Barney Peterson: What Are We Catching? August 28, 2016

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Barney Peterson

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

August 13 – 28, 2016

Mission: Long Line Survey

Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico

Date: Sunday, August 28, 2016

Weather Data is not available for this post because I am writing from the Biloxi/Gulfport Airport.

WHAT ARE WE CATCHING?

This is a long-line survey.  That means we go to an assigned GPS point, deploy hi-flyer buoys, add weights to hold the line down, add 100 baited hooks, leave it in place for an hour, and retrieve everything.

mackerel-bait-fish
Mackerel is used to bait the hooks.

As the equipment is pulled in we identify, measure and record everything we catch.  Sometimes, like in the case of a really large, feisty shark that struggles enough to straighten or break a hook or the lines, we try to identify and record the one that got away.  We tag each shark so that it can be identified if it is ever caught again.  We tally each hook as it is deployed and retrieved, and the computer records a GPS position for each retrieval so scientists can form a picture of how the catch was distributed along the section we were fishing.  The target catch for this particular survey was listed as sharks and red snapper.  The reality is that we caught a much wider variety of marine life.

We list our catch in two categories: Bony fish, and Sharks.  The major difference is in the skeletons.  Bony fish have just that: a skeleton made of hard bone like a salmon or halibut.  Sharks, on the other hand, have a cartilaginous skeleton, rigid fins, and 5 to 7 gill openings on each side.  Sharks have multiple rows of sharp teeth arranged around both upper and lower jaws.  Since they have no bones, those teeth are embedded in the gums and are easily dislodged.  This is not a problem because they are easily replaced as well.  There are other wonderful differences that separate sharks from bony fish.

Bony Fish we caught:

The most common of the bony fish that we caught were Red Groupers (Epinephelus morio), distinguished by of their brownish to red-orange color, large eyes and very large mouths.  Their dorsal fins, especially, have pointed spikes.

chrissy-with-enormous-grouper
Chrissy holding an enormous grouper

We also caught Black Sea Bass (Centropristus striata) which resemble the groupers in that they also have large mouths and prominent eyes.

sea-bass
Black Sea Bass

A third fish that resembles these two is the Speckled Hind (Epinephelus drummondhayi).  It has a broad body, large mouth and undershot jaw giving the face a different look.  Yes, we did catch several Red Snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), although not as many as I expected.  Snappers are a brighter color than the Red Groupers, and have a more triangular shaped head, large mouth and prominent canine teeth.

red-snapper
Red Snapper

The most exciting bony fish we caught was barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda).  We caught several of these and each time I was impressed with their sleek shape and very sharp teeth!

barracuda
TAS Barney Peterson with a barracuda

Most of the bony fish we caught were in fairly deep water.

 

Sharks:

We were fortunate to catch a variety of sharks ranging from fairly small to impressively big!

The most commonly caught were Sandbar Sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus): large, dark-gray to brown on top and white on the bottom.

sandbar-shark
Sandbar Shark

Unless you really know your sharks, it is difficult for the amateur to distinguish between some of the various types.  Experts look at color, nose shape, fin shape and placement, and distinguishing characteristics like the hammer-shaped head of the Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) and Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) sharks that were caught on this trip.

great-hammerhead
Great Hammerhead Shark

The beautifully patterned coloring of the Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is fairly easy to recognize and so is the yellowish cast to the sides of the Lemon Shark (Negaprion brevirostris).

Other sharks we caught were Black-nose (Carcharhinus acrontus), Atlantic Sharp-nosed (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), Blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus) and Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucus).

Several of the sharks we caught were large, very close to 3 meters long, very heavy and very strong!  Small sharks and bony fish were brought aboard on the hooks to be measured against a scaled board on the deck then weighed by holding them up on a spring scale before tagging and releasing them.  Any shark larger than about 1.5 meters was usually heavy and strong enough that it was guided into a net cradle that was lifted by crane to deck level where it could be measured, weighed and tagged with the least possibility of harm to either the shark or the crew members.  Large powerful sharks do not feel the force of gravity when in the water, but once out of it, the power of their weight works against them so getting them back into the water quickly is important.  Large powerful sharks are also pretty upset about being caught and use their strength to thrash around trying to escape.  The power in a swat from a shark tail or the abrasion from their rough skin can be painful and unpleasant for those handling them.

PERSONAL LOG

The Night Sky

I am standing alone on the well deck; my head is buzzing with the melodies of the Eagles and England Dan.  A warm breeze brushes over me as I tune out the hum of the ship’s engines and focus on the rhythm of the bow waves rushing past below me.  It is dark! Dark enough and clear enough that I can see stars above me from horizon to horizon: the soft cloudy glow of the Milky Way, the distinctive patterns of familiar favorites like the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper with its signature bright point, the North Star.  Cassiopeia appears as a huge “W” and even the tiny cluster of the “Seven Sisters” is distinct in the black bowl of the night sky over the Gulf of Mexico.  The longer I look the more stars I see.

This is one of the first really cloudless nights of this cruise so far.  Mike Conway, a member of the deck crew came looking for me to be sure I didn’t miss out on an opportunity to witness this amazingly beautiful show.  As I first exited the dry lab and stumbled toward the bow all I could pick out were three faint stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper.  The longer I looked, the more my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and the more spectacular the show became.  Soon there were too many stars for me to pick out any but the most familiar constellations.

As a child I spent many summer nighttime hours on a blanket in our yard as my father patiently guided my eyes toward constellation after constellation, telling me the myths that explained each one. Many years have passed since then.  I have gotten busy seeing other sights and hearing other stories.  I had not thought about those long ago summer nights for many years.  Tonight, looking up in wonder, I felt very close to Pop again and to those great times we shared.

 

Carmen Andrews: A Fishing Expedition in the Atlantic, Continued, July 13, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Carmen Andrews
Aboard R/V Savannah
July 7 – 18, 2012

Mission: SEFIS Reef Fish Survey
Location: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Daytona Beach, Florida
Date: July 13, 2012

Latitude:      29 ° 19.10   N
Longitude:   80
° 24.31’  W       

Weather Data:
Air Temperature: 28.3° C (82.94°F)
Wind Speed: 12 knots
Wind Direction: from Southeast
Surface Water Temperature: 27.48 °C (81.46°F)

Weather conditions: Sunny and Fair

Science and Technology Log

Catching bottom fish at the reef

As the fish trap lies at the bottom of the ocean at the reef site, fish can enter and exit freely through the opening.

Red snapper swimming near a fish trap
Red snapper swimming near a sunken fish trap
 

At the end of approximately 90 minutes, the R/V Savannah returns to the drop site and begins the process of raising the trap with whatever fish remain inside. The six traps are pulled up in the order in which they were dropped.

Scientists and crew waiting to arrive at a trap location
Scientists and crew waiting to arrive at a trap location

The crew member on watch in the wheelhouse will maneuver the boat toward the paired poly ball buoys at a speed of about 5 knots. The boat draws alongside each pair on the starboard side.

R/V Savannah approaching poly ball buoys on the starboard side
R/V Savannah approaching poly ball buoys on the starboard side

One of the scientists throws a grappling hook toward the line that links the  poly balls.

Throwing the grappling hook to secure buoys
Throwing the grappling hook to secure buoys

The line is hauled in and passed to a waiting scientists, who pull the poly balls on deck. There is substantial hazard associated with this step. Undersea currents can be very powerful near the bottom where traps are set. As scientists are pulling in the cable by hand, unexpected current force can yank the trap cable, rope and buoys out of their hands and off the deck in an instant. If personnel on deck aren’t mindful and quick to react, the speeding rope can cause serious rope burn injury.

Nate is pulling poly balls and rigging onto the deck, as Adam P. gets ready to take the line
Nate is pulling poly balls and rigging onto the deck, as Adam P. gets ready to take the line

The cable connecting the fish trap and the poly balls is pulled in and threaded through the pulley system of a pot hauler. The pot hauler is an automated lifting tool that is operated by the second crew member on watch. At this time the first crew member on watch has left the wheel house and is piloting the boat from a small cab on deck above the pot hauler, so he can monitor the action below.

Pot hauler hoisting the fish trap to the boat
Pot hauler hoisting the fish trap to the boat

The pot hauler makes a distinctive clicking sound as it draws the trap toward the surface at an angle. It can take one to five minutes to raise the trap to the deck, depending on the depth of the water.

Tight cable raising submerged fish trap
Tight cable raising submerged fish trap

As the fish trap becomes visible, shimmering rapidly changing shapes can be seen as  fishes’ bodies catch and reflect sunlight.

Fish trap breaking the surface of the water
Fish trap breaking the surface of the water

The trap clears the water and gets pulled aboard.

Grabbing the fish trap
Grabbing the fish trap and pulling it aboard

Very quickly, and with two scientists holding each side, the trap is upended onto its nose and suspended above the deck. A third scientist opens the trap door at the bottom and the fish are shaken into a plastic bin.

Orienting the fish traps to ready them for dumping into bins
Orienting a fish trap to ready it for dumping the catch into a bin
Freshly caught red snapper and black sea bass
Freshly caught red snapper and black sea bass
 

Ice pellets are shoveled onto the fish and a cover is snapped on the bin. If the catch is small, fish may be placed in a bucket or tub and cover with ice.

Fish are covered in ice before the bin cover is snapped on
Fish are covered in ice before the bin cover is snapped on

A numbered tag is removed from the trap and tied onto the bin to identify specimens from each catch. The containers holding the day’s catch are set aside for later processing.

Every so often, unexpected sea life is brought up in the traps. The catch has included sea stars, sea urchins, several kinds of tropical fish and many moray eels.

Moray eel slithering on the deck.
Moray eel slithering on the deck. A moray’s bite can be very severe.

Video cameras are also removed from the top of the trap. Their data cards will be downloaded. Fish behavior and surrounding habitat videos will be analyzed, along with anatomical specimens and size data taken from the fish themselves in the wet lab.

Personal Log

Every day brings more wildlife encounters and sightings. I am dazzled by the many fascinating organisms I’ve been able to see up close. Sometimes I am quick enough to grab my camera and put the animal into my view finder, focusing clearly enough to catch a great image. Here are a few of those images (including some new friends from the cruise):

Adam P. holding a barracuda
Adam P. holding a barracuda
Daniel with a wahoo
Daniel with a wahoo
Trolling with a hooked dolphinfish
Trolling with a hooked dolphinfish
Sea stars
Sea stars
A sheerwater -- bird found in open water
A sheerwater — bird found in open water
Sheerwaters dive beneathe the surface to catch fish.
Sheerwaters dive beneath the surface of the water to catch fish. This bird is consuming a fish with its wings open to balance itself on the water.

Other times I have to capture a memory. Last night I tried reef fishing. I have no experience fishing. At all. Adam P. handed me his own rod and reel. The hook was baited and the line was already lowered to the bottom, down at around 40 meters (more than 120 feet).

Shortly after I took it, the tip of the rod began to bend downward and pull. I asked Adam if that meant something had been hooked.  He said, “Go ahead. Reel it in.” That’s when I discovered that even recreational fishing is tough work – particularly this unfamiliar technique of holding the rod with the right hand and reeling in with the left. Neophyte to fishing is me.

When the fish got to the surface, Adam took the big, beautiful black sea bass off the hook for me. On the deck it splayed out the spines of its dorsal, caudal and pectoral fins defensively. I was concerned because the fish’s air bladder was hanging out of its mouth from its rapid ascent to the surface. Adam punctured the air bladder to deflate it. He threw the fish back into the sea at my request, and assured me that the fish will go on with its life.  I’m optimistic it will.

Deborah Campbell: Aboard Nancy Foster, May 16, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Deborah Campbell
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
May 14 – May 24, 2012

Mission: Retrieve Acoustic Receivers
Georgraphical area of cruise: Atlantic Ocean, off coast of South Carolina
Date: May 16th, 2012

Weather Data from Bridge: Overcast skies, 75 degrees

Science and Technology Log


Hi Everyone!  Tuesday, May 15th was a busy day.  Preparations were being made to deploy small boats on board  NANCY FOSTER.  On deck , the crew works with the crane operator to hoist the small boats in the water.  Everyone on deck must wear hard hats.  The boats must be loaded with supplies before going in the water.  Supplies include scientific equipment, dive gear, dive tanks, food, and water.  On my boat, “Nemo” gave me a bucket with a lid.  I put my water bottle, camera, sunglasses, and extra long sleeved shirt in bucket.

Mrs. Campbell aboard NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER wearing hardhat.
Deborah Campbell climbing down ladder into NF3
Crane lifting whaler

The crane operator lowered NF3 (NF stands for Nancy Foster) in the water. “Nemo” got on board, the two divers, then me.  I was very nervous going down the rope ladder.  NF3 was bouncing in the water.  When I got in the boat, I stumbled and fell on the rough surface.  My knee was scraped up and bleeding.  I used my water bottle to clean up.  Luckily, there were some clean rags.  “Nemo” set the GPS (Global Positioning System) for the first site where the divers would work.

Diver Keith Borden on board NF3

When we got to the site, a weighted buoy was thrown off NF3 to mark the position where the divers would enter the water.   Nemo would have to carefully steer the boat away from the diving area, but stay near the marker.  My job aboard NF3 would be to try to stay put on my bucket seat while the boat rolled and bounced, and water splashed on board.  The divers Keith and Randy  prepared to go in the water.  I had a data sheet to record information.  The paper was water proof, and I could use a pencil.  The divers reported to me their beginning air tank pressure.  The divers had on wet suits, but had to lift their vests with heavy tanks attached while the boat was bouncing.  They prepared their masks by putting dish washing liquid and washing it out.  This was to prevent the masks from fogging up under water.  The divers got ready to get in the water by sitting on the sides of the boat.  When “Nemo” said ready, the divers leaned backward to drop in the water.  “Nemo” steered the boat clear of the divers.  Meanwhile, a loggerhead turtle was swimming nearby watching.

Diver Randy Rudd

Keith and Randy’s mission was to retrieve an acoustic receiver and deploy a new one.  Altogether, I would go with Keith, Randy, and “Nemo” on Tuesday and Wednesday to do a total of five dives.  Each time they located the old receiver, replaced it with another, and then took video footage of each of the dive sites.  On one dive site a Barracuda was swimming nearby.  On another a Nurse Shark was under a ledge.  Some sites had lots of fish such as Red Snappers and Gag Groupers.

Personal Log

I have met many amazing people from all over the United States.  We talk at meal times.  I am trying to get the chefs to reveal their secret recipes for the wonderful food, but they will not tell anyone.  Meanwhile I am washing my clothes.  The ship has two washers and dryers which happen to be right by my room.  I get pretty wet and alittle dirty aboard NF3.  My plans for Wednesday night include a meeting with scientists to debrief on the the activities which included sonar mapping, Zebra Arc shell collection, acoustic receiver deployment, and fish tagging.  The kitchen has a nice flat screen T.V. with lots of magazines.  There are plenty of snacks.  The ship will rock me to sleep.  I am looking forward to the upcoming activities aboard NANCY FOSTER….I will keep you posted.

Jennifer Goldner: Sharks 101, August 18, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jennifer Goldner
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
(NOAA Ship Tracker)
August 11 — August 24, 2011

Mission: Shark Longline Survey
Geographical Area: Southern Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 18, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 26.05 N
Longitude: 84.05 W
Wind Speed: 5.20 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 30.30 C
Air Temperature: 31.20 C
Relative Humidity: 67.00%

Science and Technology Log

Living in the landlocked state of Oklahoma, I am unfamiliar with sharks.  Thus today, with the help of the scientists, I’m going to give some basics of sharks that I have learned this week.  Class title:  Shark 101.  Welcome to class!

Let me start by telling you the various sharks and amount of each we have caught this week in the Gulf of Mexico. We have caught 7 nurse sharks, 2 bull sharks, 4 sandbar sharks, 73 Atlantic sharpnose sharks, 15 blacknose sharks,  5 blacktip sharks, 5 smooth dogfish, 2 silky sharks, and 4 tiger sharks.  For those of you that took the poll, as you can see the correct answer for the type of shark we have caught the most of is the Atlantic sharpnose shark.   The sharks ranged in size from about 2 kilograms (Atlantic sharpnose shark) to 100 kilograms (tiger shark). Keep in mind a kilogram is 2.24 pounds. 

In addition to the sharks caught we have also caught yellowedge, red, and snowy grouper, blueline tilefish, spinycheek scorpionfish, sea stars, and a barracuda.

From the last post you now know that we soak 100 hooks at a time. Throughout the survey we have had as little as no sharks on the line in one location and up to 25 on the line in other locations.

Me holding a spinycheek scorpion fish
Me holding a spinycheek scorpionfish
Blueline tile fish
Blueline tilefish
Drew, Scientist, holding a barracuda
Drew, Scientist, holding a barracuda
yellowedge grouper
Yellowedge grouper

When a shark is brought on board, it is measured for total length, as well as fork length (where the caudal fin separates into the upper and lower lobes).  The sex of the shark is also recorded.  A male shark has claspers, whereas a female shark does not.  The shark’s weight is recorded.  Then the shark is tagged. Lastly, the shark is injected with OTC (Oxytetracycline) which can then be used to validate the shark’s age.  It should be noted that for larger sharks these measurements are done in the cradle.  For perspective, I had Mike, fisherman, lay in the cradle to show the size of it. Also on this trip, some of the scientists tried out a new laser device.  It shoots a 10 cm beam on the shark.  This is then used as a guide to let them know the total length.  Thus, the shark can actually be measured in the water by using this technique.

Do you see the 2 laser dots on the shark?  This 10 cm increment helps scientists estimate the length of the shark.

Mike, Fisherman, in the shark cradle- It is approximately 8 feet long.
Mike, Fisherman, in the shark cradle — It is approximately 8 feet long.
Shark diagram
Shark diagram
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, weighs a shark
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, weighs a shark
Male shark on the left (with claspers), female shark on the right (no claspers)
Male shark on the left (with claspers), female shark on the right (no claspers)
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, and Adam, Scientist, measure a nurse shark in the cradle
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, and Adam, Scientist, measure a nurse shark in the cradle
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, assists me tagging an Atlantic sharpnose shark
Mark Grace, Chief Scientist, assists me tagging an Atlantic sharpnose shark
Tim, Lead Fisherman, holds the bull shark while I tag it!
Tim, Lead Fisherman, holds the bull shark while I tag it!
Giving antibiotics to an Atlantic sharpnose shark
Injecting OTC into an Atlantic sharpnose shark

Here are some things I learned about each of the sharks we caught.

1.  Nurse shark:   The dorsal fins are equal size.  They suck their food in and crush it.  Nurse sharks are very feisty.  See the attached video of Tim, Lead Fisherman and Trey, Scientist, holding a nurse shark while measurements are being taken.

The skin of nurse sharks is rough to touch.  Incidentally, all  types of  sharks’ skin is covered in dermal denticles (modified scales) which is what gives them that rough sandpaper type feeling.  If you rub your hand across the shark one way it will feel smooth, but the opposite way will feel coarse.

Dermal denticles, courtesy of Google images
Dermal denticles, courtesy of Google images
Cliff, Fisherman, getting a nurse shark set to measure
Cliff, Fisherman, getting a nurse shark set to measure

2.  Bull shark– These are one of the most aggressive sharks.  They have a high tolerance for low salinity.

Bianca, Scientist, taking a blood sample from a bull shark
Bianca, Scientist, taking a blood sample from a bull shark
bull shark
Bull shark
sandbar shark
Sandbar shark

3. Sandbar shark– These sharks are the most sought after species in the shark industry due to the large dorsal and pectoral fins.  The fins have large ceratotrichia that are among the most favored in the shark fin market.

4.  Atlantic sharpnose shark– The main identifying characteristic of this shark is white spots.

Atlantic sharpnose shark
Atlantic sharpnose shark

5.  Blacknose shark– Like the name portrays, this shark has black on its nose.  These sharks are called “baby lemons” in commercial fish industry because they can have a yellow hue to them.

blacknose shark
Blacknose shark
Me holding a blacknose shark
Me holding a blacknose shark

6.  Blacktip shark- An interesting fact about this shark is that even though it is named “blacktip,” it does not have a black tip on the anal finThe spinner shark, however, does have a black tip on its anal fin.

Jeff and Cliff getting a blacktip shark on board
Jeff and Cliff getting a blacktip shark on board
Tagging a blacktip shark
Tagging a blacktip shark

7. Smooth dogfish– Their teeth are flat because their diet consists of crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp.

Travis, Scientist, weighing a smooth dogfish
Travis, Scientist, weighing a smooth dogfish

8. Tiger shark– Their teeth work like a can opener.  They are known for their stripes.

A large tiger shark got tangled in our line.  Notice the 2-3 foot sharpnose shark. The tiger shark is about 5 times larger!
A large tiger shark got tangled in our line. Notice the 2-3 foot sharpnose shark at the left. The tiger shark is about 5 times larger!
Me with a tiger shark
Me with a tiger shark
Daniel, Scientist, holding a tiger shark
Daniel, Scientist, holding a tiger shark

9.  Silky shark- Their skin is very smooth like silk.

Daniel, Scientist, holding a silky shark
Daniel, Scientist, holding a silky shark

Another thing I got to see was shark pups because one of the scientists on board, Bianca Prohaska, is studying the reproductive physiology of sharks, skates, and rays.  According to Bianca, there are 3 general modes of reproduction:

1.  oviparous–  Lays egg cases with a yolk (not live birth).  This includes some sharks and all skates.

2.  aplacental viviparous – Develops internally with only the yolk.  This includes rays and some sharks.  Rays also have a milky substance in addition to the yolk.  Some sharks are also oophagous, such as the salmon shark which is when the female provides unfertilized eggs to her growing pups for extra nutrition.  Other sharks, such as the sand tiger, have interuterine cannibalism (the pups eat each other until only 1 is left).

3. placental viviparous– Develop internally initially with a small amount of yolk, then get a placental attachment.  This includes some sharks.

Yet another thing that scientists look at is the content of the shark’s stomach. They do this to study the diet of the sharks.

Skate egg case, Courtesy of Google images
Example of oviparous- Skate egg case, Courtesy of Google images
Placental viviparous
Example of placental viviparous
Dogfish embryo, courtesy of Google images
Example of aplacental viviparous- Dogfish embryo, courtesy of Google images
Contents from the stomach of a smooth dogfish (flounder and squid)
Contents from the stomach of a smooth dogfish (flounder and squid)

Personal Log

Anyone who knows me realizes that I appreciate good food when I eat it.  Okay, on NOAA Ship Oregon II, I have not found just good food, I have found GREAT cuisine!   I am quite sure I have gained a few pounds, courtesy of our wonderful chefs, Walter and Paul.  They have spoiled us all week with shrimp, steak, prime rib, grilled chicken, homemade cinnamon rolls, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and gravy, and the list goes on!   Just talking about it makes me hungry!

Walter is a Chef de Cuisine.  I want to share with you two of the wonderful things, and there are many more, he has prepared for us this week.  The first is called ceviche.  On our shift we caught some grouper.  Walter used these fish to make this wonderful dish.

Grouper used to make ceviche
Grouper used to make ceviche

In addition to the grouper, the ingredients he used were lemon juice, vinegar, onions, jalapeno, kosher salt, and pepper.  He mixed all the ingredients together.  The citric acid cooks the raw fish.  It has to be fresh fish in order to make it.  Instead of lemon juice, apple juice or orange juice can be substituted.  All I know is that since I arrived on NOAA Ship Oregon II, I heard from the entire crew about how great Walter’s ceviche was and it did not disappoint!

Walter, Chef de Cuisine, with his award winning ceviche
Walter, Chef de Cuisine, with his award winning ceviche
Walter's maccaroons
Walter’s macaroons

Another thing Walter is famous for on board NOAA Ship Oregon II are his macaroons.  These are NOT like ANY macaroons you have ever tasted.  These truly melt in your mouth.  Amazingly, he only has 4 ingredients in them: egg whites, powdered sugar, almond paste, and coconut flakes.  They are divine!!

On another note, I would like to give a shout out to my 5th grade students in Jay Upper Elementary School!  (I actually have not had the chance to meet them yet because I am here as a NOAA Teacher at Sea.  I would like to thank my former student, Samantha Morrison, who is substituting for me.  She is doing an outstanding job!!)

Dolphin swimming alongside the ship
Dolphin swimming alongside the ship

Jay 5th Grade:  I cannot wait to meet you!  Thank you for your questions!  We will have lots of discussions when I return about life at sea.  Several of you asked if I have been seasick.  Fortunately, I have not.  Also, you asked if I got to scuba dive.  Only the dive crew can scuba dive.  We are not allowed to have a swim call (go swimming) either.  As you can see, there is plenty to do on board!  Also, you may have noticed that I tried to include some pictures of me tagging some sharks.  Lastly, this dolphin picture was requested by you, too.  Dolphins LOVE to play in the ship’s wake so we see them every day.

Enjoy the view!

I LOVE the scenery out here!  I thought I’d share some of it with you today.

I thought these clouds looked like dragons. What do they look like to you?
I thought these clouds looked like dragons. What do they look like to you?
The vertical development of clouds out here is amazing!
The vertical development of clouds out here is amazing!
Starboard side at sunset
Starboard side at sunset
Sunset from the stern
Sunset from the stern
Sunset in the Gulf of Mexico aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
Sunset in the Gulf of Mexico aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
Sunset, port side
Sunset, port side

Annmarie Babicki, August 10, 2010

Time:NOAA Teacher at Sea: Annmarie Babicki

NOAA Ship Name: Oregon II
Mission: Shark and Red Snapper Bottom Longlining
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 10, 2010

Weather Data

Latitude:  25.36 degrees North
Longitude:  82.56 degrees West
Clouds: Overcast and occasional showers
Winds:  11.5 kts
Temperature: 28.6 Celcius or about 84 degrees Fahrenheit
Barometric Pressure; 1010.04

Science and Technology:

  I am working here in the Gulf of Mexico with a scientist who is completing shark stock assessments.  It is a long term study, which monitors population trends of all shark species in the Gulf.  The data collected from this survey is used in conjunction with data from many other studies to determine fisheries policy. One example of this could be the determinations of how large a catch can be and how long the catch season can be.  Policies are not only different by species, but also by whether the catch is for recreational or commercial use.
Today we began the shark survey and completed locations off the coast of Florida.  The locations are chosen at random, so that the data is objective and the findings are not skewed.  During each sampling the following information is recorded: shark species, its length, weight, sex, and the stage of its maturity.  The coordinates for each survey are also recorded, which enables scientists to know where particular shark populations exist. The number of stations completed per day varies depending on how far the stations are from one another.  Generally, the amount of time it takes to complete it is approximately two hours.
Bait bucket
Hi-flyer being dropped in the water

The methodology used to collect data on sharks is called bottom longlining.  This is when each hook are baited with mackerel and put on a gangion. We cut our own bait and attach it to the hooks.  Each hook is assigned a number, one to one hundred, so that it can be tracked. That line is then systematically hooked onto another line that runs one nautical mile.  Both ends of the line have what are called hi-flyers that float vertically in the water.  They are bright orange and have a blinking light on the top, so that they can be seen from a distance. There is a weight placed on both ends of the line and one in the middle. The weights help to keep the baited lines well below the surface.  After the last gangion is put on, we wait one hour and then begin to pull in all hundred lines. During this entire process the ship is moving, which can be sometimes challenging, especially in bad weather.

Measuring the length of a barracuda
weighing a barracuda
A tagged tiger shark

Although the focus of this survey is sharks, data is collected on all fishes that are captured. After the fish are pulled up on deck, data is collected and recorded by the hook number. The handling of sharks is different from the handling of fish.  Only sharks are fitted with a tag, which does not hurt them.  There are two types of tags, but to date we have only used one type.  In order to attach the yellow tag, a small slit is made underneath the dorsal fin. The tag has a sharp point on one end, which is inserted into the slit.  Also a small sample (5-10 cm) of the shark’s pelvic fin is taken.  This is then taken to the lab where DNA testing is done.  The DNA can be used to verify known species and unknown or new species. Also, scientists can compare the population of sharks in other oceans around the globe by their DNA. What I have observed on every catch is that the scientist carefully monitors the shark to ensure it is not being stressed or could be hurt in any way.
Today we caught this beautiful and powerful scalloped hammerhead shark.  When very large sharks like the hammerhead are caught, they are not pulled up by the line because it can damage them and they are too heavy to handle.  Instead they are guided onto a cradle which sits in the water. Once on securely they are hoisted to the side of the ship where scientists can collect the needed data. The hammerhead weighed in at 341lb. and was 8 feet long. What a catch this was, everyone was very excited.

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark
The cradle used to raise sharks in and out of the water.

Personal Log

The day started out cloudy but eventually turned over to showers and then to a hard rain.  We are feeling the effects of the tropical depression, which explains why it is difficult for me to stay standing for any length of time.  I am hitting and seeing more walls than I care to!  Also, it is a very bizarre feeling when the chair you are sitting in moves from one side of the room to the other.  Luckily I have fended of sea sickness, but I did have a mild case of nausea, however, nothing that stopped me from continuing to work on deck.  Thank goodness for Bonine.
Sleeping has not been much of a problem for me except when the ship’s engine changes.  The engines make a deep loud growling sound that wakes me for just a few minutes. Being out in the fresh air does make me tired, so I have to set my alarm clock or I will sleep through my next shift. It’s hard to know what day it is because I am working a noon to midnight shift. You keep track of time by when the next sampling is due.

Being at sea and doing this type of research is definitely only for the hearty.  The weather changes often as does the pace of the work.  There are many jobs to do during sampling and I am trying to learn all of them.  Baiting a hook and taking off bait has been frustrating, particularly since it has to be done quickly.  The type of hook they use has a barb on it that goes in a different direction from the rest of the hook, so it doesn’t just slide out.  We wear special gloves to protect our hands from the hooks and skin of the sharks, which can feel like sand paper or razor blades depending on the shark.  They say that practice makes perfect. Well, I have a lot of practicing to do!
My next adventure is to learn how to hold sharks and not be afraid of them.  I’ll keep you posted.

“Answer to Question of the Day” The fin clip is an actual piece of a fin that has been cut off the shark to be used for DNA testing.”Question of the Day”  What is a wet and dry room on a research vessel?

“Animals Seen Today” red groupers, tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, scalloped hammerhead, sharpnose shark, and sea birds

Anne Marie Wotkyns, July 10-11, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Anne Marie Wotkyns
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 7 – 13, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Anne Marie Wotkyns
NOAA Ship Pisces
Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Saturday July 10, Sunday, July 11, 2010
Latitude: Saturday 27⁰54.8057 N Sunday 27⁰51.098 N
Longitude: Saturday 093⁰18.2990 W Sunday 093⁰04.100 W

Weather Data from the Bridge

Air Temperature: Saturday 30.3⁰C Sunday 30.4⁰C
Water Temperature: Saturday 30.5⁰C Sunday 30.35⁰C
Wind: Saturday 2.55 knots Sunday 1 knot
Other Weather Features:
Saturday 62% humidity, cloud cover 20% Sunday 67% humidity, cloud cover 35%
Saturday Swell Height .2 meter Sunday .4 meter
Saturday Wave Height .05 meter Sunday .25meter

Science and Technology Log

Temperature Depth Recorder
Temperature Depth Recorder

Temperature Depth Recorder
Temperature Depth Recorder

There are several types of sensing equipment we have been using on this cruise. Each time we drop the camera array at a site attached to the array is a little device called a Temperature Depth Recorder or a TDR. As the camera array sinks to the bottom, the TDR records the temperature and depth. When the camera array is brought back on board the ship one of the scientists, or one of us teachers, unclips it and brings it into the lab. To get the information off you hit it once with a magnet that communicates with the chip inside telling it you want to download the information. Then you place a stylus on the device and it downloads the information to the computer. The data is saved under the name of the site and then the information is entered into a spreadsheet that converts the information from the psi(pounds per square inch) to meters of depth. To clear the TDR you hit it four times with the magnet and when it flashes red it is clear! Liz and I learned to do this the first day we did stations and we usually took turns entering the information. This was done 8 times on Saturday and 7 times on Sunday.

At every station, a CTD is also dropped into the water. A CTD (Conductivity Temperature Recorder) gives a hydrographic profile of the water column. The CTD is attached to the bottom of a rosette or carousel that also contains water sampling bottles. Attached to the rosette is a conductive wire that sends information to the lab. Mike, the survey technician, comes into the lab after every camera array is dropped and runs the CTD process. The CTD is placed in the water and allowed to acclimate for 3 minutes before they begin taking readings. The CTD is dropped to the bottom of the seafloor and then raised again. Mike monitors this from the dry lab. Once a week he uses the water bottles to take water samples. To take a sample he uses a remote from inside the dry lab to trigger the bottles at a given depth to close them. The CTD can also be programmed to close different bottles at different depths. It was very interesting to watch the EK60 echo sounder screen as the CTD lowered and raised.

Data from CTD
Data from CTD

CTD
CTD

Each morning, Chief Scientist Kevin goes through the video footage from the previous day. For each site he identifies what the bottom substrate was (“sandy flat bottom”, “coralline algal bottom”, “malacanthus mounds,” etc) and then he identifies briefly any fish that he sees. When he is doing this, he will call us over and explain how he can tell what the species is or what behavior a fish is exhibiting.

Video footage
Video footage

Video footage
Video footage

Saturday, we dropped the camera array at 8 different stations on Bright Bank sites. The two chevron fish traps brought up NO FISH! On the bandit reel we caught one fish. It was a sand tile fish, Malacanthus pulmieri, a “banana shaped” bottom dweller that lives in large rock-covered mounds. Wearing rubber gloves, I weighed and measured him quickly and then we threw him back alive. He was 494 mm (49.4 cm) long and weighed .550 kg. I’m not very comfortable touching the fish or the bait we’ve been using, so I was quite proud of myself!

Sand-tile fish
Sand-tile fish

Measuring
Measuring

Weighing
Weighing

Frustrated Kevin
Frustrated Kevin

That was the only fish we caught all day! Today was a little frustrating. It even got Kevin a little down!

Sunday brought our last day of work on the reef survey. The Pisces was on the north half of Geyer Bank, still off the coast of Louisiana. I was determined to fully participate in all aspects of the science, so I bravely donned my gloves and baited the bandit reel’s 10 hooks with chunks of mackerel. We were positive we would catch more fish today!

Baiting the bandit reel
Baiting the bandit reel


The camera cage came up with some interesting “hitchhikers” aboard. One was a round sponge, about the size of a softball. At first we thought it was a rock, but when I grabbed it, it was soft and squishy. Sponges are filter feeders which draw in water through many small , incurrent pores. Food and oxygen are filtered out and then exit through one or more larger excurrent openings.

In the fish lab, Kevin found a large cymothoid isopod, a crustacean that attaches to fish using its hook-like legs and scavenges food as the fish feeds. It reminded me of a cockroach more than a “rolly-polly”, the land isopod found in our gardens.

Cymothoid isopod
Round sponge

Cymothoid isopod
Cymothoid isopod

The day continued with seven camera drops, the bandit reel deployment, and two chevron fish traps. Despite positive thinking and Liz doing her “fish dance,” both fish traps came up empty. So the 2nd bandit reel was our last chance for fish. We were excited to see the “fishing pole” part of the reel bouncing up and down. It was reeled in and here’s what we caught!

Barracuda
Barracuda

Barracuda
Barracuda

It was a great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda, 939 mm (93.9 cm) long and weighing 3.49 kg. Joey measured and weighed it, carefully avoiding its sharp teeth. He released the large predator and our last catch quickly swam away.

An interesting souvenir I will be taking home are some fish otoliths. Otoliths are fish earbones. Bony fish lay down layers of bone on their otoliths as they age, similar to the rings on a tree. Scientists use the otoliths to determine the age of a fish. Kevin collected the otoliths from a yellowedge grouper one of the crew caught and gave one each to Liz and I. Then he helped me remove the otoliths from a red porgy – quite a messy procedure, but very rewarding to cut open the skull and see the earbones!

Otoliths
Otoliths

In tomorrow’s log, I’ll share what we learned on our tour of the engine room, and about the different job opportunities on the ship.

Personal Log

Two nights ago, the ship’s captain (Commanding Officer Jerry Adams) had invited Liz and I up to the bridge to help “steer” the ship. He explained that we were driving a 52 million dollar vessel with 30 lives on board, so we were feeling pretty nervous! The Pisces was moving to the next day’s work area so the bridge crew would be driving all night. I got to steer first, my hands tightly gripping the wheel Captain Jerry and Ensign Kelly Schill explained how to drive and the proper language to use. When steering, you are following a set course using a gyroscopic compass as well as a digital heading read out. You are steering the rudder by degrees. The heading is stated in single digits so 173 would be one seven three.

We were sailing at night, so all the bridge lights were kept turned off to better see the lights of other boats and oil rigs. The bridge crew even had red flashlights so they wouldn’t ruin their night vision. Liz and I both got a chance to steer the ship in circles. I even did a Williamson turn, which is done when there is a man overboard. You turn 60⁰ in one direction and then turn the other direction so you are back on your reciprocal course to pick up the person who is overboard. While I was doing this, the ETA (estimated time of arrival to our next destination) display changed from “ 6:10 am” to “NEVER.” We both laughed pretty hard about that!

The Dynamic Positioning system (similar to an automatic pilot system) is called Betty. She can talk to the crew on the bridge and is reportedly extremely polite. I find is amazing how the ship can maintain such a steady course, with the computers adjusting for the constant changes in current, wind, and other factors which affect the ship’s steering. The DP also keeps the Pisces in one place when we are at a science station. The Captain promised to show us more about the DP on our next bridge visit. Everything on the bridge is electronic. You can click a button and see how much fresh water is on board, how much fuel, which engines are working and even wake someone up! The technology is truly amazing. I keep thinking about my grandfather who sailed in the Swedish Merchant Marines in the 1930’s. What would he have thought all this?

Where has Pascy the penguin been in the last 2 days? Check out his pictures!


Pascy helps me write my log entry out on the back deck at sunset!

Safety is very important! Pascy wears his hardhat whenever he works out on the deck with equipment.


On the lookout for other ships and oil rigs!


Pascy helps with the Pisces’ navigation. He’s double checking the computer’s course.


Pascy in the captain’s chair on the bridge.


Pascy at the helm of this $52 million dollar ship!

Elizabeth Warren, July 11-12, 2010

NOAA Teacher At Sea: Elizabeth Warren
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces

Mission: Reef Fish Surveys
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 11-12,  2010

Winding down

NOAA SHIP: Pisces
Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Sunday, July 11th- Monday July 12th, 2010

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Temperature: Water: 30.4 ℃ (which is 86.9℉ ) Air: 30.5 ℃
Wind: 1 knots
Swell: .2 meters
Location: 27. 51° N, 93.04° W
Weather: Sunny, Humidity 67%, 35% cloud cover

Science/Technology Log:
On Sunday, Anne-Marie and I were given a tour of the Engineering spaces. The Pisces has an integrated diesel electric drive system. There are two propulsion motors on the shaft that generate 1,500 horsepower each that are electric. Chief Engineer Garret explained that it is similar to a little remote control toy boat, except of course that the Pisces is much bigger. The Pisces is 208.6 feet long, 50 feet wide (breadth), and the Captain standing in the bridge is 37 feet above the water.

Propulsion Motor
Propulsion Motor

There are 4 generators on board, two 16 cylinder and two 14 cylinder that runs what the Chief Engineer called the “hotel load”, keeping the lights on. Another really cool thing about the Pisces is that it was designed to be a quiet vessel because underwater noise can influence how fish behave and can limit what the scientists are able to on board, not to mention that a noisy ship is harder to sleep on. The International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) established standards to improve the noise onboard research vessels and the Pisces was designed to meet those standards.

Electrical Board
Electrical Board

Throughout the engineering room there are giant electrical boards that are constantly kept cool by the air conditioning that is constantly running on the ship. The interesting thing about the air conditioning is that the engineering deck and the labs are kept cool using regular air conditioning methods but the staterooms and other decks are kept cool using cold water! This is also the method used to keep the two propulsion motors cool as well!

Cold Water Air Conditioning
Cold Water Air Conditioning

When we entered into the belly of the ship we were given earplugs because it gets loud and really hot down in the very bottom. Garret showed us that if the bridge ever lost power that there is a secondary way to steer. The crew steers using a hydraulic steering system rather than the electrical one on the bridge. The crew uses a sound powered telephone to communicate with the bridge during any power outages (or drills).

Garret showing the hydraulic steering system
Garret showing the hydraulic steering system

One very important piece of the engineering deck is the Freshwater system. The ship pulls in sea water and uses heat from the engine to make freshwater through distillation. They heat the sea water and catch the evaporation which is fresh water. There are two distillers on board and they can make 1,850 gallons a day.

When we were down there we witnessed Junior Engineer Steve repairing the blown diaphragm that had interfered with the system. When we are in the area that NOAA has labeled as a 95% uncertainty trajectory regarding the presence of oil, we do not take in water as it could be contaminated and damage the system. This is why the first two days and the last two of the cruise we were asked to conserve water.

Steve, Junior Engineer
Steve, Junior Engineer

Personal Log:

Latte = happy
Latte = happy

The tour was very exciting! We began in the galley where Garret made Anne Marie and I lattes. They were beautiful! When we went into the loud part of the deck we put on ear plugs from the ear plug dispensing unit, which I had to take a picture of. Once again I was impressed with how patient the crew can be with us, although I do think we are a source of amusement for many of them.

Going down to the bowels of the ship
Going down to the bowels of the ship

When the tour ended Captain Jerry took us to the very bowels of the ship and showed us the transducer well, this is the part of the ship that keeps the water out and keeps us from sinking.

Transducer
Transducer

Sunday was the last day of this leg of the survey. I did the banana song today in hopes that we would find something in the fish traps, unfortunately it did not work! As the day went on I was able to help more and more. I helped throw in the chevron fish trap, baited the bandit reel, pulled the rope to let the camera array drop. On the last bandit reel though we finally got some action! We were all pretty excited even Watch-leader Joey!

When the reel came up we discovered that we had caught a barracuda on the line! He was huge! We (okay so it was Joey) rushed through all of the measuring so we could throw him back in quickly! We still had a chance to get some pictures of him though. There is a limited amount of time to get all of the camera arrays into the water during a day and we were getting pretty close to running out of time so Captain Jerry and Kevin decided to do a camera array on the “fly”. We had to be ready! As we approached the site we got the camera over the side and as soon as the signal was given we dropped it.

Flexing on the deck
Flexing on the deck
Barracuda
Barracuda

As I said before we have a lot of down time in between drops. I broke out my I-pod touch and we played a bunch of games. For awhile we played Would you rather? My favorite question was: Would you rather be saved by superman or meet Winnie the Pooh? Can you guess which one I picked? Then I introduced Joey to Madlibs. I couldn’t believe he had never played. Finally, Joey and I started a battle with the Bubble Wrap game. The idea is to pop as many of the bubbles as you can within 45 seconds. It got very heated! Right now the record is 254 and I’m sad to say that Joey is the record holder. I still have some time though… it could happen.

Jerry playing a game on my ipod touch
Jerry playing a game on my ipod touch
Playing games on ipod touch
Playing games on ipod touch

It’s a good thing Anne Marie and I had gotten a tour on Sunday because today, Monday, there was a Steering drill. We knew exactly what was going on. The Captain announced the drill and then at the end said the Teachers At Sea should head down so we could drive. The experience is completely different. You are down in the depths of the ship and there is a crew member using headphones to talk to the bridge. Instead of a steering wheel, there are two things with bubbles at the top that you push down to change the angle of the rudder. Each of the bubbles steers the ship either left or right. I have to say we did a fantastic job, especially with all of the help!

Me on the bridge
Me on the bridge
NOAA Corps Officers on the Bridge
NOAA Corps Officers on the Bridge

Something to think about: For me this has been an adventure, but a lot of the people that I’ve met do this all year round. They live and work on ships 264 days a year. When they get off of work at the end of the day, they can’t really go anywhere. A lot of the time they share a room for three weeks with someone they’ve never met before. There are movies, satellite tv, internet, places to work out, and time to fish. Imagine being “lovingly incarcerated” as a class, all 32 of us on a ship for weeks on end? That would be an interesting change. What I have noticed is that everyone seems to love what they do and most have traveled all over the world with various nautical employments (Navy, Exxon, NOAA).

Otoliths
Otoliths

As an outsider, on board for a short amount of time I’m still counting my time here as a once in a lifetime, educational adventure! Although, I wouldn’t mind staying.

Me on the deck
Me on the deck

Yesterday, I left out some rubber ducks for the crew to sign for me! Here they are with Anne Marie’s friend Pascy!

Rubber Ducks
Rubber Ducks

Clare Wagstaff, September 18, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Key West
Date: Saturday, September 18, 2009

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 12 noon) 
Weather: Sunny Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 0 (in port)
Wave Height (feet): <1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 30.4
Air Temp (0C): 32

Science and Technology Log 

Right: Black-band Disease on Montastraea annularis. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley
Black-band Disease on Montastraea annularis. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley

With the last dive of the cruise over, the group has completed 175 dives, which equates to 7.5 days underwater! Most of the planned coral reef sites have been surveyed even with our lack of a third small boat. The weather has stayed relatively calm and has been surprisingly supportive of our cruise. The mad rush is now to input all the remaining data before we disembark the ship later today.

An area that I have only briefly referred to in previous logs, are the types of coral diseases present and being studied. Chief Scientist, Scott Donahue, commented to me that there has been a trend over the last decade of decreasing coral coverage. This is believed to be related to anthropogenic stresses such as water quality and climate change. By comparing spatial and temporal patterns against trends in coral reef disease, over different geographic regions and reef types, it is hoped that a greater understanding of how these patterns are related to different environmental conditions. The team was specifically looking at ten disease conditions affecting 16 species of Scleractinian corals and Gorgonian sea fans. Although I tried to identify some of the diseases, it was actually quite difficult to distinguish between individual diseases and also other causes of coral mortality.

White-band Disease on Acropora cervicornis. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley
White-band Disease on Acropora cervicornis. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley

Black-band Disease is a crescent shaped or circular band of blackish material that separates living material from white exposed skeleton. It is caused by a cyanobacteria in combination with a sulfide oxidizing bacteria and a sulfur reducing bacteria. White-band Disease displays a margin of white tissue decay. It can start at the base of a colony or in the middle. It affects branching corals and its cause is currently unknown. Corals have a pretty tough time living out in the ocean and have many problems to overcome. If its not a boat’s anchor crushing it could be any number of the following; a parrot fish (predator) eating it; deterioration of the water quality; a hurricane; an increase in major competitors like algae or tunicates, and to nicely top it all, it can always get a disease too!

Most of the scientists on the Nancy Foster are volunteers, giving up their own free time to be part of the trip. Kathy Morrow is a Ph.D. student who has extensively studied the ecology of cnidarians for the past 9 years. She is currently researching her dissertation on the community structure and stability of coral-algal-microbial associations based on studies conducted off the coast of Summerland Key, Florida and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. On one of the last dives of the trip Kathy takes time to collect mucus samples (she refers to this fondly as coral “snot”), from a site she has previously visited numerous times over the last few years. The objective is to collect mucus samples so that they can be studied later for their bacteria composition.

Morrow collecting coral mucus. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley.
Morrow collecting coral mucus. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley.

Once Kathy has collected these samples she must process them so that they can be stored until she has the opportunity back in the lab, to analyze them. Although I was not present when Kathy was collecting the samples, I did help her in the wet lab with the final stages of storing her collection of samples. Having collected multiple mucus samples from each of the preselected coral species in syringes, the samples were then placed into a centrifuge to extract the bacteria present. This material is denser, so sinks to the bottom ad forms a darker colored pellet. My job is then to remove the excess liquid, but preserve the bacteria pellet so that it can be frozen and stored for later analysis. Back in the lab at Auburn University, Kathy will chemically breakdown the bacteria to release their DNA. This DNA is then replicated and amplified allowing for Kathy to perform analysis on the bacteria to identify the types present in the corals. Kathy will spend the next year studying these bacteria samples and many more she has collected.

Personal Log 

Here I am helping Kathy Morrow preserving coral mucus specimens. Photo courtesy of Cory Walter
Here I am helping Kathy Morrow preserving coral mucus specimens. Photo courtesy of Cory Walter

So here we are back in port after an amazing time on the Nancy Foster. I was initially concerned about being out at sea with people I did not know, studying an area of science I really knew very little about, in an environment I knew would probably make me sick, but didn’t thank goodness! But everything turned out to be a thousand times better than I could have imagined. I have had seen so much and learnt an amazing amount that my head is spinning with all the ideas I have to use with my classes back at school. Yet, there are things that I just rang out of time to look more closely at and part of me wishes we had been out at sea longer. My second time as a Teacher At Sea, has left me with some wonderful memories of the most professional and dedicated scientists and crew you could wish for, but also of how amazing corals are and how much we still have to learn. Thank you everyone who was involved in making this a truly remarkable and memorable experience.

The 2009 coral research team and Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff on board the Nancy
The 2009 coral research team and Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff on board the Nancy Foster

Clare Wagstaff, September 16, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Dry Tortugas National Park
Date: Saturday, September 16, 2009

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 12 noon) 
Weather: Sunny with scattered showers with thunder storms
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 4
Wave Height (feet): 1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 30.6
Air Temp (0C): 30

Science and Technology Log 

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and numerous Sergeant Majors (Abudefduf  saxatilis)
Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and numerous Sergeant Majors (Abudefduf saxatilis)

Today I am with a new survey group. As the days go by and each of the scientists gets more dives under their belts, there is some fatigue starting to set in. So on a rotation basis, the divers are taking rest days to catch-up on sleep, emails and data entry. This morning I am with Lauri, Lonny and Sarah. The first dive site is about 33  feet deep and although I can see the bottom from our small boat, the water is extremely green and doesn’t allow me to see anything in real detail when I snorkeled. A little disappointed at the clarity of the water, I am definitely perked up by the next site, CR03. At just 8 feet deep, I can see much more and the water appears less green.

A lobster hiding in the coral
A lobster hiding in the coral

This site was something special! Even from above the water, we could observe large and impressive Acropora palmata. It looked like a large underwater forest. There was a massive diversity of fish specie present that appeared to be supported by the micro-ecosystem that the Acropora palmata created by its large lobes that fan out across the ocean floor. They provide plenty of nooks for green moray eels and multiple lobsters I saw to hide in. This coral grows approximately 10cm a year, but as with all coral species, this growth can be affected by various factors including the most recent hurricanes.

We were surveying in an area known as a Sanctuary Preservation Area or commonly a “No Take Zone”, yet a small boat located within the marking buoys appeared to be spear fishing. The Coxswain on our boat noted that the group brought numerous fish up into their boat while we were underwater. Within a short distance we also observed two other lobster pot buoys located within this zone. Lauri, called this into the Nancy Foster and asked that the Chief Scientist report this to the Marine Law Enforcement office, so that they could send a patrol boat out to investigate. This activity is not permitted in this zoned area.

Coral identification 

Diploria strigosa
Diploria strigosa

Today, I tried to indentify all the different varieties of coral I had photographed. Dr. Joshua Voss, the ship’s expert of coral identification looked over my attempt at scientifically naming 30 different photos. Much to my delight, I got 28 correct! Now I just need to remember them when I am underwater! My greatest difficulty seems to be differentiating between Montastraea spp.annularis, faveolata and franksi, as they have quite similar morphotypes. I just have to keep practicing and asking for help when I’m not sure. What makes me feel a little better is sometimes even the pro’s have trouble distinguishing between certain corals, particularly if they are trying to identify a hybrid which is a mixture of two different species.

Personal Log 

Diploria clivosa
Diploria clivosa

I am always amazed at how resourceful divers can be. Somehow duct tape comes in useful wherever you are. Today was no exception! Geoff, who forgot his dive booties (a type of neoprene sock that you wear inside you fins) has made himself a pair out of another team member’s white socks and a few lengths of duct tape. He does look very entertaining, but they do seem to be working!

Acropora palmata
Acropora palmata

I am feeling very privileged to be surrounded by so many intelligent, passionate and brilliant people. Not only are most of people on the survey teams volunteers and so not getting paid, they are also embracing each part of the cruise with a great sense of humor and consistent high spirits. Even though they are all tired (to date they have accumulated 133 dives between them this cruise), they still banter back and forth with one another in a lighthearted way. All but myself and Mike Henley are returning for their third, fourth, even 13th time, to help collect this vital data. Even though diving has many hazards and is dangerous work, these folks are real experts and I truly feel lucky to be around such inspiring people. I have been diving for five years, but I don’t think I will ever look at a reef in the same way again. They have opened my eyes, and now my job is to go back to chilly Buffalo and develop a way to get this across to my 6th and 8th grade science classes. If I can inspire even just one child, like Joshua’s science teacher did for him as a teenager, then perhaps they too will go on to become a marine biologist, who study some of the smallest, yet most important creatures on our planet.

 Montastraea annularis
Montastraea annularis

As 7pm draws close, the science group gather on the front deck to watch the sunset. It is a beautiful sky, but just to make the evening more special, along come three dolphins riding the wake of the bow of the Nancy Foster. I leap up like a child and run to the edge of the ship to get a closer look, having never seen dolphins in the wild before! They are so graceful and as we all lean over and cheer as the breach the water and splash their fins, you start to wonder, if they are actually watching us as much as we are watching them. Such grace and natural beauty brings another day aboard the Nancy Foster to an end. I’m just not sure how each day keeps topping itself, and with two left to come, who knows what adventures may become this team!

“Animals Seen Today” 

Three bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) riding the wake of the Nancy Foster 

Bottlenose dolphins riding in the Foster’s wake
Bottlenose dolphins riding in the Foster’s wake

Clare Wagstaff, September 15, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Dry Tortugas National Park
Date: Saturday, September 15, 2009

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 12 noon) 
Weather: Partially sunny, with scattered showers and thunder storms
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 2
Wave Height (feet): 1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 30.6
Air Temp (0C): 30

Science and Technology Log 

I am starting to get used to the scientific names of the corals, but it is taking a while. I keep wanting to refer to them by their common name which is generally descriptive of their physical appearance, but makes little to no reference to which other coral it is more closely related to Dr. Joshua Voss, one of the scientists on board pointed out that the common names could vary depending on who is identifying them, yet the scientific name remains the same. Hence why the whole team refers to the scientific names when referring to the corals.

So what are corals? 

Parts of a coral (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/ corals/media/supp coral01a.html)
Parts of a coral

Corals are members of the Animal Kingdom and are classified in the Phylum Cnidaria. People often mistake    these creatures for plants, because they are attached to the rock, show little movement, and closely resemble plants. Corals consist of a polyp, which are a cup-shaped body with one opening, which is its mouth and anus.

Zooxanthellae (zoo-zan-thel-ee) are single cell plants (photosynthetic algae) that grow within the polyps’ tissue. It forms a mutalistic symbiotic relationship with the polyp. The algae gets a protected environment and the compounds it requires for photosynthesis, whilst the algae provides the polyp with the materials necessary to produce calcium carbonate, which is the hard “shell” that surrounds the polyp.

So why is this cruise surveying corals? 

Clare Wagstaff, Teacher At Sea, snorkeling
Clare Wagstaff, Teacher At Sea, snorkeling

There has been a decreasing trend in coral coverage over the last decade. One theory is that this is due to anthropogenic stress related to water quality and climate change.  Coral’s require certain environmental factors to be within sensitive boundaries, such as water temperature, salinity, clarity of water, and water movement. Although most species only grow a few centimeters each year, they are the backbone to a massive underwater ecosystem, hence their extreme importance to the success of our oceans. By studying the trends in species distribution, size and disease over various geographic regions, their corrolations can be desricbed in better detail.

Personal Log 

Palythoa spp. observed covering most of the reef at station RK02 and Watercress Alga (Halimeda opuntia). Polythoa is not a coral and in fact competes with coral for space in the reef.
Palythoa spp. observed covering most of the reef at station RK02 and Watercress Alga (Halimeda opuntia). Polythoa is not a coral and in fact competes with coral for space in the reef.

This morning I once again join Team C that composes of Dr. Joshua Voss, Kathy Morrow and Mike Henley to survey three dive sites called RK01, RK02 & RK03. We have now got into a comfortable routine and everyone seems to work well together. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the boat, NF4! During our last dive on Monday, the boat started to leak oil and is now out of commission for the rest of the cruise. Instead we are on the much smaller and less luxurious, NF2, which also happens to be much slower! However, after the usual dive brief we set out for a day of adventures upon the open sea. The second dive site today proved to be the best for snorkeling and I was able to observe a large variety of plants and animals from on the surface.

“Did You Know?” 

Here I am pointing to the waterspout
Here I am pointing to the waterspout

Waterspouts are simply tornadoes over water. They are common in tropical areas where thunderstorms regularly occur, such as the Florida Keys! Today we saw a prime example of one within a few miles of the NANCY FOSTER.

“New Term/Phrase/Word” 

Anthropogenic – caused or produced by human activities such as industry, agriculture, mining, and construction.

The final survey site, RK03 was very shallow at around 8 ft. The dive team decided to make their observations snorkeling rather than diving. Unfortunately, Kathy was so engrossed in her work that she did not see a moon jellyfish swim right into her face! She put on a very brave front and we quickly returned to the NF2 and back to the NANCY FOSTER. The medial treatment for such a sting is to drench the area in vinegar, which neutralizes the nematocysts that may still be clinging to the skin. Luckily, Kathy made a quick recovery, even if she did smell a little like vinegar for the rest of the day!

Clare Wagstaff, September 13, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Dry Tortugas National Park
Date: Saturday, September 13, 2009

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 12 noon) 
Weather: Sunny with scattered showers and thunderstorms
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 14
Wave Height (feet): 1-2
Sea Water Temp (0C): 29.8
Air Temp (0C): 32

Science and Technology Log 

Hermit crabs at Fort Jefferson
Hermit crabs at Fort Jefferson

Today the dive plan was to survey some of the deeper sites in the FKNMS (Florida Keys National Marine Sancturay) Tortugas Ecological Reserve, referred to as Sherwood Forest. The dive depth varied between 65 to 80 feet. That meant that snorkeling would probably result in me observing very little. My slightly sunburned forehead, needing to get some of my logs composed in more detail, as well as the diving situation, gave me a prime opportunity to stay on the boat for the majority of the day.

So this morning after the dive brief I waved off the team and set out to do some exploring of the ship and do a little more research about what happens before the team actually gets into the water.

The survey teams are planning on making two separate dives on each site to complete the whole of the radial arc transect. The amount of gas each diver requires, depends on a number of variables, including depth, level of physical fitness and amount of activity undertaken in the water. Scuba diving is also limited by a number of factors such as available air, blood nitrogen level, etc.

What is scuba diving? 

Scuba is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. The first commercially successful scuba was developed by Emile Gagnan and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, in 1943 and is now widely used around the world as a recreational sport. Sports divers are normally restricted to 130ft, where as technical deep divers can reach depths much greater. During this trip the maximum dive site depth will not exceed 80ft.

Dive brief – Safety First! 

The Wet Lab on the Nancy Foster
The Wet Lab on the Nancy Foster

Before each dive the cruise’s Dive Master, Sarah Fangman gives the scuba divers a brief run through of the priorities for today’s diving. As usual, this means safety is the top priority and Sarah highlights important factors, such as watching your air consumption and making sure that each diver returns with at least 500psi, that each team goes over their dive plan (how deep, for how long, what they will do during the dive), check that all equipment is functioning correctly, and that all the dive data is being recorded. This means prior to the divers getting into the water, their tanks air pressure, Nitrox percentage, name, and time of entry into the water must be logged. Once the dive has ended and the divers are back on the boat, they must once again record their tank air pressure (must be more than 500psi), their bottom depth and sometimes time in the water. Even after the dive is done, the whole team is responsible for each other and has to monitor everyone’s condition for at least the next 30 minutes.

What do the divers breath? 

The divers are breathing Nitrox. Regular scuba has a very specific ratio of nitrogen to oxygen; it tries to mimic the air found on the surface of the Earth as closely as possible. Nitrox diving, on the other hand, tweaks this mixture to maximize bottom time (i.e., the diver’s time spent underwater) and minimize surface intervals (i.e., the time the diver must stay on the surface before diving back in). Before each dive, the individual diver must check his or her own tank for the gases composition and record the oxygen content on their tank. This is because at depths oxygen can actually become toxic.

Science Data Processing 

wagstaff_log3b
A coral species count and bleaching data sheet showing the tally of Montastraea annularis

There are two main areas on the Nancy Foster designated for the science research, the wet lab and the dry lab. The dry lab is where the computers for data entry and processing are located. It is here that the survey team meetings happen every morning and afternoon to discuss which dives site will be surveyed and how the data entry process is going.

Lauri MacLaughlin is the ship’s resident expert on each dive site and gives a detailed map of each site. This includes compass bearings relating to certain underwater features and the GPS coordinates. The wet lab, is just as the name suggests, wet! This is where any experiments can be carried out and also where the scuba tanks are refilled with Nitrox.

Data entry 

wagstaff_log3cEach of the scientists has to transcribe all the data they observed at each dive site. Underwater, the two scientists that are recording data each have a clipboard with the relevant waterproof data forms attached. These forms have a standardised and detailed table, which they then write on using a regular pencil. The data collected on three sheets refers to coral disease, coral bleaching count (for quantity of each species and percentage of bleaching) and coral measurements.

Tally charts and acronyms are a plenty, making it difficult for me to understand the hand-jotted notes of the various scientist. Each of them describes the species of coral by its scientific name. However, my limited knowledge is based upon the common name for most species. I did help Lauri input some of her data today. The tally charts of the number of observed specie are simple enough that I can read and enter the data, along with the size of the first ten individuals of each species. However, after that, the real experts need to get involved! This data must be entered after each dive into a spreadsheet database so that all the information can be collaborated and processed by the end of the cruise.

Personal Log 

Geoff Cook entering data from his dive onto a central database in the dry lab.
Geoff Cook entering data from his dive onto a central database in the dry lab.

This evening our group had the chance to go for a night snorkel around the sea wall of Fort Jefferson. This use to be a fort during the civil war and in more recent years it has been a prison. The objective of the snorkel trip was to hopefully witness the coral spawn. Scientists’ observations indicate a strong connection between the coral spawn and seasonal lunar cycles. Though the polyp release cannot be guaranteed to happen on an exact date, approximately three to ten days after the full moon in late August, early September, the majority of corals in the Caribbean spawn in the late evening. Spawning is when the male and female polyps release their gametes (sperm and eggs). This synchronizing means that there is a greater chance of fertilization. Clues that spawning may take place are swelling that appears at the polyps mouth/anus, where the gametes are released from, as well as brittle stars and fire worms gathering in readiness for a feeding frenzy!

Clare Wagstaff barely visible behind two Caribbean Reef Squid. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley.
Clare Wagstaff barely visible behind two Caribbean Reef Squid. Photo courtesy of Mike Henley.

Unfortunately, we did not witness the spawning but we did observe a green moray eel, two Caribbean reef squid, a conch, a scorpion fish, and multiple sea urchins, sea stars, and moon jellyfish. Perhaps one of the most unusual sights of the night was witnessed on our way back to the dock after our snorkel. We observed a tree trunk covered in hundreds of hermit crabs, varying in size.  They made a horrible crunching sound as they climbed over each other on their way up the tree and as we accidentally stepped on them in the dark!

One of my lasting memories of the evening will be the night sky. It was the most brilliant picture I have ever seen. With no light pollution for miles and a clear evening sky, it made the most perfect picture. It looked like there wasn’t a clear inch in the sky for any more stars to fit in it. It was just beautiful and a great way to end the day!

 

Clare Wagstaff, September 12, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Dry Tortugas National Park
Date: Saturday, September 12, 2009

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 12 noon) 
Weather: Sunny with scattered showers and thunderstorms
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 10
Wave Height (feet): 2
Sea Water Temp (0C): 30
Air Temp (0C): 30

Science and Technology Log 

Mike Henley, Kathy Morrow and Dr. Joshua Voss, the survey team aboard NF4.
Mike Henley, Kathy Morrow and Dr. Joshua Voss, the survey team aboard NF4.

With another early start under our belts, the science team and I are up, breakfast eaten, briefed on today’s mission, and ready to embark on another day of coral surveying. The ship deployed three v-hulled small boats for us to reach our dive sites. The divers have been split up into three teams and I get to go along with Joshua, Kathy and Mike on the NF4. Out of the boats, this is the newest and fastest, much to the delight of our science team! Having done the practice run yesterday at the QA site, the divers seem keen and eager to get into the water and identify the coral.

So how do they actually survey the area? 

Each group works in a team of three, surveying a radial arc belt transect. Each of the sites has already been previously marked, normally with a large metal or PVC pipe inserted into the area to be surveyed.

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 11.57.12 AM

Mike is the line tender, which means that his job is to hold the ten meter line straight out from the post, just a few feet above the coral. He slowly moves the line around the pole in an arc. The line is marked at eight and ten meters. At each of these lengths a short marker hangs down to signal the two-meter survey area. The objective is then for Kathy and Joshua to observe the coral and note the number of species of coral present, their size and how they interact with each other, while also recording the presence of disease (type and percentage cover) within the 113.1m2 area.

Screen shot 2013-03-10 at 11.58.01 AM

Chief Scientist, Scott Donahue showed me some of the months of paperwork that was required for this mission to happen. Scott stated that he started work on preparing for this trip nearly four years ago, first requesting time aboard the Nancy Foster and then proceeding with recruiting scientists and permits. Today we are required to have a ‘Scientific Research and Collecting Permit’ for the surveys in Dry Tortugas National Park.

Personal Log 

Survey team of Kathy Morrow (top, middle), Mike Henley (top, left) and Dr. Joshua Voss (bottom, right) surveying site LR6.
Survey team of Kathy Morrow (top, middle), Mike Henley (top, left) and Dr. Joshua Voss (bottom, right) surveying site LR6.

What a great day! I am starting to find my feet and get more comfortable with how the ship works, getting to know the science team, and learning more about the actual coral. I haven’t been sea sick, which seems pretty remarkable to me considering my past history with boats! The sun has been shining and the water is clear and reasonably warm at around 30 oC.

Even though the water may sound warm, I am still wearing my wetsuit, much to the amusement of some of the other divers who are complaining that they are too warm in the shorty wetsuits (only to the knee and elbow). I classify myself as part of the “wimp divers” association. I was quite content and comfortable in my 3mm, full body wetsuit and had hours of enjoyment snorkeling around. However, wearing a full wetsuit does let you forget that there are some parts of your body that still get exposed to sunlight. The tops of my hands are bright red and are nicely sunburned from being in the water most of the day with no sunscreen on them! Oh well, I’ll remember next time.

“Did You Know” 

Being a novice at coral identification, Blade Fire coral (Millepora complanta) looks similar to Fused Staghorn coral (Acropora prolifera). However, they are actually very different. Fire coral is a hydroid and is in fact more closely related to the Portuguese Man ‘O’ War than other classes of coral! Hydrozoans usually consist of small colonies of polyps that are packed with stinging cells called nematocysts on the tentacles of the polyps. Watch out though, it can give you a very nasty sting and rash!

For more information: http://www.reef.edu.au/asp_pages/secb.asp?FormNo=18 

“Animals Seen Today” 

Long-spined Urchin (Diadema antillarum) and Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis)
Long-spined Urchin (Diadema antillarum) and Boulder star coral (Montastraea annularis)

The variety of marine wildlife observed was much greater today than previous dives. The dive sites were much shallower, which meant that as a snorkeler I could really observe much more and in more detail. At only eight to ten feet in depth and with good visibility, this made for a great and interesting dive. One of the science team commented that it was good to observe these echinoderms in the coral reefs. They eat algae that can negatively compete with the coral. So there presence is excellent news for the coral.

Clare Wagstaff, September 11, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
September 11 – 18, 2009 

Mission: Florida Keys coral reef disease and condition survey
Geographical Area: Florida Keys – Key West
Date: Saturday, September 11, 2009 (Day 1)

Contact Information 
Clare Wagstaff Sixth and Eighth Grade Science Teacher Elmwood Franklin School 104 New Amsterdam Ave Buffalo, NY 14216
cwagstaff@elmwoodfranklin.org

Weather Data from the Bridge (12 noon) 
Weather: Overcast early am and sunny pm
Visibility (nautical miles):  10
Wind Speed (knots):  2
Wave Height (feet): <1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 30.4
Air Temp (0C): 27.5

Science and Technology Log 

“The first few days are always a settling in period,” commented one of the scientists this morning. It seems as if there is so much to do and already there may not be enough time!  The majority of the science crew and I arrived yesterday afternoon into the warm and sunny Key West. A pleasant change to the cold, Autumnal weather I had been experiencing in Buffalo, NY. We boarded our new home for eight days, the NOAA ship Nancy Foster. The objective of the eight-day research cruise is to survey multiple preselected coral reef sites and study the coral for its condition and the presence of disease. The assessment of each dive site will be done by a group of NOAA qualified SCUBA divers who are also trained scientists, mainly marine biologists. This study has been performed for the last 13 years and has so far amassed a large quantity of data that has produced technical memorandums, peer review papers, and an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) publication based on the data from cruises 1997 through to 2002 cruises.

I have been kindly invited along as a Teacher At Sea to witness the science team in action and serve as part of the project’s outreach messaging service. The objective is to give the general public a broader understanding of the cruise’s mission.

The science team on board the Nancy Foster is made up of the following people:

Scott Donahue – Chief Scientist NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Interesting Fact: Scott’s main inspiration to study lobsters early on in his academic research, was partially based on the fact that he loves to eat them! Scott commented that there are always a few lobsters leftover after a study, but that they never go to waste!

Geoff Cook – Co-Principal Investigator George Mason University, Virginia. Interesting fact: Geoff is currently writing his dissertation for his Ph.D. on comparing bacterial communities associated with diseased and apparently healthy corals.

Lauri MacLaughlin – Co-Principal Investigator NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Interesting Fact: Lauri has close to 2,000 dives logged and has personally mapped the majority of the coral reef sites this cruise is studying. She has a special rapport with the ocean and corals, knowing individual coral heads and jokingly referring to them as her “babies!”

Josh Voss, Ph.D. – Co-Principal Investigator Robertson Coral Reef Program 

Lonny Anderson – Survey Team Member NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida. Interesting Fact: Lonny used to help his parents with their commercial spear fishing business, catching grouper and red snapper off Daytona Beach. Now Lonny is working to protect the things he used to kill!

Paul Chetirkin – Videographer Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary 

Mike Henley – Survey Team Member Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Washington D.C. Interesting Fact: Mike is interested in all invertebrates and will happily skip the panda bear exhibit at the zoo in preference to watching the cutle fish!

George Garrett – Survey Team Member City of Marathon 

Sarah Fangman – Cruise Dive Master and Survey Team Member NOAA’s Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary 

Interesting Fact: Originally from Minnesota, as a young child Sarah went to the Grand Cayman on vacation. She became so captivated with the underwater life there that even when she got extremely sunburned she still wanted to snorkel and was only allowed to fully clothed! Sarah has also ventured 10,000 ft down in the submersible ALVIN in the Gulf of Mexico.

Kathy Morrow – Survey Team Member Auburn University, Alabama. Interesting Fact: Kathy is actually studying coral “snot” as part of her Ph.D. program. Strangely enough, she is extremely passionate about it and has had a great interest in marine biology since she went to Sea Camp in 6th grade!

Cory Walter – Survey Team Member Mote Marine Laboratory’s Tropical Research Lab, Florida. 

Day one begins with a 7am breakfast followed by a gear check and a brief meeting with the science team. The ships Operations Officer and Chief Scientist go over the day’s dive plan. The objective today is to ensure that all the divers are identifying the correct species of coral, correctly estimating their size, and identify any coral disease present.

The dive teams quickly collected all the necessary dive gear and prepared to board two small boats borrowed from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. These take us from the Nancy Foster to the shallower dive sites. The first location today is set within the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary and is located near to one of the 5 lighthouses in the area that mark the shallow reefs. Certain areas have been marked off with buoys that signal a “No Take Zone”, where extractive activities are not allowed (e.g. fishing, collecting coral, catching lobsters).

Each of the dive sites that we will be surveying has a unique name. The sites to be surveyed were originally randomly generated by a computer program when the research first began in 1997. The first dive site we visit today is called Sand Key Reef also referred to as SK01. This is the location for QA/QC dive survey, which stands for quality assurance/quality control. The objective is for each diver to assess the same area of coral and identify each species over 10cm in diameter (except Agarica (all species) and Dichocoenia stokesii which are measured if they are over 5cm). This site is always used to establish a baseline in identification. Inter and intra quality assurance takes place, checking not only each diver against each other, but also against themselves by each diver repeating the surveying process of surveying this site twice.

Where are we? 

A map of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
A map of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The Florida Keys is a chain of islands at the southern most tip of Florida. About 100,000 years ago the area was under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and existed as a string of living coral reefs at the edge of the continental shelf. The sea level was 25 feet higher then than today. As the last glacier period (the Wisconsin) began, the ocean receded and the sea level dropped, exposing the coral reefs. The combination of various environmental factors killed the coral, but left bedrock of limestone exposed as land. As the climate and sea level changed over the preceding years, the lower elevation limestone has partially resubmerged and allowed living corals to attach and grow again, forming a new coral reef “highway”, 4 to 5 mile offshore. The science team will be surveying coral reef sites inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dry Tortugas National Park.

Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis), in the same family as the Elkhorn (Acropora palmata)
Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis), in the same family as the Elkhorn (Acropora palmata)

On the third dive site for the day, Lauri MacLaughlin pointed out multiple Elkhorn Corals (Acropora palmata) whose appearance is just as its name suggests! Lauri noted that these were relatively young corals, perhaps just a few years old due to their size. She also stated that they had reproduced through sexual reproduction because there was no fragmentation of their flattened branches, which would happen in asexual reproduction. This coral is on the United States Endangered Species list and classified as threatened.

Because we departed early this morning on board the sanctuary boats, the science team missed the safety drills that are performed within 24 hours of each ship departing port. Instead the Operations Officer, Abigail Higgins gave us a run down of the safety procedures. We were also required to try on our survival emersion suits.

Personal Log 

The science team and Teacher at Sea, Clare Wagstaff (right) in their survival suits
The science team and Teacher at Sea, Clare Wagstaff in their survival suits

Well here I am at last! My second attempt at being a NOAA Teacher At Sea! In May of 2008 I was on board the JOHN COBB studying harbor seals when the engine crankshaft broke just a few days into the mission. The JOHN COBB was not only the smallest, but also the oldest ship in NOAA’s fleet. With a crew of just eight, everyone knew each other well and lived in very close proximity. However, the NANCY FOSTER is very different. At 187ft in length it is nearly doubles the size of the JOHN COBB. In fact, the NANCY FOSTER has it beaten on almost all fronts regarding scale. Built originally as a Navy yard torpedo test (YTT) craft, she was outfitted in 2001, to conduct a variety of oceanic studies along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts and within the Caribbean Sea. It is crewed by 21 people and can accommodate 15 scientists. It seems quite strange to be at sea again on a NOAA ship, but in such very different circumstances. I keep comparing it to the JOHN COBB and I still feel a little sad that I was on the JOHN COBB’s last mission before it was decommissioned.

I am sharing the smallest room with one of the ships crew, Jody Edmond.  Jody is a Mate in Training. It is a simple, yet comfortable room, with two bunks, a small wardrobe, a desk and a sink. However, for two people to both standup in the same space let a lone get dressed or brush your teeth, it is very difficult due to the cramped conditions! Jody is living on the boat full time and so has a lot more “stuff” than I, so I am trying very hard not to take up too much room. Because the ship needs to be constantly manned 24 hours a day, the crew on the bridge is on a shift system working 12-4 (am and pm), 4-8 (am and pm), or 8-12 (am and pm). Some of the crew even work a schedule of 12 hours on and then 12 hours off, a pretty long day! Jody is on the 12-4 shift, which means during the majority of the time I am a wake she is sleeping. This isn’t uncommon so everyone on the ship has to be respectful of the noise level and keep relatively quiet during all hours of the day near the sleeping berth areas.

One of the many barracuda that would circle around snorkelers
One of the many barracuda that would circle around snorkelers

Unfortunately, although I am a qualified NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors) scuba diver, I am not certified by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to dive. This means that during the dives I will only be able to snorkel and so I must watch from above what the scientists are doing below. I thought this would lead to some frustration on my part, as I would love to be working side by side with the science team 30 feet below the surface.

However, while the divers survey the area, I snorkel around on the surface watching them. I am not alone though! I am surrounded by moon jellyfish and one rather large barracuda that seemed to take quite a liking to me. I am very careful to avoid swimming into the jellyfish, which can cause a nasty sting and keep my hands close to my body incase the barracuda thinks my fingers might be dinner!

“New Term/Phrase/Word” Hyperplasia – is a general term referring to the proliferation of cells within an organ or tissue beyond that which is ordinarily seen. This can be seen in coral species such as symmetrical brain coral (Diploria strigosa). Geoff Cook described this as a coral looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger or a coral having Botox!

A brain coral
A brain coral

Coral Mucus or “coral snot”– secreted by the coral. When too much dirt (sediment) collects on the sticky mucus layer, the coral sloughs it off and makes a new one, acting as a replaceable defense mechanism. Some corals also use it to catch food and it is loaded with microbes, not unlike our skin.

“Who are they?”

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary 
Established in 1990 it was done so to protect a spectacular marine ecosystem. It encompasses 2,800 square miles. It is the only sanctuary that completely surrounds a community, that of all the Florida Keys.

NOAA 
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Formed in 1970, it is a Federal agency focused on the conditions of the oceans and the atmosphere. It encompasses, daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce.

 “Did You Know?” Key West got its name after the Spanish conquistadores reportedly found a beach in the southern most islands stern with the bleached bones of the Native Americans. They called the key, Cayo Hueso (pronounced KY-o WAY-so) or “Island of bones”. Bahamian settlers pronounced the Spanish name as Key West!

Flamingo Tongue on a common sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina)
Flamingo Tongue on a common sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina)

“Animals Seen Today” 

Among many different species of coral and other animals, was a personal favorite of mine Flamingo Tongues. These are a variety of snail that are predators that feed on gorgonians (sea fans).