Lynn Kurth: Time and Tide Wait For No Man, June 28, 2016

 

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Lynn M. Kurth

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

June 20-July 1, 2016

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Latitude:  57˚57.486 N   Longitude:  152˚55.539 W  (Whale Pass)

Date:  June 28, 2016

Weather Data from the Bridge
Sky:  Overcast
Visibility: 15 Nautical Miles
Wind Direction: 164
Wind Speed: 8 Knots
Sea Wave Height: 1 ft. (no swell)
Sea Water Temperature: 8.3° C (46.94° F)
Dry Temperature: 12.° C (53.6° F)
Barometric (Air) Pressure: 1019.6 mb


Science and Technology Log

The ocean supports many ecosystems which contain a diversity of living things ranging in size from tiny microbes to whales as long as 95 feet.  Despite the fact that I am working on a hydrographic ship, when out on a skiff or while in port, I have had the opportunity to view some of these ecosystems and a number of the species found in them.

While the Rainier was in port in Homer, I spent some time at the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve which, like other estuaries, is among the most productive ecosystems in the world.  An estuary, with accompanying wetlands, is where the freshwater from a river meets and mixes with the salt water of the sea.  However, there are some estuaries that are made entirely from freshwater.  These estuaries are special places along the Great Lakes where freshwater from a river, with very different chemical and physical characteristics compared to the water from the lake, mixes with the lake water.

Because estuaries, like the Kachemak Bay Estuary, are extremely fragile ecosystems with so many plants and animals that rely on them, in 1972 Congress created the National Estuarine Research Reserve System which protects more than one million estuarine acres.

ESTRE

Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

All estuaries, including the freshwater estuaries found on the Great Lakes, are affected by the changing tides.  Tides play an important part in the health of an estuary because they mix the water and are therefore are one of several factors that influence the properties (temperature, salinity, turbidity) of the water

Prior to my experience in Alaska, I had never realized what a vital role tides play in the life of living things, in a oceanic region.  Just as tides play an important role in the health and function of estuaries, they play a major role in the plants and animals I have seen and the hydrographic work being completed by the Rainier.  For example, the tides determine when and where the skiffs and multi beam launch boats will be deployed.  Between mean low tide and high tide the water depth can vary by as much as 12 feet and therefore low tide is the perfect time to send the skiffs out in to document the features (rocks, reefs, foul areas) of a specific area.

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Rock feature in Uganik Bay (actually “the foot” mentioned in previous blog) Notice tidal line, anything below the top of that line would be underwater at high tide!

In addition to being the perfect time to take note of near shore features, low tide also provides the perfect opportunity to see some amazing sea life!  I have seen a variety of species while working aboard the Rainier, including eagles, deer, starfish, dolphins, whales, seals, cormorants, sea gulls, sea otters and puffins.  Unfortunately, it has been difficult to capture quality photos of many of these species, but I have included some of my better photos of marine life in the area and information that the scientists aboard the Rainier have shared with me:

Tufted Puffins:  Tufted Puffins are some of the most common sea birds in Alaska.  They have wings that propel them under water and a large bill which sheds its outer layer in late summer.

puff2

Double Crested Cormorants:  Dark colored birds that dive for and eat fish, crabs, shrimp, aquatic plants, and other marine life.  The birds nest in colonies and can be found in many inland areas in the United States.  The cormorants range extends throughout the Great Lakes and they are frequently considered to be a nuisance because they gorge themselves on fish, possibly decimating local fish populations.

cormor

Cormorant colony with gulls

Pisaster Starfish:  The tidal areas are some of the favorite areas starfish like to inhabit because they have an abundance of clams, which the starfish love to feed on.  To do so, the starfish uses powerful little suction cups to pull open the clam’s shell.

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Teacher at Sea Kurth with a starfish that was found during a shore lunch break while working on a skiff.

tidestarfish

Starfish found in tidal zone

Glaucous-winged Gull:  The gulls are found along the coasts of Alaska and Washington State.  The average lifespan of Glaucous-winged Gull is approximately 15 years.

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Glaucous-winged Gull watching the multi beam sonar boat

The hydrographic work in Uganik Bay continues even though there are moments to view the wildlife in the area.  I was part of the crew on board a boat equipped with multi beam sonar which returned to scan the “foot feature” meticulously mapped by the skiff.  During this process, the multi beam sonar is driven back and forth around the feature as close as the boat can safely get.  The multi beam does extend out to the sides of the boat which enables the sonar to produce an image to the left and right of the boat.  The sonar beam can reach out four times the depth of the water that the boat is working in.  For example, if we are working in six feet of water the multi beam will reach out a total of 24 feet across. Think of the sonar as if it was a beam coming from a flashlight, if you shine the light on the floor and hold the flashlight close to the floor, the beam will be small and intense.  On the other hand, if you hold the flashlight further from the floor the beam of light will cover a wider area but will not be as intense. The sonar’s coverage is similar, part of why working close to the shore is long and tedious work: in shallow water the multi beam does not cover a very wide area.

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“The foot” feature (as discussed in previous blog) being scanned by multi beam sonar

 

thefoot

Image of “the foot” after processing in lab. The rocks are the black areas that were not scanned by the multi beam sonar.


All Aboard!

I met Angelica on one of the first days aboard the Rainier and later spent some time with her, asking questions as she worked .  Angelica is very friendly, cheerful and a pleasure to talk with!  She graciously sat down with me for an interview when we were off shore of Kodiak, AK before returning to Uganik Bay.

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Assistant Survey Technician Angelica Patyten works on processing data from the multi beam sonar

Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m Angelica Patyten originally from Sacramento, CA and happy to be a part of NOAA’s scientific mission!  I have always been very interested in marine science, especially marine biology, oceanography and somewhat interested in fisheries.  Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always been interested in whales and dolphins.  My cousin said that when I was really young I was always drawing whales on paper and I’d always be going to the library to check out books on marine life.  I remember one of the defining moments was when I was in grade school, we took a trip to see the dolphins and orca whales and I thought they were amazing creatures.

As far as hobbies, I love anything that has to do with water sports, like diving and kayaking.  I also want to learn how to surf or try paddle boarding as well.

How did you discover NOAA?:

I just kind of “stumbled upon” NOAA right after I had graduated from college and knew that I wanted to work in marine science.  I was googling different agencies and saw that NOAA allows you to volunteer on some of their vessels.  So, I ended up volunteering for two weeks aboard the NOAA ship Rueben Lasker and absolutely loved it.  When I returned home, I applied online for employment with NOAA and it was about six months before I heard from back from them.  It was at that point that they asked me if I wanted to work for them on one of their research vessels.  It really was all good timing!

What are your primary responsibilities when working on the ship? 

My responsibilities right now include the processing of the data that comes in from the multi beam sonar.  I basically take the data and use a computer program to apply different settings to produce the best image that I can with the sonar data that I’m given.

What do you love about your work with NOAA?

I love the scenery here in Alaska and the people I work with are awesome!  We become like a family because we spend a lot of time together.  Honestly, working aboard the Rainier is a perfect fit for me because I love to travel, the scenery is amazing and the people I work with are great!


Personal Log:

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “time and tide wait for no man.”  Chaucer’s words are so fitting for my time aboard the Rainier which is going so quickly and continues to revolve around the tides.

Lynn Kurth: Solstice at Sea!, June 8, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Lynn M. Kurth

Assigned to:  NOAA Ship Rainier

June 20th-July 1st, 2016

Personal Log: 

My name is Lynn Kurth and I teach at Prairie River Middle School located in Merrill, WI.  I am honored to have the opportunity to work aboard NOAA Ship Rainier as a Teacher at Sea during the summer solstice.  Over the past twenty years of my teaching career I have had some amazing experiences, such as scuba diving in beautiful coral reefs, working aboard research vessels on Lake Superior and the Atlantic, and whitewater canoeing rivers in the United States and abroad.  The one thing that all of these experiences have in common is water and because of this I have come to appreciate what a truly important natural resource water is.

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Me aboard the Oregon II for a Long Line Shark and Red Snapper Survey in 2014

Because my students are the next generation of caretakers of this important natural resource, I recognize how vital it is to bring water issues into the classroom:  Most recently I worked with my 7th and 8th grade middle school students to improve local water quality by installing a school rain garden.  During the project students learned about the importance of diverting rain water out of the storm sewer when possible and how to do it in an effective and attractive way.  Other projects included the restoration of our riverbank last year and using a Hydrolab to monitor the water quality of the Prairie River, which runs adjacent to our school.  So, sailing aboard NOAA Ship Rainier to learn more about hydrography (the science of surveying and charting bodies of water) seems like a most natural and logical way to move forward.

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Eighth grade science students jumping for joy during the fall testing of the Prairie River with the Hydrolab. Notice the fellow in waders holding the Hydrolab with great care!

I will be sailing aboard NOAA Ship Rainier from Homer, Alaska, on June 20th.  Until then I have a school year to wrap up, a new puppy to train, a project with Wisconsin Sea Grant to work on and packing to get done.  There are days I’m a bit nervous about getting everything done but when NOAA Ship Rainier casts off from the pier in Homer I will be 100 percent focused on gathering the knowledge and skills that will enhance my role as an educator of students who are part of the next generation charged with the stewardship of this planet.

IMG_1564Newest addition to our family: Paavo a Finnish Lapphund Photo Credit: Lynn Drumm, Yutori Finnish Lapphunds

 

Jeff Miller: Sharks and Dead Zones, September 12, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 12, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed:  9.2 knots
Wind Speed:  8.8 knots
Air Temp: 27,7°C
Sea Temp: 30.2°C
Seas: 1-2 meters
Sea Depth:  457 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  27 47.142 N
Long:  094 04.264 W

Science and Technology Log
On September 8 – 9, we surveyed a number of stations along the Texas and Louisiana coasts that were in shallow water between 10-30 meters (approximately 30-100 feet).  Interestingly, the number of sharks we caught at each station varied dramatically.  For example, we pulled up 65 sharks at station 136 and 53 sharks at station 137, whereas we caught only 5 sharks at station 138 and 2 sharks at station 139.  What could account for this large variance in the number of sharks caught at these locations?

Weighing a bonnethead shark

Weighing a bonnethead shark caught off the coast of Texas.

One key factor that is likely influencing shark distribution is the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water.  Oxygen is required by living organisms to produce the energy needed to fuel all their activities.  In water, dissolved oxygen levels above 5 mg/liter are needed for most marine organisms to thrive. Water with less than 2 mg/liter of dissolved oxygen is termed hypoxic, meaning dissolved oxygen is below levels needed by most organisms to thrive and survive.  Water with less than 0.2 mg/liter of dissolved oxygen is termed anoxic (no oxygen) and results in  “dead zones” where little, if any, marine life can survive.

As part of several missions, including the ground fish and longline shark surveys, NOAA ships sample the levels of dissolved oxygen at survey stations in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Measurements of dissolved oxygen, salinity, and temperature are collected by a device called the CTD.   At each survey station, the CTD is deployed and it collects real-time measurements as it descends to the bottom and returns to the surface.

CTD

Standing with the CTD, which is used to measure dissolved oxygen, salinity, and temperature.

Data collected by the CTD is used to produce maps showing the relative levels of dissolved oxygen in coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico.    For more environmental data go to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

2015 Gulf Hypoxia Map

Map showing dissolved oxygen levels in the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico. Red marks anoxic/hypoxic areas with low dissolved oxygen levels.  Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

Environmental surveys demonstrate that large anoxic/hypoxic zones often exist along the Louisiana/Texas continental shelf.  Because low dissolved oxygen levels are harmful to marine organisms, the anoxic/hypoxic zones in the northern Gulf of Mexico could greatly impact commercially and ecologically important marine species.  Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that excess organic matter, especially nitrogen, from the Mississippi River drainage basin drives the development of anoxic/hypoxic waters.  Although natural sources contribute to the runoff, inputs from agricultural runoff, the burning of fossil fuels, and waste water treatment discharges have increased inputs to many times natural levels.

Runoff in the Mississippi basin

Map showing sources of nitrogen runoff in the Mississippi River drainage basin. Source NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

Nitrogen runoff from the Mississippi River feeds large phytoplankton algae blooms at the surface.  Over time, excess algae and other organic materials sink to the bottom.  On the bottom, decomposition of this organic material by bacteria and other organisms consumes oxygen and leads to formation of anoxic/hypoxic zones.  These anoxic/hypoxic zones persist because waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico become stratified, which means the water is separated into horizontal layers with cold and/or saltier water at the bottom and warmer and/or fresher water at the surface. This layering separates bottom waters from the atmosphere and prevents re-supply of oxygen from the surface.

Since levels of dissolved oxygen can  greatly influence the distribution of marine life, we reasoned that the high variation in the number of sharks caught along the Louisiana/Texas coast could be the result of differences in dissolved oxygen.  To test this idea, we analyzed environmental data and shark numbers at survey stations along the Louisiana/Texas coast.  The graphs below show raw data collected by the CTD at stations 137 and 138.

CTD 137

Dissolved oxygen levels at station 137 (green line; raw data). At the surface: dissolved oxygen = 5.0 mg/liter. At the bottom: dissolved oxygen = 1.5 mg/liter.  Notice the stratification of the water at a depth of 7-8 meters.

 

CTD 138

Dissolved oxygen levels at station 138 (green line; raw data).  At the surface: dissolved oxygen = 5.5 mg/liter. At the bottom: dissolved oxygen = 0 mg/liter.  Notice the stratification of the water at a depth of 7-8 meters.

Putting together shark survey numbers with environmental data from the CTD we found that we caught very high numbers of sharks in hypoxic water and we caught very few sharks in anoxic water.  Similar results were observed at station 136 (hypoxic waters; 65 sharks caught) and station 139 (anoxic waters; 2 sharks caught).

Data table

Relationship between dissolved oxygen levels and numbers of sharks caught at stations 137 and 138.

What can explain this data?  One possible answer is that sharks will be found where there is food for them to eat.  Thus, many sharks may be moving in and out of hypoxic waters to catch prey that may be stressed or less active due to low oxygen levels.  In other words, sharks may be taking advantage of low oxygen conditions that make fish easier to catch.  In contrast, anoxic waters cannot support marine life so there will be very little food for sharks to eat and, therefore, few sharks will be present.  While this idea provides an explanation for our observations, more research, like the work being done aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II, is needed to understand the distribution and movement of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.

Personal Log
My time aboard the Oregon II is drawing to a close as we move into the last weekend of the cruise.  We have now turned away from the Louisiana coast into deeper waters as we travel west to Galveston, Texas.  The weather has changed as well.  It has been sunny and hot for much of our trip, but clouds, rain, and wind have moved in.  Despite this change in weather, we continue to set longlines at survey stations along our route to Galveston.  The rain makes our job more challenging but our catch has been relatively light since we moved away from the coast into deeper waters.  Hopefully our fishing luck will change as we move closer to Galveston.  I would like to wrestle a few more sharks before my time on the Oregon II comes to an end.

Jeff Miller: Wrestling Sharks for Science, September 9, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 9, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 9.4 knots
Wind Speed: 6.75 knots
Air Temp: 29.4°C
Sea Temp: 30.4°C
Seas: <1 meter
Sea Depth: 13 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  N 29 25.103
Long:  W 092.36.483

Science and Technology Log
The major goal of our mission is to survey shark populations in the western Gulf of Mexico and collect measurements and biological samples.  The sharks are also tagged so if they are re-caught scientists can learn about their growth and movements.

Sharks are members of the class of fishes called Chondrichthyes,which are cartilaginous fishes meaning they have an internal skeleton made of cartilage.  Within the class Chondricthyes, sharks belong to the subclass Elasmobranchii together with their closest relatives the skates and rays.  There are about 450 species of living sharks that inhabit oceans around the world.

Sharks, or better put their ancient relatives, have inhabited the oceans for approximately 450 million years and have evolved a number of unique characteristics that help them survive and thrive in virtually all parts of the world.  The most recognizable feature of sharks is their shape.  A shark’s body shape and fin placement allow water to flow over the shark reducing drag and making swimming easier.  In addition, the shark’s cartilaginous skeleton reduces weight while providing strength and flexibility, which also increases energy efficiency.

Blacktip shark

Measuring a blacktip shark on deck. The blacktip shark shows the typical body shape and fin placement of sharks. These physical characteristics decrease drag and help sharks move more efficiently through water.

When I held a shark for the first time, the feature I noticed most is the incredible muscle mass and strength of the shark.  The body of a typical shark is composed of over 60% muscle (the average human has about 35-40% muscle mass).  Most sharks need to keep swimming to breathe and, therefore, typically move steadily and slowly through the water.  This slow, steady movement is powered by red muscle, which makes up about 10% of a sharks muscle and requires high amounts of oxygen to produce fuel for muscle contraction.  The other 90% of a sharks muscle is called white muscle and is used for powerful bursts of speed when eluding predators (other sharks) or capturing prey.

Since sharks are so strong and potentially dangerous, one lesson that I learned quickly was how to properly handle a shark on deck.  Smaller sharks can typically be handled by one person.  To hold a small shark, you grab the shark just behind the chondrocranium (the stiff cartilage that makes up the “skull” of the shark) and above the gill slits.  This is a relatively soft area that can be squeezed firmly with your hand to hold the shark.  If the shark is a bit feisty, a second hand can be used to hold the tail.

Holding a sharpnose shark

Smaller sharks, like this sharpnose shark, can be held by firmly grabbing the shark just behind the head.

Larger and/or more aggressive sharks typically require two sets of hands to hold safely.  When two people are needed to hold a shark, it is very important that both people grab the shark at the same time.  One person holds the head while the other holds the tail.  When trying to hold a larger, more powerful shark, you do not want to grab the tail first.  Sharks are very flexible and can bend their heads back towards their tail, which can pose a safety risk for the handler.  While holding a shark sounds simple, subduing a large shark and getting it to cooperate while taking measurements takes a lot of focus, strength, and teamwork.

Holding a blacktip shark

Teamwork is required to handle larger sharks like this blacktip shark, which was caught because it preyed on a small sharpnose shark that was already on the hook.

 

Measuring a blacktip shark

Collecting measurements from a large blacktip shark.

 

Holding a blacktip shark

Holding a blacktip shark before determining its weight.

When a shark is too big to bring on deck safely, the shark is placed into a cradle and hoisted from the water so it can be measured and tagged.  We have used the cradle on a number of sharks including a 7.5 foot tiger shark and a 6 foot scalloped hammerhead shark.  When processing sharks, we try to work quickly and efficiently to measure and tag the sharks to minimize stress on the animals and time out of the water.  Once our data collection is complete, the sharks are returned to the water.

Tiger shark in the cradle

Large sharks, like this tiger shark, are hoisted up on a cradle in order to be measured and tagged.

Personal Log
We are now in full work mode on the ship.  My daily routine consists of waking up around 7:30 and grabbing breakfast.  After breakfast I like to go check in on the night team to see what they caught and determine when they will do their next haul (i.e. pull in their catch).  This usually gives me a couple hours of free time before my shift begins at noon.  I like to use my time in the morning to work on my log and go through pictures from the previous day.  I eat lunch around 11:30 so I am ready to start work at noon.  My shift, which runs from noon to midnight, typically includes surveying three or four different stations.  At each station, we set our baited hooks for one hour, haul the catch, and process the sharks and fishes.  We process the sharks immediately and then release them, whereas we keep the fish to collect biological samples (otoliths and gonads).  Once we finish processing the catch, we have free time until the ship reaches the next survey station.  The stations can be anywhere from 6 or 7 miles apart to over 40 miles apart.  Therefore, our downtime throughout the day can vary widely from 30 minutes to several hours (the ship usually travels at about 10 knots; 1 knot = 1.15 mph).  At midnight, we switch roles with the night team.  Working with fish in temperatures reaching  the low 90°s will make you dirty.  Therefore, I typically head to the shower to clean up before going to bed.  I am usually in bed by 12:30 and will be back up early in the morning to do it all over again.  It is a busy schedule, but the work is interesting, exciting, and fun.  I feel very lucky to be out here because not many people get the opportunity to wrestle sharks.  This is one experience I will always remember.

Jeff Miller: Fishing for Sharks and Fishes, September 6, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 6, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 9.7 knots
Wind Speed: 5.6 knots
Air Temp: 30.9°C
Sea Temp: 31.1°C
Seas: <1 meter
Sea Depth: 52 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat:  N 28 06.236
Long:  W 095 15.023

Science and Technology Log
Our first couple days of fishing have been a great learning experience for me despite the fact that the fish count has been relatively low (the last three sets we averaged less than 5 fish per 100 hooks).  There are a number of jobs to do at each survey station and I will rotate through each of them during my cruise. These jobs include baiting the hooks, numbering and setting the hooks on the main line, hauling in the hooks, measuring and weighing the sharks/fish, and processing the shark/fish for biological samples.

Numbering the baited hooks

Each gangion (the baited hook and its associate line) is tagged with a number before being attached to the main line.

 

Number clips

A number clip is attached to each gangion (baited hook and its associated line) to catalog each fish that is caught.

After the line is deployed for one hour, we haul in the catch.  As the gangions come in, one of us will collect empty hooks and place them back in the barrel to be ready for the next station.  Other members of the team will process the fish we catch.  The number of fish caught at each station can vary widely.  Our team (the daytime team) had two stations in a row where we caught fewer than five fish while the night team caught 57 fish at a single station.

Collecting empty hooks

Empty hooks are collected, left over bait is removed, and the gangion is placed back in the bucket to be ready for the next station.

So far we have caught a variety of fishes including golden tilefish, red snapper, sharpnose sharks, blacknose sharks, a scalloped hammerhead, black tip sharks, a spinner shark, and smooth dogfish.  The first set of hooks we deployed was at a deep water station (sea depth was approx. 300 meters or 985 feet) and we hooked 11 golden tilefish, including one that weighed 13 kg (28.6 pounds).

Golden tilefish

On our first set of hooks in deep water, we caught a number of golden tilefish including this fish that weighed nearly 30 pounds.

We collect a number of samples from fishes such as red snapper and golden tilefish.  First we collect otoliths, which are hard calcified structures of the inner ear that are located just behind the brain.  Scientists can read the rings of the otolith to determine the approximate age and growth rate of the fish.

Otolith

Otoliths can be read like tree rings to approximate the age and growth rate of bony fishes.  Photo credit: NOAA Marine Fisheries.

The answer to the poll is at the end of this post.

You can try to age fish like NOAA scientists do by using the Age Reading Demonstration created by the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.  Click here to visit the site.

When sharks are caught, we collect information about their size, gender, and sexual maturity.  You may be wondering, “how can you determine the sex of a shark?”  It ends up that the answer is actually quite simple.  Male sharks have two claspers along the inner margin of the pelvic fins that are used to insert sperm into the cloaca of a female.  Female sharks lack claspers.

Male female shark

Male and female sharks can be distinguished by the presence of claspers on male sharks.

Personal Log
After arriving at our first survey station on Thursday afternoon (Sep. 3), everyone on the ship is in full work mode.  We work around the clock in two groups: one team, which I belong to, works from noon to midnight, and the other team works from midnight to noon.  The crew and science teams work very well together – everyone has a specific job as we set out hooks, haul the catch, and process the fishes.  It’s a well oiled machine and I am grateful to the crew and my fellow science team members for helping me learn and take an active role the process.  I am not here as a passive observer.  I am truly part of the scientific team.

I have also learned a lot about the fishes we are catching.  For example, I have learned how to handle them on deck, how to process them for samples, and how to filet them for dinner.  I never fished much my life, so pretty much everything I am doing is new to me.

I have also adjusted well to life on the ship.  Before the cruise, I was concerned that I may get seasick since I am prone to motion sickness.  However, so far I have felt great even though we have been in relatively choppy seas (averaging about 1-2 meters or 3 to 6 feet) and the ship rocks constantly.  I have been using a scopolamine patch, an anticholinergic drug that decreases nausea and dizziness, and this likely is playing a role. Whether it’s just me or the medicine, I feel good, I’m sleeping well, and I am eating well.  The cooks are great and the food has been outstanding.  All in all, I am having an amazing experience.

Poll answer:  This fish is approximately nine years old (as determined by members of my science team aboard the Oregon II).

Jeff Miller: Cruising to the Survey Stations, September 2, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 2, 2015

Data from the Bridge
Ship Speed: 11.6 knots
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Air Temp:  24.7°C
Sea Temp:  29.6°C
Seas:  3-4 ft.
Sea Depth: 589 meters

GPS Coordinates
Lat: 28 01.364 N
Long: 091 29.104 W

Cruising Map

Map showing our current location and the site of our first survey station

Science and Technology Log
After a one day delay in port at Pascagoula, MS we are currently motoring southwest towards our first survey station in the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, TX. Our survey area will include random stations roughly between Brownsville and Galveston, TX.

Survey stations are randomly selected from a predetermined grid of sites.  Possible stations fall into three categories: (A) stations in depths 9-55 meters (5-30 fathoms), (B) stations in depths between 55-183 meters (30-100 fathoms), and (C) stations in depths between 183-366 meters (100-200 fathoms).  On the current shark longline surveys, 50% of the sites we survey will be category A sites, 40% will be category B sites, and 10% will be category C sites.  Environmental data is also collected at each station including water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen.

Several questions you may have are why do a shark survey, how do you catch the sharks, and what do you do with the sharks once they are caught?  These are great questions and below I will describe the materials and methods we will use to catch and analyze sharks aboard the Oregon II. 

Why does NOAA perform shark surveys?
Shark surveys are done to gather information about shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico and to collect morphological measurements (length, weight) and biological samples for research.

How are shark surveys performed?
At each collection station, a one mile line of 100 hooks baited with Atlantic Mackerel is used to catch sharks. The line is first attached to a radar reflective highflyer (a type of buoy that can be detected by the ship’s radar).  A weight is then attached to the line to make it sink to the bottom.  After the weight is added, about 50 gangions with baited hooks are attached to the line.  At the half mile point of the line, another weight is attached then the second 50 hooks.  After the last hook, a third weight is added then the second highflyer.  The line is left in the water for one hour (time between last highflyer deployed and first highflyer retrieved) and then is pulled back on to the boat to assess what has been caught.  Small sharks and fishes are brought on deck while larger sharks are lifted into a cradle for processing.

Longline equipment

Sampling gear used includes two highflyers, weights, and 100 hooks

 

Longline hooks

Longline hooks used for the shark survey

 

Longline hooks

Longline hooks used in the shark survey

 

Shark cradle

Shark cradle used to collect information about large sharks

 

What data is collected from the sharks?
Researchers collect a variety of samples and information from the caught sharks.  First, the survey provides a snapshot of the different shark species and their relative abundance in the Gulf of Mexico.  Second, researchers collect data from individual sharks including length, weight and whether the shark is reproductively mature.  Some sharks are tagged to gather data about their migration patterns.  Each tag has an identification number for the shark and contact information to report information about where the same shark was re-caught.  Third, biological samples are collected from sharks for more detailed analyses.  Tissues collected include fin clips (for DNA and molecular studies), muscle tissue (for toxicology studies), blood (for hormonal studies), reproductive organs (including embryos if present), and vertebrae (for age and growth studies).

Personal Log
One of the desired traits for participants in the Teacher at Sea program is flexibility – cruising schedules and even ports can change.  I have now experienced this first-hand as we were delayed in port in Pascagoula, MS for an extra day.  Though waiting an extra day really isn’t a big deal, it is hard to wait since myself and the rest of the scientific crew are all anxious to begin the shark survey.  Since we also have two days of cruising to reach our first survey site, this means we all have to find ways to pass the time.  I have used some of my time trying to learn about the operation of the ship as well as the methods we will be using to perform the longline survey.  I also watched a couple movies with other members of the science team.  The ship has an amazing library of DVDs.

The Oregon II

Getting ready to leave Pascagoula aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II

Safety is very important aboard the Oregon II so today we performed several drills including an abandon ship drill.  This drill requires you to wear a survival suit.  Getting mine on was a tight squeeze but I got the suit on in the required time.

Safety suit

In my safety suit during an abandon ship drill

Did You Know?
The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.  Can you name the other six uniformed services?  Think about this and check the answer at the bottom of this post.

NOAA Corps Officers perform many duties that include commanding NOAA’s research and survey vessels, flying NOAA’s hurricane and environmental monitoring planes, and managing scientific and engineering work needed to make wise decisions about our natural resources and environment.

Answer: The seven uniformed services of the United States are: (1) Army, (2) Navy, (3) Air Force, (4) Marine Corps, (5) Coast Guard, (6) NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, and (7) Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Jeff Miller: Getting Ready to Sail, August 19, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jeff Miller
(Almost) Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 31 – September 14, 2015

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 19, 2015

Personal Log

Hello from Phoenix, Arizona.  My name is Jeff Miller and I teach biology at Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC) in Avondale, AZ.  EMCC is one of ten community colleges in the Maricopa Community College District, which is one of the largest college districts in the United States, serving more than 128,000 students each year.  I have been teaching at EMCC for eight years.  I currently teach two sections of a general biology course for non-majors (that is students who are majoring in subjects other than biology) and one section of a human anatomy and physiology course primarily taken by students entering healthcare-related fields.

Jeff Miller

A photo of me at Tuolomne Meadow in Yosemite National Park

EMCC is an outstanding place to teach because of all the truly wonderful students.  EMCC serves a diverse set of students from recent high school graduates to adults seeking a new career. EMCC students are also ethnically diverse. Thus, students bring a wide range of knowledge, ideas, and talents to our classrooms. Despite this diversity, one thing most students lack is real world experiences with marine organisms and environments. We are, after all, located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.  Arizona does, however, possess many unique and amazing environments and when I’m not in the classroom, hiking and exploring nature with my family is one of my favorite things to do.

Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ

Great Horned Owl

A Great Horned Owl perches on a log in the desert near Tucson, AZ

Saguaro

A saguaro cactus in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, AZ

White Mountains

Arizona is home to the largest unbroken Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. My wife (Weiru), daughter (Julia), and dog (Maya) in the White Mountains of Arizona

I applied to the Teacher at Sea program to deepen my knowledge of marine systems as part of my sabbatical.  A sabbatical is a period of time granted to teachers to study, travel, acquire new skills, and/or fulfill a personal dream. I have always loved the ocean and even worked with sea urchin embryos in graduate school.  However, my knowledge and experience of marine organisms and ecosystems is  limited.  Therefore, participation in the Teacher at Sea program will give me the opportunity to learn how marine biologists and oceanographers collect and analyze data and how their investigations can inform us about human impacts on marine ecosystems. I plan to use the knowledge and experiences I gain to develop curriculum materials for a marine biology course at EMCC that to helps my students gain fundamental knowledge of and appreciation for our world’s oceans. I hope to foster greater curiosity and excitement about marine science and the scientists who explore our oceans and help students see why it is so important to protect and conserve the oceans resources for future generations.

To help fulfill my dream of learning more about the oceans, I have the opportunity of a lifetime – to sail on the NOAA Ship Oregon II.  I will be working with the crew and scientists aboard the Oregon II to perform part of an annual longline shark survey.  The goal of the mission is to gather data about shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast.  Some of the data collected includes length, weight, and sex of each individual, collection of tissues samples for DNA analysis, and collection of environmental data.  Please visit the main mission page or the Oregon II Facebook page for more detailed information and images, videos, and stories from recent cruises.  Also check out a recent article from the Washington Post featuring Kristin Hannan, a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Services describing the shark research being conducted aboard the Oregon II.

Longline Shark Survey Map

Map showing the region of the Gulf of Mexico where I will participate in the longline shark survey aboard the NOAA Ship Oregon II

Needless to say, I am extremely excited, though a bit nervous, about my upcoming cruise.  I have little experience sailing on the open ocean and have never been up close to a shark let alone actually handled one in person.  All that will change soon and I know that I will treasure the knowledge and experiences I gain aboard the Oregon II.  I am currently packing up my gear and preparing myself for the experience of a lifetime.

The next time you hear from me I will be in the Gulf of Mexico on my mission to learn more about sharks.