Phil Moorhouse: We’re At Sea! September 2, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Phil Moorhouse

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 27 – September 15, 2019

Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak – Aleutian Islands)

Date: September 2, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57 35.35 N
Longitude: 153 57.71 W
Sea wave height: 1 ft
Wind Speed: 14 knots
Wind Direction: 208 degrees
Visibility: 8 nautical miles
Air Temperature: 15.4 C
Barometric Pressure: 1002.58 mBar

After a series of unfortunate events, we finally got underway!  It turns out arriving several days before the ship departure ended up being very helpful.  My checked bag did not arrive with me and the morning of departure it still had not arrived.  I had given up on seeing it before we pulled out and gone shopping for replacement “essentials”.  Then, an hour before our scheduled departure I got a call from my airline hero saying that my bag had finally made it to Kodiak.  A quick trip to the airport and back to the ship and I was ready to go. That’s when the waiting game really started. Repairs to the Bongo apparatus caused a several hour delay as we waited on repairs, then after moving out into open water to test it, we found that it still wasn’t working properly.  The ship crew worked to make adjustments and finally, we were off!  

Science and Technology Log

We departed for the stations where the previous group had left off.  The first couple of stations were methodical as everyone was becoming accustomed to what to expect. I have been asked by multiple people what kinds of things are going on during these expeditions and what the day-to-day life of a scientist is on this ship.  There are several projects going on. The primary focus is on assessing the walleye pollock population, but there is also data being collected simultaneously for scientists working on other projects.

Each station starts with a bongo tow in which the bongo nets are lowered over the side and pulled along collecting plankton.  Once the bongo is pulled back onto the ship, the flowmeters are read to record the amount of water that went through the net, and the nets are then carefully washed down to concentrate the plankton sample into the cod end.  This end piece can then be removed and taken into the lab area to prepare the sample for shipping back to the NOAA labs. As this process is being completed, our ship’s crew is already working to bring the ship back around to complete a trawling operation in the same area. 

Trawling operations
Trawling operations off the ship’s stern. During an average trawl, the net will extend up to 540 meters behind the boat and up to 200 meters deep.
at work on the bridge
A good example of scientists and crew working together during a trolling operation. Ensign Lexee Andonian is manning the helm and watching the trawling operations on the monitor while scientist, Annette Dougherty is recording data off the monitors.

It is preferable to complete both operations from the same location since the plankton are the primary food source and a comparison can then be made between the amount of producers and consumers. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.  During one of the trials yesterday, a pod of humpback whales decided they wanted to hang out just where we wanted to trawl.  Because of this, it was decided to attempt to move away from the whales before starting the trawl.  When all goes well, the trawling nets should bring in a nice variety of species and in our case, a large number of pollock!  For the first two trials, we found mostly jellyfish with only a few other fish samples.  Later trials, though, have been much more successful in finding a better mix of species.  Below is a list of species caught during the last Station.

As the catch is spread onto the table, all other sea life is separated from the jellyfish and sorted for measurement and recorded.  The jellyfish are weighed as a mixed sample, then re-sorted by species and weighed again.  The fish are all measured, recorded, and bagged and frozen for future use by scientists back in the lab in Seattle that are working on special projects.

Species caught during the last Station:

Common NameScientific Name
Sockeye SalmonO. nerka
Northern SmoothtongueL. schmidti
Walleye PollockG. chalcogrammus
unidentified juvenile GunnelsPholidae family
Eulachon, or CandlefishT. pacificus
Sunrise JellyfishC. melanaster
Lion’s Mane JellyfishC. capillata
Moon JellyfishA. labiata
Bubble JellyfishAequorea sp.

Personal Log

Drills were the word of the day the first day as we went through fire drills and abandon ship drills.  It is always nice to know where to go if something goes wrong while out at sea.  I now know where the lifeboats are, how to get into my immersion suit, and what to do in case of a fire on the ship.

*** Of course, just when we really start to get into the swing of things, a weather front comes through that forces us to find a place to “hide” until the waves calm down.

On another note, I have seriously been geeking out enjoying talking to the NOAA scientists about their research and experiences. There is a wealth of information in the minds of the scientists and crew on this ship.  I have initially focused on getting to know the scientists I am working with and slowly branching out to get to know the crew.  Hopefully I will be able to translate some of my admiration here in the coming posts.

Did You Know?

Did you know, there are approximately 1800 thunderstorm events going on in Earth’s atmosphere at any one time?

Question of the Day:

What type of fish can be found in McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, Arby’s Classic Fish Sandwich, Long John Silver’s Baja Fish Taco, Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen, and Birds Eye’s Fish Fingers in Crispy Batter?

Answer: Pollock

Roy Moffitt: Bring in the Bongos, August 16, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Roy Moffitt

Aboard USCGC Healy

August 7 – 25, 2018


Mission: Healy 1801 –  Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory

Geographic Area: Arctic Ocean (Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea)

Date: August 16, 2018


Current location/conditions:

Evening August 16 – Due west of Barrow, Alaska within sight of the coast

Air temp 35F, sea depth  40m , surface sea water temp 41


Bring in the Bongos

Bongo Nets ready for deployment
Bongo Nets ready for deployment

In a previous blog I showed the Methot net that catches very small (1-5cm) fish. However, if we want to catch sea life even smaller, we bring in something called a “bongo net.”  The bongo nets have very small openings–the larger nets are 500 micron (1/2 a millimeter) and the smaller nets are 150 micron.   In the picture below, you will see the back tail fin of the Healy with the bongo nets suspended from the hydraulic A-frame.  The A-frame supports a system of pulleys that are used to deploy and retrieve equipment (such as nets and moorings).





bongo canister
Organisms caught in the bongo net are washed down into this canister attached at the end.

The net looks and feels more like a tough nylon fabric, however, the water freely flows through the opening trapping the tiny organisms of the sea.  These organisms are pushed into the canister at the end of the net as shown in the picture on the right. While most of them are pushed into the canisters, many are stuck on the side of the net in a sticky goop.   The gelatin like goop is sprayed off the net with seawater by using a hose.  The process takes just a few minutes. Since I was the net holder and stretcher I got little wet!



Copepods in a Jar
Copepods in a Jar

The main organisms that we caught today were copepods. They are shown in the jar appearing pink.  Copepods are small crustaceans only 1-2mm in size that drift in the sea and feed on phytoplankton. Copepods are an important bottom of the food chain member of the ecosystem and serve as prey for fish, whales, and seabirds.




Flowmeter suspended at the top of a bongo net

On the front of each net there is a flow meter as shown in the picture. It looks like a little torpedo with a propeller.  When the net trawls behind the ship, water flows through the net.  The amount of water that passes through the net can be calculated.  Using this calculation and the amount of organisms in the net, scientists can calculate the density of living microorganisms at a certain heights in the water column.  With annual samples scientists will be able to determine any changes over time including changes to the overall health of the regional ecosystem.  Today’s samples will also be sent out to a lab for further analysis.


Today’s Wildlife Sightings

Today I had unique experience– listening to wildlife.  This was a highlight.  Marine mammal acoustic scientists, Katherine Berchok and Stephanie Grassia, released an acoustic buoy this afternoon.  On top of the ship they put up an antennae and listened in for whales and walrus.  They were able to hear the constant underwater chatter between walruses.   As I wore the headphones and listened in, I was in awe at the grumbles and the ping sounds the animals were making back and forth underwater.  While we don’t know what the walrus were communicating back and forth to each other, to eavesdrop on these conversations, miles away, in real-time, was a pretty special experience.


Now and Looking forward

We did not see any ice today. I am looking forward to getting out of the fog and rain and returning back to the ice in the coming days.

Sam Northern: Welcome Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter! May 29, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Sam Northern

Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter

May 28 – June 7, 2017

Mission: Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey (Plankton and Hydrographic Data)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean

Date: May 29, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 41°31.8’N

Longitude: -71°18.9’W

Sky: 8/8 (Fully Cloudy, Overcast)

Wind Direction: NE

Wind Speed: 13 Knots

Barometric Pressure: 1005 Millibars

Humidity: 88%

Air Temperature: 11.5°C

Personal Log

In Port in Newport, Rhode Island (Sunday, May 28)

The 224-foot Gordon Gunter at Pier 2 at the Naval Station Newport on the morning of sailing Leg 2 of the Survey.

Greetings from NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter! On my flight into Providence, Rhode Island (the Ocean State) I was met with lengthy coastlines and beautiful blue skies. Jerry Prezioso, (one of NOAA’s oceanographers), picked me up from the airport. We made our way to the ship, Gordon Gunter, at Pier 2 at the Naval Station Newport. To get there, we drove 37 miles southeast of Providence and crossed the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and the Newport Bridge. Both bridges offered stunning scenes of shorelines that separated the picturesque sailboats from the majestic beach side houses. Newport, also known as City by the Sea, was a major 18th-century port city which is evident from the high number of surviving buildings from the colonial era.

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

Upon arrival at the pier, I passed two immense U.S. Coast Guard ships before laying eyes on what would be by new home for the next ten days—NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. Several members of the crew were already there to welcome me aboard. The crew’s hospitality and Jerry’s tour of the ship eased my anxiety while at the same time, intensifying my excitement for the adventure that awaits.

After the tour, Jerry showed me to my stateroom. I was surprised to find out that I have my own cabin! There is a refrigerator, closet, desk, recliner, my very own sink, and a shared bathroom with the room next door. It also has a TV to watch any of the movies available on the ship.

After unpacking my luggage, I decided I would spend some time exploring the ship. I took photographs and captured 360-degree images of the ship’s many spaces. I intend to use my footage as a way to give my students a virtual tour of Gordon Gunter. When Jerry showed us the ship, he effortlessly moved from one place to the next. I, on the other hand, could not…at first. I felt as if I was stuck in a labyrinth. Yet, with the amount of time I will be spending on board Gordon Gunter, I am sure it will not take long to get the “lay of the land”.

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The Galley (Kitchen)

Getting lost is not always a bad thing. I can admit that I was not too upset when I took a wrong turn and ended up in the galley (the kitchen). I could tell right away from the appetizing aroma and the fresh fruits and vegetables that the meals were going to be amazing.

After Leg 1 of the Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey which concluded on Friday, May 26. Prior to the ship’s departure at 1400 hours on Memorial Day, the crew was busy with important maintenance and upkeep. With the adventure of a lifetime so close at hand, I could only hope that my excitement would give me at least a few hours of sleep.

Preparing for Departure (Monday, May 29)

My first dinner on board ship Gordon Gunter.

To keep everyone happy when they are living in such close quarters, working strange shifts, and so far from home, good food is vital. Isn’t it always? Gordon Gunter is well known in the NOAA community for its fantastic food. The person responsible for our delicious and abundant food is Margaret Coyle, Chief Steward and her trusted comrade, Paul Acob, Second Cook. I first experienced their culinary skills at my first 6:30 a.m. breakfast. Remarkable! I could not wait for the meals to come.

Margaret has worked on NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter for 13 years! Before NOAA, Margaret was in the Coast Guard for four years and her husband retired from the Coast Guard with 21 years of service. Margaret makes almost every dish from scratch—from juices to hummus. She is dedicated to providing a variety of meals that not only fill bellies but satisfy taste buds. You never quite know what to expect one meal to the next, and that my friends is the spice of life! Paul has spent 14 years with NOAA and 20 years in the Navy—that’s 34 years at sea! I greatly admire both Paul and Margaret for their service and continued commitment.

IMG_8493.JPGAs a Teacher at Sea, I am an active member of the science team. I have been assigned the day shift, which means I work from 12 noon to 12 midnight. I am happy with this shift because it is a little more of a regular schedule compared to beginning work at midnight and then sleeping during the daylight hours. However, it will definitely take time for me to adjust my eating and sleeping schedules with that of my work shift.

In preparation for our work at sea, we spent the afternoon reviewing guidelines and proper procedures. Safety is crucial on any ship, and I feel much better having gone through the welcome orientation. Now, I am prepared when it is time to perform any of the three emergency drills: fire, abandon ship, and man overboard. One can never be too cautious.

Gulf of Maine Pic
The Gulf of Maine. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The second leg of the 2017 Spring EcoMon Survey consists of research at oceanography stations in the Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. These stations are randomly distributed and progress of the survey will depend on transit time, sea state, and water depth of the stations. Our research will calculate the spatial distribution of the following factors: water currents, water properties, phytoplankton, microzooplankton, mesozooplankton, sea turtles, and marine mammals.

IMG_6333 - Copy

At 2:07 p.m. (our scheduled departure time), Gordon Gunter cast off from Coddington Cove at the Naval Station Newport. As we approached the Newport Bridge I took photos of the NAVY War College, Herring gulls nesting on a small island, passing ski boats, and the ocean view cottages. On the flying bridge an expert in magnetic compasses calibrated the ship’s mechanism and cleared the compass of excess debris.

Compass Adjustment/Calibration

During a personnel transfer using the Fast Rescue Boat (FRB), a mechanical issue was identified and the ship needed to head back to the pier. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Lindsay Kurelja, informed us that we would begin our journey at 9:00 a.m. the next day, May 30.

Science and Technology Log

My head has been spinning with the different types of equipment and technology on board Gordon Gunter. I have a lot to learn! I would like to share a small bit of information about two important pieces of equipment that will be essential to our research in the coming days.

Bongo Nets

1.) Since the majority of plankton is too small to see with the naked eye, these organisms must be viewed through a microscope. To do this, plankton must be collected from the ocean. You might be thinking, “But how? They are too small to catch.” That’s why we use bongo nets! Bongo nets allow scientists to strain plankton from the water using the bongo’s mesh net. Plankton and other matter from the sea will be deposited into a bucket at the end of the net which is called a cod-end. Different sized nets are used to capture different types of plankton. The bongo nets will be towed slowly through the water at each oceanography station we come to. I am looking forward to using the ship’s bongo nets to investigate marine life in Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth)

2.) At each station of this leg of the EcoMon survey, we will use a CTD device to determine the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth of the ocean. On Gordon Gunter, the CTD is incorporated into a rosette, or carousel. This allows us to collect water samples from various depths at the same location. The CTD will give scientists a broad picture of the marine environment in the Northeast Atlantic.

New Terms/Phrases

Parts of a Ship (Source — Macmillan Dictionary):

  • Aft Deck: the part of the deck towards the back of the ship.
  • Bow: the front of the ship.
  • Bridge: the part of the ship from which it is controlled. (This is where the captain controls the ship.)
  • Deck: the outside top part of the ship that you can walk on.
  • Forward Deck: the part of the deck towards the front of the ship.
  • Port: the side of the ship that is on your left when you are looking forwards.
  • Starboard: the side of the ship that is on your right when you are looking forwards.
  • Stern: the back part of the ship.

Source — NOAA Official Website

Did You Know?

IMG_8444.JPGAt Pier 2 at Naval Station Newport were gigantic buoys the Coast Guard had recently cleaned and re-painted. Do you know why some are green and some are red? The colors help aid the navigation of ships. The red buoys are on the right/starboard side of the ship, and the green buoys should be on the left/port side of the vessel when heading upstream. I guess ships have their own rules of navigation just like vehicles on the road.

Christopher Tait: Where am I? April 1, 2017

 NOAA Teacher at Sea

Christopher Tait

Aboard NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker

March 21 – April 7, 2017

Mission: Spring Coastal Pelagic Species Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean from San Diego, CA to San Francisco, CA

Date: April 1, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 8:51 PDT,

Current Location: South West of Santa Rosa Island, Latitude 33.37N Longitude -120.7 W

Air Temperature 13.4 oC  (56.1 oF)

Water Temperature 13.1 oC  (55.5 oF)

Wind Speed 12 kts

Barometric pressure 1013.98 hPa


Science and Technology Log

Oceans cover 71% of the surface of Earth and 99% of the livable space (Figure 1).  The Coastal Pelagic Survey is taking several approaches to map the distribution of anchovy, sardine, and other target species within the epipelagic zone.  This zone is the thin surface layer extending to the depths light penetrates the ocean, which is approximately 200 meters near California.  The epipelagic zone in some coastal areas is very productive due to the upwelling of nutrient rich water causing an abundance of primary production by phytoplankton.  Besides the net trawling and acoustic transects, the researchers are using samples of fish eggs and ichthyoplankton (ichthyo = fish, plankton = drifting) to determine locations of spawning. This voyage is mostly surveying over the continental shelf and I am amazed at the diversity of organisms we have found thus far.  In this modern era of exploration of the vastly unknown deeper regions, I can only imagine the species still to be discovered!


Figure 1: Ocean Layers

Ocean Layers.png

(c) Knight, J.D., 1998, Sea and Sky,


A CUFES (Continuous Underway Fish Egg Sampler) system is used to determine the location of fish eggs as we travel transects on a continuous daily basis (Figure 2).  Water from 3 meters below the surface is pulled into the boat at 640 L/min. and poured through a filter to collect fish eggs and other plankton.  The collected samples are analyzed every 30 minutes to determine a density of eggs and which species are spawning.  The collected samples are further analyzed at NOAA’s SWFSC (Southwest Fisheries Science Center) in La Jolla, CA.

Figure 2: CUFES Schematic

CUFES schematic.


Figure 3: Preliminary Results of CUFES Survey

CUFES Eggs.png
Preliminary results of the CUFES survey. The CUFES data is overlaid on sea surface temperatures measured by satellite.

The CUFES data is overlaid on sea surface temperatures measured by satellite.

PairoVET Tow & Bongo Tow

A PairoVET (paired vertical egg tow) sample is collected using a pair of small, fine mesh nets dropped to 70 meters deep and vertically towed to the surface to collect fish eggs and zooplankton in the water column at predetermined locations along our transects every 20 nautical miles. This is generally the depths that sardine release their eggs. The Bongo net gets its name because the nets are the size of bongo drums (Figure 4 & 5).  This is a plankton tow that is pulled alongside the ship and occurs every 40 nautical miles.  The net is dropped to a depth of 210 meters and pulled up at a 45 degree angle to get a more complete sample of the ichthyoplankton and zooplankton throughout the water column at location.

 Figure 4: Bongo net in center of image and PairoVET on the right.

Bongo net in center of image and PairoVET on the right.

Figure 5: Bongo going overboard.

Bongo going overboard.

Figure 6: Preserving the Bongo Sample for later analysis.

TAS Chris Tait preserves the Bongo Sample for later analysis

CTD: Conductivity, Temperature and Depth Probe

The scientists use a CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) probe to measure the physical properties of the seawater throughout the water column that biologic samples are being taken (Figure 7). Conductivity is used to calculate the salinity of the water. These physical properties are very important in determining the types of organisms that are present at varying locations.

 Figure 7: CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) Analysis

CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) analysis

Personal Log

One of the great mysteries of waking up is answering the question of “where am I?”  After a long evening of trawling for fish and keeping an eye on where you are, you go to bed.  Exhausted, the boat rocks you to sleep.  When I wake up the first thing I do is, jump out of bed and run out onto the front deck.  Some days, there is ocean for as far as the eye can see, some days a mysterious island (Figure 8) in the distance and sometimes there is the mainland (Figure 9)!  I run to grab my phone when mainland is in sight to get a couple of phone calls out to family.

 Figure 8: The mysterious island turns out to be Anacapa Island, which is part of the Channel Islands National Park.  The waters surrounding the park are part of a national marine sanctuary.

Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands


Figure 9: Sunrise over Santa Barbara.  Time for me to make a call home!

Sunrise over Santa Barbara

In the Dry Lab there is a computer with a map showing where we are currently located, a red track line showing where we have been and transect lines displaying where we will soon be (Figure 10).  On our acoustic transects, we follow the parallel lines to mow the lawn and find the location of the CPS (coastal pelagic species) from their echoes.  When we trawl, we break transect and go to places that showed promise in the acoustic backscatter.  

 Figure 10: Without tracking our location on the computer I would feel totally lost! The blue lines are where we plan to go, and the red lines show where we’ve actually gone.

Map of transect.png
Blue lines show where we plan to go, and the red lines show where we’ve actually gone.

Catch of the Day

As I get ready for my night shift, I feel this anticipation to discover what species we are going to find!  Every day brings a new catch of the day!

Grey Smoothhound Shark (Mustelus californicus): This small coastal shark feeds on small invertebrates and fish.

Gray Smoothhound Shark (Mustelus californicus)

Needle Fish (Family Belonidae):  This large needle fish is coastal piscivorous fish, meaning they specialize at eating other fish. They have a mouth full of tiny needle like teeth to prevent a slippery fish from getting away.

Needle Fish (Family Belonidae)

Northern Anchovy (Engraulis mordax): This is one of our target species on this survey.  Anchovy have the potential to form massive schools and have a tremendous impact of the ecology of the California Current Ecosystem.  They feed on zooplankton, provide food for other fish, sea birds, and marine mammals.  They are also an important fishery which have the potential to be over fished if not properly managed.

Northern Anchovy (Engraulis mordax)

Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax, top specimen) and Pacific Mackerel (Scomber japonicas, bottom two specimens): These two species are also part of the Coastal Pelagic Species community, which this survey are targeting.  The sardine is another very important fish due to their ability to form tremendous schools, impacting plankton through feeding, providing food for larger predators, and they are a valuable fishery.  Sardine populations have the ability to boom and crash, and the cause is still not fully understood.  The Pacific mackerel is a species that has been populous at times of lower sardine and anchovy abundance.

Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax), top, and Pacific Mackeral (Scomber japonicus), bottom two

Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax) and Pacific Mackeral (Scomber japonicus)

Close-up of Pacific Mackerel (Scomber japonicus)

Pacific Mackeral (Scomber japonicus)

Pacific Mackerel (Scomber japonicus)

Jack Mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus) and Larval Rockfish (Sebastes sp.): Jack Mackerel is another target species of the Coastal Pelagic Survey.

Jack Mackerel (Trachurus symmetricus) and a larval rockfish (Sebastes sp.)

David Walker: Florida, Speciation, and Learning All Over Again (Days 13-15), July 8, 2015

Survey Plot

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 8, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/7/15
NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/7/15

The seas have remained incredibly calm, again with waves normally no higher than 1 ft.  July 7, 2015 was a beautiful day, with few (FEW, 1-2 oktas) clouds in the sky (see above weather log from the bridge).  Visibility from the bridge was 10 nautical miles (nm) throughout the day.

Science and Technology Log

After a run of around 16 hours, we finally arrived on the west coast of Florida to continue the survey.

Wow!  The organisms caught on the west coast of Florida were entirely different from those caught west of the Mississippi.  In our first trawl catch, I almost didn’t recognize a single species.

Fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher shared with me an article, “Evidence of multiple vicariance in a marine suture-zone in the Gulf of Mexico” (Portnoy and Gold, 2012), that offers a potential explanation  for the many differences observed.  The paper is based on what are called “suture-zones.”  A suture-zone, as defined previously in the literature, is “a band of geographic overlap between major biotic assemblages, including pairs of species or semispecies which hybridize in the zone” (Remington, 1968).  In other words, it is a barrier zone of some kind, allowing for allopatric speciation, yet also containing overlap for species hybridization.  As noted by Hobbes, et al. (2009), such suture-zones are more difficult to detect in marine environments, and accordingly, have received less attention in the literature.  Such zones, however, have been discovered and described in the northern Gulf of Mexico, between Texas and Florida (Dahlberg, 1970; McClure and McEachran, 1992).

Portnoy and Gold note that “at least 15 pairs of fishes and invertebrates described as ‘sister taxa’ (species, subspecies, or genetically distinct populations) meet in this region, with evidence of hybridization occurring between several of the taxa” (Portnoy and Gold, 2012).  The below table delineates these sister taxa.  On this table, I have highlighted species that we have found on this survey.

Sister Taxa
Sister taxa found in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Highlighted are species we have encountered on this survey (Portnoy and Gold, 2012).

The figure below geographically illustrates distribution patterns of two pairs of sister species within the northern Gulf of Mexico.  We have seen all four of these species on this survey, and our observations have been consistent with these distribution patterns.

Distributions of sister taxa within the northern Gulf of Mexico
Distributions of “sister taxa” within the northern Gulf of Mexico (Portnoy and Gold, 2012)

Prior to Portnoy and Gold, hypothesized reasons for the suture-zone and allopatric speciation in the northern Gulf included “(1) a physical barrier, similar to the Florida peninsula, that arose c. 2.5 million years ago (Ma) during the Pliocene (Ginsburg, 1952), (2) an ecological barrier, perhaps a river that drained the Tennessee River basin directly into the Gulf, that existed approximately 2.4 Ma (Simpson, 1900; Ginsburg, 1952), (3) a strong current that flowed from the Gulf to the Atlantic through the Suwanee Straits approximately 1.75 Ma (Bert, 1986), and (4) extended cooling during early Pleistocene glaciations occurring c. 700–135 thousand years ago (ka) (Dahlberg, 1970)” (Portnoy and Gold, 2012).  Another explanation has been offered by Hewitt (1996), involving marine species being forced into different areas of refuge during the glacial events of the Pleistocene, allowing for allopatric speciation.  Following the retreat of the glaciers, according to this hypothesis, these species would have been allowed to come into contact again, allowing for hybridization.

Portnoy and Gold used mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA sequence data from Karlsson et al. (2009) to “determine if estimated divergence times in lane snapper were consistent with the timing of [the above] hypothesized variance events in the suture-zone area, in order to distinguish whether the Gulf suture-zone is characterized by a single or multiple vicariance event(s)” (Portnoy and Gold, 2012).

Their results suggest that the divergence of lane snapper in the northern Gulf occurred much more recently than the hypothesized events described by Ginsberg (1952), Bert (1970), and Dahlberg (1970).  These results also suggest that the explanation offered by Hewitt (1996) is an unlikely explanation for the divergence of lane snapper, for even though the time of multiple glaciations is consistent with the time of lane snapper divergence, water temperatures across the Gulf are estimated to have been within the thermal tolerance of lane snapper during these glaciations.  Evidence also suggests that a shallow shelf existed during these glaciations, representing a habitat in which lane snapper could have lived.

The explanation that Portnoy and Gold favor, in terms of explaining lane snapper divergence, is one suggested by Kennett and Shackleton (1975), as well as by Aharon (2003).  This explanation involves “large pulses of freshwater from the Mississippi River caused by a recession of the Laurentide Ice Sheet between 16 and 9 ka” (Portnoy and Gold, 2012).  This explanation would have also allowed for potential sympatric or parapatric speciation, because it contains multiple lane snapper habitat types (carbonate sediment, as well as mud and silt bottom).

Notably, the fact that the above explanation is favored by Portnoy and Gold for lane snapper divergence does not discount the explanations of Ginsberg (1952), Bert (1970), Dahlberg (1970), and Hewitt (1996), in terms of explaining the many other examples of species divergence exhibited within the northern Gulf.  It is most probable that many geological and ecological causes worked, sometimes in confluence, to create the divergences and hybridizations in species observed today.  A geographical depiction of many of the hypothesized explanations described by Portnoy and Gold is below.

Geographic Depiction
Geographical depiction of hypothesized triggers of species divergence in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Portnoy and Gold, 2012)

In addition to the species divergence observed in our survey, another interesting difference noted in our catches along the western coast of Florida was the emergence of lionfish.  These invasive species are native to the Indian Ocean and southwest Pacific Ocean, and they were most likely introduced by humans into the waters surrounding Florida.  There are two lionfish species that are invasive in Florida, P. miles and P. volitans (Morris, Jr. et al., 2008), and the earliest records of their introduction into Florida’s waters are from 1992 (Morris, Jr. et al., 2008).  Many characteristics have allowed these species to be successful alien invaders in these waters – (1) they are formidable, with venomous spines and an intimidating appearance, (2) they reproduce incredibly quickly, breed year-round, and mature at a young age, (3) they outcompete native predators for food and habitat, (4) they are indiscriminate feeders with voracious appetites, and (5) they take advantage of a sea that is over-fished, in which many of their predators are regularly being eliminated by humans (Witherington, 2012).

Life cycle of the lionfish
Life cycle of the lionfish

This invasion mechanism hauntingly reminds me of that of the Cane Toad, a very famous alien invader which has decimated the flora and fauna of Australia.  One of the main worrisome effects of lionfish around Florida is on coral reefs.  Lionfish “can reduce populations of juvenile and small fish on coral reefs by up to 90 percent…[and] may indirectly affect corals by overconsuming grazing parrotfishes, which normally prevent algae from growing over corals” (Witherington, 2012).

One of the ways in which Floridians are trying to eliminate this problem is through lionfish hunting tournaments.  CJ Duffie, a volunteer on this survey from Florida, has participated in these tournaments and also participates in lionfish research directed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.  CJ harvested the gonads of the lionfish we caught on Day 13 to take back to the lab for further analysis.  Floridians also actively promote the lionfish as a delicacy, in an attempt to encourage more people to eat the invasive species.  CJ described the fish as the best he has ever tried, so I was very easily intrigued.  A fillet was prepared from the large lionfish caught on Day 13 fish, and Second Cook (2C) Lydell Reed was able to cook it on the spot.  I agree with CJ – white, flakey, slightly sweet, this is the best fish I have ever tasted.

Personal Log

The survey is nearly over, and this will be my last post.  We are in transit back to Pascagoula, Mississippi, the ship’s home port.  I leave by plane from Mobile, Alabama for Austin on Friday, July 10, 2015.  I am eagerly anticipating walking on land, as I’ve heard it’s strange at first after being on a boat for awhile.  Apparently this weird feeling has a semi-formal name — “dock rock”.

This experience has truly been one of the best of my life, especially in terms of the raw amount I have learned every day.  Coming in, the sole knowledge of fish life I had derived from my stints fly fishing with my father, and most of this knowledge concerns freshwater fish.  I now feel as though I have a much more comprehensive knowledge of the biodiversity that exists in the Gulf of Mexico and a much greater appreciation for the diversity of life as a whole.  I have taken over 200 photos to document this biodiversity, accumulated a diverse collection of preserved specimens, and collected a wide variety of resources (textbooks, scientific papers, etc.) on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.  These resources will surely make the preparation of a project-based activity for my students focused on this research a much easier feat.

Sharksucker (Echeneis naucrates)
Having fun with a sharksucker (Echeneis naucrates) during analysis of the last trawl catch

I have also learned how a large portion of marine field research is conducted.  We have surveyed dissolved oxygen levels in the water, plankton biodiversity, and bottomfish biodiversity throughout the northern Gulf, using established (and quite popular) research methods.  The knowledge I have gained here can be applied to the biodiversity project portion of my geobiology class, in which students conduct biodiversity surveys in local Austin-area parks and preserves.  I anxiously await the comprehensive results of this summer’s NOAA survey – the complete dissolved oxygen contour map, the biodiversity indexes for different regions of the Gulf, and plankton biodiversity data from Poland.  These data will definitely help me come to even more conclusions about the marine life in the Gulf and the factors affecting it.

Through this experience, I have also gained much appreciation for the diversity of careers that exist on board a NOAA research vessel.  I have learned about the great work of the NOAA Corps, a Commissioned Service of the United States.  I have learned from the fisherman, engineers, stewards, and other personnel on the boat, all required for a successful research survey.

First and foremost, I have to thank the science team on the night watch – fisheries biologists Kevin Rademacher and Alonzo Hamilton, FMES Warren Brown, and volunteer CJ Duffie.  These individuals were instrumental in helping me identify organisms, label my photos, and craft my blog posts and photo captions.  Kevin Rademacher provided me with most of the papers which I have referenced in this blog, and with no internet connectivity on the boat for around half of the trip, his library of information was essential.  For the “Notable Species Seen” section of this blog, Kevin also individually went through all of my species photos with me to help me add common and scientific names in the photo captions.  This took a great deal of his time, almost every day, and I am incredibly appreciative.

Night Watch
The rest of the night watch. From left to right — FMES Warren Brown and NOAA Fisheries Biologists Kevin Rademacher and Alonzo Hamilton

I also definitely need to thank Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols and Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin for their mentorship with CTD data collection and plankton sampling.  In addition, many thanks to Field Party Chief Andre Debose and Lieutenant Commander Eric Johnson for proofreading my blog entries and ensuring that my experience on the ship was a good one.  I enjoy learning from people much more than I enjoy learning from books, and these have been some of best (and most patient) teachers I have ever had.

Lastly, thanks so much to the NOAA Teacher at Sea staff for your work on this great program.  It truly makes a difference for many teachers and many students.  I have had an amazing time, and I am positive my students will benefit from what I have learned.

Survey Plot
The ship’s path during the survey, thus far. I have been on the boat for Leg 2, drawn in black.

Did You Know?

Lionfish venom is not contained within the tips of the fish’s spines.  Rather, glandular venom-producing tissue is located in two grooves that run the length of  each spine.  When skin is punctured by a spine, this glandular tissue releases the venom (a neurotoxin), which travels up the spine and into the wound by means of the grooves (Witherington, 2012).

Venomous Spines
Anatomy of the lionfish spine

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Crossing the Mississippi River Delta (Days 10-12), July 5, 2015


NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 5, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/5/15
NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/5/15

This has been some of the smoothest water I’ve seen yet on the ocean.  At times, you can’t even see wave motion on the surface of the ocean, and it looks more like a lake.  On July 5, 2015, waves were estimated to be 1 ft. in height, at most (see above weather log from the bridge).  Sky condition on July 5 began as scattered (SCT, 3-4 oktas), moved to broken (BKN, 5-7 oktas) and overcast (OVC, 8 oktas) by the afternoon and evening, and then returned to FEW (1-2 oktas) by 11 PM.  There was rain observed in the vicinity (VC/RA) at 4 PM, and some lightning (LTG) was observed in the late evening.

Science and Technology Log

The survey is still progressing smoothly.  We have just crossed the Mississippi River delta, and I have observed a much greater human presence in the water — many ships, mostly commercial shrimping vessels, and even more oil rigs than usual.

Of particular interest to me, we have caught many new species over the past couple of days.  One notable new catch on Day 11 was a giant hermit crab (Petrochirus diogenes), the largest species in the Gulf of Mexico.  In most cases, hermit crabs need to be removed from their shells in order to be successfully identified.  This process was much more difficult than I had imagined, and I ended up having to use a hammer to crack the shell.  The crab contained within was indeed large – it amazed me that such a large species could occupy such a moderately-sized shell.  After analyzing the crab in the laboratory, we quickly returned it to the ocean, in the hope that it would find another shell in which to occupy and survive.

Another interesting catch on Day 11 was a seabiscuit (Brissopsis alta).  This organism was caught at a station overlying a sandy/muddy bottom, this type of seafloor environment providing a habitat for these unique creatures.  We were able to prep the seabiscuit with bleach in the same manner in which we prepped the sand dollars a couple of days ago.  The product was a purely white – a very delicate, yet quite beautiful specimen for my classroom.  Much thanks to fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher for his help in preparing these organisms.

On Days 11 and 12, we caught some particularly large individuals, which made for great photo opportunities.  On Day 11, we caught the largest roundel skate (Raja texana) that we’ve seen yet, and on Day 12, we netted a large gulf smoothhound (Mustelus sinusmexicanus), a shark species that interestingly has no teeth.  The rest of the night shift was encouraging me to take a photo with my hand down the shark’s mouth, but I settled for the typical catch photo.  This shark was swiftly returned to the water (head first) after laboratory analysis was conducted, and it survived the catch.

As we have to open up fish in order to sex them, it is a natural investigative temptation to look at the other anatomy inside the fish.  A usual focal point is the stomach, as many times, fish stomachs are very disproportionately bloated.  Many times, enlargement of organisms such as the air bladder, stomach, and eyes of caught fish is due to barotrauma.  When a fish is quickly taken from deep waters to the surface, the pressure rapidly decreases, causing internal gases to expand.  In certain cases, we have discovered very recently eaten fish inside organisms’ stomachs.  One particularly interesting example was the stomach of a threadtail conger (Uroconger syringinus), in which we found a yellow conger (Rhynchoconger flavus) of equal size!

Uroconger Ate Rhyncoconger
We found the yellow conger on the right inside the stomach of the threadtail conger on the left! Photo credit to Kevin Rademacher.

I have started to realize the very subtle differences between some species.  One great example of such subtle variance is found in two similar sole species – the fringed sole (Gymnachirus texae) and the naked sole (Gymnachirus melas).  The naked sole contains a faint secondary stripe in between each of the bold stripes on its back; the fringed sole does not have this stripe.  During our initial sorting of species, I unwittingly threw both of these species into the same basket.  Fortunately, fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher noticed what I was doing and identified the distinguishing phenotypic difference.  I have adjusted the brightness, contrast, and shadowing of the below photos to make the difference in striping more apparent.

Flatfish, such as the soles above, have a very interesting developmental pattern from juvenile to adult.  Fisheries biologists Kevin Rademacher and Alonzo Hamilton were able to nicely summarize it for me.  As juveniles, they start off with eyes on both sides of their heads and swim in the same manner as normal fish.  However, once they get large enough to swim out of the current, they “settle out” onto the seafloor.  At this time, a very interesting series of morphological changes takes place.  Notably, the eyes of the fish migrate such that they are both on one side of the fish’s body.  This morphological change has clearly been evolutionary favored over generations, as it allows the fish to see with both of its eyes while slithering along the seafloor.  The side of the fish on which the eyes end up depends on the particular species of fish.  Flatfish are accordingly categorically defined as “right-eyed” or “left-eyed,” based on the side of the fish containing the eyes.  The procedure is fairly simple to define a flatfish a right-eyed or left-eyed.

  1. Look down at the side of the fish containing both of the eyes.
  2. Orient the fish such that the eye that migrated from the opposite side is on top.
  3. If the head faces left, the flatfish is defined as left-eyed.
  4. Otherwise, it is defined as right-eyed.

On many occasions, we have been able to keep some of our catch to later eat.  I have had fresh white shrimp, brown shrimp, red snapper, lane snapper, vermillion snapper, hogfish, and even paper scallops.  I have obtained lots of practice heading shrimp and fileting fish, as well as shucking scallops.  It has been very interesting to visualize the entire process, from catch to table.  It is true what they say, incredibly fresh seafood tastes much better.  Most of the credit here goes to Chief Steward (CS) Mike Sapien and Second Cook (2C) Lydell Reed, the chefs on the ship.

Also after my shift, I was able to visit the ship’s bridge for the first time during the day.  The environment at night is quite different on the bridge, as the NOAA Corps Officers driving the ship need to keep their eyes adjusted to the dark.  Accordingly, the only lights used in the bridge at night are red, reminding me of the lights used by the scientists I observed on a recent night trip to the UT McDonald Observatory.  My trip to the bridge during the day allowed me to observe the operation of the ship and many instruments clearly for the first time.  It was honestly quite intimidating — so many instruments, controls, and dials, and I had no clue what any of them did.  I was very scared to touch anything – the only instrument with which I braved to interact was a very nice pair of binoculars.  The ship is always driven by NOAA Corps Commissioned Officers.  During the time of my observation, Ensign (ENS) Laura Dwyer, a Junior Officer, and Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTRG) Larry Thomas, the ship’s Operations Officer, were on the bridge.  The Captain (Commanding Officer) of the ship, Master David Nelson, entered and exited periodically.  ENS Dwyer was very kind to point out to me different instruments on the bridge and discuss the operating of the ship.  Interestingly, the NOAA Ship Oregon II operates on a system similar to that of a car with a manual transmission – while the ship has two engines instead of one, each engine has a clutch.  There is also a controllable pitch system that allows the operator of the ship to change the angle of the propeller.  There are two RADAR devices, as well multiple GPS navigational systems, on which the stations of the survey are plotted.  The are multiples of each of these important ship systems as a safety measure.  Despite the GPS systems, the ship still has a chart table on the bridge, and even a chart room, where routes are plotted out in more detail.  The helm, which controls the rudder, is still a large, prominent wheel, just as it was in the pirate stories I read as a child.  ENS Dwyer told me, however, that helms are much more abbreviated in appearance in more modern ships.  She indicated that many members of the NOAA Corps appreciate the “vintage” feel of the bridge of the NOAA Ship Oregon II — the ship will be 50 years old in 2017!

We have more or less finished the intended stations for Leg 2 of this survey, but as we still have time left before we are due back in port, we have received orders to proceed through to Leg 3 stations.  These stations are entirely across the Gulf of Mexico, along the western coast of Florida.  The traveling time there is over 14 hours by boat, and we will be traveling more or less as the crow flies.  I am really looking forward to these new stations, as I have heard the biodiversity is vastly different.

Survey Locations
Sections of the 2015 SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey

Personal Log

Ever since my shift on Day 11, in which I felt particularly fatigued and engorged, I have been completing cardio workouts daily.  There is quite a bit of workout equipment stored in various places throughout the ship, and I have finally found an enjoyable cardio workout.  I am using a rowing machine that I found on the top deck of the ship, and I set it up to face the direction of the ship’s movement.  In this way, when I row, I feel as though I am actually pushing the boat through the water.  The wave motion and periodic jostling of the ship makes the rowing machine feel even more like the real thing, and I am forced to recall my days rowing at the crack of dawn on Lake Dunmore near Middlebury, Vermont while in college.

Workout Setup
My workout setup on the top deck of the ship

The Fourth of July on the boat was free of any special pomp and circumstance.  It was, more than anything, just another work day.  Fortunately, all of the employees on the boat get paid overtime for working this day, as well as weekend days.  I definitely missed the Zilker fireworks celebration in Austin (TX), but it was meaningful to be on a boat with members of the NOAA Corps, a Commissioned Service of the United States, on this important day for America.

I have made significant progress in Tender is the Night and am almost finished.  I have also spent free time watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Wimbledon Championships on the satellite television upstairs.

Regarding my sleep, I have finally stopped taking Dramamine®.  Lo and behold, I have had no more nightmares, this lending further support to my theory that Dramamine® was the cause.

The days are still very exciting, and I have yet to encounter a day without a great deal of fresh learning.  On to Florida!

Did You Know?

The Navy Motion Picture Service provides encrypted DVDs for use on deployed ships.  In the upstairs lounge, there are well over 700 DVDs, from classics to quite new releases, organized for anyone to watch in their free time.

DVD Binder
On of the many DVD binders on the ship, courtesy of the Navy Motion Picture Service

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Equilibrium at Sea (Days 6-9), July 3, 2015


NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 3, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/2/15
NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/2/15

Weather has fortunately continued to be calm.  The only main deviation from clear skies has been haziness (symbolized “HZ” on the above weather log from 7/2/15).  On 7/2/15, sky condition varied from FEW (3-4 octas) in the very early morning, to SCT (3-4 octas) and BKN (5-7 octas) at midday and afternoon, to SCT (3-4 octas) in the evening and night.  Swell waves have varied throughout the past couple of days, from less that 1 meter to around 3 meters in height.

Science and Technology Log

The past few days honestly blend completely together in my mind.  I feel as though I have reached an equilibrium of sorts on the boat.  The night shift has proceeded normally – station to station, trawl to trawl, CTD data collection at each station, plankton collected periodically throughout the shift.  Certain trawl catches have been exceptionally muddy, which poses a further task, as the organisms must first be separated from all of the mud and cleaned, before they can be identified.

In addition, on Day 6, the trawl net was damaged on a couple of occasions.  I’ve realized that a trawl rig is quite the complicated setup.  The trawling we are doing is formally called “otter trawling”.  Two boards are attached at the top of the rig to aid in spreading out the net underwater.  To allow the net to open underwater, one of the two lead lines of the net contains floats to elevate it in the water column.  A “tickler chain” precedes the lead lines to stir fish from the sea floor and into the net.  The fish collected by the net are funneled into the terminating portion of the net, called the “cod end”.  FMES Warren Brown is an expert when it comes to this entire rig, and he is in charge of fixing problems when they arise.  On Day 6, Warren had to fix breaks in the net twice.  With help from Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols and Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, new brummel hooks were attached to the head rope for one of the door lifting lines, and a new tickler chain was installed.

I also learned a lot more of the specifics involved in the workup of the plankton catch.  The dual bongo contains two collection nets in parallel.  Plankton is removed from the cod ends of these nets, but not combined.  The plankton from the left bongo is transferred to a mixture of formaldehyde (10% v/v) and sea water for preservation.  The plankton from the right bongo is transferred to 95% ethanol.  The reason for this is that different solvent mixtures are needed to best preserve different parts of the plankton in the sample.  The formaldehyde solution is best for fixing tissue, yet it tends to dissolve hard parts (for example, otoliths, discussed below).  The ethanol solution is better for preserving hard parts (bones, cartilage, etc.).  This explains the need for two bongos.  Workup of collected plankton from the Neuston net is similar, except many non-plankton species are often collected, which have to be removed from the sample.  Highlight non-plankton species from the past couple days have been sailfin flyingfish (Parexocoetus brachypterus) and a juvenile billfish (Istiophoridae).  Neuston-collected plankton is transferred to 95% ethanol.  This solvent is the only one needed here, as only DNA analysis and stock assessment are conducted on Neuston-collected plankton.  All plankton is shipped to Poland, where a lab working in collaboration with NOAA will analyze it.  Samples are broken down according to a priority species list sent by NOAA.

The CTD survey is coming along nicely.  Progress through July 1 is shown on the below bottom dissolved oxygen contour.  Similar trends to those commented on in my last blog post continue to be observed, as a further area of hypoxia has been exposed near the coastline.  You can see that our survey is progressing east toward Mississippi (we will finish this leg in Pascagoula, MI, though the survey will continue on to the Florida coast during Leg 3).

A couple of other distinct memories stand out in my mind from the past couple of days:

  • Sexing “ripe” fish. Sometimes, certain species of fish are so fertile over the summer that certain individuals are deemed “ripe”.  Instead of cutting into these fish, they can be more easily sexed by applying pressure toward that anus and looking for the expression of semen or eggs.  One of the species for which this technique is most often applied this time of year is the Atlantic cutlassfish (Trichiurus lepturus).  One must be careful, however, for as I found out, the gametes sometimes emit from the anus with much force, shooting across the room.  It only takes wiping fish semen off of your face once to remember this forever.
  • Flying fish. I saw my first flyingfish (Exocoetidae) during a plankton collection with the neuston net.  The net would scatter the fish, and they would fly for cover, sometimes 10-15 meters in distance.  Amazing.
  • Preparing sand dollars. Interestingly, the sand dollars we caught (Clypeaster ravenelii) looked brown/green when they came out of the ocean.  Sand dollars are naturally brownish, and in the ocean, they are most often covered in algae.  We kept a couple of these organisms to prepare.  To prepare, we first placed the sand dollars in a dilute bleach solution for awhile.  We then removed them and shook out the sand and internal organs.  We then placed them back in the bleach for a little longer, until they looked white, with no blemishes.  The contrast between the sand dollar, as removed from the ocean, and this pure white is quite remarkable.

  • Otoliths.  Fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher showed me a nifty way to remove the otoliths from fish.  Otoliths, “commonly known as ‘earstones,’ are hard calcium carbonate structures located behind the brain of bony fishes,” which “aid fish in balance and hearing” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  When viewed under microscope and refracted light, otoliths show a pattern of dark translucent zones (representing period of quick growth) and white opaque zone (representing periods of slower growth).  By counting the white opaque zones (called “annuli”), fisheries biologists can estimate the age of the fish.  Granted, this process differs for different fish, as different fish species have different otolith size.  Accordingly, a species standard is always prepared (usually a fish raised from spawn, from which the otoliths are taken at a known age) to estimate the growth time associated with one whole annulus for the particular species.  Sample otoliths are compared to the standard to estimate age.  Otolith analysis also allows scientists to estimate “growth rates,…age at maturity, and trends of future generations” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  On this survey, we only take otoliths from fish that are wanted for further laboratory analysis, but are too large to store in the freezer.  On some surveys, however, otoliths are removed from all fish caught.  I got to remove the otoliths from a large red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).  The first step is to make an incision to separate the tongue and throat from the lower jaw.  The hand is then inserted into the hole created, and using a fair bit of force, the throat and gills are ripped away from the head to expose the vertebrae.  The gills are then cut from the base of the vertebrae, to expose the bony bulb containing the sagittal otoliths.  Diagonal cutters are then used to crack open the boney bulb containing the sagittal otoliths, and the otoliths are removed using forceps.

Personal Log

I am still feeling great on the boat.  The work is quite tiring, and I usually go straight to the shower and the bed after my shift ends.  Interestingly, I think I’m actually gaining quite a bit of weight.  The work is hard and the food is excellent, so I’ve been eating a bunch. I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which is more than I normally get when I am at home, especially during the school year.  One thing I have been noticing ever since the trip started is that I have been having quite nightmarish dreams every night.  This is rare for me, as I usually either don’t have dreams or can’t remember the ones that occur.  I initially thought that this might be due to the rocking of the boat, or maybe to the slight change in my diet, but I think I’ve finally found the culprit – Dramamine®.  Research has indicated that this anti-motion sickness drug can cause “disturbing dreams” (Wood, et al., 1966), and I have been taking this medication since the trip started.  This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that my nightmares lessened when I reduced my daily Dramamine® dose from 2 pills to one. I finished Everything is Illuminated and have begun a new novel (Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald). I am now well into the second week of my trip!

Did You Know?

Earrings can be made from fish otoliths (ear stones).  These seem to be quite popular in many port cities.  Check out this article from the Juneau (Alaska) Empire Newspaper.

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Slowly Getting the Hang of Things (Days 3-5), June 29, 2015

Sexing Fish

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, June 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 6/28/15
NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 6/28/15

Weather remained quite calm through Days 3-5.  I observed a couple minor rain showers during the night shift.  As noted in the above weather log from the bridge, hazy weather (HZ) on multiple occasions during Day 4.  Sky condition on Day 4 went from 1-2 oktas in the morning (FEW), to 5-7 oktas (BKN), to 8 oktas (OVC) by midday.  The sky cleared up by the evening.

Science and Technology Log

Day 3 was incredibly busy.  There were no breaks in the 12 hour shift, as there were many trawl stations, and each catch contained a very large amount of shrimp.

According to many on deck, the shrimp catches on Day 3 would have been deemed successful by commercial shrimping standards.  I got lots of good practice sexing the shrimp from the catch — I sexed over 2000 shrimp on Day 3 alone.  Sexing shrimp is fairly easy, as the gonads are externally exposed.

I also learned how to sex crabs.  This is also a simple process, as there is no cutting involved (see graphic below).  The highlight of the day was the landing of a really large red snapper.  They let me take a picture with it before taking it inside for processing.  I was absolutely exhausted at the end of Day 3 and completely drenched in a mixture of sweat, salt water, and fish guts.

Day 4, in contrast, was very slow.  The trawl net broke on one of the early stations, so the research was delayed for quite awhile.  In fact, in my entire 12 hour shift, we only had to process two catches.  We were able to complete all CTD, bongo, and Neuston stations, however, quite efficiently.  I have gotten to the point where I can serve as the assisting scientist for the CTD, bongo catch, and Neuston catch on my own.  This data also requires two fisherman on hand — one to operate the crane, the other (along with me) to guide the device or net into the water.  The fishermen with whom I most commonly work are Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols, Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, and Fisheries Methods and Equipment Specialist (FMES) Warren Brown (see photo).

On Day 5, I got great practice sexing a wide variety of fish.  An incision is made on the ventral side of the fish, from the anus toward the pectoral fin.  After some digging around inside the fish, you will find the gonads — either ovaries (clear to yellowish appearance with considerable vasculature, round in cross-section often many eggs) or testes (white appearance, triangular in cross-section).  As you might guess, larger fish are much easier to sex than smaller ones, and the ease of sexing is also species dependent.  To make matter even worse, many fish are synchronous hermaphrodites (containing both male and female sex organs), and some are protogynous hermaphrodites (changing from female to male during the course of life).  The ease of sexing is also species dependent.  For instance, I have found the sexing of adult puffer fish and lizardfish to be quite easy (very easily defined organs), however I have experienced considerable difficulty sexing the Atlantic menhaden (too much blood obscuring the organs).

Field Party Chief Andre DeBose provided me with a hypoxia contour chart (see below), representing compiled CTD data from Leg 1 and the beginning of Leg 2.  According to DeBose, these contour charts are generated by the National Coastal Data Development Center (NCDDC) once out of around every 10 stations, and they represent an average of data taken by station near the ocean floor.  A data point is defined as hypoxic if the dissolved oxygen content is below 2 mg/L.  On the below chart, you can see that many hypoxic areas exist along the Texas coast, near the shore.

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours
Dissolved oxygen contours for water at ocean bottom — Plotted data thus far from the SEAMAP Summer Survey (June 9 – 26, 2015)

I could not wrap my head around why this trend exists in the data, as I figured that shallower water would be warmer, allowing for more plant life in greater density, and accordingly more dissolved oxygen in greater density.  Fisheries Biologist Alonzo Hamilton helped me better understand this trend.  The fact that the water is warmer in shallower areas means that more of the dissolved oxygen leaves the surface of water in these areas.  In addition, while plant life is indeed in greater concentration in shallower water, so is the concentration of aerobic microbes.  These organisms use up oxygen through respiration to decompose organic matter.  You can see on the above graphic that the greatest hypoxia is found in areas near major runoff (e.g. Matagorda Bay and Galveston Bay).  Among other things, this runoff feeds nitrates from plant fertilizer into the ocean, which supports growth of more algae (in the form of algal blooms).  Aerobic microbes decompose this excess organic matter once it dies, taking further oxygen from the water. Although it seems counterintuitive, at least to me, the greater heat and greater organism density actually leads to a more hypoxic environment.

I am slowly getting better with the species names of aquatic organisms, but as of now, I am still focusing on common names.  The common names often relate to the fish’s phenotype, and this helps me recall them with more ease.  Common name knowledge, however, is fairly useless when it comes to entering the organisms into the computer during species counts, as the computer only has scientific (Latin) names in its database.  I hope to learn more scientific names as the week progresses.

I am also slowly amassing a really interesting collection of organisms to take back with me to LASA High School.  CJ Duffie taught me how to inject crabs with formaldehyde to preserve them.  Upon return to port, I will spray these crabs with polyurethane, to preserve the outer shell.  I have also been preserving different organisms in jars with 20/80 (v/v) formaldehyde/saltwater.  If you know me, you know I love collecting things, so this process has been particularly enjoyable.  Fisheries Biologists Alonzo Hamilton and Kevin Rademacher have been very supportive in helping me collect good specimens for my classroom.

Personal Log

Life on the ship is very enjoyable.  My bed is comfortable, the work is exciting, the meals are excellent, and the company is gregarious.  However, I have completely lost track of time and date.  My “morning” is actually 11 PM, and my “evening” is actually 1 PM.  Accordingly, my “lunch” is actually breakfast, and my “breakfast” is actually lunch.  I also never have any idea what day of the week it is.  I called my girlfriend yesterday and was surprised to hear that she was not at work (it was a Sunday).

Regarding this blog, I have finally found the optimal time to write and upload photos.  As the satellite internet is shared by all of the ships in the area, it is not possible to access WordPress during the daytime.  Accordingly, I do all of my uploading and most of my writing between 2 and 6 AM.  This works for me, as long as I can find time for the blog between research stations.

I really enjoy the people on the night shift.  Kevin Rademacher, Alonzo Hamilton, and Warren Brown provide such a wealth of knowledge.  These three are absolute experts of their craft, and it is a true honor to work with them.  I am nearing the end of my first week on the ship, and I am still learning just as much as I was on my first day – this is incredibly exciting.

I have found that Alonzo really enjoys the TV show, “Chopped,” as it seems to be on every time I enter the dry lab.  It is pretty interesting to observe him watching the show, as he enthusiastically comments on all of the dishes and regularly predicts the correct winner.

I am also getting well through one of the books I brought – Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safron Foer.  It is a very odd read, but it has been enjoyable so far.

I am looking very forward to every new day.

Did You Know?

The scorpionfish that we are catching are some of the most venomous creatures in the world (see Scorpaenidae) .  These fish have spines that are coated with a venomous mucous, and their sting is incredibly painful – just ask CJ Duffie!  These fish are also incredible masters of camouflage, changing in color and apparent texture to disguise themselves, so as to catch more prey.

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Lots to Do, Lots to Learn (Days 1-2), June 26, 2015

Sorting by species

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Friday, June 26, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 6/26/15
NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 6/26/15

Weather was quite calm on Days 1 and 2.  As noted in the above weather log, the only real disturbance was a small squall (SQ) observed at 7 AM on Day 2.  Sky conditions are estimated in terms of how many eighths of the sky are covered in cloud, ranging from 0 oktas (completely clear sky) through to 8 oktas (completely overcast).  FEW in the above log represents 1-2 oktas of cloud coverage.  SCT represents 3-4 octas, and BKN represents 5-7 oktas.

Science and Technology Log

I have been assigned the night watch, which runs from 12 midnight to 12 noon.  Accordingly, on Day 1, I went to sleep around 2 PM and woke up around 10 PM to prepare for watch. My first day consisted mostly of general groundfish biodiversity survey work, one of the focuses during the summer being on shrimp species.  Data collection points have been randomly plotted throughout the Gulf, and data is collected via trawling the seafloor, which consists of the boat pulling a fishing net behind the boat, along the seafloor, for a predetermined length of time.  To allow for collection along the seafloor, the net has rollers on the bottom.  The net also contains a “tickler chain” to stir up organisms (mainly shrimp) from the seafloor, so that they can be captured with the net. The trawl catch is transferred to the boat, where the following steps are completed:

Tranferring catch to boat
CJ Duffie transferring a trawl catch to the boat.

1. The total catch is weighed.
2. The catch is run along a belt, and the three significant shrimp species (white, brown, and pink) are taken out and saved. In addition, multiple unbiased samples are taken from the catch and saved.  The sample should contain at least one of each species encountered in the catch.
3. The entire taken sample is sorted by species.
4. Individuals within each species are counted.
5. Length, weight, and gender are recorded for shrimp individuals within a significant species (white, brown, and pink).
6. Length measurements are taken for all other species individuals within the sample. Weight and gender are recorded for one individual out of every five within a species, for species other than shrimp.
7. Everything is returned to the ocean.

Sorting by species
Sorting the catch by species along the belt. Left to Right — Volunteer CJ Duffie, Equipment Specialist Warren Brown, me, and Research Fisheries Biologist Kevin Rademacher.

On Day 1, we completed the above process for 4 separate catches.  Aside from my lack of knowledge, the only other mishap was that my middle finger accidentally got pinched by a fairly large Atlantic Blue Crab.  I was amazed at the amount of force of the pinch, as well as the amount of pain caused.  I ended up having to break the crab’s claw off in order to free myself.

Also on Day 1, I got to observe the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) sensor in action.  A CTD’s “primary function is to detect how the conductivity and temperature of the water column changes relative to depth” (NOAA).  The salinity of the seawater can be determined from this conductivity and temperature data.  On the Oregon II, the CTD also contains a dissolved oxygen sensor for measuring levels of dissolved oxygen in the seawater.  In addition, the CTD is housed in a larger metal frame (called a “rosette”) with water bottles, allowing for sampling at various depths.  Various data collection points have been randomly plotted throughout the gulf, and data collection consists of sending the CTD (+ dissolved oxygen sensor and water bottles) to and from the ocean floor.  The photo at right shows the data output – the y-axis represents water depth, temperature is recorded in blue (two data points taken at each scan), salinity is recorded in red, and dissolved oxygen is recorded in green (2 data points taken at each scan).  The ocean floor was at a very shallow depth (between 10 and 20 meters) for all sampling done on Day 1.

CTD data output
CTD data output

On Day 2, we completed more shrimp survey work and CTD sampling.  I also got to participate in a plankton survey at the beginning of my shift.  This entailed dropping two fine-mesh nets into the water – a dual-bongo and a neuston – and dragging them through the water to collect plankton.  The dual-bongo is lowered to a predetermined depth, while the neuston remains at the surface.  Obtained plankton is transferred to a jars with salt water and formaldehyde (for preservation) and sent to a lab in Poland (with which NOAA has a partnership) where it is categorized, measured, etc.

Personal Log

I have already met all of the scientific personnel and most of the other core and crew on the ship.  Andre Debose is the Field Party Chief, and he heads up all scientific operations on the ship.  The Executive Officer of the ship is Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Eric Johnson, a NOAA Corps Officer.  These are the two people who approve of all of my blog posts before I submit them to NOAA. The night watch (12 AM – 12 PM) consists of me, Kevin Rademacher, Warren Brown, and Alfonso Hamilton (watch leader).  The day watch (12 PM – 12 AM) consists of Adam Catasus, Jeffrey Zingre, Joey Salisbury, and Michael Hendon (watch leader).  CJ Duffie completes his watch from 6 AM to 6 PM. Adam, Jeffrey, and CJ are volunteer graduate students from Florida.  This is their first NOAA research cruise, but they have already completed a two-week leg, so they know much more than I do.  Alfonso, Kevin, Warren, Adam, and Joey are all seasoned NOAA veterans, have completed many years of research cruises, and have a wealth of knowledge.

My stateroom

My stateroom is quite nice.  There is sufficient storage space for all of my clothing and equipment, such that I am able to keep most everything off of the floor.  I am rooming with Joey Salisbury (I have top bunk), but as Joey is on the day shift, we do not see too much of each other.  I am quite paranoid about not waking up on-time, so I tethered my cell phone to a pipe on the boat, directly above my head.  This way, the phone alarm blares directly toward my face, and there is no danger of my phone falling off of the bunk.

I have not yet experienced any seasickness, although I am still taking preventative medication every day.  Andre noted before we left that ginger helps with seasickness, so I brought some ginger ale and ginger cookies.

The food served on the ship is amazing, definitely much more than what I was expecting.  There are multiple course options for each meal, and everything I have had so far has been exceptional.  The highlight was the made-to-order omelet that I had for breakfast after 7 hours of sorting and measuring fish.

Notably, I also got to experience two boat safety drills on Day 1 – a fire drill, and an abandon ship drill.  For the abandon ship drill, I got to try on my survival suit.  It is made out of neoprene, so in that regard it reminds me of fly fishing waders.  However it feels quite claustrophobic once you put your arms in it and zip it
halfway up your face.  I needed much assistance in putting it on.

Survival suit
In my survival suit, during an abandon ship drill

Did You Know?

NOAA has a Commissioned Service, one of the seven Uniformed Services of the United States.  The NOAA Corps consists only of Commissioned Officers (i.e. no enlisted personnel or Warrant Officers).  The Corps first became a Commissioned Service in 1917, during World War I, as the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps.  In 1965, this Corps was renamed the Environmental Science Services Administration Commissioned Corps, and in 1970, was again renamed the NOAA Corps (Source — NOAA).

Notable Species Seen

June Teisan, Ichthyo-WHAT? Ichthyoplankton! May 6, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
June Teisan
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 1 – 15, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Plankton Study
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
12:00 hours; Partly cloudy skies; Wind 080 (WNW) 9 knots; Air temp 25.8C; Water temp 25.7C; Wave height 3-4 ft.

Science and Technology Log:

From my very first shift the day we left port at Pascagoula, I’ve been out on the ship’s deck deploying nets and processing samples. Samples of what, you ask? Ichthyoplankton! Ichthyo-What? Ichthyoplankton are the eggs and larvae of fish, and are typically found less than 200 meters below the surface, in the “sunlit” zone of the water column. We have 40 testing sites or “stations” ahead during this cruise, as shown below.

The blue area holds the SEAMAP Plankton stations we plan to sample on the first leg of the spring cruise. The other stations will be sampled on the second leg May 17-31.


With my noon to midnight teammates Pam Bond and Jonathan Jackson, and the invaluable Oregon II deck crew to operate the winches, I’ve learned to draw samples from the Gulf with specially developed equipment: the Bongo net, Neuston net, MiniBongo net, and S-10 Neutson net, and the CTD sampler.

The Bongo and its smaller cousin the MiniBongo are designed with funnel-shaped nets that collect samples into a cylinder at the end of the net. Once the nets are sprayed down to chase the last of the biomass into the PVC cylinder or “codend”, we take the cylinders to the processing table to sieve the biomass, transfer that to the glass lab jars, and fill with preservative solution.

The Neuston net is affixed to a large metal rectangle and is pulled along the surface of the water for a ten minute time segment. The mesh of the Neuston is not as fine as the Bongo, so smaller plankton slip through and larger organisms are gathered.

 Once the samples are gathered they must be sieved, transferred into lab jars, and preserved. Immediately after collecting the samples, we walk the buckets holding the codend cylinders to the back deck where the processing table holds the equipment and solutions we need for this part of the process.

Personal Log:

I’ve been on board the Oregon II for five days, and I am deeply impressed by many facets of this scientific journey.

  • The level of dedication, professionalism, and passion of the NOAA science team: This work is high caliber data gathering in sometimes grueling conditions, with monotonous waiting periods in close quarters; but the good humor, dedication to best practice field science, and mutual respect and support among the team is always evident.
  • The complexity of running a working research vessel: From the Commanding Officer down the chain, each crew member has their jobs and each person is vital to the success of the excursion.
  • The importance of the work: Our fisheries are a vital food source; to manage the stocks and avoid overfishing we need data to make management decisions that ensure a healthy ecosystem.
  • The beauty and jaw-dropping magnificence of the Gulf: This vast expanse of water – teeming with life, driving weather patterns, supplying us with food and fuel – is a sight beyond words.

Finally, here’s a shout out for Teacher Appreciation Week! Kudos to all my colleagues across the country and especially to the teaching staff at Harper Woods Schools in Harper Woods, Michigan for all you do everyday!

And a special hello for the students in Mrs. Wesley’s class all the way from the Gulf of Mexico!

Julia West: Bongos! March 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Julia West
Aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
March 17 – April 2, 2015

Mission: Winter Plankton Survey
Geographic area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: March 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time 1700; clouds 100%, stratus; wind 325° (NNW), 9 knots; air temperature 22°C, sea temperature 25°C

Science and Technology Log

Here’s what we have covered as of Sunday evening, 3/22. I’m getting quite the tour of the Gulf! Notice we are going back and forth across the shelf break (the edge of the continental shelf), as that is our area of interest.

Stations covered 3/22
This is what we’ve covered so far. We’re doing well!

Again, thanks to all of you who are reading and asking questions. One recent question had to do with whether we are bringing specimens back. So let me explain what we do with them. Most plankton are so small that you see them best through a microscope. So the “specimens” that we are bringing back are all in jars – thousands of organisms per jar! Every time we collect samples, we get at least three jars – two from the bongo nets and one (or more) from the neuston net. That’s not including the CUFES samples described earlier, which are only big enough for a tiny bottle. Here are some pictures:

Kim labeling a sample
Kim Johnson (scientist) in the wet lab, labeling a sample. Notice the cardboard boxes – they are all full of sample jars, both empty and full.

Bongo sample
This is a nice sample from one of the bongo nets. Lots of little guys in there!









These samples get brought back to shore for analysis in the NOAA lab. Oddly, many of the samples get sent to Poland to be analyzed! Why Poland, you ask? Well, for a few decades we have had a cooperative agreement with the Polish sorting and identification center. They remove the fish and eggs from all samples, as well as select invertebrates. These specimens and the data get sent back to US for analysis. We double check some of the IDs, and plug the data into models. (If you are a biology student, this is an example of how models get used!) The information then goes to fisheries managers to use to help form fishing regulations. This division of NOAA is called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which manages stocks of fish populations.

NOAA has been doing spring and fall plankton sampling for 30 years now. Winter sampling is newer; it started in 2007. SEAMAP (SouthEast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program) is cooperative agreement between the Gulf states, federal (NOAA), and university programs. The samples from the states and universities get sent to Poland with our samples. The the timing of the surveys is to target specific species when they are spawning. This winter survey is targeting grouper, tilefish, and other winter spawning species. The other surveys target bluefin tuna, red drum, red snapper, and mackerels, which spawn at other times of the year. The invertebrate data is used to build an understanding of invertebrate community structure throughout the Gulf.

In science, research is cumulative. We know, from past research, what the mortality rate of some fish species is. So if we get a fish larva or fry that is a certain size, we can estimate the percentage of that size larvae that will reach adulthood, and back calculate to see how much mortality has already happened to get fish of that size. All this allows us to get a peek into the size of adult population.

The first piece of equipment that we use when we get to each station is the bongo nets. You can see how they got their name!

The bongo nets just entering the water. They will be lowered to 200m, or near the bottom if it is shallower.

Here are the bongos ready to be deployed:

Bongos ready to deploy
These bongos are ready to go as soon as we get the OK.

Flow meter for bongos
This little whirlybird is the flow meter.

The SeaCAT








The flow meter is inside each bongo net, near the top. We read the numbers on it before the net goes out, and after it comes back. Using this information – the rate of flow, together with the area of the opening, we can calculate the volume of water filtered. The SeaCAT is a nifty unit that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature, and depth. Since we have a much fancier unit to measure these factors, we use this primarily for depth, so we know when we are getting to 200 meters (or the bottom, whichever comes first). We go to 200 meters because that is the lowest effective light penetration. Phytoplankton need light, and zooplankton need phytoplankton! What’s more, larval fish have not yet developed their lateral line (the organ that many fish use to sense vibrations in the water around them), so they feed visually. Even if they want to eat something below the photic zone, they wouldn’t be able to “see” it yet.

I, of course, am full of questions, and knowing that I’m supposed to identify every acronym I write, I asked what SeaCAT stands for. The unit is made by a company called SBE (Sea Bird Enterprises), so is the CAT just a fun name that they came up with? Nobody knew the answer! But everyone was curious, and Tony and Steve (both electronics technicians) did some emailing and got the answer straight from SBE. CAT stands for “Conductivity And Temperature” (seems we could have figured that out). And the Sea? Could be for Seabird, Seattle, or just the plain ol’ sea!

Deploying the bongos
Here I am holding the “codends,” ready to drop them over the side. The crane does all the heavy lifting. Photo by Andy Millett


Once we get the nets in the water, the crane operator monitors the speed that it is lowered. Our job is to communicate the “wire angle” constantly to the bridge and the lab. Here’s how this is done:

Measuring wire angle
Measuring the wire angle (angle of the cable) with the inclinometer. Photo by Madalyn Meaker.

The angle of the cable is important because it allows the nets to sweep the desired amount of water as they are pulled up. If the wire angle is too high (above 55°), the crew on the bridge slows the ship down just a bit. The perfect angle is 45°. Many other factors can mess this up, most notably current. The ship has to be facing the right direction, for example, so the current isn’t coming toward the ship (have you ever been fishing and had your line swept under the boat?). It’s tricky business, requiring constant communication between bridge, lab, and deck! Oh, and by the way, the cable is a “smart wire,” meaning it has electrical flow through it, which is how the depth gets communicated to the computers. Fascinating technology, both on the micro and macro scale!

Once we pull in the bongos, we hose them off very thoroughly, to get any of the little plankton that are stuck to the net. They are all funneled into the codend, which is a PVC cylinder. From there, we dump the sample into a sieve, and transfer it into a jar, and get read to do it again in 3 hours or so.

Bongo cod end
This is a close-up of the “cod end” of the bongo, where the plankton get funneled into.

Plankton from the bongo
This is the sample from one of the bongo nets. Can you see why it’s hard to come up with pictures of individual organisms? There are thousands in here!

Did I tell you that sampling goes on 24/7? Perhaps you figured that out when you heard the shift times. It costs a lot to run a ship; operations continue whether it’s night or day.

Personal Log

Now, to keep people happy when they are living in close quarters, far from home, and working strange shifts, what’s the most important thing of all? FOOD! The Gunter is well known among NOAA circles for having fantastic food for people of all diet types and adding ethnic flavor to her meals. The person responsible for our good and abundant food is Margaret, our Chief Steward. She has worked for NOAA for ten years, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. Her husband is now retired from the Coast Guard, so they moved around a lot. Margaret worked for the Coast Guard for four years, then went back to cooking school, and had various other jobs before signing on with NOAA. She has a few years left before she retires, and when she does, what will she do? She wants to do subsistence farming! This is right up my alley – Margaret and I have a lot to talk about! Not to mention the fact that Margaret makes her own juices, some amazing homemade hummus, AND dries her own fruit (dried cherries -yum!).

Margaret, chief steward
Margaret, assembling some spinach lasagna rolls while talking about her life.

Margaret also has a helper, Mike, who was reluctant to have his picture taken. He’s not the usual assistant steward, but sure seems highly capable! It always sounds like a lot of fun is being had in the galley.

Gunter dining room
The dining room, or “mess deck.”

condiment selection
World’s largest selection of condiments, including anchovy sauce and REAL maple syrup!








Lunch spread

more food
and more decisions…








That’s it for this post – I’m getting hungry. Time to eat!

Challenge Yourself

What executive branch of the U.S. government does NOAA belong to? Is it the same branch that oversees our national parks? How about our national forests?

Did You Know?

There are nearly 4000 active oil and gas platforms in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (NOAA), and more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells (Assoc. Press, 2010)

Oil and gas platforms in the Gulf
Locations of the active oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. From


Carol Schnaiter: Our First Day of Work, June 10, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Carol Schnaiter

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

June 6 – 21, 2014

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey

Gulf of Mexico

June 10-11, 2014

South wind  10 to 15 knots

Seas (waves) 3 to 4 feet

Partly cloudy

My home away from home for a few weeks!
My home away from home for a few weeks!

Science and Technology Log

On June 9th we arrived at our first station. There are over 120 stations on this survey in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately I was not able to participate in the first station. (More on that later)

When we arrive at the station the ship’s crew is very busy. The deck crew put trawling nets into the water and down to the bottom to catch fish, shrimp, and other organisms. Once these nets are back at the surface the crew uses cranes to lift them to the deck where the scientists can work on the catch. When the nets are in the water the ship must slow down, so the nets do not rip.

After the nets are raised the organisms collected in the nets are emptied into buckets. The scientists then weigh the buckets on a scale. To make sure they are only weighing the organisms, they first weigh the bucket when it is empty.

Weighing the catch
The basket must be weighed before we sort it.

Next everything goes into the “wet” lab. It is called a wet lab because this area has water available and it is where the organisms are poured out on to a long conveyor belt, sorted, and washed off.

Catch on the conveyor belt
Everything is poured onto the conveyor belt to be sorted.

First, everything is sorted by species. Then everything is counted, measured, weighed, and sometimes the gender and maturity are calculated. All of this is recorded into computers.

Some of the species are very tiny and others are large, but everything is counted.  Many of them look alike so the scientists need to be careful when sorting everything.

The scientists on the Oregon II know many of the names of what they catch, but they also use books, charts, and the computer to look up information to make sure.

Sometimes someone in the lab back on shore may be doing research on a certain species and if that species is found it will be tagged, bagged and sent back to the lab.

The CTD’s and bongo net tows are conducted from the forward well deck (check the first blog if you forgot what those do).

The bongo nets are used to collect ichthyoplankton and so the mesh on these nets is very tight, sometimes as small as 0.333 millimeters. These samples are placed into jars and will be examined back in the lab on land later.

Material from bongo net
This is what we collect using the bongo nets. Photo by Chrissy Stepongzi

By time everything is finished, it is time for the next station and everything starts over again.

The work that the Oregon II does is very important. This survey has been conducted twice a year since the early 1970’s and the information collected can show the scientists what is happening under the surface of the water.

The survey helps to monitor the population and health of everything, plus shows any interactions with the environment that may be happening.

Personal Log:

You may have noticed that I mentioned I could not participate in most of the first day’s work, I was seasick and I spent a lot of time in my stateroom.

State Room
State Room

Thank goodness for the medics and Chief Steward on the ship. Walter, the Chief Steward, sliced up fresh ginger for me to suck on, while Officer Rachel Pryor gave me sugar coated ginger to chew on.

The two trained medics, Lead Fisherman Chris and Fisherman James, both were great help and were all very concerned. Kim, the lead scientist, and my bunk mate, Chrissy, checked in on me throughout the night. I am so grateful for everyone that helped. I am now drinking a lot of water and Gatorade to stay hydrated.

As soon as I felt better I was able to help in the wet lab by sorting, counting, weighing, and measuring organisms that were pulled up. We found some really cool things, like this Atlantic Sharpnose shark that Robin Gropp is holding.

Atlantic Sharpnose Shark
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark

The Atlantic Sharpnose Shark can grow to be 3.9 feet long and can live 10-12 years. It is a relatively small shark, compared to others.

The Common Terns (seabirds) follow the ship when we are trawling hoping to find a free meal. They sit on the ship’s rig that holds the nets waiting for food. The Common Tern is the most widespread tern and can be found by many large bodies of water. They are mostly white with a little black.

Common Terns waiting for dinner!
Common Terns waiting for dinner!

Taniya Wallace and Andre Debose are the two scientists on the night shift (midnight to noon) and they are extremely knowledgeable and explain everything to me. I am learning a lot of new words and I am even getting better at telling one fish from another.

Andre and Taniya holding the stingray.
Andre and Taniya holding the stingray.

The Southern Stingray that Andre is holding is just one of the amazing creatures we caught. We also brought up a Blackedge moray, a Texas Clearnose Skate, a sea hare, red snapper, jellyfish, pufferfish, sea horse, and many more. I can’t wait to share all of my photos next school year!

He may not look dangerous, but he could really hurt you!
He may not look dangerous, but he could really hurt you!

I am working the midnight to noon shift and it is strange to “wake-up” at midnight and eat supper (the cooks save a plate if you ask) and then go to work. Again, the food is wonderful. Last night I had the best prime rib and mashed potatoes!

Everyone on the ship is so helpful and friendly. I enjoy listening to where everyone is from and why they decided to make the Oregon II their home.

On the Oregon II
Here I am enjoying the beautiful view from the bow. Photo by Rebecca Rosado

Emilisa Saunders: Finding the rhythm aboard the Oregon II, May18, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Emilisa Saunders

Aboard NOAA ship Oregon II

May 14, 2013 – May 30 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Spring Plankton Survey

Geographical Area of Cruise:  Gulf of Mexico

Date: May 18, 2013

Weather Data: Wind Speed: 13.94 knots; Surface water temperature: 25.4;  Air temperature: 26.4; Relative humidity: 87%; Barometric pressure: 1,015.33 mb


Science and Technology Log:

For the scientists on board the Oregon II, each shift follows roughly the same routine.   When we start our shift, we check in at the dry lab to see how much time we have until the next sampling station.  These stations are points on the map of the Gulf of Mexico; they were chosen to provide the best coverage of the Gulf waters.  Our ETA, or estimated time of arrival, is determined by how fast the ship is moving, which is influenced by wind and currents, which you can see in the map below.  A monitor mounted in the dry lab shows us a feed of the route mapping system that is used by the crew on the Bridge to drive the ship.  This system allows us to see where we are, where we are headed, and what our ETA is for the next station.  We also get warnings from the Bridge at one hour, at thirty minutes, and at ten minutes before arrival.

Gulf Currents
The currents in the Gulf of Mexico, plus our planned route.  Image courtesy of NOAA.

At the 10-minute mark, we put on our protective gear – more on that later in this post – and bring the cod ends up to the bow of the boat, where we attach them to the ends of the appropriate nets.  Then, we drop the Bongo nets, the regular Neuston net, the Sub-surface Neuston net, and the CTD into the water, in that order.  These all go down one at a time, and each one is pulled out and the samples collected before the next net goes in.

Towing the Neuston net on the night shift

The idea of dropping a net into the water probably sounds pretty simple, but it is actually a multiple-step process that requires excellent teamwork and communication amongst several of the ship’s teams.  The scientists ready the nets by attaching cod ends and making note of the data that tracks the flow of water through the net.  Because the nets are large and heavy, and because of the strong pressure of the water flowing through the nets, they are lifted into the water using winches that are operated by the ship’s crew.  The crew members operate the machinery, and guide the nets over the side of the ship.  While this is happening, the crew members communicate by radio with the Bridge, providing them with information about the angle of the cable that is attached to the net, so that the Bridge can maintain the a speed that will keep the net at the correct angle. At the same time, a scientist in the dry lab monitors how deep the net is and communicates with the deck crew about when to raise and lower the nets.  This communication takes place mostly over walkie-talkies, which means that clear and precise instructions and feedback are very important.

Operating the winches
Crewmember Reggie operating the winch, while crewmember Chris measures the angle of the cable

When each net is pulled back out of the water after roughly 5-10 minutes, we use a hose to spray any little creatures who might be clinging to the net, down into the cod end.  At stations where we run the MOCNESS, we head to the stern of the ship, where the huge MOCNESS unit rests on a frame.  Lowering the MOCNESS takes a strong team effort, since it is so large.  After we retrieve each net, we detach the cod ends and bring them to the stern, where a station is set up for us to preserve the specimens.  I’ll go into more detail about the process of preserving plankton samples in a later post.

Hosing down the nets
Alonzo, hosing down the Bongo nets before bringing them aboard.

We’ve had a couple of nights of collecting now, and so far it has been completely fascinating.  I’m in awe of the variety of organisms that we’ve come across.  The scientists on my shift, Glenn and Alonzo, are super knowledgeable and have been very helpful in explaining to me what we are finding in the nets.  Although this is a Bluefin Tuna study, we collect and preserve any plankton that ends up in the nets, which can include copepods, myctophids, jellies, filefish larvae and eel larvae, to name a few.  When we get the samples back to shore, they will be sent to a lab in Poland, where the species will be sorted and counted; then, the tuna larvae will be sent back to labs in Mississippi or Florida for further study and sometimes genetic testing.

My favorite creature find so far has been the pyrosome.  While a pyrosome looks like a single, strange creature, it is actually a colony of tiny creatures called zooids that live together in a tube-shaped structure called a tunic.  The tunic feels similar to cartilage, like the upper part of your ear.  Pyrosomes are filter feeders, which means they draw in water from one opening, eat the phytoplankton that passes through, and push out the clean water from the other end.  So far on the night shift, we’ve found two pyrosomes about four inches in length and one that was about a foot long; the day crew found one that filled two five-gallon buckets!

Me holding a pyrosome.  So neat!
Me holding a pyrosome. So neat!

Alonzo and the pyrosome
Alonzo holding the pyrosome

Challenge Yourself:

Hello, Nature Exchange Traders!  Pick one of the of the zooplankton listed in bold above, and research some facts about it: Where does it live?  What does it eat?  What eats it?  Write down what you find out and bring it in to the Nature Exchange for bonus points.  Be sure to tell them Emmi sent you!

Gumby Suit
In the Gumby suit, practicing the Abandon Ship drill. Photo by Glenn Zapfe

Personal Log:

Safety is the top priority on board the Oregon II.  We wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of our scientific goals if people got hurt and equipment got damaged.  We started our first day at sea with three safety drills: the Man Overboard drill, the Abandon Ship drill and the Escape Hatch drill.  For Man Overboard, everyone on board gathered, or mustered, at specific locations; for the Science team, our location was at the stern, or back of the ship.  Aft is another word for the back.  From there, we all scanned the water for the imaginary person while members of the crew lowered a rescue boat into the water and circled the Oregon II to practice the rescue.

For the Abandon Ship drill, we all grabbed our floatation devices and survival suits from our staterooms and mustered toward the bow, or front of the ship.  I got to practice putting on the survival suit, which is affectionately called a Gumby suit.  In the unlikely event that we would ever have to abandon ship, the suit would help us float and stay relatively warm and dry; it also includes a whistle and a strobe light so that aircraft overhead can see us in the water.

For the Escape Hatch drill, we all gathered below deck where our staterooms are, and climbed a ladder, where crew members helped pull us up onto the weather deck (the area of the ship exposed to weather) on the bow of the ship.  This is meant to show us how to escape dangers such as fire or flood below deck.

Safety gear
Safety gear on; ready for station!  Photo by Glenn Zapfe

But safety isn’t just practiced during drills; it’s pretty much a way of life on the ship.  Whenever winches or other machinery are in operation, we all have to wear hard hats and life jackets; that means that we wear them every time we reach a station and drop the nets.  We are also all required to wear closed-toed and closed-heeled shoes at all times, unless we’re sleeping or showering.  Another small safety trick that is helpful is the idea of, “keep one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.”  That means we carry gear in one hand and leave one free to hold onto the swaying ship.  This has been really useful for me as I get used to the ship’s movements.

Until next time, everyone – don’t forget to track the Oregon II here: NOAA Ship Tracker

Emilisa Saunders: Away We Go! May 13, 2013

NOAA Teacher st Sea
Emilisa Saunders
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
May 14th – 30th, 2013

Mission: SEAMAP Plankton Study
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, May 13th, 2013

Science and Technology Log:

Boarding the Oregon II
Me and the Oregon II (and the silly crewmember in the background). Photo by Kaela Gartman

I’m finally aboard the Oregon II!

Today I got a sneak preview from the lead scientist, Andy, of the labs and some of the equipment that we’ll be using to collect plankton once we’re underway.  There are three labs where we’ll be doing science for the next 17 days: the dry lab, the wet lab, and the chem lab.  The dry lab, where I’m sitting and typing right now, is a room with computers that are used to remotely monitor the depths of the nets once they have been dropped, and to record data about those drops.  The wet lab is where samples of plankton are preserved in jars to be sent back to shore and studied.  The chem lab is where chlorophyll is separated from plankton samples.

I got to see the CTD, which is a unit that collects water at specific depths in order to measure physical characteristics of the water, such as salinity, fluorescence, temperature, and dissolved oxygen.  I’m looking forward to learning more about this physical data and why it is important once we are underway.

The CTD collects water samples for testing

Andy also showed me the nets we will use to collect plankton.  All of the nets are large and heavy and are raised and lowered by winches that are operated by the ship’s crew.  The first is a Bongo net.  If you’ve ever seen bongo drums, you can get a sense of what this unit looks like: two side-by-side nets with round openings.  The nets themselves are shaped like cones, and we’ll attach a bottle called a cod end on the end of each to capture all of the plankton from the nets.  Then there are two Neuston nets, which have large, rectangular openings.  The regular Neuston net will be towed along the surface, and the Subsurface Neuston will be towed in a pattern at various depths, as will the Bongo.  The unit that I am most excited about is the MOCNESS.  This big frame holds up to ten nets, which can be opened and closed at certain depths; that way, we can collect samples from various depths and monitor plankton at separate locations and at specific depths in the water column.  In the other nets, you know what you get and where it came from, but not how deep it was.

Bongo nets
Bongo nets

Subsurface Neuston
Subsurface Neuston Net

The water column is an idea that scientists use to think about and study the ocean from top to bottom, or from the surface to the ocean floor.  When you think about the water column, imagine the ocean as an aquarium, and you’re looking into it and seeing the organisms that live at different depths and what the water is like at those depths.

The reason that the MOCNESS is so exciting to me is that it reminds us that the water in the ocean is not just a uniform mixture all throughout; different creatures live at different depths, and in different numbers at those depths.  It’s easy to imagine that creatures that are benthic – meaning, they live on the ocean floor – will vary depending on where they are in the world and how deep the ocean floor is in that spot.  It’s harder to imagine that pelagic organisms – those that live in the water column, neither at the very surface, nor at the bottom or at the shore – will also vary greatly depending on depth and location.  The water itself is different as well; the temperature of the water and the amount of salt, light and oxygen changes with depth.

Challenge Yourself:  Here’s a challenge for my Nature Exchange Traders: go on into the Nature Exchange and explain the terms water column, benthic and pelagic to earn some bonus points.  Tell them Emmi sent you!

NOAA Oregon II
The journey begins! Photo by Kaela Gartman

Personal Log

Flying over Alabama on the descent into Mobile on Sunday, I was struck by how much water there was everywhere below me.  Everywhere I looked, there were slow, meandering rivers, sparkling ponds, lakes and streams.  At times when I thought I was looking down on a forest, I saw the sun reflecting off of water blanketing the ground beneath the trees and shrubs.  I was even struck by the number of puddles in parking lots and lining the streets.  I kept thinking that, living in the desert, I’m just not used to seeing so much water – and I hadn’t even reached the harbor yet!  It was as if I was being slowly introduced to the world that I’m about to live in for the next 17 days.

I’ve been aboard the Oregon II at dock for just a few hours now, and I’m already overwhelmed with fascination, excitement, curiosity, and anticipation.  I started the morning at my hotel feeling very nervous, knowing that I was about to experience a rush of newness: new people, places, sights, sounds, rules, routines, you name it.  I told myself just to take a deep breath and take it in one thing at a time, and that really helped me to enjoy the experience.  Now the nerves are mostly gone and I’m just very much looking forward to the ship’s departure tomorrow afternoon!

To my great fortune, I’ve already found everyone I’ve met to be incredibly kind and friendly.  I got to meet some of the NOAA lab scientists who study the plankton that is collected from the Gulf, as well as field scientists Alonzo and Glenn, with whom I’ll be working the night shift on the Oregon II.  Last but not least is Andy, the lead scientist for this cruise, who helped plan logistics for my arrival, gave me a tour of the ship and helped me get situated on board.

The folks I’ve met on board are from all over the United States.  Some of them came to Pascagoula to work for NOAA to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; some came as part of their graduate school studies.   Everyone I’ve met either has or is pursuing an advanced degree, so the intelligence on board the ship is impressive.  As challenging as it can be to for the scientists to be away from home for more than a hundred days out of the year, all of them have some level of appreciation for doing field work.  Not all of the scientists who study plankton in Pascagoula are able to leave the lab to go on the cruises, so I am even more grateful that I have the honor of taking part.  I’m also extremely grateful to learn that I will be of help to the team.  Because of limited staffing and budgets, the science team depends on teachers, like me, to provide extra sets of hands during the field work.

Stateroom 5
My stateroom on the Oregon II

I’ll be staying in Stateroom 5 for this cruise, which I’ll share with a volunteer scientist named Jana.  “Stateroom” is the word used for a bedroom on a ship.  The stateroom is small, as expected, but it actually feels like it’s the perfect size.  All of my belongings are unpacked in drawers and cabinets, and they all fit just fine.  There’s a bunk with two beds, a sink, and three storage cabinets.  Two of the cabinets are entirely for our use, and one mostly holds safety gear and flotation devices.  There is enough floor space that I could lay on the floor and do snow angels, so there will be plenty of room to move around.  I don’t expect to be spending all that much time in the stateroom once we are underway.

Time has taken on a whole new meaning in the past two days.  Yesterday morning I left Las Vegas in the Pacific Time Zone and flew to Atlanta in the Eastern Time Zone, then to Mobile in the Central Time Zone.  It was almost like time travel.  After we embark tomorrow, I’ll start my work schedule, which will have me on duty from midnight to noon every day.  Work goes on around the clock on NOAA vessels.  This schedule will take some getting used to, but as a morning person, I am excited that I’ll be awake and active for my favorite part of the day, and I’ll get to watch the sun rise.  Right now, I’m attempting to stay awake for my entire first night on the ship so that I can get on my work schedule right away.  To add another level of confusion to my sense of time, ship crews observe 24-hour military time instead of using AM and PM.  Numbers are difficult for me and don’t come naturally, so this will take some getting used to.

Military time
The clocks on the ship show the 24-hour military time system.

Just being on the ship feels quite surreal.  As I write this at 23:33hrs, there are just a handful of people on board, and we are still at dock.  Every once in a while some subtle movement reminds me that this is a ship in the water, but mostly it feels like solid ground.  I know that will change once we get moving.  Aside from the obvious signs, there are other little reminders that this is a ship, where everything must be secured for rougher waters.  Computers and monitors are strapped and bolted to the tables, there are gripper pads spread out on tables and in drawers, and every door, from drawers and cabinets to staterooms, has to be latched shut and unlatched to open, and open doors have to be secured with a hook so that they don’t slam shut when the ship shifts.   There’s also a constant hum of noise on the Oregon II.  I’m interested to see how loud it is when we’re actually moving!

The adventures in science begin tomorrow!

Sunset at Dock
Sunset at dock, from the dry lab of the ship

Did you know?

Bluefin tuna plankton are a type of ichthyoplankton, which comes from the Greek words for “fish drifters.”  For those of you in Nevada, think of our state fossil, the ichthyosaurus, which means “fish lizard!”

Andrea Schmuttermair: Tows Away! June 26, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Andrea Schmuttermair
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 22 – July 3

Mission: Groundfish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 26, 2012 

Ship  Data from the Bridge:
Latitude:  2805.26N
Longitude: 9234.19W
Speed:  10mph
Wind Speed:  5.86 knots
Wind Direction:   E/SE
Surface Water Salinity:  35.867 PPT
Air Temperature:  28.8 C
Relative Humidity: 86%
Barometric Pressure:  1010.51 mb
Water Depth:  96.5 m

Science and Technology Log

Sunrise on the Oregon II

Opisthonema oglinum, Lagadon rhomboides, Chloroscombus chrysurus…..yes, I have officially started dreaming about taxonomic names of our fish. It’s day 4 and I now have a much better grasp at identifying the variety of critters we pull up in our trawls. I am always excited to be out on deck when they bring up the trawl to see what interesting critters we catch. Surprises are great!

Do you want to know where the Oregon II is headed?

Check out Ship Tracker at

If you click on the link above, you can see the path that our ship is taking to hit all of our stations for the survey. We often have station after station to hit- meaning as soon as we are done sorting and measuring, we have to bring in the next catch. Because some stations are only 3-5 miles apart, we sometimes have to do “double dips”, where we put in the trawl for 30 minutes, pull it up, and put it right back in again.

It’s been interesting to note the variety of our catches. Croakers, bumperfish, and shrimp have been in high abundance the last 2 days as we were in shallower water. Before that we had a couple of catches that had a high abundance of pinfish. When we take our subsample, we typically enter data for up to 20 of that particular species. We take length measurements on each fish, and on every fifth fish. We will also weigh and sex it (if sexing is possible).

Shrimp in the Gulf
A comparison of the various sizes of shrimp we pull up from our trawls.

Shrimp waiting to be measures
A relatively small catch in comparison to the 200+ we’ve been pulling up recently.

When we were in shallower waters, we had a significant increase in the number of shrimp we brought up. Tuesday morning was the first catch that did not have well over 200 shrimp (this is because we’ve been moving into deeper waters).  For the 3 commercial shrimp, white (farfantepenaeus setiferus), pink (farfantepenaeus duorarum), and brown (farfantepenaeus aztecus), we take 200 samples, as opposed to our high-quantity fish, where we will only take 20 samples. For each of the commercial shrimp we catch, we measure, weigh and sex each shrimp. I’ve gotten very good at identifying the sex of shrimp- some of the fish are much more difficult to tell. The information we get from this survey will determine the amount of shrimp that boats can take during the shrimping season in Louisiana and Mississippi. During the first leg of the groundfish survey, the data collected determined the amount of shrimp that could be caught in Texas. The groundfish survey is crucial for the shrimping industry and for ensuring that shrimp are not overfished.

Students- think of the food chain. What would happen if we overfished and took out too many shrimp? (Hint: Think of predators and prey.)

The trawl net at sunrise

We’ve now started doing 2 different tows  in addition to our trawls. Some of the stations are trawl stations, whereas others are plankton stations.

The trawl on deck
Alex, Alonzo and Reggie unloading the trawl net.

At a trawl station, we lower the trawl from the stern down to the ocean floor. The trawl net is meant for catching larger critters that live at the bottom of the ocean. There is a chain, also known as a “tickler”, which moves lightly across the ocean floor to lure fish to leave their hiding spots and swim into our net. The trawl is down for 30 minutes, after which it is brought back on deck to weigh the total catch, and then brought back into the wet lab for sorting.

Another important mission of the groundfish survey is to collect plankton samples. To do this, we use a Neuston tow and a bongo tow.

neuston tow
The Neuston tow about to pick up a lot of Sargassum- oh no!

The Neuston tow has a large, rectangular frame with a fine mesh net attached to it. At the end of the net is a large cylindrical bucket, called a codend, with a mesh screen meant for catching the organisms. In comparison to the trawl net, which has openings of 41.4mm , the Neuston’s mesh is only 0.947mm. This means the mesh is significantly finer, meant for catching some of the smaller critters and plankton that would otherwise escape the trawl net. The Neuston tow is put on the surface of the water and towed for 10 minutes. Half the tow is in the water while half is out. We end up picking up a lot of Sargassum, or, seaweed, that is found floating at the water’s surface. When we gather a lot of Sargassum, we have to sift through it and spray it to get out any of the organisms that like to hide in their protective paradise.

Bongo tow
The bongo tow on deck waiting to be sent down to about 3m from the ocean floor.

After we’ve completed the Neuston tow, we do the bongo tow.  The bongo’s mesh is even finer than the Neuston tow’s mesh at only 0.333mm. The bongo has 2 parts- a left and a right bongo (and yes they do look a little like bongo drums- hence their name). The top part of the bongo is a large cylinder with an open bottom and top. The net is attached to this cylinder, and again at the bottom of each side is cylindrical tube  called codends meant to catch the plankton. The bongo tow is meant to take a sample from the entire water column. This means that instead of riding on the surface of the water, it gets sent down to about 3 meters from the ocean floor (there is a sensor at the top that is 2m from the bottom of the net)  and brought back up immediately.

Sifting through the sieve
The remnants from our Neuston tow. This is the sieve we use to weed out what we want and don’t want.

bongo leftover
Here are our 2 samples from the bongo tow. The left one is preserved in ethanol and the right is preserved in formaldehyde (10% formalin and sea water)

Neuston tow samples
Here is a sample from the Neuston tow. Carefully camouflaged are thousands of crab megalops, aka juvenille crabs.

For both tows, it is important to rinse the nets to get any lasting organisms we might not see with our own eyes into our sample. Once we’ve done this, we bring the tubes back into the wet lab where we continue to rinse them through a sieve so that only certain items are leftover. In the Neuston, we often find small fish (usually less than 3mm), baby shrimp, crabs and Jessica’s favorite, the Sargassum fish. Most recently a few flying fish got caught in our Neuston tow. Prior to pulling it up, I was enjoying watching them flit across the water- they were about all we could see in the water in the middle of the night. After being rinsed thoroughly through the sieve, we preserve them by placing the sample in a glass jar with either ethanol or formaldehyde solutions. They are preserved in ethanol for DNA work and in formaldehyde for long-term preservation. These samples are then saved to send to a lab in Poland, which is the sorting center for the SEAMAP samples.

Flying fish
Flying fish we pulled up in our Neuston tow at nighttime.

Personal Log

My stateroom
My sleeping quarters (top bunk), also known as a stateroom. My roommate is Kristin, one of the scientists on board.

Well, I think I am finally getting used to the schedule of working the night shift. I am thankful that my bunk is on the bottom floor of the ship- which means it is completely dark- so that I can sleep during the daytime. Yesterday was probably one of the least busy days we’ve had so far, and because we were in deeper waters, our trawls were much smaller. This means I had a little more time to work on my blogs, which at times can be hard to fit in. It amazes me that we have internet access on the ship, and it’s not even as slow as I expected. It goes down from time to time, especially when the waters are rough. We’ve been fortunate to have pretty calm waters, aside from the first day.

You may have heard about Hurricane Debby on the news as it prepared to hit the Gulf. On Sunday, we were heavily debating heading back to Galveston to “bunker down” and ride out the storm. However, the storm that was forming seemed to dissipate and head in a different direction, thank goodness.  I was not thrilled about the possibility of heading back to port!

We had our first drills the day after we set sail. The drills- fire and abandon ship are distinguished by different types of bells, similar to using Morse code. The abandon ship drill was fun. We got to put on our survival suit, which is like a big orange Gumby suit. It not only protects you in cold water, but also makes you highly visible. I remember reading some of the former TAS blogs, and this picture was always in. Of course, I’ve got to add mine as well.