Ragupathy Kannan: Back on Terra Firma, September 9, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019

Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Ocean

Date: September 6, 2019

I’m glad to get my land legs back. As I reflect on the wonderful experience of 2 weeks out at sea with scientists, I wish to sum it all up by two images below.

ocean ecosystem diagram
The various threads in the fabric of the ocean ecosystem
Northwest Atlantic Food Web
We’re all in it together! We have no choice but to coexist in harmony. (Slide courtesy Harvey Walsh)

I re-posted (above) an important slide I presented earlier, that of a food web that includes plankton, krill, fish, birds, whales, and even us. Both the above images drive home the important message that all species are threads in this delicate fabric of life, coexisting and interdependent in a fragile planet with an uncertain and unsettling future. The loss of threads from this tapestry, one by one, however minuscule or inconsequential they may seem, spells doom for the ecosystem in the long run. The NOAA Corps personnel and NOAA scientists are unsung heroes, monitoring the ecosystems that sustain and support us. In this age of fake news and skepticism of science, they are a refreshing reminder that there are good folks out there leading the good fight to save our planet and keep it hospitable for posterity.

The Teacher at Sea (TAS) program gives hope that the fight to study and protect precious ocean ecosystems will be taken up by future generations. I was privileged to work with NOAA’s Teacher at Sea staff (Emily Susko et al.) in their enthusiastic and sincere work to set teachers on a stage to inspire students towards conservation and science. They too are unsung heroes.

And one final note. Why is the TAS program predominantly K-12 in nature? Why aren’t more college professors participating? In the past few weeks, I have directly connected with hundreds of college students, many with the impression that being a biology major was all about going to med school or other health professions. Research, exploration, and science are unfortunately not in their horizon. If the TAS program makes one Harvey Walsh (our Chief Scientist) or Michael Berumen (my former student!) or even the iconic Jacques Cousteau in the future, imagine the positive impact it will have on our oceans for decades to come. I urge readers to forward this blog to college teachers and encourage them to apply for this fantastic program. We owe it to our planet and to all its denizens (including us) to recruit more future marine scientists.

Post script

In my final blog from the ship, I included a poster on Right Whales that covered NOAA’s strict policy guidelines for ships when the endangered Right Whales are around. It turns out it was a timely posting. Just as our cruise ended, Right Whales were seen just south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. NOAA triggered an immediate bulletin announcing a voluntary vessel speed restriction zone (see map below). While I am sad that we so narrowly missed seeing them, it is good to know that they are there in the very waters we roamed.

voluntary speed restriction zone
Voluntary speed restriction zone (yellow block) around Nantucket following a sighting of Right Whales on August 30, 2019

I conducted 69 bird censuses along various line transects during the cruise and uploaded the checklists to eBird, Cornell University’s global citizen science platform for birders. Here is a summary of all the information in the form of a comprehensive Trip Report:


Cecelia Carroll: A Busy Day Off the Coast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, May 11, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cecelia Carroll

Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow

May 2 – 13, 2017  

Mission: Spring Bottom Trawl

Geographic Area: Northeastern Atlantic

Date: May 11, 2017

Latitude: 42.45.719 N
Longitude: 282.18.6 W

Science and Technology

As soon as the day group’s shift started at noon we were right into sorting the catch and doing the work-up of weighing, measuring and taking samples.

It’s with a good bit of anticipation waiting to see what the net will reveal when its contents are emptied! There were some new fish for me to see today of which I was able to get some nice photos.  I was asked today if I had a favorite fish.  I enjoy seeing the variety of star fish that come down the conveyor belt as we sort through the catch even though they are not part of the survey.  The Atlantic Mackerel (Scomber scombrus) are beautiful with their blue and black bands on their upper bodies and their shimmering scales.  They are a schooling fish and today one catch consisted primarily of this species. I’m fascinated with the unusual looking fish such as the goosefish, the Atlantic wolffish (Anarchichas lupus) with its sharp protruding teeth, and some of the different crabs we have caught in the net.  Another catch today, closer to land where the seafloor was more sandy, was full of Atlantic Scallops. Their shells consisted of a variety of interesting colors and patterns.

Today I also had a chance to have a conversation with the Commanding Officer of the Henry B. Bigelow, Commander Jeffrey Taylor.  After serving as a medic in the air force, and with a degree in Biology with a concentration in marine zoology from the University of South Florida.  What he enjoys about his job is teaching the younger NOAA officers in the operation of the ship.  He is proud of his state-of-the-art ship with its advanced technology and engineering and its mission to protect, restore, and manage the marine, coastal and ocean resources.  Some things that were touched upon in our conversation about the ship included the winch system for trawling.  It is an advanced system that monitors the cable tension and adjusts to keep the net with its sensors open to specific measurements and to keep it on the bottom of the seafloor. This system also is more time efficient. The Hydrographic Winch System deploys the CTD’s before each trawl.  CO Taylor also related how the quiet hull and the advanced SONAR systems help in their missions.  What we discussed that I am most familiar with since I boarded the Henry B. Bigelow is the Wet Lab, which was especially engineered for the Henry B. Bigelow and its survey missions. This is where I spend a good bit of time during the survey.  The ergonomically designed work stations interface with the computer system to record and store the data collected from the fish samples 100% digitally. I was pleased to hear what thought, skill and fine tuning had gone into designing this room as I had earlier on the trip mentally noted some of the interesting aspects of the layout of the room. Commanding Officer Taylor also had high praise for his dedicated NOAA Corps staff and the crew, engineers and scientists that work together as a team.


Sea stars


Atlantic mackerel


TAS Cecelia Carroll holds a wolffish


Crab and sea star


Atlantic sea scallops

Leah Johnson: Fish Identification & Pisces Farewell, August 1, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 033.995650
Longitude -077.348710
Water Temperature 24.37 °C
Salinity 36.179 ppt
Air Temperature 27.4 °C
Relative Humidity 83 %
Wind Speed 15.95 knots
Wind Direction 189.45 degrees
Air Pressure 1012.3 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
I am still amazed at the wealth of data collected aboard the Pisces on this survey cruise. I am getting better at identifying the fish as they are hauled up in the traps, as well as when I see these fish on video. Because of light attenuation, many fish look very different in color when they are underwater. Light attenuation refers to the gradual loss of visible light that can penetrate water with increasing depth. Red light has the longest wavelength on the visible light spectrum, and violet has the shortest wavelength. In water, light with the shortest wavelength is absorbed first. Therefore, with increasing depth, red light is absorbed, followed by orange, then yellow. Fish that appear red in color at the surface will not appear red when they are several meters below the sea surface where they are captured on camera.

For example, we hauled in some blackfin snapper earlier this week. At the surface, its color is a distinct red like many other types of snappers, and it has a black spot near the base of its pectoral fin. When I looked at the videos from the trap site, I did not realize that all of the fish swimming around with yellow-looking tails were the very same blackfin snappers that appeared in the traps! When I remembered that red light is quickly absorbed in ocean water and noticed the black spot on the pectoral fin and shape of the dorsal fin, it made more sense.

Top: Blackfin snapper collected from trap.
Bottom: Video still of blackfin snappers swimming near trap.

I tell my geology students every year that when identifying minerals, color is the least reliable property. I realize now that this can also apply to fish identification. Therefore, I am trying to pay closer attention to the shape of the different fins, slope of the head, and relative proportions of different features. The adult scamp grouper, for example, has a distinct, unevenly serrated caudal fin (tail) with tips that extend beyond the fin membrane. The tip of the anal fin is elongated as well.

scamp grouper

Scamp grouper

Another tricky aspect of fish identification is that some fish change color and pattern over time. Some groups of fish, like wrasses, parrotfish, and grouper, exhibit sequential hermaphroditism. This means that these fish change sex at some point in their lifespan. These fish are associated with different colors and patterns as they progress through the juvenile phase, the initial phase, and finally the terminal phase. Some fish exhibit fleeting changes in appearance that can be caught on camera. This could be as subtle as a slight darkening of the face.

The slight shape variations among groupers can also lead groups of scientists to gather around the computer screen and debate which species it is. If the trap lands in an area where there are some rocky outcrops, a fish may be partially concealed, adding another challenge to the identification process. This is no easy task! Yet, everyone on board is excited about the videos, and we make a point to call others over when something different pops up on the screen.

warsaw grouper

We were all impressed by this large Warsaw grouper, which is not a common sight.

I have seen many more types of fish and invertebrates come up in the traps over the past week. Here are a few new specimens that were not featured in my last “fish” post:

Did You Know?

Fish eyes are very similar to those of terrestrial vertebrates, but their lenses that are more spherical.

lens from fish eye

Lens from fish eye

Personal Log:

I love being surrounded by people who are enthusiastic about and dedicated to what they do. Everyone makes an extra effort to show me things that they think I will be interested to see – which I am, of course! If an interesting fish is pulled up in the trap and I have stepped out of the wet lab, someone will grab my camera and take a picture for me. I continue to be touched by everyone’s thoughtfulness, and willingness to let me try something new, even if I slow down the process.

me, standing on the deck at the stern

Me, on the deck of the ship. We just deployed the traps off the stern.

As our cruise comes to an end, I want to thank everyone on board for letting me share their work and living space for two weeks. To the NOAA Corps officers, scientists, technicians, engineers, deckhands, and stewards, thank you for everything you do. The data collection that takes place on NOAA fishery survey cruises is critical for the management and protection of our marine resources. I am grateful that the Teacher at Sea program allowed me this experience of a lifetime. Finally, thank you, readers! I sincerely appreciate your continued support. I am excited to share more of what I have learned when I am back on land and in the classroom. Farewell, Pisces!

Leah Johnson: Career Spotlight: NOAA Corps Officer, July 30, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

 Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 34.18282
Longitude -76.13712
Water Temperature 25.62 °C
Salinity 35.3592 ppt
Air Temperature 29.8 °C
Relative Humidity 71 %
Wind Speed 13.23 knots
Wind Direction 159.25
Air Pressure 1013.2 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
Career Spotlight: I would like to introduce everyone to Ensign Hollis Johnson, one of the Junior Officers on NOAA Ship Pisces. She was kind enough to let me ask her a few questions about life at sea.

Ens Hollis Johnson

Ensign Hollis Johnson

Q: What is the role of a Junior Officer (JO) on this ship?

A: The primary duty of a JO is driving the ship. We are also the eyes and ears of the Commanding Officer (CO). We carry out standing orders, ensure ship safety, and also make sure the scientists are getting what they need for their survey work.

Q: Does this job description vary depending on the ship?

A: This is a generic fleet-wide description, and some ships are a little different. On hydrographic ships, there is more computer-based work with data collection. On fisheries ships, collateral duties are split amongst the JOs; for example, we have an environmental compliance officer, a safety officer, a movie officer, and a navigation officer.

Q: What do you like best about your job and being at sea?

A: I really like driving the ship. Few jobs offer this kind of an opportunity! I also like the fact that no two days are ever the same, so my job is a constant adventure. The best things about being at sea in general are the sunrises and sunsets, and the dolphins, of course.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job and life at sea?

A: This job requires long hours. We can easily work 12-16 hour days, and while in port we still have to work some weekends. Because of this time commitment, we have to make sacrifices. But, we get that time back with our land assignments because there is more flexibility.

Q: When do NOAA Corps officers go to sea, and for how long do they stay?

A: After a 5-month training period, JOs are sent straight to sea assignments for 2 year periods. This can be extended or shortened by 6 months depending on what you are looking for in your next assignment. I extended my assignment at sea for 5 months so I could get my upcoming land assignment in California to work with dolphins for 3 years. After the land-based assignment, NOAA officers typically return to sea as operations officers, then back to land, then sea as executive officers, and so on. That is how you move up.

Q: What exactly will you be doing when you are on your next assignment in California?

A: The title of my position will be Cetacean Photo Specialist. I will be in La Jolla, CA, doing boat and aerial surveys, lots of GIS work and spatial surveys of marine mammal populations. I will participate in the center’s marine mammal stranding network. I will also be involved with outreach and education, which includes giving tours and presentations on scientific studies happening at the lab.

Q: Is life at sea different from what you expected?

A: Actually, it is easier than I thought it would be. I have always been a homebody and lived near my parents, I’m always busy here so time flies. I have internet and phone service so I still feel connected.

Q: Where did you go to college, and what degree did you earn?

A: I attended the University of Georgia, and earned a B.S. in Biology with a focus in marine biology.

Q: When / how did you decide to pursue a career in science?

A: When I was a kid I went to Sea World and fell in love with the whales and dolphins. I always loved animal planet. I also considered being a veterinarian for a while. I tried to be realistic because it is hard to land a career as a marine biologist, but I interned at a lot of places and made connections so I could do what I wanted to do.

Q: How did you find out about careers with NOAA?

In college, I took a summer course about marine mammals and toured a NOAA lab. About a year later, in June, my uncle saw the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster in port in Georgia, and I talked to someone on board about the work they were doing at sea. I immediately applied, interviewed, and was commissioned in January. It all happened very fast once I found out about it.

Q: You were one of the divers who recovered the missing trap this week. How long have you been diving?

A: I was certified to dive when I was 18. It is amazing, and something everyone should try. When I became an officer, the first thing I did was beg my command to send me to the NOAA Dive Center for training as a working diver.

Q: If a high school student is interested in a career like yours, what advice would you give?

A: Do a lot of volunteer work before you expect to get paid. You are investing in your future. If you want it bad enough you have to make sacrifices – but it will pay off. Make connections. If a marine biologist gives a presentation at your school, hang out after and talk with them. Ask for their email address and follow up. It’s a small world in marine research and networking is key.

Q: What is your favorite marine animal, and why?

A: I love thresher sharks and octopuses, but I’ll say Orcas. I’ve always found their species-wide diversity fascinating.

Personal Log:

There are so many people on this cruise who scuba dive and see amazing things below the sea surface. I have only snorkeled. I see dive certification in my future!

Did You Know?

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven uniformed services in the United States. Their motto is “Science, service, stewardship”.

map and control panel on the bridge

Chart and control panel on the bridge

Leah Johnson: Career Spotlight: Survey Technician, July 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:13 PM
Latitude 033.707470
Longitude -076.827550
Water Temperature 25.8 °C
Salinity 37.1618 ppt
Air Temperature 29.2 °C
Relative Humidity 75 %
Wind Speed 16.08 knots
Wind Direction 25.88 degrees
Air Pressure 1013.2 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
Career Spotlight: I would like to introduce everyone to Danielle Power, the Survey Technician on NOAA Ship Pisces. She was kind enough to let me interview her today.

survey technician working in the acoustics lab

Editing map area coordinates in the acoustics lab

Q: What is the role of a survey technician (ST) on this ship?

A: The survey technician keeps track of scientific equipment and spaces. This includes calibrating sensors and maintaining and repairing equipment. When science parties are on the ship, the ST assists with data collection and oversees CTD operation.

Q: Does this job description vary depending on the ship?

A: Yes. On the Nancy Foster and other ships with big dive platforms, STs do a lot of diving and deck work. There are often two STs on board, each working a half-day shift. These STs do not work so intensively with fish. Hydrographic vessel STs deal with mapping and tide station installs.

Q: What do you like best about your job and being at sea?

A: My favorite thing about life at sea is that there are no bugs, and I don’t have to deal with allergies! I also meet awesome people on every cruise. Every trip is a little different, so I am always learning new things.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your job and life at sea?

A: Being at sea for a long time, all the time, is taxing.

Q: Is life at sea different from what you expected?

A: Yes. This job requires living with 20 other people in a confined space all the time, and it isn’t easy. I didn’t fully realize this back in college. I don’t have easy access to things I might want or need. I also have to give up certain aspects of social life. You can’t just take a day off, you have to take an entire leg of a cruise off (up to 2 weeks), which is a lot of money to not be making and a lot of work to be missing. So I have to miss some big events for important people in my life, like weddings and holidays.

Q: Where did you go to college, and what degree did you earn?

A: I graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. I earned a B.S. in biology with a concentration in marine biology.

Q: When / how did you decide to pursue a career in science?

A: In 6th grade, I went on a family vacation to Disney world. I went to Sea World, and it ignited my love for all things ocean. I have stuck with it ever since.

Q: If a high school student is interested in a career like yours, what advice would you give?

A: Work hard, and get a college degree that is relevant. Make sure you know that this is a job you truly want to do. Find internships and experience life on a ship before you commit. If you enjoy it, then make the most of the career and all of the opportunities that come with it.

Q: What is your favorite marine animal, and why?

A: An Octopus! Cephalopods are very intelligent creatures, and I love that they can blend into environments so well that they cannot be seen. They can change not just their color, but their texture. They are so interesting! They can go into small spaces, because they can fit anywhere their beaks fit and they use parts of their environment as tools.

survey technician working in the wet lab

recording data in the wet lab

Personal Log:
I am blown away by all of the different jobs that need to be filled while out at sea. Working on a boat was something that I never even considered when I was in high school. The idea just never occurred to me, and I didn’t know anyone at the time who did anything like this. There are so many interesting career opportunities that exist, and new types of jobs will develop as needs and technology change over time.

Read all about career opportunities with NOAA here!

Did You Know?

NOAA stands for “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”. It officially formed in 1970, but the environmental agencies that came together to form NOAA originated in the 1800s. Learn more about NOAA’s history here.

Leah Johnson: Trap Recovery, July 27, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Monday, July 27, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:38 PM
Latitude 034.384490
Longitude -076.576130
Water Temperature 23.75 °C
Salinity -No Data-
Air Temperature 30.8 °C
Relative Humidity 62 %
Wind Speed 10.15 knots
Wind Direction 88.23 degrees
Air Pressure 1014.8 mbar

 Science and Technology Log:
As I mentioned in an earlier post, flexibility is key. Things don’t always go according to plan. Originally, we were going to head northeast from Morehead City Port, but the weather did not cooperate with us. We headed south to avoid a large storm, and then moved closer inshore. This forced us to choose some different areas to sample. Most of our sample sites are situated over the continental shelf between Cape Fear and Cape Hatteras. Tomorrow we hope to move to deeper waters beyond the shelf break.

Pisces cruise pathway so far. Image from Shiptracker.

Map of Pisces route so far. Image from Shiptracker.

On July 23, we lost a trap. After one of the deckhands threw the hook out to catch the buoy rope and started the winch, the rope went taut and then snapped. Occasionally this happens because the traps can shift and become wedged under or hooked onto a rocky ledge on the seafloor. We do our best to avoid this, but it happens. This is why it is important to have extra traps, cameras, and camera housings on board.

Map showing locations of the two lost traps. Image from Shiptracker.

Map showing positions of two lost traps. Water depth is shown in feet.

We planned to retrieve our trap the following day, but the storm chased us out of the area. Two days later, we lost a second trap! Unfortunately, this one was too deep to recover on a dive. The traps we deploy have zinc clasps that dissolve after ~24 hours, so fish can eventually exit the traps on the off chance that we are unable to retrieve them. Still, we don’t want to simply abandon traps on the seafloor or run short on gear, so we made plans to retrieve the first trap. We just had to remain patient and hope for calmer seas. Finally, our window of opportunity opened up today.

Zodiac dive boat

The small boat is on a davit on the 01 deck.

A small boat is located on 01 deck near the stern of NOAA ship Pisces. The deck chief oversees operations as it is lowered for the divers, the dive master, and deckhands to board. They take an inflatable buoy and rope with them, and then head out to the coordinates of the trap. The divers descended ~20 meters to the shelf where the trap was indeed wedged on a rocky ledge. First, the divers removed the two GoPro cameras that were attached to the trap. Next, they secured a rope attached to a buoy on the trap. The ship will then be able to use this buoy to retrieve the trap as typically done. The divers ascended the line and were picked up with the small boat.

dive boat returns after successfully locating the trap

The small boat returns after successfully finding the trap.

The deckhands then attached our standard buoys to the rope, and returned to the Pisces. The divers climbed up a rope ladder on the starboard side of the ship, and the small boat was hoisted up. We then hauled up the missing trap like we would any other. The trap was empty, and all of the bait was gone – not surprising after a 4-day soak!

Personal Log:

I make a point to stand near the bow of the ship and watch the sea and sky for a while every day. I usually see some flying fish, which are fun to watch. They zip out of the water, dart across the waves, and then dive back under. One of them landed on deck after a storm, so I had a chance to see one up close.

flying fish found on deck

Flying fish

The skies are beautiful, too. I have seen some impressive clouds and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The view is completely unobstructed, so I can just take it all in without distraction. I find it all very peaceful.

The skies at sea are stunning.

Did You Know?

After otoliths and tissue samples are collected from the fish we keep, the fish are filleted, frozen, and donated to local food banks.

removing tissue samples from a fish

Collecting tissues from a fish.

Leah Johnson: All About the Fish, July 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Friday, July 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:38 PM
Latitude 033.235230
Longitude -077.298950
Water Temperature 25.88 °C
Salinity -No Data-
Air Temperature 28.3 °C
Relative Humidity 78 %
Wind Speed 5.76 knots
Wind Direction 355.13 degrees
Air Pressure 1011.3 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
When the traps are reeled in, the GoPro camera attachments are unclipped and brought into the dry lab. The cameras are encased in waterproof housing that can withstand the higher pressure at the seafloor. One camera is placed on the front of the trap, and one camera is placed on the back. Each video card captures ~45 minutes of footage. The videos will be carefully scrutinized at a later date to identify the fish (since many do not enter the traps), describe the habitat, and also describe the fish behavior. While aboard the ship, the videos are downloaded and watched just to make sure that the cameras worked properly, and to gain a general idea of what was happening around the trap. Occasionally, there are some really exciting moments, like when a tiger shark decided to investigate our trap!

tiger sharkThis tiger shark appeared in the video from both trap cameras as it circled.

While the cameras are being prepped in the dry lab for the next deployment, we are busy in the wet lab with the fish caught in the traps. The first step is identification. I could not identify a single fish when the first trap landed on the deck! However, I am slowly learning the names and distinctive features of the local fish. Here are a few examples of the fish that we have hauled in so far:

Once the fish are identified, they are sorted into different bins. We record the mass of each bin and the lengths of each fish. Most of the smaller fish are returned to the ocean once the measurements are recorded. Some fish are kept for further measuring and sampling. For each of these fish, we find the mass, recheck the total length (snout to tail), and also measure the fork length (snout to fork in tail) and standard length (snout to start of tail).

I measured the fish while one of my crew mates recorded the data.

I measured the fish while one of my crew mates recorded the data.

The fish is then ready for sampling. Depending on the species of fish, we may collect a variety of other biological materials:

  • Otoliths (ear stones) are made of calcium carbonate, and are located near the brain. As the fish grows, the calcium carbonate accumulates in layers. As a result, otoliths can be used – similarly to tree rings – to determine the age of the fish. I retrieved my first set of otoliths today!
  • Muscle tissue (the part of the fish that we eat) can be used to test for the presence of mercury. Since mercury is toxic, it is important to determine its concentration in fish species that are regularly consumed.
  • Gonads (ovaries in females or testes in males) can be examined to determine if a fish is of reproductive age, and whether it is just about to spawn (release eggs / sperm into the water).
  • The stomach contents indicate what the fish has eaten.

This toadfish had snail shells in its stomach!

This toadfish had snail shells in its stomach!

The soft tissues are kept in bags and preserved in a freezer in the wet lab. Sample analyses will take place in various onshore labs.

Personal Log:
It is important to remember that this ship is home to most of the people on board. They live and work together in very close quarters. There are daily routines and specific duties that individuals fill to keep Pisces running smoothly. Cooperation is key. I do my best to be useful when I can, and step aside when I cannot. Despite my inexperience at sea, everyone has been incredibly kind, patient, and helpful. I am lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing people who are willing to show me the ropes!

Did You Know?
The lionfish is an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean. Its numbers are increasing in waters off the Southeastern U.S. coast. These fish have few predators, and they are consuming smaller fish and invertebrates which also sustain local snapper and grouper populations.


This lionfish was in one of our traps yesterday.

Leah Johnson: The Sampling Begins, July 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Leah Johnson
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Time 12:20 PM
Latitude 034.242730
Longitude -076.394350
Water Temperature 24.99 °C
Salinity 36.5532 ppt
Air Temperature 29.5 °C
Relative Humidity 80%
Wind Speed 15.45 knots
Wind Direction 229.54 degrees
Air Pressure 1012.5 mbar

Science and Technology Log:
As a fishery-independent survey, our task is to monitor the population of fish – mostly those of commercial value – at a wide variety of locations. While commercial operations provide some information based on their annual catch, a fishery-independent survey is able to conduct a broader assessment in a given area of the ocean, even though fewer fish are caught. Because there is no limitation on fish size and a wider array of locations are sampled, these surveys can be used in conjunction with reports from commercial fishing vessels to provide a better picture of changing fish populations over time.

I am on the second leg of the sampling survey in the Southeast Atlantic, and I am working the 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM shift. We will be setting traps and cameras in waters between Myrtle Beach, SC and Hatteras, NC. NOAA Ship Pisces left port at 2:00 PM on Tuesday, July 22. I stood near the bow of the ship as we headed out to sea, and watched flying fish zip through the spray. Once we left the sheltered waters near Morehead City Port, the seas became rough. High winds led to high swells, and we were unable to set any fish traps that afternoon. Because of these conditions, we changed our plans so that we could shelter behind a cape overnight. Flexibility is key!

Map of Pisces route upon departure on Tuesday, July 22.

Map of Pisces route upon departure on Tuesday, July 22. Source: Shiptracker

Today, skies were clear and the water was calm. We deployed a total of 18 traps in three areas over the course of the day. I helped to bait the chevron traps and line them up on the deck. Once the ship was over the chosen location, the traps and buoys were pushed overboard. Most of the traps today were deployed at a depth of ~25 meters. Six traps are deployed in an area, and are set at least 200 meters apart. The traps soak for 90 minutes, and then the ship circles back for the first trap. It is hauled up on the starboard (right) side, and the fish fall into a large tray placed beneath the trap opening.

The crew pulls up a trap.

The crew pulls up a trap.

We collected a variety of fish which had to be sorted, measured, and either kept for further sampling or returned to the sea based on the species. The bulk of the fish were black sea bass, but there was also a wide range of small fish (including scup, pinfish, and tomtate), red snapper, gag grouper, toadfish, and triggerfish. A small octopus came up with the second trap, which was exciting for the whole crew! One trap line snagged during retrieval, so a couple people may try to collect it on a future dive. The camera footage has been interesting too, as there are many fish that may swim near the trap but never enter. Therefore, the cameras provide additional data for the survey. Just today, a tiger shark was caught on tape!

A variety of fish in a chevron trap

A wide variety of fish are brought up in a chevron trap.

Personal Log
I have only spent one full day at sea so far, but I am enjoying every second of it. I am fascinated by all of the fish and other marine life. I spent some quality time watching dolphins jumping alongside the ship in the afternoon, and just looking out over the water. Sometimes the horizon is completely empty. Occasionally, I can see a lighthouse on a cape or another ship. Most of the time, we are surrounded by only sea and sky. The color of the water varies with weather conditions and water depth.

I have not experienced any sea sickness, and I am grateful for that. It was a little difficult getting used to the movement of the ship. I was definitely wobbling all over the place on day one. The swells were big though, so everyone was wobbling around with me. Putting food on my plate during dinner was especially challenging – and keeping it on my plate while walking to a table was more challenging still! However, my sea legs are improving, and I managed to do some yoga at sunset on the fly deck with a couple of the crew members! I didn’t fall over…. much. It was great way to wrap up the day. Keeping up with regular activities, like exercise, is really important while at sea. I am also growing used to the sensation of being rocked to sleep at night.

Did You Know?
The triggerfish earned its name because of its dorsal fin. If you press down on the first spine (a long, thin bone) at the front of the fin, it won’t budge. However, if you place your finger on a lower, shorter spine (the “trigger”), you can collapse the fin. Cool!

I love triggerfish!

I love this gray triggerfish!

Leah Johnson: Almost Time to Sail, July 7, 2015

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Leah Johnson
Soon Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 21 – August 3, 2015

Mission: Southeast Fishery – Independent Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, Southeastern U.S. Coast
Date: July 7, 2015

Personal Log

About Me

I am a science teacher at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, IL. My background is primarily in Earth Science, but I enjoy learning and teaching in all areas of science. Currently, I teach Principles of Biology and Chemistry to freshmen and sophomores, and two elective courses – Weather and Environment and Physical Geology – to juniors and seniors. I work with amazing people who are invested in science education and outreach, and they are very supportive of my upcoming adventure at sea!

Outside of my career in science and education, I love painting, reading, traveling, horseback riding, and biking. I am lucky to be married to someone who shares many of my interests, and we have a couple awesome huskies, too!

Why Teacher At Sea?

I have always been fascinated with the ocean. I have spent many vacation hours snorkeling in Florida, Hawaii, and the Bahamas, and exploring tide pools along the Pacific Northwest coast. When I am home in the Midwest, I can often be found with my nose in a book about deep sea fish, or watching ocean documentaries. I heard about NOAA’s Teacher At Sea Program several years ago as a graduate student, and decided to apply during my second year of teaching high school. To my surprise and delight, I was admitted to the program. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn more about ocean life, and to share this hands-on experience with my students and others who are curious about marine life, careers at sea, and what it’s like to live on a boat for two weeks!

Enjoying the California Coast

Enjoying the California Coast

Assignment: Fisheries

On Monday, July 20, I will fly to North Carolina and meet up with the crew of NOAA ship Pisces. We will embark from Morehead City on July 21 and sail along the outer banks of the Carolinas. The purpose of this cruise is to monitor fisheries in the Southeastern waters of the U.S. We will be counting and measuring nearly all of the reef fish that are caught in traps, and determining the age and gender of a select number of fish. Underwater cameras will be used in addition to traps to establish a better survey of the local fish populations. I am very excited to participate in this research, and learn from a group of dedicated and highly-experienced individuals who have established careers in ocean science and sailing.

NOAA Ship Pisces, Photo courtesy of NOAA

NOAA Ship Pisces, Photo courtesy of NOAA

Sharing the Experience

When I write my next post, I will be in the Atlantic Ocean. I am looking forward to sharing my experiences with you, and I will do my best to answer any questions you have. Communication is critical to science outreach, so please come along for the ride by checking out my posts and the blogs of other Teachers At Sea who have documented their fascinating ocean adventures as well. Thanks for reading!

 Did You Know?

The Atlantic Ocean is the second-largest ocean on Earth, covering about 41,105,000 square miles. This area makes up nearly 20% of Earth’s surface!

Source: NOAA

Trevor Hance: Life, As You (Already) Know It… June 21, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Trevor Hance
Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 12 – 24, 2015

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area: New England/Georges Bank
Date: June 21, 2015

Teacher at Sea?
Teacher at Sea?

Science and Technology Log

The rhythm of a ship rocking and rolling through varied wave heights while catching some zzzz’s in a small, curtain-enclosed bunk provides an opportunity to get some really amazing deep sleep.  Last night I had a dream that one of my childhood friends married Dan Marino.  It seemed completely bizarre until I remembered we saw lots of dolphins yesterday.

Dan? Mrs. Marino? Is that you?
Dan? Mrs. Marino? Is that you?

Seas have calmed substantially from the ride we had a couple of days ago, and for the past few days the ride has been so smooth I feel more like a “Teacher at Pond” than “Teacher at Sea.”  Unfortunately, it looks like that awful weather system my friends and family have been dealing back home in Texas is about to make its way to us here off the coast of New England (what many Texans consider “the southern edge of Santa-land”) and there’s even a chance today might be our last full day at sea.

At the helm: Estoy El Jefe!
At the helm: Estoy El Jefe!


Operationally, we’ve shifted back and forth from dredge to HabCam work and it is a decidedly different experience, and as with everything, there are pros and cons.


As mentioned in an earlier blog, the HabCam requires two people to monitor two different stations as pilot and co-pilot, each with several monitors to help keep the system running smoothly and providing updates on things like salinity, depth and water temperature (currently 4.59 degrees Celsius – yikes!!!).

Views of the screens we monitor: from 6 o’clock, moving clockwise:  the winch, altitude monitor, cameras of back deck, sonar of the sea floor and photos being taken as we travel
Views of the screens we monitor: from 6 o’clock, moving clockwise: the winch, altitude monitor, cameras of back deck, sonar of the sea floor and photos being taken as we travel

The pilot gets to drive the HabCam with a joystick that pays-out or pulls in the tow-wire, trying to keep the HabCam “flying” about 2 meters off the sea floor.  Changes in topography, currents, and motion of the vessel all contribute to the challenge. The co-pilot primarily monitors and annotates the photographs that are continually taken and fed into one of the computers in our dry-lab.  I’ll share more about annotating in the next blog-post, but essentially, you have to review, categorize and sort photos based on the information each contains.

The winch has its own monitor
The winch has its own monitor

Driving the HabCam gives you a feeling of adventure – I find myself imagining I am driving The Nautilus and Curiosity, but, after about an hour, things get bleary, and it’s time to switch and let one of the other crew members take over.  My rule is to tap-out when I start feeling a little too much like Steve Zissou.


Dredge work involves dropping a weighted ring bag that is lined with net-like material to the sea floor and towing it behind the vessel, where it acts as a sieve and filters out the smallest things and catches the larger things, which are sorted, weighed and measured in the wet lab on the back deck.

Close up of the dredge material
Close up of the dredge material; HabCam in the background

Dredge work is a little like the “waves-crashing-across-the-deck” stuff that you see on overly dramatized TV shows like “Deadliest Catch.”  As my students know, I like getting my hands dirty, so I tend to very much enjoy the wind, water and salty experience associated with a dredge.

Yours truly, sporting my homemade jolly roger t-shirt after a successful dredge
Yours truly, after a successful dredge, sporting my homemade Jolly Roger t-shirt

While the dredge is fun, my students and I use motion-triggered wildlife cameras to study the life and systems in the Preserve behind our school, and I fully realize the value those cameras provide — especially in helping us understand when we have too much human traffic in the Preserve. The non-invasive aspects of HabCam work provide a similar window, and a remarkable, reliable data source when you consider that the data pertaining to one particular photograph could potentially be reviewed thousands of times for various purposes.  The sheer quantity of data we collect on a HabCam run is overwhelming in real-time, and there are thousands of photos that need to be annotated (i.e. – reviewed and organized) after each cruise.

More Science

Anyway, enough of the operational stuff we are doing on this trip for now, let’s talk about some science behind this trip… I’m going to present this section as though I’m having a conversation with a student (student’s voice italicized).

Life needs death; this is a shot of 8 or 9 different crabs feasting on a dead skate that settled at the bottom. Ain't no party like a dead skate party...
Life needs death; this is a shot of 8 or 9 different crabs feasting on a dead skate that settled at the bottom. Ain’t no party like a dead skate party…

Mr. Hance, can’t we look at pictures instead of having class?  I mean, even your Mom commented on your blog and said this marine science seems a little thick.

We’ll look at pictures in a minute, but before we do, I need you to realize what you already know.

The National Wildlife Federation gives folks a chance to support biodiversity by developing a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” right in their own backyard.  We used NWF’s plan in our class as a guideline as we learned that the mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds we study in our Preserve need four basic things for survival:  water, food, shelter and space (note:  while not clearly stated in NWF’s guidelines, “air” is built in.)

This same guide is largely true for marine life, and because we are starting small and building the story, we should probably look at some physics and geology to see some of the tools we are working with to draw a parallel.

Ugh, more water and rocks?  I want to see DOLPHINS, Mr. Hance!

Sorry, kid, but we’re doing water and rocks before more dolphins.

Keep in mind the flow of currents around Georges Bank and the important role they play in distributing water and transporting things, big and small.  Remember what happened to Nemo when he was hanging out with Crush? You’ll see why that sort of stuff loosely plays in to today’s lesson.

Let There Be Light! And Heat!
Let There Be Light! And Heat!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Georges Bank is a shallow shoal, which means the sea floor has a lot more access to sunlight than the deeper areas around it, which is important for two big reasons. First, students will recall that “light travels in a straight line until it strikes an object, at which point it….” (yada, yada, yada).  In this case, the water refracts as it hits the water (“passes through a medium”) and where the water is really shallow, the sunlight can actually reflect off of the sea floor (as was apparent in that NASA photo I posted in my last blog.)

Also important is the role the sun plays as the massive energy driver behind pretty much everything on earth.  So, just like in our edible garden back at school, the sun provides energy (heat and light), which we know are necessary for plant growth.

Okay, so we have energy, Mr. Hance, but what do fish do for homes?

The substrate, or the sediment(s) that make-up the sea floor on Georges Bank consists of material favorable for marine habitat and shelter.  The shallowest areas of Georges Bank are made mostly of sand or shell hash (“bits and pieces”) that can be moved around by currents, often forming sand waves.  Sand waves are sort of the underwater equivalent of what we consider sand dunes on the beach.  In addition to the largely sandy areas, the northern areas of the Bank include lots of gravel left behind as glaciers retreated (i.e. – when Georges Bank was still land.)

Moving currents and the size of the sediment on the sea floor are important factors in scallop population, and they play a particularly significant role relating to larval transportation and settlement.  Revisiting our understanding of Newton’s three laws of motion, you’ll recognize that the finer sediment (i.e. – small and light) are easily moved by currents in areas of high energy (i.e. – frequent or strong currents), while larger sediment like large grains of sand, gravel and boulders get increasingly tough to push around.

Importantly, not all of Georges Bank is a “high energy” area, and the more stable areas provide a better opportunity for both flora and fauna habitat.  In perhaps simpler terms, the harder, more immobile substrates provide solid surfaces as well as “nooks and crannies” for plants to attach and grow, as well as a place for larvae (such as very young scallop) to attach or hide from predators until they are large enough to start swimming, perhaps in search of food or a better habitat.

With something to hold on to, you might even see what scientists call “biogenic” habitat, or places where the plants and animals themselves make up the shelter.

Substrate samples from one of our dredges; sand, rocks/gravel/pebbles,
Substrate samples from one of our dredges; shells, sand, rocks/gravel/pebbles, “bio-trash” and a very young crab

There is one strand of a plant growing off of this rock we pulled up.  Not much, but it's something to hold on to!
There is one strand of a plant growing off of this rock we pulled up. Not much, but it’s something to hold on to!

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm, rocks and one weed, huh… I wonder what’s happening at the pool…

Whoa, hold on, don’t quit — you’re half way there!

Before you mind drifts off thinking that there are coral reefs or something similar here, it is probably important that I remind you that the sea floor of Georges Bank doesn’t include a whole lot of rapid topography changes – remember, we are towing a very expensive, 3500 lb. steel framed camera at about 6 knots, and it wouldn’t make sense to do that in an area where we might smash it into a bunch of reefs or boulders.  Here, things are pretty flat and relatively smooth, sand waves and the occasional boulder being the exceptions.

Okay, our scallops now have a place to start their life, but, what about breathing and eating, and why do they need “space” to survive?  Isn’t the ocean huge?

As always, remember that we are trying to find a balance, or equilibrium in the system we are studying.

One example of a simple system can be found in the aquaponics systems we built in our classroom last year. Aquaponics is soil-less gardening, where fish live in a tank below a grow bed and the water they “pollute” through natural bodily functions (aka – “poop”) is circulated to the grow bed where the plants get the nutrients they need, filter out the waste and return good, healthy water back to the fish, full of the micronutrients the fish need to survive.  I say our system is simple because we are “simply” trying to balance ammonia, nitrates and phosphates and not the vast number of variables that exist in the oceans that cover most of our Earth’s surface.  Although the ocean is much larger on the spatial scale, the concept isn’t really that much different, the physical properties of matter are what they are, and waste needs to be processed in order for a healthy system to stay balanced.

Our simple classroom system
Our simple classroom system

Another aspect of our aquaponics system that provides a parallel to Georges Bank lies in our “current,” which for us is the pump-driven movement of water from the fish to the plants, and the natural, gravity-driven return of that water to the fish.  While the transportation of nutrients necessary to both parties is directionally the exact opposite of what happens here on Georges Bank (i.e. – the currents push the nutrients up from the depths here), the idea is the same and again, it is moving water that supports life.

But, Mr. Hance, where do those “nutrients” come from in the first place, and what are they feeding?

Remember, systems run in repetitive cycles; ideally, they are completely predictable.  In a very basic sense where plants and animals are concerned, that repetitive cycle is “life to death to life to death, etc…”  This is another one of those “here, look at what you already know” moments.

When marine life dies, that carbon-based organic material sinks towards the bottom of the ocean and continues to break down while being pushed around at depth along the oceans currents. Students will recognize a parallel in “The Audit” Legacy Project from this spring when they think about what is happening in those three compost bins in our edible garden; our turning that compost pile is pretty much what is happening to all of those important nutrients getting rolled around in the moving water out here – microscopic plants and animals are using those as building blocks for their life.

Our new compost system
Our new compost system

Oh wait, so, this is all about the relationship between decomposers, producers and consumers?  But, Mr. Hance, I thought that was just in the garden?

Yes, “nutrient rich” water is the equivalent of “good soil,” but, we have to get it to a depth appropriate for marine life to really start to flourish.  Using your knowledge of the properties of matter, you figured out how and why the currents behave the way they do here.  You now know that when those currents reach Georges Bank, they are pushed to the surface and during the warm summer months, they get trapped in this shallow(ish), warm(ish) sunlit water, providing a wonderful opportunity for the oceans’ primary producers, phytoplankton, to use those nutrients much like we see in our garden.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, I think I’m starting to see what you mean. Can you tell me a little more about plankton?

The term plankton encompasses all of the lowest members of the food chain (web), and can be further divided into “phytoplankton” and “zooplankton.”  Yes, “phyto” does indeed resemble “photo,” as in “photosynthesis”, and does indeed relate to microscopic plant-like plankton, like algae.  Zooplankton pertains to microscopic animal-like plankton, and can include copepods and krill.

Plankton are tiny and although they might try to swim against the current, they aren’t really strong enough, so they get carried along, providing valuable nutrients to bigger sea creatures they encounter.  Just like on land, there are good growing seasons and bad growing seasons for these phytoplankton, and on Georges Bank, the better times for growing coincide with the spring-summer currents.

Dude, Mr. Hance, I didn’t know I already knew that…. Mind…. Blown.

Yeah little dude, I saw the whole thing. First, you were like, whoa! And then you were like, WHOA! And then you were like, whoa…  Sorry, I got carried away; another Nemo flashback. While I get back in teacher-mode, why don’t you build the food web. Next stop, knowledge…

You've got some serious thrill issues, dude
You’ve got some serious thrill issues, dude

But, Mr. Hance, you are on a scallop survey.  How do they fit into the food web? You told us that you, crabs and starfish are their primary natural predators, but, what are they eating, and how?

Scallops are animals, complete with muscles (well, one big, strong one), a digestive system, reproductive system, and nervous system.  They don’t really have a brain (like ours), but, they do have light-sensing eyes on their mantle, which is a ring that sits on the outer edge of their organ system housed under their protective shell.  Acting in concert, those eyes help scallops sense nearby danger, including predators like those creepy starfish.


Scallops are filter feeders who live off of plankton, and they process lots of water.  With their shells open, water moves over a filtering structure, which you can imagine as a sort of sieve made of mucus that traps food.  Hair-like cilia transport the food to the scallop’s mouth, where it is digested, processed, and the waste excreted.

The text is small, but, it describes some of the anatomy of the scallop. Click to zoom.


But, Mr. Hance, do they hunt? How do they find their food?

Remember, scallops, unlike most other bivalves such as oysters, are free-living, mobile animals; in other words, they can swim to dinner if necessary.  Of course, they’d prefer to just be lazy and hang out in lounge chairs while the food is brought to them (kind of like the big-bellied humans in my favorite Disney film, Wall-E), so can you guess what they look for?

Gee, Mr. Hance…. Let me guess, water that moves the food to them?

Yep, see, I told you this was stuff you already knew.

I highlighted the shadows in one of the HabCam photos to show you proof that scallop swim.
I highlighted the shadows in one of the HabCam photos to show you proof that scallop swim.

While plankton can (and do!) live everywhere in the shallow(ish) ocean, because they are helpless against the force of the current, they get trapped in downwellings, which is a unique “vertical eddy,” caused by competing currents, or “fronts.”  Think of a downwelling as sort of the opposite of a tug-o-war where instead of pulling apart, the two currents run head-on into one another.  Eventually, something’s gotta give, and gravity is there to lend a hand, pushing the water down towards the sea floor and away, where it joins another current and continues on.

Those of you who have fished offshore will recognize these spots as a “slick” on the top of the water, and there is often a lot of sea-foam (“bubbles”) associated with a downwelling because of the accumulation of protein and “trash” that gets stuck on top as the water drops off underneath it.

Those “smooth as glass” spots are where currents are hitting and downwellings are occurring

This particularly large group of birds gathered together atop a downwelling, likely because the water helped keep them together (and because fishing would be good there!)
This particularly large group of birds gathered together atop a downwelling, likely because the water helped keep them together (and because fishing would be good there!)

Because plankton aren’t strong enough to swim against the current, they move into these downwellings in great numbers.  You can wind up with an underwater cloud of plankton in those instances, and it doesn’t take long for fish and whales to figure out that nature is setting the table for them.  Like our human friends in Wall-E, scallops pull up a chair, put on their bibs and settle at the base of these competing fronts, salivating like a Pavlovian pup as they wait on their venti-sized planko-latte (okay, I’m exaggerating; scallops live in salt water, so they don’t salivate, but because I’m not there to sing and dance to hold your attention while you read, I have to keep you interested somehow.)

If you become a marine scientist at Woods Hole, you’ll probably spend some time looking for the “magic” 60m isobaths, which is where you see scallop and other things congregate at these convergent fronts.

Before you ask, an isobaths is a depth line.  Depth lines are important when you consider appropriate marine life habitat, just like altitude would be when you ask why there aren’t more trees when you get off the ski lift at the top of the mountain.

Um, Mr. Hance, why didn’t you just tell us this is just like the garden!  I’m immediately bored.  What else ya got?

Well, in the next class, we’ll spend some time talking about (over-)fishing and fisheries management, but for now, how about I introduce you to another one of my new friends and then show you some pictures?

I don’t know, Mr. Hance, all of this talk about water makes me want to go swimming.  I’ll stick around for a few minutes, but this dude better be cool.

Lagniappe: Dr. Burton Shank

Today, I’ll introduce another important member of the science crew aboard the vessel, Dr. Burton Shank.  As I was preparing for the voyage, I received several introductory emails, and I regret that I didn’t respond to the one I received from Burton asking for more information.  He’s a box of knowledge.

That's Burton, on the right, sorting through a dredge with lots and lots of sand dollars.
That’s Burton, on the right, sorting through a dredge with lots and lots of sand dollars.

Burton is a Research Fishery Biologist at National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole working in the populations dynamic group, which involves lots of statistical analysis (aka – Mental Abuse To Humans, or “MATH”).  Burton’s group looks at data to determine how many scallops or lobsters are in the area, and how well they are doing using the data collected through these field surveys.  One of my students last year did a pretty similar study last year, dissecting owl pellets and setting (humane) rat traps to determine how many Great Horned Owls our Preserve could support.  Good stuff.

Burton is an Aggie (Whoop! Gig ‘Em!), having received his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M at Galveston before receiving his master’s in oceanography from the University of Puerto Rico and heading off as a travelling technical specialist on gigs in Florida, Alaska and at the Biosphere in Arizona.  For those unfamiliar, the biosphere was a project intended to help start human colonies on other planets, and after a couple of unsuccessful starts, the research portion was taken over by Columbia University and Burton was hired to do ocean climate manipulations.  Unlike most science experiments where you try to maintain balance, Burton’s job was to design ways that might “wreck” the system to determine potential climate situations that could occur in different environments.

As seems to be the case with several of the folks out here, Burton didn’t really grow up in a coastal, marine environment, and in fact, his childhood years were spent in quite the opposite environment:  Nebraska, where his dad was involved in agricultural research.  He did, however, have a small river and oxbow like near his home and spent some summers in Hawaii.

It was on during a summer visit to Hawaii at about 9 years old that Burton realized that “life in a mask and fins” was the life for him.  On return to Nebraska, home of the (then!) mighty Cornhusker football team, many of his fellow fourth grade students proclaimed that they would be the quarterback at Nebraska when they grew up.  Burton said his teacher seemed to think being the Cornhusker QB was a completely reasonable career path, but audibly scoffed when he was asked what he wanted to be and said he would be a marine biologist when he grew up.  I welcome any of you young Burton’s in my class, anytime – “12th Man” or not!


Sheerwater, I loved the reflection on this one

Such a nice day
Such a nice day

You'll never look at them the same, will you?
You’ll never look at them the same, will you?

Cleaning up after a dredge
Cleaning up after a dredge; shot from vestibule where wet-gear is housed.  We spent lots of time changing.

So fun to see lobsters and crabs when
So fun to see lobsters and crabs when “HabCam’ing.” They rear back and raise their claws as if to dare you to get any closer.

Good night!
Good night!

Playlist:  Matisyahu, Seu Jorge, Gotan Project, George Jones

Okay, that’s it, class dismissed.  Get outta here…

Mr. Hance

Trevor Hance: Permission to Come Aboard? May 28, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Trevor Hance
Soon to be Aboard R/V Hugh R. Sharp
June 12 – 24, 2015

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical area: New England/Georges Bank
Date: May 28, 2015

Personal Log: Permission to Come Aboard?

Greetings from Austin, Texas.  In less than two weeks, my grand summer adventure begins.  I will be flying out of Austin, and heading to Boston where Peter Pan will magically transport me down the Woods (Rabbit?) Hole and out to sea aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp, where I will support scientists conducting a Sea Scallop Survey.

Photo from the NOAA Fisheries website that I’ve been using to determine how to dress!

My Real Job

I teach at a fantastic public school in Austin that incorporates student interest surveys in lesson design and enrichment opportunities across subjects.  Although we are within the city of Austin, our campus backs up to a wildlife preserve (30,000 acres, total) that was set aside as land use patterns changed, and threatened habitat and ecosystems of 2 endangered birds, 8 invertebrates and 27 other species deemed “at risk.”  We have about 5 “wildspace” acres on our actual campus property that is unfenced to the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.  We use that space as our own laboratory, and over the last decade, fifth grade students at our school have designed, constructed and continue to support the ecosystem through ponds supported by rainwater collection (yes, they are quite full at the moment!), a butterfly habitat, water-harvesting shelter/outdoor classroom, grassland/wildflower prairie and a series of trails.  In the spring, I post job descriptions for projects that need work in our Preserve and students formally apply for a job (i.e. – resume/cover letter).  They spend the balance of the spring working outdoors, conducting research relating to their job, and doing their part to develop a culture and heritage of sustainability on our campus that transcends time as students move beyond our campus during their educational journey.  My path through the curriculum is rooted in constructivist learning theory (project-based, place-based and service learning) and students are always outdoors.  Parents, of course, always get a huge “thank you” at the end of the year from me for not complaining that I’ve ruined too many pairs of shoes.

Below are a few pictures from our game cameras and shots I’ve taken of my classes in action this spring.

Texas bluebonnets are beautiful, and even more spectacular when you get close and see “the neighborhood.”

Rain or shine

Early morning observation in the Preserve

Gambusia — my favorite!

Western ribbon snake snacking at the tadpole buffet.

One of our frog surveys in action

So, did anyone figure out what does the fox say?

Wild pigs rooting

Bandits abound when the sun goes down.


2015 05 13 GCW top of observation area
The endangered golden cheeked warbler, taken by me early May

As I write, there are about 5 days left of this school year, which means that most of our big projects are complete and the rain has paused, so we’re spending a few days having a big “mechanical energy ball” competition (aka – “kickball”), and I get the distinct feeling that the students are quite prepared for their summer break!

My Background

I was an “oilfield kid” and grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country, and about an hour’s drive to the Gulf of Mexico.  In college, I worked in the oilfield a bit, and after finishing law school, I was a maritime attorney, so I was able to spend some time aboard vessels for various purposes.  My time aboard the Hugh R. Sharp will be my longest stint aboard a vessel, and I’m quite excited for the work!

My Mission

R/V Hugh R. Sharp (btw students, it is a vessel or ship, not a “boat”) is a 146-foot general purpose research vessel owned by the University of Delaware (go Fighting Blue Hens!).  Each summer I get a travel coffee mug from the college where I attend a professional development course, and I’m hopeful I can find one with a picture of YoUDee on it this year!

Photo from the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health


Photo from the University of Delaware bookstore website of the mug I might pick up while traveling this summer


R/V Hugh R. Sharp


While aboard the vessel, we will be conducting surveys to determine the distribution and abundance of scallops.  My cruise is the third (and northernmost) leg of the surveys, and we’ll spend our time dredge surveying, doing an image based survey using a tethered tow-behind observation vehicle, and some deeper water imaging of lobster habitat.  Those of you who know me, know that I am genuinely and completely excited and grateful for the opportunity to “nerd out” on this once-in-a-lifetime get-away-from-it-all adventure!  Check back over the summer and see what I’ve been up to!

Trevor Headshot
That’s me!

Emily Whalen: Station 381–Cashes Ledge, May 1, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emily Whalen
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
April 27 – May 10, 2015

Mission: Spring Bottom Trawl Survey, Leg IV
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Maine

Date: May 1, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Winds:  Light and variable
Seas: 1-2ft
Air Temperature:   6.2○ C
Water Temperature:  5.8○ C

Science and Technology Log:

Earlier today I had planned to write about all of the safety features on board the Bigelow and explain how safe they make me feel while I am on board.  However, that was before our first sampling station turned out to be a monster haul!  For most stations I have done so far, it takes about an hour from the time that the net comes back on board to the time that we are cleaning up the wetlab.  At station 381, it took us one minute shy of three hours! So explaining the EEBD and the EPIRB will have to wait so that I can describe the awesome sampling we did at station 381, Cashes Ledge.

This is a screen that shows the boats track around the Gulf of Maine.  The colored lines represent the sea floor as determined by the Olex multibeam.  This information will be stored year after year until we have a complete picture of the sea floor in this area!
This is a screen that shows the boats track around the Gulf of Maine. The colored lines represent the sea floor as determined by the Olex multibeam. This information will be stored year after year until we have a complete picture of the sea floor in this area!

Before I get to describing the actual catch, I want to give you an idea of all of the work that has to be done in the acoustics lab and on the bridge long before the net even gets into the water.

The bridge is the highest enclosed deck on the boat, and it is where the officers work to navigate the ship.  To this end, it is full of nautical charts, screens that give information about the ship’s location and speed, the engine, generators, other ships, radios for communication, weather data and other technical equipment.  After arriving at the latitude and longitude of each sampling station, the officer’s attention turns to the screen that displays information from the Olex Realtime Bathymetry Program, which collects data using a ME70 multibeam sonar device attached to bottom of the hull of the ship .

Traditionally, one of the biggest challenges in trawling has been getting the net caught on the bottom of the ocean.  This is often called getting ‘hung’ and it can happen when the net snags on a big rock, sunken debris, or anything else resting on the sea floor.  The consequences can range from losing a few minutes time working the net free, to tearing or even losing the net. The Olex data is extremely useful because it can essentially paint a picture of the sea floor to ensure that the net doesn’t encounter any obstacles.  Upon arrival at a site, the boat will cruise looking for a clear path that is about a mile long and 300 yards wide.  Only after finding a suitable spot will the net go into the water.

Check out this view of the seafloor.  On the upper half of the screen, there is a dark blue channel that goes between two brightly colored ridges.  That's where we dragged the net and caught all of the fish!
Check out this view of the seafloor. On the upper half of the screen, there is a dark blue channel that goes between two brightly colored ridges. We trawled right between the ridges and caught a lot of really big fish!

The ME70 Multibeam uses sound waves to determine the depth of the ocean at specific points.  It is similar to a simpler, single stream sonar in that it shoots a wave of sound down to the seafloor, waits for it to bounce back up to the ship and then calculates the distance the wave traveled based on the time and the speed of sound through the water, which depends on temperature.  The advantage to using the multibeam is that it shoots out 200 beams of sound at once instead of just one.  This means that with each ‘ping’, or burst of sound energy, we know the depth at many points under the ship instead of just one.  Considering that the multibeam pings at a rate of 2 Hertz to 0.5 Herts, which is once every 0.5 seconds to 2 seconds, that’s a lot of information about the sea floor contour!

This is what the nautical chart for Cashes Ledge looks like. The numbers represent depth in fathoms.  The light blue lines are contour lines.  The places where they are close together represent steep cliffs.  The red line represents the Bigelow’s track. You can see where we trawled as a short jag between the L and the E in the word Ledge

The stations that we sample are randomly selected by a computer program that was written by one of the scientists in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, who happens to be on board this trip.  Just by chance, station number 381 was on Cashes Ledge, which is an underwater geographical feature that includes jagged cliffs and underwater mountains.  The area has been fished very little because all of the bottom features present many hazards for trawl nets.  In fact, it is currently a protected area, which means the commercial fishing isn’t allowed there.  As a research vessel, we have permission to sample there because we are working to collect data that will provide useful information for stock assessments.

My watch came on duty at noon, at which time the Bigelow was scouting out the bottom and looking for a spot to sample within 1 nautical mile of the latitude and longitude of station 381.  Shortly before 1pm, the CTD dropped and then the net went in the water.  By 1:30, the net was coming back on board the ship, and there was a buzz going around about how big the catch was predicted to be.  As it turns out, the catch was huge!  Once on board, the net empties into the checker, which is usually plenty big enough to hold everything.  This time though, it was overflowing with big, beautiful cod, pollock and haddock.  You can see that one of the deck crew is using a shovel to fill the orange baskets with fish so that they can be taken into the lab and sorted!

You can see the crew working to handling all of the fish we caught at Cashes Ledge.  How many different kinds of fish can you see?
You can see the crew working to handling all of the fish we caught at Cashes Ledge. How many different kinds of fish can you see? Photo by fellow volunteer Joe Warren


At this point, I was standing at the conveyor belt, grabbing slippery fish as quickly as I could and sorting them into baskets.  Big haddock, little haddock, big cod, little cod, pollock, pollock, pollock.  As fast as I could sort, the fish kept coming!  Every basket in the lab was full and everyone was working at top speed to process fish so that we could empty the baskets and fill them up with more fish!  One of the things that was interesting to notice was the variation within each species.  When you see pictures of fish, or just a few fish at a time, they don’t look that different.  But looking at so many all at once, I really saw how some have brighter colors, or fatter bodies or bigger spots.  But only for a moment, because the fish just kept coming and coming and coming!

Finally, the fish were sorted and I headed to my station, where TK, the cutter that I have been working with, had already started processing some of the huge pollock that we had caught.  I helped him maneuver them up onto the lengthing board so that he could measure them and take samples, and we fell into a fish-measuring groove that lasted for two hours.  Grab a fish, take the length, print a label and put it on an envelope, slip the otolith into the envelope, examine the stomach contents, repeat.

Cod, pollock and haddock in baskets
Cod, pollock and haddock in baskets waiting to get counted and measured. Photo by Watch Chief Adam Poquette.

Some of you have asked about the fish that we have seen and so here is a list of the species that we saw at just this one site:

  • Pollock
  • Haddock
  • Atlantic wolffish
  • Cod
  • Goosefish
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Alewife
  • Acadian redfish
  • Alligator fish
  • White hake
  • Red hake
  • American plaice
  • Little skate
  • American lobster
  • Sea raven
  • Thorny skate
  • Red deepsea crab





I think it’s human nature to try to draw conclusions about what we see and do.  If all we knew about the state of our fish populations was based on the data from this one catch, then we might conclude that there are tons of healthy fish stocks in the sea.  However, I know that this is just one small data point in a literal sea of data points and it cannot be considered independently of the others.  Just because this is data that I was able to see, touch and smell doesn’t give it any more validity than other data that I can only see as a point on a map or numbers on a screen.  Eventually, every measurement and sample will be compiled into reports, and it’s that big picture over a long period of time that will really allow give us a better understanding of the state of affairs in the ocean.

Sunset from the deck of the Henry B. Bigelow
Sunset from the deck of the Henry B. Bigelow

Personal Log

Lunges are a bit more challenging on the rocking deck of a ship!
Lunges are a bit more challenging on the rocking deck of a ship!

It seems like time is passing faster and faster on board the Bigelow.  I have been getting up each morning and doing a Hero’s Journey workout up on the flying bridge.  One of my shipmates let me borrow a book that is about all of the people who have died trying to climb Mount Washington.  Today I did laundry, and to quote Olaf, putting on my warm and clean sweatshirt fresh out of the dryer was like a warm hug!  I am getting to know the crew and learning how they all ended up here, working on a NOAA ship.  It’s tough to believe but a week from today, I will be wrapping up and getting ready to go back to school!

Emily Whalen: Trawling in Cape Cod Bay, April 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Emily Whalen
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
April 27 – May 10, 2015

Mission: Spring Bottom Trawl Survey, Leg IV
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Maine

Date: April 29, 2015

Weather Data:
GPS location:  4251.770’N, 07043.695’W
Sky condition:  Cloudy
Wind: 10 kts NNW
Wave height: 1-2 feet
Water temperature:  6.2○ C
Air temperature:  8.1○ C

Science and Technology Log:

On board the Henry B. Bigelow we are working to complete the fourth and final leg of the spring bottom trawl survey. Since 1948, NOAA has sent ships along the east coast from Cape Hatteras to the Scotian Shelf to catch, identify, measure and collect the fish and invertebrates from the sea floor. Scientists and fishermen use this data to assess the health of the ocean and make management decisions about fish stocks.

What do you recognize on this chart?  Do you know where Derry, NH is on the map?
This is the area that we will be trawling. Each blue circle represents one of the sites that we will sample. We are covering a LOT of ground! Image courtesy of NOAA.

Today I am going to give you a rundown of the small role that I play in this process. I am on the noon to midnight watch with a crew of six other scientists, which means that we are responsible for processing everything caught in the giant trawl net on board during those hours. During the first three legs of the survey, the Bigelow has sampled over 300 sites. We are working to finish the survey by completing the remaining sites, which are scattered throughout Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine.  The data collected on this trip will be added to data from similar trips that NOAA has taken each spring for almost 60 years.  These huge sets of data allow scientists to track species that are dwindling, recovering, thriving or shifting habitats.

The CTD ready to deploy.
The CTD ready to deploy.

At each sampling station, the ship first drops a man-sized piece of equipment called a CTD to the sea floor. The CTD measures conductivity, temperature and depth, hence its name.  Using the conductivity measurement, the CTD software also calculates salinity, which is the amount of dissolved salt in the water.  It also has light sensors that are used to measure how much light is penetrating through the water.

While the CTD is in the water,  the deck crew prepares the trawl net and streams it from the back of the ship.  The net is towed by a set of hydraulic winches that are controlled by a sophisticated autotrawl system.  The system senses the tension on each trawl warp and will pay out or reel in cable to ensure that the net is fishing properly.

Once deployed, the net sinks to the bottom and the ship tows it for twenty minutes, which is a little more than one nautical mile. The mouth of the net is rectangular so that it can open up wide and catch the most fish.  The bottom edge of the mouth has something called a rockhopper sweep on it, which is made of a series of heavy disks that roll along the rocky bottom instead of getting hung up or tangled.  The top edge of the net has floats along it to hold it wide open.   There are sensors positioned throughout the net that send data back to the ship about the shape of the net’s mouth, the water temperature on the bottom, the amount of contact with the bottom, the speed of water through the net and the direction that the water is flowing through the net.  It is important that each tow is standardized like this so that the fish populations in the sample areas aren’t misrepresented by the catch.   For example, if the net was twisted or didn’t open properly, the catch might be very small, even in an area that is teaming with fish.

Do you think this is what trawl nets looked like in 1948?
This is what the net looks like when it is coming back on board. The deck hands are guiding the trawl warps onto the big black spools. The whole process is powered by two hydraulic winches.

After twenty minutes, the net is hauled back onto the boat using heavy-duty winches.  The science crew changes into brightly colored foul weather gear and heads to the wet lab, where we wait to see what we’ve caught in the net. The watch chief turns the music up and everyone goes to their station along a conveyor belt the transports the fish from outside on the deck to inside the lab. We sort the catch by species into baskets and buckets, working at a slow, comfortable pace when the catch is small, or at a rapid fire, breakneck speed when the catch is large.

If you guessed 'sponges', then you are correct!
This is the conveyor belt that transports the catch from the deck into the wetlab. The crew works to sort things into buckets. Do you know what these chunky yellow blobs that we caught this time are?

After that, the species and weight of each container is recorded into the Fisheries Scientific Computing System (FSCS), which is an amazing software system that allows our team of seven people to collect an enormous amount of data very quickly. Then we work in teams of two to process each fish at work stations using a barcode scanner, magnetic lengthing board, digital scale, fillet knives, tweezers, two touch screen monitors, a freshwater hose, scannable stickers, envelopes, baggies, jars and finally a conveyor belt that leads to a chute that returns the catch back to the ocean.  To picture what this looks like, imagine a grocery store checkout line crossed with an arcade crossed with a water park crossed with an operating room.  Add in some music playing from an ipod and it’s a pretty raucous scene!

The data that we collect for each fish varies.  At a bare minimum, we will measure the length of the fish, which is electronically transmitted into FSCS.  For some fish, we also record the weight, sex and stage of maturity.  This also often includes taking tissue samples and packaging them up so that they can be studied back at the lab.  Fortunately, for each fish, the FSCS screen automatically prompts us about which measurements need to be taken and samples need to be kept.  For some fish, we cut out and label a small piece of gonad or some scales.  We collect the otoliths, or ear bones from many fish.

It does not look this neat and tidy when we are working!
These are the work stations in the wet lab. The cutters stand on the left processing the fish, and the recorders stand on the right.These bones can be used to determine the age of each fish because they are made of rings of calcium carbonate that accumulate over time.

Most of the samples will got back to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center where they will be processed by NOAA scientists.  Some of them will go to other scientists from universities and other labs who have requested special sampling from the Bigelow.  It’s like we are working on a dozen different research projects all at once!




Something to Think About:

Below are two pictures that I took from the flying bridge as we departed from the Coast Guard Station in Boston. They were taken just moments apart from each other. Why do you think that the area in the first picture has been built up with beautiful skyscrapers while the area in the second picture is filled with shipping containers and industry? Which area do you think is more important to the city? Post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Rows of shipping containers. What do you think is inside them?

Downtown Boston.  Just a mile from the shipping containers.  Why do you think this area is so different from the previous picture?
Downtown Boston. Just a mile from the shipping containers. Why do you think this area is so different from the previous picture?










Personal Log

Believe it or not, I actually feel very relaxed on board the Bigelow!  The food is excellent, my stateroom is comfortable and all I have to do is follow the instructions of the crew and the FSCS.  The internet is fast enough to occasionally check my email, but not fast enough to stream music or obsessively read articles I find on Twitter.  The gentle rocking of the boat is relaxing, and there is a constant supply of coffee and yogurt.  I have already read one whole book (Paper Towns by John Greene) and later tonight I will go to the onboard library and choose another.  That said, I do miss my family and my dog and I’m sure that in a few days I will start to miss my students too!

If the description above doesn’t make you want to consider volunteering on a NOAA cruise, maybe the radical outfits will.  On the left, you can see me trying on my Mustang Suit, which is designed to keep me safe in the unlikely event that the ship sinks.  On the right, you can see me in my stylish yellow foul weather pants.  They look even better when they are covered in sparkling fish scales!

Seriously, they keep me totally dry!
Banana Yellow Pants: SO 2015! Photo taken by fellow volunteer Megan Plourde.

Seriously, do I look awesome, or what?
This is a Mustang Suit. If you owned one of these, where would you most like to wear it? Photo taken by IT Specialist Heidi Marotta.

That’s it for now!  What topics would you like to hear more about?  If you post your questions in the comment section below, I will try to answer them in my next blog post.

Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Toro’s Tour and the Process of Fishing, October 2, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: October 2, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 41° 16.5′ N  Lon: 071° 06.3′ W
Present Weather: Cloudy
Visibility: 6-8 nm
Wind:  020 at 28 knts
Sea Level Pressure: 1017.4 mb
Sea Wave Height:  2-3 ft
Temperature Sea Water: 18.4  C
Temperature Air:  14 C

Science and Technology Log

The Henry Bigelow before we left port last week.
The Henry Bigelow before we left port last week.

Have you been wondering how we fish? I know I have shared a lot about sorting the catch, measuring the length and weight of the fish, and taking other data from the fish, but I haven’t shared a lot of details about how we fish. It’s a pretty cool process that involves a lot of science and engineering to get to a place where we have fish coming down the belt in order for us to sort. Let’s take a look at what happens.

  1. Before the season begins, points are randomly predetermined where we will fish. Each of these points is called a station. The captain and the chief scientist work together to plan out which stations will be visited on each leg of the trip and in what order. We are currently on Leg II of the Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey. There are usually four legs each year.
  2. Once we arrive on station, the ship’s officer scouts for the best place to release the nets. The nets need a relatively flat bottom of the ocean floor with no obstacles like rocks that the net could get caught up on. How does the scouting take place? The ship is equipped with both single beam and mutli-beam sonar. The multi-beam sonar is used to create a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor. This map is used to find the best place for us to trawl.
  3. Next, we take data about that particular spot of the ocean. We either send down the CTD, which measures conductivity, temperature, and density of the water, or we do a bongo. The bongo is a set of nets that streams off the ship to collect plankton from the area of the ocean on station. The survey techs are in charge of conducting these tests and collecting the data from them. Before the cruise began, the stations that would have CTDs or bongos were predetermined.
  4. Once the CTD or bongo test has been conducted, we are ready to set out the nets. The nets are set out by the deck crew and involve a complex series of machinery and computers. Our chief scientist, Jakub Kircun shares this about the system and sensors: “Autotrawl System and Scanmar Sensors: Autotrawl is specifically designed to keep the tensions between port and starboard towing wires equal, therefore keeping the net from fishing crooked. Autotrawl will also be able to assist with hangs as it will automatically release wire during a tension spike. The (Scanmar) sensors on the net are used to check the geometry of the net, however that data is not directly tied with Autotrawl. Instead we monitor the sensors to check on a variety of net mensuration parameters, such as wing-spread, door-spread, headrope-height, headrope-depth, bottom-contact, and water-speed-through-trawl. All those parameters are analyzed by a computer program after each tow called TOGA (Tow Operation Gear Acquisition). If all the parameters are within the per-determined tolerances the tow is considered a representative tow. However if the values are outside of these tolerances then the tow would fail the validation and would need to be retowed.”
  5. Once the net is in the water, we  begin streaming. While we are streaming, we are moving slowly in the water, dragging the net behind us. We stream for 20 minutes. We can check the progress of the trawl by watching the sensor readouts. There are sensors in the net that send back live data to the ship.
  6. After we have streamed for 20 minutes, we then haul back the nets. This is the reverse process of when we set the nets out. The net slowly comes back in and begins to be wrapped up and stored. The deck crew puts ropes around the part of the net where the fish are and attaches the net to a crane. The crane moves the net over to the checker.
  7. Once the net is over the checker, the net is opened and the fish are dropped into the checker.
  8. From that point, the watch chief looks through the checker and decides what we will run. This means we don’t collect these things off the conveyor belt instead letting them collect at the end. This is done for the things we caught in large quantities.
  9. From that point, the fish from the checker are loaded onto the conveyor belt and up into the wet lab for us to sort through and process. While we are sorting and processing the fish, the ship is on its way to the next station. The distance between stations varies. We’ve had some that were just over a mile away and others that have been 20 or more miles away. Yesterday, we had a long steam (travel) between stations because the next station was 52 miles away. It took us several hours to steam to that station.

Personal Log

Are you wondering what it’s like to live on a ship? It’s actually pretty cool. I mentioned before that we are on 12-hour watches. While we are on watch, we pack up what we will need for the day in backpacks or other bags. Why? Well, we share rooms with people on the night watch. My stateroom has four bunks. Two of us are on day watch and two of us are on night watch. While the day watch is working, the night watch is sleeping. We don’t want to disturb them so they can get good “night” of rest, so we do not go back to the state room while the night watch is off duty. When we are off duty, they do not come back to the room, either. While we are on watch, we can be really busy sorting and working up a catch. However, depending on how many times we fish during a watch, we may have some free time as well. We have some down time while we are steaming to the next station, during the CTD and bongo tests, and while we are streaming. We jump to work once we start hauling back the nets. We had one day where we were really busy because we visited seven stations during our watch. Sometimes, we have more free time between steams. During that time we can read, have a snack, work on blog posts like I am doing, or sometimes watch a movie. We also have time to eat our meals on watch.

The galley cooks up three meals a day for us. I have only made it in time for breakfast the first day before we started our 12-hour watches. We eat lunch before our watch starts and we eat dinner during our watch. The food is amazing. Dennis Carey is our head steward and chief chef, and he prepares awesome meals for us with his assistant, Luke. However, the galley is open all day, even when a meal is not being served. There are always snacks available like goldfish crackers, Chex mix, cereal, fresh fruit, and ice cream. Plus, there is bread, peanut butter, and jelly to make sandwiches. Sometimes there are pastries, cookies, or other desserts available, too. As you can see, we don’t have to worry about going hungry on the Henry Bigelow!

There is a lounge on board with six recliners and a television set. We can watch satellite TV and movies while we are here. There is also a television in the mess deck. It’s a tradition to watch The Price is Right during lunch time, for instance! We also have an exercise room that has weights, a treadmill, and a bicycle. I haven’t used the gym, but I have worked out with some of the other scientists on board. We can also do laundry, which is pretty important. We pack lightly since we don’t have a lot of room in our staterooms. As you can imagine, our clothes get a little smelly from working with fish all day, so it is nice to be able to do our laundry on board!

Careers at Sea

Ensign Estella Gomez shows volunteer Eric Smith how he plots the ship's course on the chart.
Ensign Estela Gomez shows volunteer Eric Smith how he plots the ship’s course on the chart.

Have you ever considered a career as a commissioned officer? Did you know that the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is one of the seven branches of the U.S. uniformed services? We have several officers on board including our commanding officer (the ship’s captain) and the executive officer. I had a chance to visit the bridge the other day, and Ensign Erick Estela Gomez shared what it is like to be part of NOAA’s Commissioned Officer Corps. Most of the officers have a background in science or math that aligns with NOAA’s scientific vision and purpose. To be part of the Corps, you have to have a science or math degree and apply to the program. If you are accepted, you go to training with the Coast Guard. Usually, there are 60 people as part of each training class, 40 from the Coast Guard and 20 from NOAA. The training is like boot camp and includes learning about how to be an officer as well as the science aspects of NOAA. One interesting thing Ensign Estela Gomez shared is that only about 10% of Coast Guard officers actually go out to sea. If you want to be out at sea and be a part of science, the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corp might be for you. Officers move through the ranks starting at ensign. Once an officer has passed training and certification, they can become an Officer On Deck (OOD), which means they can be on watch running the ship on their own.

Lt. Kuzirian takes the oath to accept his new rank as Lt. Commander.
Lt. Kuzirian takes the oath to accept his new rank as Lt. Commander.

As an officer on the bridge, there is a lot to do in terms of monitoring the different gauges and screens. There are radar monitors, engine and generator monitors, ship’s location, and mulitbeam sonar screens just to name a few. Also, the officer on deck has to watch the horizon for other ships and fishing gear in the water. Although there are computer systems to monitor the ship’s track and location, the ship’s location is still plotted on a paper chart. This is a backup in case of computer errors or other problems.

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to watch one of the officers, Lt. Stephen Kuzirian be promoted to Lt. Commander. This does not happen on board ship every day, so it was really cool to be a part of this ceremony. Lt. Commander Kuzirian has a background in oceanography. He currently works in Washington, D.C., but he joined us on this trip for a chance to be at sea and to assist the Henry Bigelow.

Toro’s Tour

Toro won the votes to make the trip on the Henry Bigelow. He thought you might like a tour of the some of the areas on board the ship. As he was working up the tour, the Captain was worried that Toro was a stowaway since he has not fulfilled any science duties while aboard ship!

Did You Know?

The Atlantic Torpedo is an electric ray. It is the largest growing electric ray, and can deliver a shock up to 220 volts!

Atlantic Torpedo Ray
Atlantic Torpedo Ray


Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Sunsets, Stars, and Analyzing Sea Life, September 29, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: September 29, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 39° 34.6′ N  Lon: 072° 14.9′ W
Present Weather: cloudy
Visibility:  7-9 nm
Wind:  140 at  17 knts
Sea Level Pressure:  1010.9 mb
Sea Wave Height:  3-4 ft
Temperature Sea Water:  22.6 C
Temperature Air:  20.8 C

Science and Technology Log

Processing fish as the cutter
Processing fish as the cutter

We are continuing to trawl different areas of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Southern New England area. I have graduated from recorder to cutter. This means that when we process the fish and other sea life that we catch, I get to cut fish open to examine them. I am working with Christine Kircun, and we trade off now almost every other tow taking turns to be the cutter and recorder. Christine has been an awesome teacher helping me learn how to properly cut into the fish, identify the sex and maturity of the fish, examine the contents of the fish’s stomach, and find the otoliths. Otoliths are small hard parts of a fish’s inner ear. They are found in cavities near the fish’s brain. The otoliths are collected and sent back to the lab to be analyzed. As the fish grows, the otolith gets different colored (clearer and white) growth rings  on it similar to a tree. Counting these can tell the age of the fish. Some fish have otoliths that are really easy to find and remove. Other types of fish are more difficult to find and remove, like windowpane flounder. For more information about how otoliths are used for age and growth, click here.

In my last post, I mentioned that there are left and right-eyed flounder. Summer flounder are left eyed, and winter flounder are right eyed. In a catch the other day, we had winter flounder. As we were working up the winter flounder, we discovered a left-eyed winter flounder! That was pretty cool to see since this is a more rare occurrence.

Winter flounder - a rare left-eyed winter flounder
Winter flounder – a rare left-eyed winter flounder

Winter flounder - a right eyed flounder
Winter flounder – a right eyed flounder

Before I left for my cruise, I received a CD with information on it including how to identify many of the common fish we catch at sea. I looked through that presentation several times, and I thought I was ready to identify the fish. However, I didn’t get really good at identifying fish until I saw them in person. For instance, there are several kinds of hake. So far, we have caught spotted hake, red hake, silver hake, and offshore hake. Each one looks slightly different, although the offshore and silver hake are the most similar. Red hake have a slight reddish appearance to their scales, and spotted hake have spots down their side. Now that I have seen each one in person, it is much easier to identify the different types of fish. Fish that seemed really similar in the presentation take on new meaning to you when you are holding them in your hand. It’s reminded me once again that when we are learning new things, the most important thing to do is dig in and try things out. You will learn so much more by doing things like experiments in chemistry and building things in engineering than you would by just reading about it or looking at pictures. I have also learned about the anatomy of fish by watching Christine first do the processing and now doing it myself. It’s really cool to see the insides of the fish and the different stages of growth and development. It’s also really cool to push the contents of the fish’s stomach out onto the board to examine what they have eaten!

I thought you might like to see a short video of the process of sorting the fish off the conveyor belt. You can see the fish coming up the conveyor belt from the checker and pouring onto the conveyor belt in the wet lab for sorting.

Careers at Sea

I have learned something really interesting about working at sea. The scientists onboard this cruise do not spend their entire time out at sea. In fact, most of the scientists go out once or twice in the spring and once or twice in the fall. Just like we are doing an autumn bottom trawl survey, there is also a spring bottom trawl survey. During the rest of the time, they work at the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, MA. It seems like a really cool balance between doing science in the lab with a pretty normal daily routine most of the year but then having the chance to go out to sea a couple of times a year in order to do field work and be part of an adventure. I did not know that opportunities like this existed. If you love to do science but don’t want to spend all of your time in the lab, a career like this might be really interesting to you. Most of the scientists have degrees in marine science/biology, biology, or other related fields.

Personal Log

After just a few short days, I have settled in to my routine here on the Henry Bigelow. It’s an exciting life because you never know what’s going to come up on the next trawl or what other cool things you will see out at sea. Sometimes, we have been really close to the shore, and you can see the lights of the cities off in the distance. Now, we are offshore, but even out here you aren’t alone. There are ships passing by most of the time, and at night you can see the lights from the other ships off in the distance.

One of my favorite things to do is to head up to the flying bridge to watch the sunset. The past few nights have had beautiful sun sets, and we have had time to enjoy them in between sorting and working up the fish. The flying bridge is the highest part of the ship. It’s above the main bridge where the ship is controlled from. When it’s clear, you can see for miles in every direction. There is also a picnic bench up there, so it’s a great place to sit and read a book while waiting for the next trawl to come in.

After my watch finishes at midnight, I also like to head up to the flying bridge. It’s one of the darker places on the ship at night. As your eyes adjust to the night, the stars begin to appear before you. Out here, the sky kisses the sea, and the stars rise out of the inky black of the ocean. I watched the constellation Orion rise up out of the Atlantic. It was inspiring. There are so many stars. It’s not like the light polluted skies of the Atlanta area. Even with the ship’s lights, you can still make out the bands of the Milky Way. I also saw two meteors streak through the sky the other night.

Did You Know?

The goosefish is an angler fish that lives on the ocean floor on the continental shelf and slope. It uses its angler to attract prey. It has a huge mouth compared to its body. It’s also called poor man’s lobster because the meaty tail of the fish resembles the taste of lobster.


Goosefish mouth
Goosefish mouth

Challenge Yourself

Think you have what it takes to figure out the age of a fish using otoliths? Try this interactive, and share how you did in the comments.


Janelle Harrier-Wilson: Learning about Life at Sea, September 26, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Janelle Harrier-Wilson
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
September 23 – October 3 

Mission: Autumn Bottom Trawl Survey Leg II
Geographical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean from the Mid-Atlantic Coast to S New England
Date: September 26, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Lat: 40° 11.3’N  Lon: 073° 52.7’W
Present Weather: CLR
Visibility: 10 nm
Wind: 326 at 5 knts
Sea Level Pressure: 1020.4 mb
Sea Wave Height: 2-4 ft
Temperature Sea Water: 20.4° C
Temperature Air: 23° C

Science and Technology Log

On the ship, there are two science watches: noon to midnight (day shift) and midnight to noon (night shift). I am assigned to the day shift. We left port late Tuesday afternoon, but we made it to our first trawl site a few hours later. When the nets brought back our first haul, I had a crash course in sorting through the fish. The fish come down and conveyor belt from the back deck to the wet lab. In the wet lab, the first thing we do is sort through the fish. The more experienced scientists are at the front sorting through the larger species and sometimes the more abundant ones. The largest species of fish go in large baskets, the medium sized ones go into large buckets, and the smaller ones go into smaller buckets. Each basket or bucket only has one species in it. During our first trawl, there was a smaller amount of fish to sort through, but we had a lot more fish the second trawl. It took us longer to sort through the larger fish.

Once the fish are sorted, we go to our cutter/recorder stations. At our stations, we sort through the buckets of fish one by one. Right now, I am a recorder. This means that I record the information about each fish into the computer. It’s a really cool computer system. First, the bucket it scanned. On the computer screen, a message pops up to tell us what type of fish should be in the bucket. If that is what we have, we say “Yes” to the prompt and continue. Then, we dump the contents of the bucket into a well waiting for inspection. The cutter pulls the fish out, one by one, and begins to take measurements. The first measurement is usually length. The tool for taking the measurements is integrated into the computer system. The fish are laid out on the ruler, and a sensor is tapped at the end of the fish. This sends the fish’s measurement to the computer. The Fish Measuring Board is a magnetic system. The tool that we use to measure the fish is a magnet. The board is calibrated so that when the magnet touches a specific area of the board, it will read the appropriate length. The computer then tells us what measurement to take next. Usually it is weight. On the other side of the Fish Measuring Board is the scale for the larger fish. There is also a small scale for smaller specimens. When the weight is recorded, the computer then prompts for additional measurements which are taken from the fish. During our second trawl, we worked up a bucket of summer flounder. One of the summer flounder was huge! I had not seen a flounder that big before!

One of the things that has really impressed me so far is the integration of the science and the technology. The computer system that records measurements is integrated into the ruler and scale right at the work bench (the fish measuring board). When we take samples from the specimen, a label is printed right at the station, and the sample is placed into either an envelope, zip bag, or jar for further handling. It reminds me of how technology makes the job of science more streamlined. I can’t imagine how long it would take for the processing and sampling of the fish if we had to take all of the measurements by hand! Technology is a valuable tool for scientists at sea.

Careers at Sea

Henry Bigelow Engine Room
Henry Bigelow Engine Room

We left port on Tuesday, September 23. Before we left, I had a chance to explore the ship and ran into chief engineer Craig Moran. He sent me to the engine room for a tour, and I met John Hohmann. John is the first engineer on the Henry Bigelow. He showed me around the engine room including the generators, the water system, and the shaft to the propeller. It was pretty quiet in the engine room since we hadn’t left yet, but it is a loud, warm place when the ship is at sea.

I had a chance to chat with John about his background in engineering. He has a specialization in marine engineering. Marine engineers really need to be a jack-of-all-trades when we are out at sea. If anything is not working right on the ship, they are called out to fix it. This can include any of the machinery in the engine room, the electrical systems, the water purification system, and even fixing the cooking equipment in the galley! Life at sea can be demanding as they can be called at any time day or night to fix an integral piece of machinery. However, engineers generally work 30 days at sea and then are home for 30 days. One thing John wanted you all to know is that there will always be jobs for engineers. If you are interested in marine engineering, it can help you travel the world. John has been all over the world to many interesting countries. The other thing that I found interesting is that he says you need to be able read and follow instruction manuals in order to fix an issue. He also said an essential skill for an engineer is problem solving. Marine engineering entails a lot more than I had initially thought, and it is really cool to be able to talk to John and learn about marine engineering from him first hand.

Personal Log

I arrived to the ship Monday evening (September 22). Since the ship wasn’t scheduled to leave port until the next day, most of the team was not on board yet. I was able to find my stateroom and get settled in. Tuesday, things started to pick up on ship. There was a dive at 9:00 to check the hull of the ship, so I had a chance to watch the divers slide into the water and later climb back out. The rest of the science team arrived just in time for lunch. I then had time to explore the ship (I found the important places: the laundry room and the gym!), and get to know the science team a little bit better. The ship started undocking around 16:00 (4:00 pm), and we were on our way to sea. We went up to the flying bridge, the highest deck on the ship, as we left Rhode Island. It was beautiful up there as we passed by Newport and the surrounding areas. There is an old lighthouse that is now used for event spaces, and a house built up on a small rocky island. At 17:00, it was dinner time. We eat our meals in the mess, and the meals are prepared in the galley. I knew I needed to eat a good meal because my watch for the night officially started at 18:00 and would last until 24:00.

The sea was pretty calm yesterday, so it was a good introduction to the ways of life on a ship. So far, I have not had any trouble adjusting to life onboard ship. I was worried about sea-sickness, but I came prepared and have felt great so far. A lot of the crew have mentioned that I should be fine, and that I’ve already found my sea legs. I think perhaps I have found my sea stomach but not my sea legs! I do periodically lose my balance when walking through the corridors. Thankfully, there are handrails everywhere to catch my balance just in case. Maybe I’ll find my sea legs in a few more days, but I am pretty clumsy even on land!

Janelle Wilson wears immersion  suit for abandon ship drill.
Trying on my Immersion Suit

Safety drills are also an important part of sea life. Each person has their own immersion suit and personal flotation device (PFD). These are in case we have to abandon ship. We need to be able to put our immersion suit on in 60 seconds. The immersion suit is kind of like a wet suit, but it has lights on it and other tools. There are also lifeboats on board. There are three types of emergencies we need to be prepared for: abandon ship, man overboard, and fire/other emergency. Just like we have fire drills at school to help us know where to go in the case of a fire, these drills help us prepare for emergencies.

Did You Know?

You can tell a summer flounder from a winter flounder by the side the eyes are on the fish. You look at the fish as if it were swimming up right. Summer flounder eyes are on the left, and winter flounder eyes are on the right. Summer flounder are called left eyed, and winter flounder are called right eyed.

Challenge Yourself

What additional information can you find out about marine engineering careers at sea? What type of training do marine engineers need, and what schools offer marine engineering?


Joan Le, Getting Set to TowCam, August 5, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Joanie Le
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
August 5 – 16, 2014

Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research
Geographic area of the cruise: 40 miles SE of Cape May, New Jersey
Date: August 5, 2014

In full survival gear during our first “abandon ship” drill.

Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 25.5° Celsius
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Wind Direction: 330°
Weather Conditions: clear
Latitude: 37° 37.7′ N
Longitude: 74° 06.8′ W

Science and Technology Log

After almost a full day at sea, we are only hours away from the first watch and the first glimpse of data. Preparations commence, and anticipation is high.

For the next two weeks, we’ll study the deep-sea corals that occur in submarine canyons off the east coast. They have been found in every region of the United States, but for this mission we’ll target canyons in the Northeast region, investigating canyons east of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Deep-Sea Corals are similar to the familiar shallow-water corals, but cannot harness sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they rely on nutrients from the water including detritus (non-living organic matter) and plankton. It is believed that Deep-Sea Corals find both shelter and bountiful grub on the steep-sided canyon walls where the faster-moving currents bring in the day’s meal. Surprisingly, many are just as beautiful and colorful as their shallow-water counterparts, like this bamboo coral photographed at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year.

This image was taken at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year. Photo credit NOAA.
Bamboo Coral (Jasonisis sp.) Photo credit NOAA.

Though not the hot snorkeling destination, the Deep-Sea Corals in this region are important habitat providers as well as sensitive indicators of ecosystem health. They are long-living but slow-growing and do not recover quickly. Both bottom trawling and possible energy harnessing (off-shore wind farms and oil and gas acquisition) are possible threats to their survival.

Because bottom trawling is so detrimental to the coral communities, we’ll use TowCam to survey the area. Deploying the TowCam is a delicate process, with sensitive and pricey equipment on the line. After a few test deployments yesterday, the team began picking our dive locations. There is plenty to consider when finding a dive spot, including the topography of the sea floor and slope of the canyon walls. We also use the results generated by a habitat suitability model that predicts where deep-sea corals are likely to occur. Scientists must strike a balance between the steeper, high-probability cliffs and the gentler slopes.

The crew prepares TowCam for the first test run.
The crew prepares TowCam for the first test deployment.

Brian Kinlan using Fledermaus to plan our first dive.
Brian Kinlan using Fledermaus to plan our first dive.











Personal Log

Life aboard a ship is surely not easy. The constant rocking and clanging of cold metal will take a while to get used to, and I will sadly miss many daytime hours with our 12 hours on-12 hours off watch schedule. And while waking at 3 AM to greet a deathly dark ocean view may not seem like summertime fun to most, this first morning underway has convinced me that a couple weeks at sea is a treat I won’t soon forget.

photo (4)

Lynn Kurth: It’s Shark Week! July 31, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lynn M. Kurth
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 25 – August 9, 2014

Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey
Geographical area of cruise:  Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic
Date:  July 31, 2014

Lat: 30 11.454 N
Long: 80 49.66 W

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Wind: 17 knots
Barometric Pressure:  1014.93 mb
Temperature:  29.9 Degrees Celsius

Science and Technology Log:
It would be easy for me to focus only on the sharks that I’ve  encountered but there is so much more science and natural phenomena to share with you!  I have spent as much time on the bow of the boat as I can in between working on my blogs and my work shift.  There’s no denying it, I LOVE THE BOW OF THE BOAT!!!  When standing in the bow it feels as if you’re flying over the water and the view is splendid.

My Perch!

From my prized bird’s eye view from the bow I’ve noticed countless areas of water with yellowish clumps of seaweed.  This particular seaweed is called sargassum which is a type of macroalgae found in tropical waters.  Sargassum has tiny chambers which hold air and allow it to float on or near the water’s surface in order to gather light for photosynthesis.  Sargassum can be considered to be a nuisance because it frequently washes up on beaches and smells as it decomposes.  And, in some areas it can become so thick that it reduces the amount of light that other plant species need to grow and thrive. However, the floating clumps of sargassum provide a great habitat for young fish because it offers them food and shelter.

Sargassum as seen from “my perch”

Sargassum (notice the small air bladders that it uses to stay afloat)
We have hauled in a variety of sharks and fish over the past few days.  One of the more interesting species was the remora/sharksucker.  The sharksucker attaches itself to rays, sharks, ships, dolphins and sea turtles by latching on with its suction cup like dorsal fin.  When we brought a sharksucker on board the ship it continued to attach itself to the deck of the boat and would even latch on to our arm when we gave it the chance.

The shark sucker attaches to my arm immediately!
The largest species of sharks that we have hauled in are Sandbar sharks which are one of the largest coastal sharks in the world.  Sandbar sharks have much larger fins compared to their body size which made them attractive to fisherman for sale in the shark fin trade.  Therefore, this species has more protection than some of the other coastal shark species because they have been over harvested in the past due to their large fins.

Thankfully finning is now banned in US waters, however despite the ban sandbar sharks have continued protection due to the fact that like many other species of sharks they are not able to quickly replace numbers lost to high fishing pressure.  Conservationists remain concerned about the future of the Sandbar shark because of this ongoing threat and the fact that they reproduce very few young.

The first Sandbar shark that I was able to tag
Did you Know?

Sargassum is used in/as:

  • fertilizer for crops
  • food for people
  • medicines
  • insect repellant

Personal Log:
I continue to learn a lot each day and can’t wait to see what the next day of this great adventure brings!  The folks who I’m working with have such interesting tales to share and have been very helpful as I learn the ropes here on the Oregon II.  One of the friendly folks who I’ve been working with is a second year student at the University of Tampa named Kevin Travis.  Kevin volunteered for the survey after a family friend working for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recommended him as a volunteer.  Kevin enjoys his time on the boat because he values meeting new people and knows how beneficial it is to have a broad range of experiences.


Kevin Travis

Emina Mesanovic, Wet Lab: Something Fishy Is Going on Here, July 23, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Emina Mesanovic

Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces

July 20 – August 2, 2014

Mission: Southeast Fishery- Independent Survey

Geographic area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina

Date: July 23, 2014

Weather Information from the Bridge

Air Temperature: 27.4 C

Relative Humidity: 85%

Wind Speed: 13 knots


Science and Technology Log

The goal of the Southeast Fishery Independent Survey (SEFIS) is to assess the location and abundance of different species focusing on snappers and groupers as well as collecting bathymetric data about the ocean floor that can be used in the future. The scientists are divided into day and night shifts, the night shift maps the ocean floor, while the day shift uses these maps to set traps and catch fish.

Traps on the back deck ready to go.
Traps on the back deck ready to go.

Each morning the scientists set up six chevron traps on the back deck of the Pisces, each trap is stocked with 24 menhaden, which serves as the baitfish. The traps contain the same amount of bait, two cameras one on the front and one on the back, and each trap stays underwater for 90 minutes. Chief Scientist Zeb Schobernd works in the dry lab to let the crew know when and where to drop the traps (more on this later).

Trap going down the rap into the water.
Trap going down the ramp into the water

When its time to retrieve the traps the crew of the Pisces works with chief scientist and the Bridge to retrieve the traps.  When you are on the deck waiting for the traps to be lifted on board you have to wear a safety helmet and life preserver. Once the traps on are on the deck the scientists really start to hustle. They remove the cameras from the traps and empty the trap into black bins.

Chevron Trap being lifted onto the deck

Once we are in the wet lab the first step is to sort the fish by species. In the picture on below you will see 3 bins with red porgy, vermilion snapper, and trigger fish these are 3 of the 4 most common commercially important fish we catch the 4th is black sea bass.

Sorting the fish
Sorting the fish

Red Porgy, Vermillion, & Trigger Fish
Red Porgy, Vermilion Snapper, & Trigger Fish

Measuring the total length of the fish
Measuring the total length of the fish

Next we need to weight the sample in kilograms and record the total size of the fish in millimeters. The fish that are not being kept for further study are returned to the ocean. It can get very busy and messy in the wet lab when the traps produce a large catch. The goal is to process one trap before the next trap is brought on deck. The traps are dropped three times daily for a total of 18 traps caught per day; it is the scientist’s goal to completely process the traps before the completion of their 12 hours shift. Certain fish are of special interest to the scientists because they are commercially and recreationally important to the fishing community so these fish are set aside for further study. On Monday July 21st we caught a 10.47 kg Red Grouper, which is one of the fish that is studied in more detail.

Red Grouper caught on Monday July 21, 2014
Red Grouper caught on Monday July 21, 2014

For this fish in addition to recording the weight and total length, scientists also record the fork length and standard length. The scientists also collect the otoliths (ear bones) from the fish which are used to determine the age of the fish just likes rings on a tree are used to determine age. Finally scientists collect DNA and part of the gonads for additional study back at the laboratory.







Personal Log

My first few days on the Pisces have been busy and very exciting there is so much to see and learn. Everyone on board has been very friendly and welcoming. As I look out my window every morning all is see is blue for miles. Even though we are only 10-50 miles off the coast of North Carolina on any given day there is nothing out here but ocean. It’s impressive how vast the ocean is and how little we know about the geography of the ocean or the animals that inhabit the sea floor.

Leaving Morehead
Leaving Morehead City, North Carolina

Looking down from the top deck of the Pisces.
Looking down from the top deck of the Pisces.












We set sail from Morehead City, North Carolina at 10am on Sunday July 20th and I had a great view from the top deck of the Pisces as we left the harbor. After lunch we practiced the abandon ship and fire drills, however I was not able to participate because I was seasick. Did you know that seasickness occurs when our brain receives conflicting information from our body. Onboard the Pisces it doesn’t look like anything is moving so my eyes sent my brain a message that there was no movement, but my inner ear, which is responsible for balance, sensed the motion of the boat and this conflicting information caused my seasickness. By Monday I was feeling much better and I was ready to get to work.

The bunks in our stateroom
The bunks in our stateroom

Life on the Pisces is very comfortable. I am sharing a stateroom with Mary who is a great roommate. We each have our own bunk with a curtain for privacy as well as lockers for storage. Additionally our bathroom is located in our room, which was a wonderful surprise because I thought that we would all be sharing a single bathroom. There is a lounge across from our room with large comfy chairs and an impressive DVD collection, however I have been too tired from working in the wet lab to enjoy it yet. There is also a gym somewhere on the ship but I don’t think that I will ever have enough balance onboard the ship to use the gym safely. Stay tuned, tonight I’m going to spend the night mapping the ocean floor and I’ll let you know how it goes.


Zeb Schobernd : Chief Scientist

Education: Masters from Earlham College and a Masters from College of Charleston in Marine Biology

How long have you worked with NOAA? Since 2007, started this project in 2010

Chief Scientist Zeb Schonberned in the dry lab
Chief Scientist Zeb Schonberned in the dry lab

How important is collaboration in your research? Being able to share and work together is a large part of the marine biology community. On this cruise for example we are collaborating with scientists from Beaufort as well as with local universities we have 2 volunteers from the College of Charleston sailing with us.

How long have you participated in this survey? Since the start of the SEFIS survey in 2010, currently in its 5th season.

Does your team change every year? The core group of research scientists stays the same, but the volunteers and lab assistants’ changes year to year.

How does the Pisces compare to other ships? The Pisces is larger than other ships I have worked on. It’s more comfortable, there is more space for scientists to spread out and work. Additionally the Pisces has the equipment need to map the floor, which makes determining where to drop traps more efficient.

How many days a year do you go out to sea? I spend about 45 days out at sea. 

What do you do when you are not out at sea? I work on processing the videos that were collected on the cruise; we need to identify the fish species that are on caught on camera. The cameras are often more valuable then the fish that we trap because some fish may never go in the trap so these videos allow us a better picture of the underwater ecosystem.

What is the biggest challenge about doing research at sea? The biggest challenge would be bad weather that impacts sea conditions. Also time away from home can be challenge on long cruises.

What would be your dream research cruise? I would like to be able to use a submersible to record videos of tropical fish for further study.

Any advice you have for students interested in marine biology as a career? Gain hands on experiences in the field by doing internships while in college to determine if this is what you really want to do. What I do on a day to day basis is very similar to what I experienced on a research cruise while I was in grad school.

Coolest catch: 6 Gilled Shark

Favorite fish: Groupers


Shark sucker attached to Kate's arm.
Shark sucker attached to Kate’s arm.

Kevin McMahon: Midnight Mapping! July 13, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kevin McMahon

Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces

July 5 – July 18, 2014


Mission: Southeast Fisheries Independent Survey

Geographic area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina

Date: July 13, 2014

Weather Information from the Bridge

Air Temperature:            27.6 °C

Relative Humidity:         73%

Wind Speed:                  5.04 knots


Science and Technology Log

Someone is always working on the Pisces. When Nate Bacheler and the other fishery scientists have finished their work for the day collecting fish, it is show time for the hydrographers, the scientists who map and study the ocean floor. Their job is to map the ocean floor to help Nate find the best places to find fish for the next day.  Warren, Laura, David and Matt were kind enough to let me join them and explained how they map the ocean floor while on board the Pisces.

People have learned over the years that some fish like to hang out where there is a hard bottom, not a sandy bottom. These hard bottom areas are where coral and sponges can grow and it also happens to be where we usually find the most fish.

Instead of using a camera to find these hard bottom habitats, the mapping scientists use multibeam sonar. Here is a simple explanation on how sonar works. The ship sends a sound wave to the bottom of the ocean. When the sound wave hits the bottom, the sound bounces back up to the ship.

Since scientists know how fast sound travels in water, they can figure out how far it is to the ocean floor. If the sound wave bounces back quickly, we are close to the ocean floor. If the sound wave takes longer, the ocean floor is farther away. They can use this data to make a map of what the ocean floor looks like beneath the ship.

The neat thing about the Pisces is that it does not send down one sound wave only. It sends 70 waves at once. This is called multibeam sonar.

Single Beam versus Multibeam sonar.  Can you see why scientists like to use multibeam sonar?
Single Beam versus Multibeam sonar. Can you see why hydrographers like to use multibeam sonar? Credit: NOAA

So, now you know how sonar works in simple terms.

But it gets a little more complicated. Did you know that sound speed can be affected by the water temperature, by how salty the water is (the “salinity”), by tides, and by the motion of the ship?  Computers make corrections for all of these factors to help get a better picture of the ocean floor. But, computers don’t know the physical properties of our part of the ocean (because these properties change all the time) so we need to find this information and give it to the computer.

To find the temperature of the ocean water, the mapping scientists launch an “XBT” into the water.  XBT stands for “expendable bathythermograph.”  The XBT records the changes in water temperature as it travels to the ocean floor.  It looks like a missile.  It gets put into a launcher and it has a firing pin. It sounds pretty dangerous, doesn’t it!  I was excited to be able to fire it into the water.  But, when I pulled out the firing pin, the XBT just gently slid out of the launcher, softly plopped into the ocean, and quietly collected data all the way to the ocean floor.


Kevin McMahon nervously holding the XBT Launcher and waiting for the order to fire.
Kevin McMahon nervously holding the XBT Launcher and waiting for the order to fire.


Kevin McMahon watches as the XBT gently plops out of the launcher.
Kevin McMahon watches as the XBT gently plops out of the launcher.


With the new data on water temperature, the hydrographers were able to create this map of the ocean floor.

Example of an Ocean Floor Map
Example of an Ocean Floor Map


In the map above, blue indicates that part of the ocean floor that is the deepest. The green color indicates the part of the map that is the next deepest. The red indicates the area that is most shallow.

Nate talks to the hydrographers early in the morning and then predicts where the hard bottom habitats might be. In particular, Nate looks for areas that have a sudden change in elevation, indicating a ledge feature.  If you had Nate’s job, where would you drop the 6 traps to find the most fish?  Look at the map below to see where Nate decided to deploy the traps.


The green dots are the spots where Nate dropped the traps in hopes of finding fish.
The green dots are the spots where Nate dropped the traps in hopes of finding fish.


To find out more about using sound to see the ocean floor and to see an animation of how this works, click on this link:

 NOAA: Seeing the Ocean Floor


Personal Log


We have now gotten into a regular routine on the ship.   The best part of the day for me is when we are retrieving the traps. We never know what we will see. Sometimes we catch nothing. Sometimes we find some really amazing things.


Here are a few of my favorites:


Closer view of sharksucker on my arm
Closer view of sharksucker on my arm


Somebody is crabby.
Somebody is crabby.


Sea stars with beautiful navy blue colors
Sea stars with beautiful navy blue colors


A pair of butterflyfish
A pair of butterflyfish


Did you know?

The ocean is largely unexplored.  Maybe someday you will discover something new about the ocean!


Kevin McMahon: GoPro Science! July 11, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kevin McMahon

Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

 July 5 – July 18, 2014

Mission: Southeast Fisheries Independent Survey

Geographic area of the cruise: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina and South Carolina

Date: July 11, 2014

Weather Information from the Bridge

Air Temperature:           28.1 °C

Relative Humidity:         86%

Wind Speed:                 17.08 knots


Science and Technology Log

As mentioned earlier, we are trying to collect data about fish populations in the Atlantic Ocean, off the southeast coast of the United States. One way to do that is to catch fish in traps. But, wait. What if some of the fish don’t go in the trap?

To help get a better estimate of fish populations, scientists use technology used by skateboarders, surfers, and snowboarders – the GoPro camera.

GoPro Camera on Chevron Trap
GoPro Camera on Chevron Trap


There are two cameras mounted on the top of the trap. One is placed on the front of the trap. Another camera is placed on the back of the trap.

Because the video file is so large, I won’t be able to upload it to this blog. But here are some screenshots of what we see on the video.


GoPro Camera and Trap Heading into the Ocean
GoPro Camera and Trap Heading into the Ocean


This is what the camera sees as it is sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
This is what the camera sees as it is sinking to the bottom of the ocean.


Hello pufferfish!  This is a view of what we can see with the video camera.
Hello pufferfish! This is a view of what we can see with the video camera.


Sometimes the video helps explain why we do not have many fish in our trap.  In this photo, a tiger shark is swimming in front of the camera.
Sometimes the video helps explain why we do not have many fish in our trap. In this photo, a tiger shark is swimming in front of the camera.


So, how do you count fish on the video?  The fish can be very fast and they zoom in and out of view. The scientists use a procedure called MeanCount. They look at the video from minute 10 to minute 30. Every 30 seconds, they stop the camera and count the number of fish of each species that they are studying.  They then find the average number of those fish in this twenty-minute video segment.  This MeanCount allows them to better estimate the fish population of that species.

Spotlight on Ocean Careers

I have been fortunate to meet many interesting people while at sea. One of those people is Adria McClain, the survey technician on the Pisces. Listed below are her answers to questions that I asked about her job.


Adria McClain holding a spottail pinfish
Adria McClain holding a spottail pinfish


Tell us your name and where you grew up.

My name is Adria McClain and I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.


What is your job title and could you explain what you do.

Survey Technician. I am responsible for collecting, checking, and managing the ship’s meteorological data (temperature, atmospheric pressure, relative humidity, wind speed/direction) and oceanographic data (water temperature, salinity, current speed/direction, speed of sound in water). Additionally, I am responsible for the ship’s scientific equipment (e.g. conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD) sensor, scientific seawater system) and the ship’s scientific software. I also assist the visiting Fisheries Biologists with sorting and measuring fish.


What got you interested in doing this type of work?

I’ve always liked science and knew from an early age that I wanted to be a scientist. I studied Biology in college and Oceanography in graduate school – this job allows me to do work in both fields.


How can a student prepare to do this type of work?

Take lots of science and math classes in high school and in college. Take lots of English classes too! In the sciences, it is important to be able to communicate verbally and in writing. I would also recommend taking a basic seamanship course to learn about navigation, shipboard communication, tying knots, and safety at sea.


Why do you think it is important to study the ocean?

The reasons are many, but to name a few, the ocean influences Earth’s climate and weather patterns, the ocean harbors yet undiscovered species, and the ocean provides food for humans and countless other life forms.
What was your favorite subject or subjects in school, and why were they your favorite(s)?

All of them! I’ve always had a passion for learning. If I had to pick a favorite subject, it would be a tie between science and foreign languages. I liked science because I was always fascinated with the natural world and wanted to understand and be able to explain what I observed in nature. I liked foreign language study because I wanted to be able to communicate in more than one language.


What are your hobbies?

Reading, science, and travel.  I am also a Batman enthusiast and collect Batman comic books, movies, TV shows, as well as books about the mythology, philosophy, and psychology of Batman.


Tell us about what it was like when you were in 6th grade.

In my school district, elementary school included sixth grade. We stayed with the same teacher all day and the subjects we studied included social studies, math, science, reading, writing, music, and physical education.

“International Day” was one of my favorite days – once per year, each of the school’s 12 classrooms featured the food, art, and history of another country or culture. Each student received a “passport” and could choose which countries to visit that day.

What is your favorite sea creature?

The Smooth Lumpsucker (Aptocyclus ventricosus)

This cute blob is a Smooth Lumpsucker. Credit: Adria McClain
This cute blob is a Smooth Lumpsucker. Credit: Adria McClain

Adria explained to me that the Smooth Lumpsucker won’t be found on our current trip. Too bad. It looks pretty cool. She said that you can find it in much colder water, like the North Atlantic Ocean. To find out more about the Smooth Lumpsucker, you can click on this link:

Smooth lumpsucker


Personal Log

It has been fun and challenging living on a ship. It is VERY different from living on land.

My room is comfortable and I sleep on the top bunk.  The greatest part of all is when it is time to sleep. While you are lying down in bed, the waves will roll you gently from side to side. At the same time, the head of the bed will rise up and down too. And, if that wasn’t enough movement, we sometimes feel the ship slide left and right.

Because my room is on the bottom floor, the water from the waves will crash against the window. It makes a sloshing sound. With all the rocking and sloshing, I sometimes think that I am sleeping in a washing machine. So far, it has been a relaxing way to fall asleep.

I spend much of the day in the wet lab. Yes, you are right. It is wet in there. In the picture below, I am standing in the entrance to the wet lab.


This sharksucker can stick to humans too.
This sharksucker can stick to humans too.


This is where we collect data on the fish, like their weight and size. It is also where the scientists collect samples to help determine the age and reproductive health of certain species.

My favorite part of the wet lab is the fish waterslide. The fish that are returned to sea are dropped down a hole in the wet lab where they land on a jet stream of water and get launched back home.

Triggerfish returning to sea from the ship's  "waterside".
Triggerfish returning to sea from the ship’s “waterslide”.

We also have a dry lab. Yes, you are right again! No fish are allowed in here. This is where the scientists have their computers and where the video cameras are kept when they are not in their waterproof containers. Our chief scientist, Nate Bacheler, works on 5 computers at once when it comes time to decide where and when to drop the traps.


Nate Bacheler in the Dry Lab. Can you see the 5 computers that he uses?
Nate Bacheler in the Dry Lab. Can you see the 5 computers that he uses?


Did you know?

A team of 5 seventh graders from Sacred Heart School in South Haven, Mississippi named our ship the Pisces. They won a contest to name the ship by writing an essay and explaining why NOAA should choose the name that they selected.


Carol Glor: The Adventure Continues, June 25, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Carol Glor

(Soon to be aboard) R/V Hugh R. Sharp

July 5 – 14 2014

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey, Third Leg

Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic Ocean

Date: June 25, 2014

Personal Log:

Last summer I served as the Commander for our simulated mission during my week-long adventure at Space Camp.

Hello, my name is Carol Glor and I live in Liverpool, New York (a suburb of Syracuse). I teach Home & Career Skills at Camillus Middle School and West Genesee Middle School in Camillus, New York. Last summer, I was selected to participate in Honeywell’s Educators at Space Academy at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It was a week-long camp full of activities that use space to become more effective educators within science, technology, engineering and math. When one of my space camp teammates told me about her experiences as a Teacher at Sea, I knew that I had to apply.

I am so excited to have been chosen by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to be part of the 2014 Teacher at Sea field season. As a Home & Career Skills teacher, I have the opportunity to educate students about the connections between real-life skills in math, science, technology and engineering while learning about important topics such as conservation, career exploration and current events. The best way that I can learn to teach these skills is by practicing them myself. During my upcoming cruise, I will become a real scientist and learn more about the scientific research that is involved in keeping our oceans alive for generations to come.

Onondaga Lake
View from Onondaga Lake West Shore Trail Expansion.

Girls Varsity Crew
Liverpool High School Crew on Onondaga Lake

Sustainability is an important topic of concern for our oceans as well as our lakes and streams. I currently live less than a mile from Onondaga Lake. For many years it has been considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the US. Since 2007, the Honeywell Corporation has implemented the Onondaga Lake Remediation Plan (slated for completion in 2015) to result in an eventual recovery of the lake’s habitat for fish and wildlife as well as recreational activities on and around the lake. Most recently, the West Shore Trail Extension was opened for the public to enjoy. Onondaga Lake Park has always been one of my favorite places to go to experience nature while walking, running, biking or watching my daughters’ crew races. Now I can enjoy it even more.

Science and Technology:

I will be sailing from Woods Hole, Massachusetts aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp to participate in an Atlantic sea scallop survey. The R/V Hugh R. Sharp is a coastal research vessel, built in 2006, is 146 feet long, and is part of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment fleet.

R/V Hugh R Sharp
R/V Hugh R Sharp out at sea

The purpose of a sea scallop survey is to determine the scallop population on the east coast. This survey is important to protect the sea scallop from being over-harvested. By collecting digital video data and sea scallop samples, the science crew is able to advise which areas of the east coast are open for scallop fishing.

The Atlantic Sea Scallop
The Atlantic Sea Scallop

What I hope to learn:

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. While there, I experienced the beauty of the coastal island as well as savoring the bounty from the sea. As a casual observer, I noticed a few lobster boats, trawling vessels and pleasure cruisers. Each has a stake in the future abundance of sea life in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. I would like to learn first-hand the impact of over-harvesting on sea scallops and be able to observe them in their natural habitat. My work as a scientist will give my students a taste for the vast amount of research careers that are available to them.

Edgartown Lighthouse
Edgartown Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard

A Lobsterman hauling in his catch in Nantucket Sound.

David Murk, Why Are We Here? . . . . Wish You Were Here, May 16, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Dave Murk
Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
May 7 – 22, 2014.


Mission: EX 14-03 – Exploration, East Coast Mapping

Geographical Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean, U.S. East Coast

Date: May 16, 2014


Weather Data from the Bridge

We are at 28⁰ N – 079⁰ W heading west from Cape Canaveral, Florida:

Weather:  Few clouds

Visibility: 10 miles

Wind : 20 knots out of the northwest.

Water  Depth: 444 fathoms or 812 feet.

Temperature: water : 27° Celsius

Air temperature: 22°Celsius (I heard there was snow in Illinois, so I’ll leave the temp. in Celsius)

Our location can also be found at: (http://shiptracker.noaa.gov/).


Science and Technology Log

Storms and subsequent rainbows with dolphins cavorting in the Okeanos Explorer’s bow wake get you asking the big questions.

Why are we here?

Not in the larger philosophical, sense but why is the Okeanos Explorer at 29⁰N, 79⁰W? With 95% of the ocean unexplored, why did NOAA choose the Blake Plateau (Stetson Mesa) to map? I went to Derek Sowers, the Expedition Coordinator for this cruise, to find out.

Derek is a Physical Scientist with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), which is the program that leads the scientific missions on the Okeanos Explorer. In preparation for the ship’s explorations this year, OER staff asked many scientists and ocean managers in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic southeastern seacoast for priority areas for ocean exploration.The main purpose for the Okeanos Explorer is to explore largely unknown parts of the ocean and then put the data and discoveries out there for other scientists to use as a foundation for further research and improved stewardship. OER staff boil all these ideas down to a few and talk about the pros and cons of the final exploration focus areas. Once an operation’s area is determined for a cruise, OER then asks scientists what additional science can be done in these areas while the ship is planning to go there.

Much of this “extra” science benefits other parts of NOAA – such as the scientists that study fisheries and marine habitat. To manage this extra scientific work, the ship often hosts visiting scientists. On the current cruise, Chris Taylor from NOAA Fisheries Oceanography Branch joined the cruise to lead the plankton tow and oceanographic measurement work to search for Bluefin Tuna larvae in this part of the ocean and to understand the ocean chemistry here. It is important to NOAA to multi task and utilize the ship 24/7 to accomplish numerous scientific objectives. During March and April, lots of details were nailed down and by the middle of April Derek knew that the expedition could include time to do the plankton tows and extra water sampling.

Top View of Bathymetric image of Blake Plateau
Top View of Bathymetric image of Blake Plateau

Now, just like a family vacation, things happen along the way that require everyone to make changes. A road could be closed, someone could get sick, the car could break down. These expeditions are no different. So, how do decisions happen at sea?

The crew of the Okeanos Explorer are responsible for safe operation of the ship and for supporting the visiting scientists in accomplishing their objectives for the cruise. The visiting scientists, as led by the Expedition Coordinator, must make decisions about how, where, and what needs to get done to accomplish the science objectives of the cruise. The Expedition Coordinator discusses these plans with the ship’s Operations Officer and she consults with the head of the various department on the ship (Deck, Engineering, Medical, etc.) and the Commanding Officer to most effectively support safely achieving the science team’s goals. There is a daily Operations Meeting for all of these leaders to meet and ensure coordination throughout the day so that things run smoothly on the ship. The Commanding Officer is responsible for making sure the crew implements their duties, while the Expedition Coordinator (often called the Chief Scientist) is responsible for making sure the scientists implement their duties.

For complex decisions, like our present decision whether or not to go inshore to get a replacement plankton net, lots of factors are weighed and the final call is with the Expedition Coordinator and the CO. The Expedition Coordinator weighs trading off seafloor mapping time with getting more plankton data and decides if it is worth it to go get the net. Commander Ramos must decide if it is safe and reasonable to do so and makes the final decision of where and what the ship does.

For seafloor mapping work that happens 24 hours a day, there are three teams of two people who “stand watch” on 8 hour work shifts (called a “watch”). Each watch has a watch leader that works at the direction of the Expedition Coordinator. The Watch Leader ensures the quality of the mapping work accomplished during their 8 hour watch. The ship’s Survey Technician, Jacklyn James, works closely with the visiting mapping scientists to run all of the complex computer systems under standard operating procedures.

Here is an example of how routine small decisions are made. Let’s say that Vanessa Self-Miller (see personal log) is on duty as the Watch Leader and wants to have the ship move over 500 meters to get better sonar coverage of the seafloor below.

Vanessa uses the intercom to call the deck officer on the bridge and tells the officer she would like the ship to move over 500 meters. The officer checks the AIS (see last blog) and sea conditions to see if this would be a safe maneuver for the ship. The reasons for not approving the mapping team’s request would almost always be safety based. Most of the time, the officer says “Sure Thing. Roger That.” and in the space of a few minutes the ship has changed course as requested.

The answer to “why are we here?”  is a complex, time-consuming endeavor, but when it works, like on this expedition, it is magic to watch unfold.

Personal log

Wish you were here.


The storm was not one of those Illinois summer thunderstorms that come racing in from Iowa – gathering energy like a 5th grade class the last few weeks of school. Nope. No simultaneous lightning thunder howitzers that you feel in your spine; just some lightning and wind gusts to 50 knots, but I sure wanted to see how things looked from the bridge once I heard the foghorn. The bridge on the Okeanos Explorer is one of my favorite places on this ship. I always ask permission for entry and if the circumstances allow, the officer on duty will grant it.

Operations Officer Lt.Rose’s IPod was playing Pink Floyd while she divided her attention between the myriad of dials and screens and  talking navigation with mapping intern Kalina Grabb.   AB Tepper-Rasmussen and NOAA Corps Officer LTJG (Lieutenant Junior Grade) Bryan Begun peered into the foggy soup and monitored the AIS.

The irony of the moment struck me because while the crew unconsciously played percussion on the brass rail overhead or mumbled lyrics and David Gilmour and Roger Waters sang about not needing an education, there was so much education and proof of education going on in this little room. That is the defining image I’ll always have of this space on the Okeanos Explorer. It is a place where the acquisition and exhibition of knowledge are so evident and invigorating. You can’t spend more than 4 minutes in this space without learning something or being amazed at how smart these people are and how devoted they are to use that knowledge to carry out the science of this mission.   On this particular night, the skies lifted and we had hopes of seeing a launch at Canaveral, 40 miles to the west.   Lt. Rose announced to the whole ship that a double rainbow could be seen portside and even the dolphins responded to her call to educate the right side of our brains.

Dolphins after the storm (picture courtesy of John Santic)
Dolphins after the storm
(picture courtesy of John Santic)

Lieutenant Junior Grade Begun and Mapping Intern Kalina Grabb checking the error of the gyrocompass using the azimuth


What else have I been doing?

In addition to spending time on the bridge- I have been helping with the XBT launches, using the photometer to add data to the NOAA’s Aerosol Project – with the ever faithful Muffin from good ol’ Hampshire Elementary and preparing for a night launch of CTD and plankton tows – more on that next blog.

Launching the XBT – taken by Expedition Coordinator, Derek Sowers

Photo taken by mapping intern Danielle Lifavi
Photo taken by mapping intern Danielle Lifavi

Preparing for night launch of CTD and plankton tows.(photo taken by LTJG Bryan Begun)


Vanessa Self-Miller
Vanessa Self-Miller

Like all women, Vanessa Self-Miller’s mom was great at multi-tasking. While she got things rolling for the evening in the household, Vanessa was her mom’s guinea pig for the next day’s science lessons for her 6th grade students at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Louisiana. She also instilled a love of the scientific method in her daughter.

Her father was a math guy and found out early that Vanessa was going to be the 3rd wheel with her brother on typical father son activities that involved mechanics or being out in nature.   That nurturing and her work ethic prompted Vanessa to get a degree in physics at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She went on to work for the U.S. Navy as a hydrographer doing a lot of mapping harbors and near the shore. She received her masters degree in Hyrdrographic Science from University of Southern Mississippi.

Now she is thrilled to be a physical scientist/hyrdrographer for NOAA.   While it is a challenge to coordinate job related travel with her husband and two children, she loves working for NOAA. NOAA respects a work-life balance and that allows her to pursue her passions in life. She wants to encourage all students but especially the young girls to start early in their path to a career in science. She feels that how parents nurture their girls is important in their seeking employment in the fields of science.

On a personal note, any time a question came up from this naive teacher or any of the mapping interns, Vanessa was able to answer it completely and without pause. She encourages all the 5th graders out there, male or female, to pursue their scientific oceanographic dreams. NOAA will need today’s fifth graders to investigate sea level rise and all the Ocean Engineering energy products that our country will need twenty years from now. There will always be a need for scientists who love to explore and want to work for NOAA.

Kimberly Gogan: The Sounds of the Sea: Marine Acoustics: April 20, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kim Gogan
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
 April 7 – May 1, 2014

MissionAMAPPS & Turtle Abundance SurveyEcosystem Monitoring
Geographical area of cruise:  North Atlantic Ocean
Date: Sunday, April 20th – Easter Sunday!

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temp: 6.2 Degrees Celsius
Wind Speed: 33.5 Knots
Water Temp: 10.1 Degrees Celsius
Water Depth: 2005.4 Meters ( deep!)

Genevieve letting me listen to the sounds of a Pilot Whale and explaining how the acoustics technology works.
Genevieve letting me listen to the sounds of a Pilot Whale and explaining how the acoustics technology works.

Science and Technology Log

As I explained in an earlier blog, all the scientist on the ship are here because of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, or AMAPPS for short. A multi-year project that has a large number of scientists from a variety of organizations whose main goal is “to document the relationship between the distribution and abundance of cetaceans, sea turtles and sea birds with the study area relative to their physical and biological environment.” So far I have shared with you some of the Oceanography and Marine Mammal Observing. Today I am going introduce you to our Marine Mammal Passive Acoustics team and some of their cool acoustic science. The two acoustic missions of the team are putting out 10 bottom mounted recorders called MARUs or Marine Autonomous Recording Units  and towing  behind the ship multiple underwater microphones called a Hydrophone Array to listen to the animals that are as much as 5 miles  away from the ship. The two different recording devices target two different main groups of whales. The MARU records low frequency sounds from a group of whales called Mysticetes or baleen whales: for example, Right Whales, and Humpback Whales. Once the the MARU has been programmed and deployed, it will stay out on the bottom of the ocean collecting sounds continuously for up to six months before the scientist will go retrieve the unit and get the data back.  The towed Hydrophone Array is recording higher frequency sounds made by Odontocetes or toothed whales like dolphins and sperm whales. The acoustic team listens to recordings and compares them with the visual teams sighting, with a goal of getting additional information about what kind and how many of the species are close to ship. Even though the acoustic team works while the visual team is working during the day, as long as there is deep enough water, they can also use their equipment in poor weather and at night.

Here are Chris and Genevieve preparing to deploy the MARU.
Here are Chris and Genevieve preparing to deploy the MARU.

Science Spot Light: The two Acoustic team members we have on the Gordon Gunter are Genevieve Davis and Chris Tremblay. Genevieve works at Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)  doing Passive Acoustic research focusing on Baleen Whales. She has worked there 2 and a half years after spending  10 weeks as a NOAA Hollings Intern. Genevieve graduated from Binghamton University in New York. She is planning on starting her masters project looking at the North Atlantic Right Whale migration paths.  I have been been very lucky to have Genevieve as my roommate here on the ship and have gotten to know her very well. Chris is a freelance Marine Biologist. Chris recently helped develop the Listen for Whales Website and the Right Whale Listening Network. He also worked for Cornell University for 7 years focusing on Marine Bioacoustics. Chris is also the station manger at Mount Desert Rock Marine Research Station run by the College of the Atlantic in Maine. He actually lives on a sail boat he keeps in Belfast, Maine. Chris also intends of attending graduate school looking at Fin Whale behavior and acoustic activity.

Personal Log

So while most adults were worrying about their taxes on April 15th, I was having fun decorating and deploying Drifter Buoys. Before I left for my trip Jerry Prezioso had sent me an email letting me know that two Drifter Buoys would be available for me to send out to sea during my time on the ship.  Drifter buoys allow scientists to collect observations on earth’s various ocean currents while also collecting data on sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, as well as winds and salinity. The scientists use this to help them with short term climate predictions, as well as climate research and monitoring. He explained that traditionally when teachers deploy the buoys, they will decorate them with items they bring from home and that we would be able to track where they go and the data they collect for 400 days! The day before I left, I had my students and my daughter’s class decorate a box of sticky labels for me to stick all over the two Drifter Buoys. I spent the morning of the 15th making a mess on the lab floor peeling and sticking all of the decorations onto each of the buoys. Around mid-day we were at our most south eastern point, which would be the best place to send the buoys out to sea.  Jerry and I worked together to throw the buoys off the side of the ship, as close together as we could get them. A few days later we heard from some folks at NOAA that the buoys were turned on and floating in the direction we wanted them too.

If you would like to track the buoys I deployed, visit the site below and follow the preceding directions.

<http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/phod/trinanes/xbt.html> for near real time GTS data.

From the site, select “GTS buoys” in the pull-down menu at the top left. Enter the WMO number (please see below) into the “Call Sign” box at the top right. Then, select your desired latitude and longitude values, or use the map below to zoom into the area of interest. You can also select the dates of interest and determine whether you’d like graphics (map) or data at the bottom right. Once you’ve entered these fields, hit the “GO!” button at the bottom. Shortly thereafter, either a map of drifter tracks or data will appear.
ID            WMO#
123286    44558
123287    44559

Kimberly Gogan: Science Spot Light – Marine Mammal Observing, April 12, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kim Gogan
Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
April 7 – May 1, 2014

MissionAMAPPS & Turtle Abundance Survey Ecosystem Monitoring
Geographical Area of Cruise:  North Atlantic Ocean
Date: April 12, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temp: 10.3 degrees Celsius
Wind Speed: 10.5 knots
Water Temp: 8,2 degrees Celsius
Water Depth: 145.65 meters


Jen Gatzke, Chief Scientist of AMAPPS Leg 2 aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.
Jen Gatzke, Chief Scientist of AMAPPS Leg 2 aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.

Science and Technology Log

In the last blog I talked about all the different scientists who are working on Gordon Gunter. Today I am going to explain why. First, all of the scientists are here working under a program called the  Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, or AMAPPS for short. It is a multi-year project that has a large number of scientists from a variety of organizations whose main goal is “to document the relationship between the distribution and abundance of cetaceans, sea turtles and sea birds with the study area relative to their physical and biological environment.” The scientists are here working under the AMAPPS because of several government acts: the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act require scientists to do periodic checks of the populations of the protected species and the ecosystems they live in to make sure there have been no major human activities that have affected these species.

The National Environmental Policy Act also requires scientists to evaluate human impacts and come up with new plans to help the protected and endangered species. Finally the Migratory Bird Treaty requires that counties work together to monitor and protect migratory birds.  The project has a variety of activities that need to be conducted which is why all the different scientists are needed from the different groups like NOAA, Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Navy, and NOAA Northeast  and Southeast Fisheries Science Centers.  The variety of activities that are being done over multiple years under the AMAPPS include: aerial surveys, shipboard surveys, tag data, acoustic data, ecological and habitat data,  developing population size and distribution estimates, development of technology tools and modes, as well as development of a database that can provide all the collected data to different users. The AMAPPS project is also collecting  in depth data at a couple of areas of  special interest to NOAA & BOEM where there are proposed Offshore Wind Farms  to be built in the ocean.


Two of the Observer Team working their shifts on the Fly Bridge in on the "
Two of the Observer Team members working their shifts on the Fly Bridge in on the “Big Eyes”

Science Spot Light

Let me introduce the Chief Scientist, Jen Gatzke and the Marine Mammal Observer Team. Chief Scientist Jen works with the Protected Species Branch at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). She primarily studies right whales.

Her main job here on the ship is to coordinate the teams of scientists so that each team is able to accomplish what it needs most efficiently while meeting the goals of the research mission. In this case the goal is to survey a large number of transect lines in a variety of marine habitats, both inshore and offshore.

She started sailing on NOAA ships 24 years ago in Pascagoula, Mississippi! Even thought Jen oversees all the science going on here on the Gordon Gunter, she is also part of the Marine Mammal Observer Team that does a rotating watch for mammals. The observer team starts its day at 7AM and works until 7PM except  for the 1 hour break at lunch when the daytime Oceanography team can conduct some of their sampling.

When they start their day observing it is called “on effort.” This means that the observer team and NOAA Corps are all ready to conduct the shipboard surveys the way they have determined would be best. This means a group of scientists that are all at their stations are ready to go and the NOAA Corps makes sure the ship stays on a particular designated course for a particular amount of time. When the team is “on effort” they have 4 rotating stations. There are two on the very upper deck, called the fly deck that watches with 2 very large (25×150) binoculars they call the “big eyes” on each side, port (left) and starboard (right) of the ship  Then there is another station on the lower starboard (right)  side deck that also use the “big eyes”  to scan for marine mammals as well. The last  station is the recorder who is located on the Bridge, or wheelhouse, where the NOAA Corps man the ship. The recorder is entering valuable data into a computer program designed specifically for this activity. Not only is the recorder keeping track of the different mammals that are spotted on the “big eyes,” they are also keeping track of important information about the weather, glare of the sun, and conditions of the ocean.

I learned the teams use some cool nautical terms during their observations and recordings. The first one is  the Beaufort Scale for sea state, or basically how calm or rough the seas are. Beaufort is measured by a numerical system with 0 being very calm and with no ripples to a 5 which is lots of white caps with foamy spray. Beaufort numbers go higher but it is very difficult to spot any sort of mammal evidence in seas that are rougher than a Beaufort 5. The team also measures the distance of the sighting using another measurement tool called a Reticle. The reticle is a mark on the inside of the “big”eye” binoculars. Its scale goes from 0 -20 and the 0 is always lined up with the horizon and allows the observer to give a quick reference number that can be used in a hurry to provide distance with a simple geometry equation.

The head shot of' "Thorny" the Right a whale taken by observer Todd Pusser on the Gordon Gunter AMAPPS Leg 2.
The head shot of’ “Thorny” the Right Whale taken by observer Todd Pusser on the Gordon Gunter AMAPPS Leg 2.

Although there are several other pieces of information the observers are looking for and giving to the recorder, the positive identification of the particular species of mammal is the most important. There are some species like the North Atlantic Right Whale, that is of particular interest to the team because they are the most endangered large whale in the North Atlantic Ocean. Not only is it exciting for the team and the rest of the ship as well to see sightings of them, their detected presence in particular areas could mean the implementation of tighter rules, like speed limits for ships that might be in the areas these animals are seen frequently. When the teams sights one of these whales, the ship is allowed to go “off effort” and follow the swim direction of the whales in order to get pictures with very large cameras that will allow the scientist to positively identify the particular whale.  Some of the other species seen frequently are humpback whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, pilot whales, striped dolphins, common dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, gray seals, harbor seals, loggerhead sea turtles, sharks and ocean sunfish.

Me on the Fly Bridge watching for whales and seals.
Me on the Fly Bridge watching for whales and seals.

Personal Log

So far for the first leg of the trip we have taken one very rough trip offshore and because of the weather we have been doing a string of transect lines that are close to the shore off Martha’s Vineyard, which is one of the areas of special interest to NOAA due to the projected offshore wind farm.

The day before yesterday, at just about dusk, the Chief Scientist Jen was the first to spot one of the North Atlantic Right Whales. I was in the lab at the time that Jen came running through yelling “we have right whales!”

She very quickly came back with a huge case which held the team’s camera used for close-ups of the whales. By the time I was on deck, so were many of the off duty scientists and the ship’s crew. Everyone was very excited and joined the frenzy of following, tracking and getting some good shots of the group of right whales. There ended up being 4 whales in all, which mean that there are enough to trigger a Dynamic Management Area (DMA), a management zone designed to provide two weeks of protection to three or more right whales from ship collisions. Ships larger than 65 ft are requested to proceed through the designated area at no more than 10 knots of speed.

One of the observers, Todd Pusser also had a large camera and was able to get a good head shot of one of the whales to send back to the lab. Allison Henry, another right whale biologist at NEFSC, was able to positively identify the whale as an adult male known as “Thorny”, aka EGNO (Eubalaena glacialis number) 1032, who has been seen only in the northeast since the 1980s! (click on “Thorny” to see the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog which houses and handles the identifications for all North Atlantic right whales.) It’s pretty cool that I actually got to see him too. Even thought it’s not the warmest job, it makes it all worth it just to see something as amazing as that!

Genevieve & I  up on the Fly Bridge on the "Big Eyes!"
Genevieve & I up on the Fly Bridge on the “Big Eyes!”

Did you know?

Did you know you can listen to Right Whale sounds and see where Right Whales are on the East Coast? Check out this page!  Click on this link for The Right Whale Listening Network.  NEFSC even has an Apple APP for seeing where the Right Whales are on the east coast and explains how to avoid them 🙂 Go to the app store – its free!

Me all dressed up in the "Mustang' suit helping the team keeping an eye out for whales.
Me all dressed up in the “Mustang” suit helping the team keep an eye out for whales.

Julie Karre: Back to My Reality, August 12, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julie Karre
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 26 – August 8, 2013  

Mission: Shark and Red snapper Longline Survey
Geographical Range of Cruise: Atlantic
Date: Monday August 12, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge
Sadly, I don’t know because I’m not there anymore.

The sunset on the last night. Exquisite. Photo Credit: Holly Perryman
The sunset on the last night. Exquisite. Photo Credit: Holly Perryman

Post-Cruise Log

I have been back on land for three days now and all I want to talk about are my adventures aboard the Oregon II. I miss everyone I met and hope that we all remain friends. But now that I am not in the moment and experiencing the adrenaline rush of handling sharks, I have time to think about all that I have learned and how I will make this experience valuable to my students. Because, while it was a true honor and privilege to have been aboard the Oregon II for two weeks, the real honor and privilege of my life is spending 10 months with students of Baltimore City Public Schools. And they matter the most right now.

I begin school in two weeks. Two weeks from now I will be standing in my classroom setting up what I hope to be a remarkable year of learning with 40 or so 7th graders and 40 or so 8th graders. Just picturing their faces coming through the door and the hugs and the squeals of delight as we get excited about seeing each other makes me the happiest version of myself.

My Armistead Gardens 7th graders received homemade cookies as a New Years Gift. I look forward to seeing them for a new year beginning August 26th.
My Armistead Gardens 7th graders received homemade cookies as a New Years Gift. I look forward to seeing them for a new year beginning August 26th.


So what am I going to do with this experience? How will I make two of the most meaningful weeks of my life meaningful for kids who were not involved? How will I make what was mine, theirs?

Those are the questions that bounce around in my head all of the time now. No amount of blog writing and sharing pictures on Facebook matters if I don’t do this justice to those kids. And in the meantime, I would really like to make the people who made this possible proud. From the NOAA employees who run Teacher at Sea to the crew and scientists on the Oregon II to the volunteers who cheered me on and supported me to my parents who watched my dog, I want to make them proud.

So the brainstorming begins and this is where it starts. Over the course of the cruise, I kept track of our latitude and longitude at 11am each day and at each of our stations. During a 1-2 week unit during my Ecosystems In and Out of Balance semester of study, we will be using the research from my cruise to celebrate Shark Week – Armistead Gardens Style. We will begin by plotting the course of the Oregon II from July 26 to August 8. We will study the written descriptions of the shark species I encountered and see if we can match them with pictures. We will hypothesize how the flow of energy works in the marine ecosystems where these sharks are found – will the students guess that some of the big sharks eat some of the little sharks? I didn’t know that. Then we will begin to study what struggles these species encounter in an out-of-balance ecosystem – things like fishing and hypoxia and oil spills.

Beyond the marine science, we will look at who makes marine science possible. I cannot wait to share with these students the opportunities that abound in marine careers, from becoming a scientist like Kristin to driving a ship like Rachel.

This is just a beginning and I look forward to sharing the final product as I continue to develop it.

Thank you so much to everyone who followed my adventure. Thank you so much to everyone who made this possible. I will not let you down.

The volunteers from the first leg take their leave of the Oregon II and head back to their other lives. Photo Credit: Amy Schmitt
The volunteers from the first leg take their leave of the Oregon II and head back to their other lives. Photo Credit: Amy Schmitt

And now I am home with my lovely dog, Maddox.