Alex Miller, The Sea Around Us, The Seafloor Below Us, June 7, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra (Alex) Miller, Chicago, IL
Onboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
May 27 – June 10, 2015 

Our ship.

Our ship.

Mission: Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment
Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast
Date: Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Weather Data:

  • Air Temperature: 12.4°C
  • Water Temperature: 13.3°C
  • Sky Conditions: Overcast
  • Wind Speed (knots/kts) and Direction: 22 kts, N
  • Latitude and Longitude: 45°59’62”, 124°33’97”

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The only piece of equipment on the Shimada I haven’t told you about is the box corer. Jason Phillips has been using the box corer to collect, well, box cores. Box cores are samples of the bottom of the ocean or sea floor (also, seabed). The box core is lowered to various depths (400 m, 300 m, 200 m, 100 m and 60 m), then survey technicians, Jaclyn Mazzella or Phil White, open the jaws of the machine and scoop up a mouthful of whatever is on the bottom, including benthic (referring to bottom of the ocean) creatures.

Once surfaced, Jason subsamples the sediment, sand, mud, small pieces of rocks and debris, removing just a small part of it and storing it until our return to land. Subsampling allows scientists to measure a manageable amount and then generalize about the larger remainder; while this is limiting because it assumes uniformity throughout the box core, the alternative is looking through each piece of sediment individually, something that is time and cost prohibitive. However, he does invest the time necessary to pick out all the creatures collected by the box corer.

Back at his lab, Jason will analyze the sediment, and then he or a colleague will identify all the tiny, tiny organisms, living things, found in the core.

Below, you can see Jason processing the core. He has washed down the smaller pieces of sediment like clay and sand through the holes in the mesh sieve. The sieve traps the smaller pieces of rock and even smaller animals, allowing him to pick them out and place them into preservative for processing when he returns to shore.

Jason and Amanda pick out benthic organisms from a core sample.

Jason and Amanda pick out benthic organisms from a core sample.

Through the study of box cores, Jason hopes to learn more about the creatures that live on the bottom of the sea. He told me many scientists who are doing box cores are simply collecting the sediment for study, they are not looking to see what organisms live in it, and therefore, there is a lot we don’t know. He says, “I would not be surprised if we found a new species in these cores.”

Take a look at some of the creatures Jason has unearthed on this cruise:

Because he has been collecting this data for two years, there are some patterns emerging about sediment conditions in different areas of the seabed. This information may help inform the placement and construction of a proposed wind farm off the Oregon coast.

For at least one day of our cruise, Jason also put out hooked long-lines to try and catch albacore, a type of tuna. Unfortunately, the fish weren’t biting. While albacore are unique among most tuna in that they prefer cooler water, Jason says the late-spring waters off the Oregon coast are still a little too cold for them and since they can swim up to 100 miles a day, they can easily find some more comfortable temperatures. The albacore that have been caught on previous cruises as part of this ongoing study are being tested for radioisotopes that may have originated from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011.

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And, of course, there’s always fun to be had on the Shimada. Below you can watch a video of Jason unearthing a pupa utility-worm from one of his box cores; scientific name (Travisia pupa), affectionately known as the “stink worm.” Will decides we need a closer, um, look.

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Tyler Jackson, a Master’s student at Oregon State University has been working on fisheries genetics since he was an undergraduate. His interest in marine science began when he was a wee recreational fisherman’s son growing up on the US-Canada border in Port Huron, MI.

In collecting megalopae, a larval form of Dungeness crab, he is trying to determine how closely related the Dungeness crab of areas off the Oregon coast are. He has studied population genetics among adult Dungeness crabs along the West Coast. He hypothesizes that if adult crabs in an area are closely related, larvae settling in the nearshore would be too. However, he tells me that it is not well understood how crab larvae travel throughout the ocean, and then for some to make it back to nearshore and settle to the bottom, maybe near where they came from. Perhaps these extended families get scattered throughout the seas, perhaps not.

Tyler Jackson, Oregon State University

Tyler Jackson, Oregon State University

At the first few stations, the tows were not bringing back enough individuals to give Tyler a large enough sample size to provide a reliable assessment of whether the crabs in that part of the ocean are related or not. Unfortunately, on this cruise Tyler did not get a sample size large enough to use.

In the following video you can see that, after sieving the neuston, Tyler found two Dungeness megalopae (too small of a sample size to test) but quite a lot of red rock crab megalopae. These little creatures are fascinating and pretty adorable.

I also interviewed Tyler about his work and life at sea. You can hear our talk below.

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Two nights ago, I couldn’t sleep at all, and I was thinking about the fact that my time on the Shimada is quickly coming to a close. I was trying to find a way to get even more information from the scientists on board to you. Taped interviews seemed like the perfect solution. I began conducting them yesterday and, after finishing three, realized I’d spoken to three of the four other women of the science crew. And so, here we are having a conversation about gender equity in the sciences.

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The ladies of the science crew. From left: Samantha Zeman, Amanda Gladics, Emily Boring, Brittney Honisch, Alexandra Miller

Using data from a longitudinal study done by the National Science Foundation, in 1973, 88% of doctorate holders working at the university level in life sciences (includes marine biology) were male, just 12% were female. Hearteningly, women have become much more well represented in the life sciences; in 2010, these numbers were 58% and 42%, respectively‡. You can see this same kind of near gender balance on board the Shimada: of the twelve (counting me) members of the science crew, five are women. Women are also well-represented in this blog post.

You can see the numbers breakdown for all the science and engineering fields here.

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I interviewed the four other women of the science crew about their research and life on board the ship, as well as being a woman in the field of life science. You can hear those interviews below.

If you would like to find the parts of the conversations about gender equality in marine science, you may use the time stamps below.

Table of Contents:

  • Amanda Gladics, Faculty Research Assistant, OSU Seabird Oceanography Lab (13.55)
  • Samantha Zeman, Graduate Student and Research Assistant, University of Oregon (7.00)
  • Brittney Honisch, Marine Scientist, Hatfield Marine Science Center (8.50)
  • Emily Boring, Sophomore, Yale University (I did not ask Emily as she is still an undergraduate)

‡Compare this to the numbers for the physical sciences, in 1973, 95% of doctorates employed in academia were male, compared to 5% female; in 2010, 79% male to 21% female.

Additional Reading:

“Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” New York Times, 2013

And no less than 4 days later…

“Tim Hunt Resigns After Comments” New York Times, 2015

Twitter Campaign #distractinglysexy

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Question of the Day:

Why are there still so few women in science? What can be done to encourage girls to pursue, and stay, in STEM fields?

Kainoa Higgins: Hard Core Box Core, June 24, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kainoa Higgins
Aboard R/V Ocean Starr
June 18 – July 3, 2014

Mission: Juvenile Rockfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Northern California Current
Date: Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Current Latitude: 42° 30.2’ N
Current Longitude: 124° 49.5’ W
Air Temperature:  12.8° Celsius
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Wind Direction: S
Surface Water Temperature: 16.0 Celsius
Weather conditions: Overcast and Misty

Find our location in real time HERE!

Science and Technology Log:

The Box Corer

I walk into the wet lab after a night of rocking and rolling and find the day shift team prepping for and executing their respective projects. I sit down with Jason Phillips, a fisheries biologist with Oregon State University at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, to talk about his focus aboard the RV Ocean Starr. Jason serves as lead scientist on the box core sampling project.  The box corer is a piece of equipment used to literally “grab” a sample of the seafloor for analysis both of sediment grain size as well as benthic (seafloor) life.  It is reminiscent of an old candy grab penny arcade where a crane’s claw is used to scoop candies from a floor of goodies.  I don’t anticipate the pay load of this scoop to be as deliciously appealing.

An Offshore Wind Turbine

An Offshore Wind Turbine

Jason explains that he joined this cruise off the coast of Oregon to learn more about the seafloor along a specific series of coordinated sampling stations. These sites are aligned perpendicular from shore and increase in depth as we move further along the continental shelf away from the coastline. The ultimate goal of his project is to better understand the communities of organisms that may be impacted by the commercial development of renewable wind energy. Yes, I’m talking about giant wind turbines anchored to the seafloor, not unlike the terrestrial wind farms seen throughout the country. Before any ground is broken on such a project, the potential impacts have to be investigated. Enter Jason and the rest of his team at Oregon State University. By establishing a fundamental understanding of baseline benthic communities as well as characterizing bottom types, Jason hopes to better explain how the ocean floor changes as we move across the continental shelf.

Jason asks if I’d assist in the deployment of the next box corer and I jump at the opportunity to get my hands dirty. We step onto the stern deck where most of the scientific equipment is kept. There, in all of its silvery splendor, sits the box corer, securely resting in a heavy-duty metal cradle.  Weighing in at 450 lbs. when empty – it’s even heavier when filled with a core sample of seafloor sediment. The ocean is a bit rough today so Jason assigns me a supporting role. Using a thick rope attached to a handle on the box corer my job is to keep it from swinging uncontrollably as it is raised from its resting cradle and lowered into the water.  I’m warned to keep all extremities out of the way as it wouldn’t take much for this piece of scientific kit to become a glorified wrecking ball capable of devastating blows to both ship and its operators.  The winch begins to tighten the slack on the cable line and the box core rises from its cradle. Though it swings slightly from side to side, it cleanly enters the water and starts its decent into the dark depths.

This time it will collect a sediment sample at 200 meters, and takes nearly six minutes to reach the bottom. When it does, its gravity-release mechanism triggers and the shovel-like claws propped open on the surface close as the wire is wound back in, scooping a load of seafloor and any organisms living in or on that substrate. About 10 minutes later, the box corer returns to the surface draining gallons of water as we maneuver the even heavier steel trap back to its cradle.

Once secure, Jason collects a raw sample in a small jar, labels it and sets it aside for grain size analysis in the lab. Using a ruler, he measures the depth of the total sample. I learn that sample size depends largely on grain size. The further away from shore, the deeper the water, and a lower impact by waves and surface currents. The result is the settling and compacting of fine particulates. Conversely, seafloors closer to shore “feel” the more of the effects of these ocean forces, which allows for less settlement, and lighter particles are washed further offshore. There we would find sandier substrates. This sample is incredibly “muddy”, made up mostly of clay.

Box Core Sample

Top left: Peanut worm (emits terrible stench), Bottom left: Dr. Ric Brodeur and Jason Phillips assess an inky worm. Right: Jason Phillips quickly returns an unexpected skate.

Once the seafloor “muck” is extracted from the box corer, Jason uses a small wire mesh and a garden hose to sluice the sediment, breaking up the larger chunks as he hunts for signs of life within.  Any critters found are carefully extracted using tweezers then added to neatly labeled jars for further analysis back in lab at Hatfield. Invertebrates dominate the small haul of benthic life: feather worms, polychaetes and echinoderms are numerous. Occasionally the box core delivers unexpected tag-a-longs. On two separate occasions a large fish and a skate that, of all the places on the bottom of the ocean, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and took the ride a lifetime.

It was an exciting hands-on experience and I quickly learned that the tighter the leash the more stable the box. I am thankful to report that no limbs were lost in the sampling of the seafloor.

Katherine Dale, Hollings Scholar

Later, I sit down with Katherine Dale, a student intern aboard the RV Ocean Starr. Kat currently attends the University of Miami and will be entering her senior year after which she will have successfully earned B.S. degrees in Biology and Marine Science with a Minor in computer science to top it all off.

She arrived on the Ocean Starr as a result of being named recipient of the Ernest F. Hollings scholarship by NOAA. Applying in her sophomore year, Kat received a generous $16,000 towards her junior and senior years of study. The intangible value of the scholarship is in NOAA’s expectation of awardees to participate in a paid internship with a NOAA affiliated mentor and/or facility with the intention being to introduce undergraduate students to NOAA as a potential career path.

Kat has chosen to spend her summer at the Hatfield Marine Science Center under the mentorship of Ric Brodeur, the chief scientist on this cruise. She is here with similar intentions as I have; gain field experience on a NOAA research cruise. Unlike me, this is not her first time at sea. A year ago she toured the Bahamas on a month-long research trip with the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, a regional NOAA research lab based in Miami, Florida.

I ask Kat what she would advise a younger group of marine enthusiasts just starting out. She suggests that budding students should not be afraid to pursue diverse experiences and keep an open mind. There will be great jobs and some not-so-great jobs, but it is all experience, and more experiences lead to more opportunities further down the road.

Kat isn’t quite sure what she wants to do with her laundry list of degrees but finds herself attracted to both the world of scientific research as well as that of science education. Perhaps a role in education outreach for a science organization is somewhere in her future.

Katherine Dale

Hollings Scholar Katherine Dale holding a eel larvae during trawl sorting.

Personal Log:

Adjusting to life on a ship like the Ocean Starr has been interesting. Not necessarily difficult but not easy either. It’s just, different. In my previous post I mentioned the struggles of using the restroom and just getting in and out of bed at night. I’ve since taken my first shower aboard this floating facility and to say it was challenging would be an understatement. When the ship rolls, I roll and when it rocks, I follow suit. I’m still working on those sea legs. It all gets amplified when it comes to anything bathroom related especially when the venue is communal. Trying to keep a change of clothes dry in the shower is hardest! I’ve made a few trips back to my stateroom in wet clothes.

Last night we ran into some rougher waters and falling asleep was nearly impossible. Each time I even began to doze off, the ship would roll so violently that I would be forced into the wall or the railing on the bunk. Being a side-sleeper it’s difficult. I realized the side-to-side motion is generally a result of three major sources: our northbound travels, the bow-to-stern orientation of my bunk and the west-east flow of the swells toward shore. Eventually I gave up attempting to find sleep in my own berth and decided to roam about the ship in search of a more stable locale. In the crew lounge, I found an enormous couch which just so happened to have an orientation to match the swells. Although with each roll I could feel a slight bit of added pressure at my head or toes, I was not long rolling side-to-side. Proud of myself, I fell asleep immediately.

Let me clarify the my tone as I describe the trials above.  In no way do I consider any of these experiences to be “bad”.  I signed up for life at sea and it wouldn’t be realistic if I didn’t struggle to adapt somewhat to such a foreign lifestyle. I am embracing every moment as a unique investigation into the life of not only a scientific research team in the field, but also the life of the crew that keeps us running.  Besides, the immediate perks far outweigh the struggle of adaptation.

The food is delicious.  I realize that in that statement I echo just about every other Teacher at Sea in TAS history. All the same, the food is delicious.  I suppose it’s one of the small comforts that both crew and science team look forward to on a regular basis and Crystal, the head chef, and her partner Liz take great pride in the meals they prepare. Already I’ve gorged myself on freshly- made pizza, gyros, fruit-filled pastries, stir-fry dishes, quiches, steak and potatoes and swordfish just to name a few! The galley is the ship cafeteria and is always stocked with an assortment of goodies: pop, juice, coffee, fruit, and an array of granola bar-type pocket snacks for when you need a quick pick-me-up on the job. There’s even a salad bar with a variety of toppings to choose from. That’s not even the best part!

Aside from usual dinning occasion: breakfast, lunch and dinner, there is a midnight rations service simply called “mid-rats” onboard. It is a meal with naval ties designed to satisfy the hunger of those getting off or just starting their shifts in the middle of the night. Many onboard swear mid-rats to be the best meal of the 24 hour period. I can’t decide, it’s all so tasty! All this and I haven’t even mentioned the overstocked freezer dedicated to nothing but ice cream! I thought, being at sea, I’d drop a few pounds but with four meals a day all the snacks I could ever want, I don’t see that happening. I’ll be lucky to break even.

Chef Crystal

Top: Galley complete with World-Cup Soccer in the background. Bottom: Mid-Rats Menu–Stuffin’ Muffins, Spinach, Parsnippers, Baked Apples in Caramel.

My current shift runs from roughly 2:00 pm – 2:30 am. This time frame allows me the opportunity to participate in a variety of sampling activities that happen only during daylight hours, as well as to help sort a few trawls into the wee hours of morning. Generally speaking, I fall asleep by around 3:00 and wake up for breakfast at 6:00. I love breakfast. I head back to bed for another four hours give or take, depending on how rough the ocean is beneath me. Around 10:00 I’ll wake up and grab some coffee and check in on various projects, lending a helping hand if needed. I’ll generally take my coffee to the flying bridge checking in with Amanda in regards to any recent sightings.

On that note, we stumbled across a hunting group of Stellar sea lions yesterday. They followed us for a bit, as did a flock of gulls, I imagine because they mistook us for an active fishing vessel and were just looking for a free meal.

The Crew Lounge

Not bad living in the Crew Lounge

Day time activities: CTD, box core, neuston net tow, bongo tow, jelly fishing, etc. generally wrap up between 2:00 and 4:00 and at that point we begin transit toward the next trawling station. The commute time can be anywhere from 4 to 6 hours depending on conditions and the team finds various ways to pass the time. Some take naps or watch a movie in the lounge while others play cards, grab a snack, or join Amanda on the flying bridge to look for marine animals. I generally use this time to chat with those around about their projects and think about how to synthesize these encounters into blog posts. I’ve also found myself collecting so much great footage that I spend some time slicing and dicing a short film here and there featuring the day’s happenings.

Once we arrive at the first trawling station the night team sets up shop. We trawl and sort samples throughout the night with the last trawl wrapping up at about 5:00 in the morning. So far, I’ve only made it through the first two or three trawls before turning in for the night. The evening is always an adventure. Just last night while we sorted krill from rockfish, a bird flew into the wet lab and landed in a large bucket full of catch; this guy was a storm petrel, which are apparently attracted to and disoriented by lights, making this a relatively common event. We were able to get it out the door and back onto the ocean both swiftly and safely.

I wrap this post up as I sit atop the flying bridge on an overcast day off of the Oregon Coast. I can faintly see the famous sand dunes framing the coastline.  No more than ten minutes prior to typing these very words did we watch four humpback whales breaching clear out of the water less than 300 meters from the bow of the Ocean Starr; an absolute thrill to see!

Strange Symbols

What does it all mean?