Raymond: A few times we’ve had 15-16 foot seas coming back from the Gulf. When you have a north wind at 35 knots [strong wind coming from the North] and north-going current opposing the wind, the seas get very rough. Waves were coming up over the ship. [picture Marian’s eyes VERY wide at this point in the conversation] When seas are really rough, you get lifted up out of bed and down again. I remember trying to sleep one night in rough seas when my head kept hitting against the wall, so I turned around so my feet were up hitting against the wall.

M: What were things like before radar, satellite, and so many electronic navigation tools
you use today?

Raymond: Things were not as accurate. Communication was on a single sideband, navigation was with Loran-C, though VHF radio was somewhat the same as now.  To follow ships and determine their speed we had radar on dash but we had to use an eye cup we looked into to correlate with the radar, and then go over to the chart to plot them.  Then, we did it again six minutes later and multiplied by 10 to find their speed.  Now we have an automatic identification system [we can click on a ship on the radar] that tells us where they are, who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and what they are doing.  

M: What are the right-of-ways when vessels are crossing paths; who moves when two vessels are in course to collide?

Raymond: [On ships, aircraft and piloted spacecraft] a red light is on the left or port side of the craft and a green is on the right or starboard side. When two vessels have crossing paths, each will see a red or green light. If you’re looking at another vessel’s port side you see red, and it’s his right-of-way. If you are on their starboard side, you see the green light, and the right is yours.

Also, right-of-way rules give priority to vessels with the most difficulty maneuvering. The ranks in right-of-way, starting with the highest are:

1)Not under command

2)Restricted in ability to maneuver

3)Constrained by draft (stay away from shallower water to avoid running aground)




7)Sea Plane

Remember this mnemonic: New Reels Catch Fish So Purchase Some.

M: Who’s easier to talk to, a Navy Sub Captain or a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot?

Raymond: I don’t have a problem talking with any of them. Coast Guard generally would call you first. Navy sub pilots I’ve found to be very cordial. They have changed their course when we had traps out.

M: What message would you say to students interested in being a captain?

Raymond: All kids have to follow their own heart. If they like water and this environment, they should follow their heart and become a captain.

Thank you Captain Raymond! It was a genuine pleasure to talk to you and experience life at sea under your command and with such a stellar crew. It is no wonder you are revered by everyone you work with.  Read more about Captain Raymond Sweatte in the Savannah Morning News!

The powerful significance of this trip for me was that I did not just study a science lesson from a book or lab, but I was essentially given a chance to live a different life, that of a fisheries field biologist.  I did not dabble in the work; it was a full explosion into the curiosities, reasonings, and daily routines of working with live fish and fish guts while sharing friendship, humor and stories with scientists and crew aboard a boat that was a small bounded island of rich human culture within a vast ocean of life and scientific questions waiting to be answered.  I loved it.  If only I didn’t love teaching more…I could definitely live that life.  Thanks NOAA, thanks NC SEFIS folks, thanks SC DNR folks, and thanks Skidaway Institute of Oceanography folks.  You are all in my heart and in my classroom!


Flying fish!

At night especially, when looking out at the seascape, I noticed flying, bug-looking specimens scurrying out of and into the ocean’s surface.  WHAT WERE THEY?! I wondered. So I asked and learned they were FLYING FISH! A few of them flew right up on the vessel’s work deck.  Their wings are modifications of the pectoral fins.  They are so fascinating and their coloring was greenish/blue iridescence, a stunningly beautiful color!


“The Gulf and South Atlantic red snapper populations are currently at very low levels (overfished), and both red snapper populations are being harvested at too high a rate (overfishing).” See more where this quote came from at Fish Watch: US Seafood Facts.

It was clear to me how significant the concern for the red snapper population was when I learned that funding for this fisheries survey was drastically increased following the recent determination that red snapper were overfished and overfishing was occurring.  Fisheries managers, field biologists and members of the general public all want to see the red snapper population improve.  This cruise provided scientific data that will be useful when the status of the U.S. South Atlantic red snapper population is assessed again.

The lionfish's spines are so poisonous the only way to hold them is placing fingers in their mouths.

History of measuring speed in NAUTICAL MILES:

Wonder how a vessel’s speed was measured hundreds of years ago? Log Lines, knotted ropes with a log tied to one end and knots every nautical mile and one-tenth of a nautical mile, were tossed off the end of the ship while the knotted rope unraveled behind it. When the sand on a minute sand glass ran out, the rope was reeled back in and the knots counted to determine ship’s speed in knots-per-minute.


In its native waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the lionfish population is not a problem. There it has natural predators and natural parasites to keep it from overpopulating, yet it can survive well enough to maintain a healthy sustainable population. However, in the Caribbean waters and along the Eastern Coast of the United States, the lionfish has recently been introduced, and the effects are alarming. “Lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem.”  See more where this quote came from at NOAA’s research on invasive lionfish here. In the U.S. south Atlantic, they consume large quantities of reef fish and have no natural predators or parasites. Their population is thriving in large numbers, and it is devastating other fish species.  Mark Hixon, Oregon State University zoology professor, co-authored a study in 2008 with Mark Albins that showed “a lionfish can kill three-quarters of a reef’s fish population in just five weeks.” Read NPR story here. This is a cool way to view an environmental problem: see this animated map of the lionfish invasion! Red Snapper

Marian Wagner: From Fishing to Dissecting in the Wet Lab, August 22, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Monday, August 22, 2011

Science Team on R/V Savannah Aug 16-26, 2011: Back row: Chief Scientist Warren Mitchell, Christina Schobernd, Katie Rowe, Mike Burton. Front row: Shelly Falk, Stephen Long, Sarah Goldman, Marian Wagner, David Berrane.

Weather Data from the Bridge (the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)
S-SW Wind at 15 knots
(This means wind is travelling 15 nautical miles per hour, 1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)
Sea depth today ranged from 45 meters to 74 meters
Seas 3-4 feet in the morning, 2-3 feet in the evening (measure of the height of the back of the waves, lower the number = calmer seas and steadier boat)

Science and Technology Log

In my last blog, I explained what I am doing on the  first half of my shift (noon to around 6:00pm/dinnertime) and how we conduct our research on the aft deck of the boat: we drop chevron traps to the ocean floor with cameras attached and then pick up the traps with fish sample collections.  The fish we trap and the cameras recording the activity around the traps help us estimate the fish populations.  We finish up this segment of our work on the deck of the boat by recording this data in a systematic data collection sheet called “Length Frequency”.  If we didn’t record the data the same way every time, it would be impossible to compare the thousands of samples in the past and into the future and understand what is happening to the populations of fish over time.

Length Frequency Data Recording

Here is a picture of us recording the weight and length of the fish and the frequency (how many we caught) in a systematic way,  always keeping track of where the fish were caught as well.  Because we catch large numbers of certain fish species (such as Vermillion Snapper, Red Porgy, Gray  triggerfish, and Black Sea Bass), we do not keep all of them for further research.  When recording/reporting “toss” or keep” got monotonous, I found ways to communicate creatively—how many words can you think of that rhyme with “toss” and “keep”? I got 11 for toss and 16 for keep.  David, Katie, and Stephen were such sports for going along with my silly games!

After this point in the day, the fish are in bags and put on ice, and we wash up for dinner.

After dinner, our work moves into the wet lab, where we prepare biological samples for further research.  For the rest of this log section I describe more about how and why we
use the biological samples.

Dissecting vermillion snapper in wet lab, in search of otoliths and gonads.

We use the biological samples to obtain and report important biological measures such as age, length, weight, feeding habits, and genetics.  In order to know specific ages of the fish, we take out a small bone in the fish called the OTOLITH, which is located in the inner ear. An otolith is a reliable source to obtain the age of a fish. They show age in rings similar to how trees show their age in their growth rings.  We also take the GONADS from the fish to give important information about reproductive development.  Here is a picture of me dissecting a vermillion snapper and taking out the otolith (right hand) and gonads (left hand) to send to the lab back in Beaufort, North Carolina, where scientists work.

Here I just reeled in a gray triggerfish, one of our target species for hook and line catch.

Sometimes after dinner we had time to fish with hook and line in the stunning sunset.  This method of catching fish provided us with fish samples to study that did not have stomachs full of bait like the rest of our fish samples caught in traps. We did this so we could study their stomach contents and learn about what they are eating and get information about the ecosystem they are dependent upon. We were targeting vermillion snapper and gray triggerfish, fish that are known to really gorge on bait in the traps.  Sarah was dissecting the stomach of scamp grouper and found an octopus beak!

Sarah dissecting stomach of scamp grouper and finds octopus beak!

When Sarah was dissecting the stomach of a scamp grouper, she found an octopus beak, the last part of the octopus to be digested. Exciting find!!

When fishing becomes chaotic, teamwork is key.

Here is one of my favorite pictures of all, captured during one of our hook and line battles, and a testament to the incredible teamwork of the scientists and crewmen. How many people does it take to catch a fish? Here, 5 of us were working on the same task.  Lines from 4 reels were tied up from a strong fish swimming in circles, and it took an intense team effort to unravel them in a critical moment. Success was sweetly earned.

Click here for more info on the fish we are studying for stock assessments.

Personal Log

I’m on a boat!  This phrase has been repeated many times and it captures my enthusiastic awe (with a touch of humor) that I have had many privileges, and the fortune to be around some remarkable people, day in and day out. I took the opportunity to interview a few of them so I could share it here.  (Next blog: Interview with Captain Raymond Sweatte)

Richard's showing me how to tie the speed bowline knot, see to learn this knot.

Interview with Richard Huguley, engineer

Marian: When you were a kid, would you have imagined yourself here now?
Richard: Yes. In Mobile, Alabama, where I grew up, I played with wooden boats, making them go up and down the creek, and spent time catching crawfish. I could see this as where I’d be.
M: How often did you play outside?
Richard: From sun-up to sun-down.  I skipped out to the woods all day some days.  I was never afraid to be in the woods. I played with snakes, frogs, had a baby pet squirrel I kept in my pocket.  It poked its head out to eat, and then crawled back into my pocket.
M: How did you become prepared for work as an engineer on a boat?
Richard: I have worked in all different fields required of an engineer: electrical, metal manufacturing-welding, automotive, building race cars and motor cycles, etc.  I always had the interest to take a challenge someone else wouldn’t take—not a challenge that just required physical strength, but more of intellectual puzzle.  It takes lots of time.  I took the time to figure the challenges out.  I can visualize math.  My dyslexia is a strength I use to my advantage.  I see people struggling with something, and it’s like I see it from the opposite end.  I do it without thinking about it.  Jigsaw puzzles are good for this kind of challenge.  It would be good for your students to try doing a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces upside down so they build the puzzle from the angles of the edges.
Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to talk and share your stories and the many skills you taught me. You are one-of-a-kind and I hope you can come visit my classroom someday!
Katie Rowe on the deck of the aft.

Interview with Katie Rowe, scientist and scuba diver/instructor

Marian: What do you like about working in a lab?

Katie: Lab work is about exploration, you don’t know entirely what you’ll find. We’re looking for otoliths, etc, but there is a possibility to find anything!

M: What makes the best partnerships in the lab?

Katie: I like working with people who are organized and efficient, people who can interpret and know what needs to be done next.  It takes an organized system for people to work like this, like we work here.  The system works well here so everyone knows what they are doing, and what happens next so we can all step in and do what needs to be done.

M: What’s your favorite animal?

Katie: Bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas, because they are adaptable.  They can survive in fresh water.  In Nicaragua, one was found in fresh water going after fish to eat, and they thought it was a new species, but then realized it was the bull shark.  They have the highest testosterone of any animal in the world, so they are bad-tempered, but I still love them.  I named my cat Leucas after the bull shark’s Latin name.

Thanks Katie!  It was great to work with you day in and day out!  You are a tough gal and make an excellent partner, very organized and efficient!

Tossing grappling hook to "catch" buoys attached to fish traps.

Fun extra:  How do we retrieve the buoys and pull up the fish traps?  I got to try my hand at this new sport, the grapple hook toss.  I am so grateful to have had the chance to try my hand at so many different roles.  Thanks for the opportunity!

Marian Wagner: Deep in the Work, August 20, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Saturday, August 20, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge (the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)
E-SE Wind at 5 knots (wind is travelling 5 nautical miles per hour, 1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)
Sea depth at 12:42 pm was 51.2 meters
Water Temperature 29.62 Celsius

Science and Technology Log

Research aboard the R/V Savannah has commenced and is at full throttle.  Scientists and crew are well-trained and everyone knows their jobs thoroughly.  All work is moving along with great efficiency!  Now that I have learned and experienced the details this research, I’ll explain it here:

As a reminder, our mission is to survey the population of commercially-important species to inform stock assessments, or, put another way, we study how many fish there are and where they exist, and we provide information to help fisheries managers set a sustainable harvest (so we don’t run out of fish). We conduct our research by dropping chevron fish traps onto the ocean floor to catch samples of fish we can use to estimate a population and report important biological measures (for example, age, length, weight, feeding habits, and genetics). The method of using chevron traps to catch live biological samples doesn’t work well for all species, so another way of estimating abundance is by recording the activity that is happening around the traps with video cameras.

We cannot begin dropping fish traps until one hour after sunrise because the cameras need natural light to record the habitat and the activity (if we were to use artificial light it would change everything: sometimes fish are attracted to artificial light, other fish avoid it, so our research would be compromised, or messed up, if we used artificial light). So, the crew that works the shift from midnight to noon gets the first traps ready, and they start deploying them around 8:00 am.  Here’s what it looks like to drop traps off the boat:

Cameras rolling, we are almost at the target spot to drop the trap.

The traps stay down on the ocean floor for 90 minutes.  We usually deposit 6 traps at a time in the same general area (each a mile or less apart), and we pick them up in the same order we dropped them.  To pull the traps out of the water, we use a hydraulic pot hauler (that was made in Seattle, WA!) and a team effort of coordinated and careful action.  If we were not extremely careful doing this work on the deck, not only could the science data be useless, but people could easily be hurt.  This is what we look like in action:

Pulling up trap, excited to see what we caught

I get up in the morning around 9AM, I have breakfast and relax during the few hours I have off before my shift begins.  I like to talk to people, visit the bridge for weather and information on our direction, and when I can get on the single computer, I sometimes do so before my shift begins.

My shift begins at noon, when I suit up to work on the deck of the stern (the back).  We work dropping traps, picking them up, and processing fish that we catch.  The work is very carefully conducted, with everyone having specific roles but also helping each other in every way so we can do our best job.  The amount of teamwork is incredible.

I am extremely impressed with how well each scientist and crewman clearly thinks of the team first, and his/her individual needs second.  Everyone (I mean EVERYone) works hard (I mean VERY hard), is very thoughtful and conscientious of the “big picture”, is fun to laugh with and be around, and, in general, everyone is just easy to live with.  Doing field science research like this would be really tough if scientists did not also get along well as a member of a team.  Because conducting this research depends upon teamwork, being able to live and work well together is perhaps as important as one’s research skills.

This door is charming yet inconvenient during a middle-of-the-night bathroom run, but esential in case of emergency.

Personal Log

Living on a ship has so many opportunities for adventure!  I mean…going to the head (bathroom) is still an adventure for me!  Walking through two watertight doors to get to the bathroom is an adventure.  Keeping my balance in a rocking shower, a place where I am often most relaxed, is a new adventure.  Being constantly aware of the amount of water I am using so we don’t run out of running water (and knowing everyone else is doing the same) is a reality, and an adventure of sorts.  Not being able to get away from the strangers-who-are-now-family is an adventure.  And there are all the work-related adventures…wrestling with a moray eel against its gaping teeth (which could have infected and killed the muscles in my arm for life) was a foolish adventure (I should have let it get out of the tub and slither away instead of wrestling it), but I successfully made it through to tell about it with no injury.  There are so many adventures.  I am remembering how much I love learning by immersing myself in new experiences.  I really believe the most powerful way to learn about another way of life is to live it.

After being iced for 30 minutes to take data on him, this moray was still fighting but with much less vigor. I threw him off the ship after this photo. He's alive.

Also, I love being in the unique environment of the pelagic ocean, the part of the ocean that is not near land. It is another experience of immersion to be around this environment for a length of time, and really get to live within it. I can feel the changes of the rocking motion of the ship when the seas are rougher, I can see when the clouds spell rain, I know the phase of the moon and the smell of the ocean air.  I know this environment now just as well as I know my own neighborhood.

Marian Wagner: Out at Sea, August 16, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge (the bridge is the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)
E winds 15-20 knots
(1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)
Sea depth at 4:30pm was 17.4 meters (getting deeper by about1 meter per mile out)
Seas 3-4 feet (measure of the height of the back of the waves)

Science and Technology Log

Marian's on deck, ready to work

The Research Vessel Savannah departed around 1:00pm from its port at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, 25 minutes outside Savannah, Georgia.  There are 9 members of a science team including me, and 6 crew members, for a total of 15 people onboard.  In the morning, we loaded the research equipment and supplies (8 traps, ice bins, bait, buckets, research cameras that we mount on the traps, water, lots of sunscreen, etc.).  Richard Huguley, ship engineer, led many of us on a tour of the engine room before it was roaring and heated up. A few fascinating facts about the engine room are below!

Richard tours us through the engine room before it's too hot!

We set out of port on the Skidaway River, to the Wilmington River, and out to Wassaw Sound, an estuary where fresh water meets its fate, the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the boat was beginning to rock from the rougher seas of the open ocean, Michael Richter, the first mate and safety officer of the ship, called a safety meeting, which included what to do in case of emergencies such as a fire onboard, man overboard, abandon ship, as well as general safety rules to keep us safe on a daily basis (e.g. how to open doors so you don’t break a finger, gear to wear during work on the deck).  Someone had to model how to get into the “Gumby suit”, a survival wetsuit that will protect from hypothermia, jellies, and sharks should we have to abandon ship immediately.  Well of course I had to be the one to try out the Gumby suit!

In my survival suit, the "Gumby suit"

Finally, we were told a muster drill would occur soon.  Later on, just as I was exiting the head (toilet), the general alarm sounded and a “man overboard” drill was conducted.  See below to learn how to respond to a man overboard emergency.

After the safety demonstration, discussion, and modeling of Gumby suit, our chief scientist, Warren Mitchell, reinforced the meaning of the safety talk by saying, “Safety is most important. Our scientific data is not worth compromising our safety for.”

The focus of this NOAA Fisheries cruise is to survey the population of commercially-important species to inform stock assessments.  Christina Schobernd explained the mission another way: “We study how many fish there are, where they are, and get information so we can tell fisheries how many fish to catch so that the fish populations are sustained (or, so that they don’t run out of fish).”  We will be taking samples of fish that swim into our traps, observing and recording their abundance (how many) and location.  Some of the fish will be taken into the lab for further study. It is critically important to monitor the populations of these fish to avoid over-fishing of these waters.

Each day out at sea starting 8/17 to 8/25, we will drop 6 traps per round of sampling, and as we process the fish we catch, we’ll drop another round. We do this for a total of 4 rounds per day, or a total of 24 samples per day, if all goes as planned. I am working the noon-midnight shift with a team of three other scientists: David Berrane, Katie Rowe, and Stephen Long.

Personal Log

I love the life of living in a boat!  Everything is compact, space is limited, and efficiency is the key.  The ship is actually far more outfitted than I expected: with a light and power plug at my bedside, air conditioning in my stateroom, running (not pumping) water in the head, a state-of-the-art-for-boats kitchen with walk-in fridge and hooded stove!

Moving in to my stateroom

It took us many hours to travel to where we were to begin dropping the traps so, besides preparations, we did not have a lot of work to do the first day.  This was advantageous to give me a chance to transition into life at sea, especially with the ship rocking in a  “wash-machine” like motion, I spent the first afternoon and evening getting sick, or as we like to say out here at sea, more elegantly: “Getting my sea legs”.  Read more below about why seasickness is so common.  Although it is very unpleasant to get seasick, it was comforting to know many of us were in the same boat.  Many of those who travel at sea on a frequent basis were sick last night too.

This morning on our second day out, I am feeling fully recovered from seasickness, and I have spent the morning eating delicious banana pecan waffles and enjoying conversations with fellow scientists and crew.  The sea is very calm this morning too so that helps.  In less than an hour from now, I’ll be on my first 12-hour shift!  I am learning so much from this experience and am embracing every moment!

Some of the scientists and crew I am working with!

Fun facts about the engine room

Fact #1: We use laser light to detect temperatures of instruments in the engine room to make sure they are not overheating and all running smoothly.

Fact #2: How can we keep the water that runs our air-conditioning cool? To run the ship’s air conditioners, it takes 1.5 gallons of fresh water per minute.  With 25 air-conditioning units on board, that is a lot of water!  With a limited amount of weight and space available on ship, we couldn’t possibly keep enough new fresh water to ensure we have cool water entering the system.  So how do we do it?  We have a closed system, so the same water cycles through over and over again, and we use a heat exchanger mechanism to keep it cool as it starts a new cycle. What could we use that is cool that we have an unlimited supply of?   Salt water!  The heated fresh water runs in the bottom of the heat exchanger machine, and comes out the top. Cool salt water runs in a countercurrent direction: in the top and out the bottom.  As the cool salt water passes by the heated fresh water, the heat transfers from the fresh water to the salt water, cooling the fresh water, heating the salt water before it is disposed of back into the ocean. Because the salt water is so abundant, it can run in an open system, where it is continuously fed anew into the pipes as it is continuously running out of pipes at the other end.

How to respond to a man overboard emergency

If the person was witnessed going overboard, the witness should:

  1. Call out for assistance and throw a life ring buoy into the water (best if it has a strobe light). Pass the word to the Bridge by any means possible.
  2. Wait about one minute and throw a second life ring buoy into the water to create a visual range to aid in the search effort.
  3. Keep the victim under surveillance if at all possible, but do not delay passing the word to the Bridge.

Unwitnessed Man Overboard

Until proven otherwise, when a crewmember is unaccounted for, it will be presumed that the individual has been lost overboard.  The time of the casualty will be unknown.  The ship’s navigation record will be crucial for search planning, as will the hourly weather observations entered into the Weather Log.

Why seasickness is so common

Most people feel some level of illness or discomfort when they first go to sea. Seasickness is a result of a conflict in the inner ear (where the human balance mechanism resides) caused by the erratic motion of the ship through water.  Inside the cabin of a rocking boat, for example, the inner ear detects changes in linear and angular acceleration as the body moves with the boat. But since the cabin moves with the passenger, the eyes register a relatively stable scene. Agitated by this perceptual incongruity, the brain responds with a cascade of stress-related hormones that can ultimately lead to nausea and vomiting. Its effect can be magnified by strong smells (like diesel fumes or fish). It usually occurs in the first 12-24 hours after sailing, and dissipates when the body becomes acclimated to the ship’s motion. Rarely does anyone stay ill beyond the first couple days at sea, regardless of sea state.  Don’t be embarrassed or discouraged!  If you get sick, chances are that others are sick too!  No one—fishermen, ship’s officers, scientists—is immune to seasickness.

Tips of the day:

Tip 1: Dehydration comes quick. Drink lots of water.

Tip 2: Give one hand for the boat. (As I walk up and down the stairs, I always have a hand on the rail.)

Marian Wagner: Preparing for Departure, August 12, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: August 12, 2011

Introductory Log

Naturalizing at my home beach in Seattle, Golden Gardens

I’m off to live the life of a NOAA research scientist aboard the Research Vessel (R/V) Savannah Our work is part of a population monitoring mission (estimating number of fish in population), doing fishery-independent sampling of reef fishes in the Atlantic off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.  See “terms defined” below to learn more.

Preparing to work with and make the most of my time with a team of scientists as a NOAA Teacher at Sea (TAS) participant means I have a lot to learn in a short amount of time!  This morning, I leave Seattle, and tonight I arrive in Savannah, GA.  I can’t believe this day has finally arrived!

I teach 3rd and 4th grade at Salmon Bay School in Seattle Public Schools, and students and families will tell you teaching SCIENCE! is my passion.  Central to my passion in teaching science is the importance of teaching students and teachers that we must better understand and protect the earth’s resources with which we are interdependent, and develop a more responsible and sustainable relationship with how we use these resources.  The fundamental goal of all my various ways of incorporating this NOAA research experience into my teaching will be to help students and teachers understand the ocean better and our relationships with it, and use this knowledge to protect the world’s oceans.

I have never had first-hand experience in conducting field research (outside of research with children for educational purposes), and I believe it is especially essential in the leadership roles I have come to serve in science education that I have this foundational knowledge first-hand of HOW research is conducted in the field.  I look forward to getting my hands dirty! (salty?)

A few days ago I received word that I have passed all my requirements to be endorsed to teach 6-12 grade biology and this experience will stretch me beyond coursework and provide a true field research experience, especially essential if I decide to use my biology endorsement to teach middle school or high school level biology, where I will draw upon this research experience in many valuable ways, especially by sharing methods of conducting research and by exposing students to the career options of working as a field scientist.

My 3rd and 4th graders (and my alumni too, I hope!) are sure to hear extensively about this field science research experience that I am about to dive into!  Time to dress for the airport!

Terms Defined:

Fishery-independent sampling means data are collected separately from the landings of any commercial fisheries, and thus can be separated from economic factors that would compromise population trends based on how many fish are caught in a year (e.g., price of fish or fuel).  So fishery-independent data are the closest we can come to a census, and are some of the most reliable data fed in to a “stock assessment”. The data we collect will have direct implications for stock assessment of these fish and ecosystem-based management of southeast U.S. marine fisheries.  Here’s a link  to more information on the work we are doing.

Seattle-ites: For more information, here’s a link to Federal stock assessment work in the Seattle area, perhaps more helpful because you might recognize your local species and habitats.