Stephen Tomasetti: Sharks of the Gulf, August 24, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Stephen Tomasetti
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 11 – 25, 2014

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
You can view the geographical location of the cruise here at anytime: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov
Date: Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weather Data from Bridge:
Air Temperature: 31.5 Degrees C
Water Temperature: 31.1 Degrees C
Wind Speed: 7.88 Knots
Barometric Pressure: 1009.4 Millibars

Science and Technology Log:

Today I’ll walk you through the sharks and other fish we’ve caught along leg two of the NOAA Oregon II longline survey. Unfortunately, due to red tide, many sharks had moved out of the areas we were in, so we caught substantially less sharks than usual. But, we still caught quite a few. Check them out:

Atlantic sharpnose

Atlantic sharpnose shark

Name: Atlantic sharpnose shark

Sci. Name: Rhizoprionodon terraenovae

Description: These sharks are very common both inshore and offshore. They often have white spots along the side. You can also tell them by their long labial furrows (grooves around the mouth).

Scientist Andre Debose and volunteer Sarah Larsen work up a blacktip

Scientist Andre Debose and volunteer Sarah Larsen work up a blacktip shark

Name: Blacktip shark

Sci. Name: Carcharhinus limbatus

Description: These sharks can be pretty feisty. They are surprisingly strong (even the little ones). You can identify them by the black marking on the tip of their pectoral fins and the lower lobe of their caudal fin.

Scientist Michael Felts with a Florida smoothhound (photo cred: Joan Turner)

Scientist Michael Felts with a Florida smoothhound (photo cred: Joan Turner)

Name: Florida smoothhound

Sci. Name: Mustelus norrisi

Description: These are my favorite sharks that we’ve caught. They are beautiful. They have small, blunt teeth and are missing a precaudal pit (before the caudal fin). They are long sharks, with second dorsal fins that are very large.

A young tiger shark

A young tiger shark

Name: Tiger shark

Sci. Name: Galeocerdo cuvier

Description: These sharks are known for being fierce hunters and apex predators. They are beautiful sharks with dark spots/stripes along the sides and dorsal fin. They can reach over five meters!

Sandbar shark

Sandbar shark

Name: Sandbar Shark

Sci. Name: Carcharhinus plumbeus

Description: We caught a lot of these sharks on our shifts. They were generally pretty large and we often had to use the cradle to get them close enough to take their measurements. One way to tell sandbar sharks is by their large dorsal fin.

A parasite pulled of the anal fin of a sandbar shark

A parasite pulled off the anal fin of a sandbar shark

For all the sharks we catch, we generally take length measurements, mass, sex and a fin clip/tissue sample (to look at genetic population structure). Then the shark is tagged with a tag and tossed back in the water. Occasionally, NOAA uses a satellite tag on sharks if they want to get additional data. On this cruise the night watch tagged a hammerhead shark with a satellite tag. This particular tag will transmit information when the dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water (often hammerheads and tiger sharks are tagged with these tags because they occasionally come up to the surface).

Personal Log:

Well we’re through fishing for this leg of the survey. We arrive back in Pascagoula, Mississippi tomorrow morning. There’s a lot to miss aboard the Oregon II. Below is a list of the top 5 things I’ll miss about life on the ship (in no particular order).

5) The Food: Three delicious meals a day. I’m not going to know what to do when I return to New York City and have to cook my own food again. Mac’ n cheese. Captain’s Platter. Eggs Benedict. Ice cream every night. I’ve been spoiled.

Second Chef Mark Potter hard at work

Second Cook Mark Potter hard at work

4) The Crew: I spent the majority of my time with the “day shift,” of scientists and fishermen. We would spend basically 11am-2am every day together. We’d eat together. Work together. Hang out between sets together. And finally watch movies together after shift.

The day crew pictured at night

The day crew pictured at night

In addition to the day shift there is an entire crew of interesting people I’ve spent time with: the NOAA Corps Officers, the Engineers, the Night Shift, and the Stewards. It takes a large crew to keep this ship running.

3) The Open Ocean: Picture cruising alongside dolphins at sunset, flying fish cutting through the water, a breeze on deck, and nothing but open ocean until the horizon line.

A flying fish jumped aboard

A flying fish jumped aboard

2) The Fishing: Before this trip it’d been a while since I had been fishing. I’ve never fished using longlines until the Oregon II. I learned a lot about fishing. Check out my earlier blog post here for more on that.

1) The Marine Life: You’ve already read a lot about some of the fish we caught. Here are more photos!

Volunteers Samantha Ehnert and Kelly Korvath kissing sharpnoses

Volunteers Samantha Ehnert and Kelly Korvath kissing Atlantic sharpnose sharks

Red Snapper

Red Snapper

Today, on our way back to Pascagoula, we stopped for a while to test the emergency equipment. In case of an emergency, there are a variety of lifesaving resources to utilize. We shot off flare guns, smoke signals and line casters. I shot off a line caster which slightly resembles a rocket launcher that shoots a rope to another ship in the case that we’d need to get to them. It was sort of like the Fourth of July!

Lieutenant Commander Eric Johnson shooting off a flare

Lieutenant Commander Eric Johnson shooting off a flare

Did You Know? Japanese warriors used to use dried shark skin for the handles of their swords, to keep them from slipping out of their hands.

Stephen Tomasetti: Red Grouper and Red Tide, August 21, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Stephen Tomasetti
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 11 – 25, 2014

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
You can view the geographical location of the cruise here at anytime: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov
Date: Thursday, August 21, 2014

Weather Data from Bridge:
Air Temperature: 30.2 Degrees C
Water Temperature: 29.9 Degrees C
Wind Speed: 7 Knots
Barometric Pressure: 1018.7 Millibars

Science and Technology Log

On the Discovery Channel shark week ended last Sunday night, but on the ship shark week continues. We are approaching a stretch of stations that should be loaded with sharks (if they haven’t moved to other areas due to the red tide…more on that later) over the next few days so I am going to hold off on the shark post until later in the week when I’ll have compiled many more pictures for sharing. Although one of the main goals of the mission is to catch sharks (to monitor trends in population abundance) the ship is constantly, twenty four hours a day, collecting a myriad of oceanographic and weather data that is used by other scientists and organizations.

One fish that we have been catching quite frequently is red grouper, or Epinephelus morio. Typically when we catch one it is brought on board to measure its mass and length. After the measurements are taken we remove the fish’s otoliths for future age examination. Additionally, the gonads are removed to determine its sex and reproductive status.

Red Grouper

Red Grouper

An otolith or “ear bone” is not actually a bone at all, but rather a calcium carbonate structure located near the fish’s brain. Similar to the human inner ear, otoliths help the fish to balance and orient itself. There are three pairs of otoliths in each teleost (bony fish) but we remove the largest pair. The first time I tried I pulverized the otolith, but after some practice I can do it now (although I’d hesitate to say with ease).

The otolith contains bands that correspond to the age, much like rings of a tree trunk. Also, the shape of the otolith varies depending on the species. So if otoliths are found in the stomach of an animal that eats fish, the species it’s eating can often be determined.

The fish’s internal sexual structures, or gonads, also must be removed and saved. These structures are used to determine the sex of the fish, if it’s mature, and its current reproductive condition.

In addition to catching and studying wildlife aboard the Oregon II, a large amount of data is collected on water and weather conditions. To do so, a large, expensive piece of equipment called a “CTD”, for conductivity-temperature-depth, is lowered by a fisherman into the water until it hovers a few meters off the ocean floor. It collects data such as salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and chlorophyl concentration in real time and can be studied separately or alongside the results of the fish/shark survey.

Chuck Godwin with the CTD

Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin with the CTD

Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin and Fisherman Eloy Borges are two of the guys I’ve worked closely with during my time on the Oregon II. Chuck and I are pretty much from the same town in Central Florida! Chuck graduated from UF before serving in the Coast Guard for over ten years. He’s been working for NOAA for a while and after about ten minutes with him you can see why! He is fun and affable and a pleasure to be around. He makes the long days of hard work go by quickly.

Fisherman Eloy Borges worked on commercial freighters for a while before joining NOAA. He’s a laid back, diligent crew member. He’s considerate and encouraging; we work together while slinging bait and attaching the gangions to the mainline or while deploying the hi-flyers. And we bond a lot over our mutual love for Cuban food.

Fisherman Eloy Borges controlling the CTD

Fisherman Eloy Borges controlling the CTD

Personal Log:

Yesterday in between sets, the Bridge watchstanders noticed dead fish in the water everywhere. The dead fish continued for over ten miles. They were the result of red tide in the Gulf. Red tide is caused by an algal bloom, and can devastate marine life, especially near the coast. The ship stopped while a fisherman and two scientists took a smaller boat to investigate and gather samples. They filled a large bag with dead fish and wrote down the GPS coordinates, as well as the date and time, marking it FISH KILL. These samples will be reviewed back in the lab in Pascagoula. Sometimes doing science means changing your plans and adjusting to the circumstances you find yourself in.

Spending twelve hours a day, every day, with the same group of people may seem daunting, but we’ve developed a great team chemistry. The days go by fast! In between sets while we’re cruising to the next location we’ve developed a bunch of activities to keep us busy. I learned how to play Sudoku and a game called Heads Up. Additionally, I’ve begun a daily exercise routine with some of the other scientists and volunteers. The workout is a precautionary measure because I’ll put on ten pounds in two weeks with all of the excellent food we’ve been eating on this cruise (thanks Mark and Steve).

Scientist Andre Debose leading the crew in some exercises

Scientist Andre Debose leading the crew in some exercises

Did You Know: Most grouper species change their sex from female to male as they age!

Stephen Tomasetti: Gone Fishin’, August 15, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Stephen Tomasetti
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 11 – 25, 2014

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
You can view the geographical location of the cruise here at any time: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov/
Date: Friday, August 15, 2014

Weather Data from Bridge:
Air Temperature: 30.5 Degrees C
Water Temperature: 30.3 Degrees C
Wind Speed: 10.2 Knots
Barometric Pressure: 1015.9 Millibars

Science and Technology Log:

On this ship’s longline survey we are trying to examine fish, sharks in particular, to monitor trends in population abundance and examine distributional patterns. In order to do all of that, you first have to catch them. I figured for this blog I’ll walk us through the process of catching sharks (before tagging them and returning them to the water).

You start with prepping everything on the deck. We have two barrels filled with 100 hooks in total that are pre-connected to gangions which are twelve feet in length each and will eventually be connected to the mainline that goes in the water. The first step is to bait the hooks. In this case we use mackerel, cut in half, so that one mackerel is used as bait for two hooks.

Barrels of bait on hooks

Barrels of bait on hooks

Once all of the hooks are baited, the ship is maneuvered to the location where the data is to be collected. The first thing to come off the ship is called a “hi-flyer”. It is basically a buoy that marks the end of the fishing line.

Samantha deploying the hi-flyer

Volunteer Samantha deploying the hi-flyer

Next some weights attached to the line are tossed into the water in order to take the mainline to the bottom. Then the individual gangions with the hooks and bait are numbered with tags and attached to the mainline that continually extends as the ship moves forward.

Eloy attaching the baited line to the main line

Fisherman Eloy Borges attaching the gangion to the mainline

I love slinging bait. It’s basically the process of tossing the baited gangions off the side before connecting it to the mainline. There’s a rhythm to it, and a groove that you get with a little practice. You have to toss it far enough while making sure not to drop the line. You also try to keep up with the proper pace so that the hooks accurately correspond to a given distance in the water.

Once all of the hooks are in the water, more weights go in, the line is cut, knotted, and attached to the second hi-flyer which is tossed in the water. All the while someone is at a computer marking when each hi-flyer, weight and hook hits the water. That’s the process. Then it’s about an hour wait before hauling in your sharks!

For the next update we’ll talk all about sharks.

Tre and I handling a smooth dogfish shark

Scientist and Director of Animal Operations Andre Debose and I handling a smooth dogfish (shark)

Personal Log:

We’ve been fishing for two days out in the Gulf and I’m getting real comfortable out here. I work 12pm – 12am daily with sporadic breaks out on deck. Slingin’ bait. Taggin’ sharks. Data. Music. Laughs. Can’t complain.

Prior to arriving in the Gulf, we spent about two days cruising down the coast of Florida. This large ship can start to feel pretty small when you go two days without working. Many of us and the crew members speed through books (I just finished a book called Long Division…check it out), watch movies, and hang out on deck. The first night many of us watched the sunset together as dolphins played in the wake of the ship. It was fantastic.

On the second day we participated in our emergency drills. These drills consist of a fire drill, a man overboard drill, and an abandon ship drill where we get to don these mammoth survival suits called “immersion suits”.

Immersion Suit Success

Immersion Suit Success

I’m sure volunteer Sarah Larsen would agree it takes some muscle to fit into these. One tip to help put these on quickly is to save your strong arm and put that in the suit last. That way you can maneuver yourself through the suit with your strong arm before you zip up.

The Gulf waters have been surprisingly smooth out here, which isn’t always the case. And small flying fish zip across the surface leaving streaks that resemble those of a knife in a tub of butter. I know I should be taking more photos of moments like these but it’s hard to remove myself from the moment, dig through my bags, get the camera out, and finally take a photograph (which still won’t do it justice). I keep thinking about my students in Brooklyn, and how privileged I am to be able to have this experience, which really challenges me to find meaningful ways to share it with them. They deserve to be here and be a part of this.

Rachel Pryor

LTJG(sel) Rachel Pryor

Crew Highlight: Meet LTJG(sel) Rachel Pryor

Job: Navigation Officer

How did you get involved with NOAA: Rachel was interested in science from a young age. She heard about NOAA Corps while working for the Environmental Protection Agency, and found out more while being an observer in the Northeast.

What is your favorite part of the job: Rachel loves standing up on the bridge, looking out the window at the open ocean and driving the ship. There are times when the job can become tense, for instance in heavy ship traffic, but in those moments she says she takes a deep breath and reflects on how lucky she is to not be stuck in a cubicle.

Did you Know? The smooth dogfish has blunt teeth that really can’t harm a human. More on sharks next time!

Stephen Tomasetti: Cruising with the Crew, August 12, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Stephen Tomasetti
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 11 – 25, 2014

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
You can view the geographical location of the cruise here at any time: http://shiptracker.noaa.gov/
Date: Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 29.3 Degrees C
Water Temperature: 29.9 Degrees C
Wind Speed: 11.16 Knots
Barometric Pressure: 1016.4 Millibars

Science and Technology Log

There is no fishing for the next couple days so I thought I could use this update to talk a little about one of the unique science career opportunities aboard the ship.

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the Nation’s seven uniformed services (the others being Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Public Health Service). The NOAA Corps basically ensure that everything is safe and running smoothly with the ship. NOAA Corps officers have a solid background in science, math, or engineering. There are four Corps officers aboard the Oregon II, and many more in locations all around the world, such as Guam and Antarctica.

More information can be found here: http://www.noaacorps.noaa.gov/.

The NOAA Corps Emblem

The NOAA Corps Emblem

NOAA Commissioned Corps Officers on the Oregon II: LCDR (Lieutenant Commander) Eric Johnson, LTJG (Lieutenant Junior Grade) Larry Thomas, ENS (Ensign) Rachel Pryor, and ENS (Ensign) Laura Dwyer

While visiting the bridge today I spoke briefly with ENS Laura Dwyer who spoke to me about her history with NOAA and her duties onboard the Oregon II. Laura grew up as a “water baby” as she phrased it. She originally has a degree in International Business but after a few years of traveling and diving decided to go into the NOAA Corps. Her duties onboard the ship are to basically make sure the ship and passengers onboard are safe. Some of this has to do with using charts to maneuver through traffic in the sea.

Charts for Navigation

Charts for Navigation

Officer Laura Dwyer

Junior Officer Laura Dwyer

The charts are in fathoms which show water depth. The Oregon II tries generally to stay out of water that is more shallow than 60 feet.

Personal Log:

When it rains, it pours. That’s Florida weather anyways. Yesterday we left port in the pouring rain. There is something calming about the rain pounding outside the ship, like a persistent reminder of the awesomeness of mother nature. Although there are thirty one of us on board, the ship can be surprisingly quiet. Today in the moments after we left port I found some time to soak up the experience with Tom Waits in my ears. Perfect.

We don’t start fishing for another day or two, and I am eager to get out the longlines to survey fish, take data, and learn new things. But for now, I am content to be around a passionate crew of men and women (scientists, engineers, chefs, crew hands, IT support, medics, ship officers, students, etc…) who love what they do. I am going to try to quickly highlight somebody different for each blog post to recognize some of the talented people aboard.

Chief Steward Steve Daley

Chief Steward Steve Daley

Name: Steve Daley

Job: Chief Steward

How did you get involved with NOAA: Steve joined the Army after high school and found that he was good at cooking. He got married young and didn’t want to leave the military so he could support his family. He found his comfort zone in the culinary field. He served in the First Persian Gulf Conflict and left the Army in 1992 to work in Pennsylvania as a Kitchen Manager for the Department of Public Welfare. He continued his education while working in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and also teaching a class called Restaurant Professions in the prison system. For many years he taught in the prison and also furthered his education in the process. At age 50 he had 25 years of service and retired with full benefits before starting on the Oregon II in 2014.

What is your favorite part of the job: Steve enjoys the “closeness of the crew”. It feels like family, since it is a much smaller operation. He calls it a fun, cool job, and a unique opportunity that many people never have a chance to experience.

The food onboard the Oregon II is excellent. There are three hot meals served every day, and everything is delicious. Steve is a pro.

Steve works with the second cook Mark Potter. Mark’s been working on many different ships and rigs (besides just NOAA ships) since 2011 and really enjoys it. Mark is actually my roommate! He went to school at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute, in Michigan. Mark is a funny guy who constantly cracks jokes with a friendly demeanor. He will not let me take a photo for fear that he will “break the camera” (his words).

Did you know? In 1972, NOAA Corps became the first uniformed service to recruit women on the same basis as men (http://www.history.noaa.gov/legacy/time1900_2.html). Also LCDR Eric Johnson told me today that NOAA Corps at last tally has approximately 25% female officers. This is more than any other!

Stephen Tomasetti: An Introduction, August 8, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Stephen Tomasetti
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
August 11 – 25, 2014

Introduction

As a teacher in Brooklyn, New York who originally comes from Florida, I am excited to return to my home state to take part in the “Critter Cruise” aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II. In two days, I will be flying to Jacksonville, Florida to meet the crew and board the ship. Now I am finishing up with packing and double checking that I have everything I will need. I am excited!

Looking over the Hudson River in upstate New York

Looking over the Hudson River in upstate New York

I teach a wonderful group of high school students at Brooklyn Frontiers High School, in downtown Brooklyn. This past year a group of these students and I journeyed to upstate New York for an Ecological Field trip filled with foraging, hiking, team building, and s’mores!

BFHS Students leading a presentation on their overnight trip experience

BFHS Students leading a presentation on their overnight trip experience

As a Biology teacher who lives and teaches in New York City, I look forward to sharing this experience with my students, as we connect together to the natural world that exists just outside of our apartment doors. Additionally, I expect to engage students in conversations about what real scientists are doing in the field, and what wide-ranging, exciting career opportunities there are in the field of science!