NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
June 9-22, 2022
Mission: SEAMAP Reef Fish
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 17, 2022
Location: 28°05.1 N, 091°53.3 W
Temperature: 85 °F
Wind: north, 5 kts.
Science and Technology Log
We are continuing our path due east. We (they) have surveyed 14 different banks and dropped 102 cameras.
Along the way we have been collecting water samples that contain environmental DNA (eDNA), and mapping at night. Caroline Hornfeck, graduate student at the University of West Florida, is collecting water samples once daily and at additional fixed sites. She is working under Dr. Alexis Janosik, participating in a multiyear study of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and NOAA. The project’s goal is to characterize reef fish diversity in the northwest Gulf of Mexico using molecular tools and techniques.
Environmental DNA is a molecular tool used in aquatic ecosystems. eDNA contains DNA from all organisms in the water column. This DNA can be in the form of gametes (reproductive cells), fish scales, waste, etc. This approach is noninvasive and cost-effective, and does not require contact with the organism. Caroline collects test tubes of water, adds some magical juice that causes a chemical reaction, and the DNA begins to solidify in the test tube. You with me? THIS is real science.
Later in the lab, the eDNA is extracted and the samples are run through polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR amplifies (multiplies) genes and the sample is sent to a lab for additional science. Fancy technology makes millions of copies of the DNA. You piece it all together and use the data to assess reef fish diversity. Essentially, eDNA is like taking attendance in the reef community. Roll call.
I will leave it at that, though it’s much more complex. I am starting to remember why I avoided molecular biology. Caroline, I’m impressed.
Meet the Science Crew
Field Party Chief, Fisheries Biologist
What do you enjoy most about your job? “It’s the field work that I enjoy most. I love being out on the water (in moderation), participating in the various surveys. I have been a part of so many fun surveys – reef fish, snapper longlines, trawls, plankton, and mammals. I appreciate getting a break from the desk, reviewing footage, and annotating the research. I also enjoy working with the crew and building team camaraderie.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “It’s tough to decide. I have seen all sorts of cool stuff. One mammal survey we were out on the smaller boat and a sperm whale breached about 100-200 yards from the boat. Later those whales were lying on their sides at the surface with full bellies, seemingly just resting after a meal. The giant stingray and thresher shark are up there on my favorites as well.”
Paul is the Field Party Chief. He’s been with NOAA for 21 years. As a Fisheries Biologist at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Paul studies fish populations and their impacts. He knows every fish in the sea (or at least close). Out here, Paul coordinates scientific operations. He has to be on every minute of every day, and deal with the crews’ shenanigans, yet still shows up each morning with a smile on his face, ready to take on the day.
What do you enjoy most about your job? “My favorite part about my job is being out in the field… as long as I’m not seasick. Because I’m still so new, I love learning all the ins and outs of the projects, seeing the species I’ve been watching on our videos in person, and hearing stories from other scientists about all the cool projects they’ve been a part of.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “The coolest animal I’ve seen while out in the field is a manta ray which followed our boat for a few minutes as we were making our transit back ashore. And I always get super excited seeing any shark species while out at sea.”
Amanda is a Fisheries Biologist at the Panama City Laboratory. She’s been with NOAA for two years. She studies fish populations and their impacts. She may be tiny, but she’s mighty. Don’t underestimate her. She knows her stuff, and knows it well, and can keep up with the best of them.
Program Support Specialist
What do you enjoy most about your job? “I enjoy being part of the NOAA Fisheries Mission at the MSLABS level. Being an administrator I find myself lucky to participate on various surveys with the scientist. I get to build a great working relationship and many friendships with them. I learn so much from them. Everything from science related topics to personnel life topics. I also feel that they have a higher respect for me than just some admin person.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “Oh so many to list. I’ve seen so much diversity on these surveys that it’s hard to list. I’m always amazed at what comes out of the ocean and the thought of things I’ve not seen or will never see. I’m fascinated by the smallest to the biggest ocean animals.”
Rafael is a Program Support Specialist. He has been with NOAA for seven years. He provides oversight, technical expertise, and support to personnel and field biologists. But don’t let him fool you; he’s a biologist at heart. These scientists are lucky to have him out here at sea. He works hard, and best of all, keeps everyone in good spirits.
What do you enjoy most about your job? “All of it. I have done just about every survey – plankton, sharks, small pelagic, reef fish, Caribbean reef fish, and more. I have worked closely with NOAA enforcement, installing vessel monitoring systems and reporting illegal fishing. Surveillance in the Keys was a lot of fun. I enjoyed being down there. Most recently, I operate NOAA drones.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “The first to come to mind is the 12 ft. tiger shark during a longline survey. I also enjoyed building satellite tags and tagging sea turtles.”
Kenny is an Electronics Technician at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center. He has been with NOAA for 32 YEARS. He handles all the equipment from scientific to shipboard navigation and communication. What would we do without Kenny? This survey, as well as most, relies entirely on the technology. Kenny keeps us in check. I mean he’s the only one that knows what a transmissometer is.
Graduate Student, University of West Florida
What do you enjoy most about your job? “What I enjoy most about being a student in this field, is always adapting and learning new skills that can help me grow as a scientist. Whether that’s in the classroom, research lab at the University of West Florida, or aboard NOAA research vessels.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “One of the coolest animals I have seen is a spotted eagle ray. I hope further down in my research career I can work with elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and implement better conservation management for keystone species.”
Caroline earned her B.S. in Marine Biology at the University of West Florida. She is pursuing her Master’s at UWF. She is doing real science out here. Are you even a scientist if you don’t collect DNA? This girl is going places for real.
When 2 or 3 o’clock rolls around, I have to shake things up a bit. I’ve started making rounds just to say hello and see what people are up to. I remind folks that what they do is really cool. I make my way to the bridge usually once or twice to bother them a bit. This is where the ship is commanded. It looks like some sort of spaceship up here. I roam around and try to make sense of the many gadgets and screens. Take a peek out the windows. The sun reflects intensely on the water. It’s hella bright out here.
Operations Officer, LT Christopher Duffy, asks “Do you want to drive?” I look over my left shoulder, I look over my right. Oh, he’s talking to me. “Uh, yeah I do.” I have absolutely no clue what I just signed up for. He seems to think I can handle it. I get the run down. The helm is the steering wheel – check. The main engine controls the propulsion – check. Then there are the bow thrusters. From what I understand, they are basically propellers on the side of the boat. I’m not really sure. I just know they improve maneuverability.
Navigation is an art and science. They transit to specific destinations and position and maneuver the ship and make it look easy. Navigators measure the distance on the globe in degrees. If you have forgotten, like I seemed to have, like a circle, the Earth has 360°. Compasses have four cardinal points (directions), right? – North (N), East (E), South (S), and West (W). Well, turns out when you’re real official, you use degrees instead of directions. As if directions weren’t confusing enough. LT Duffy, “When I say 10° right, you do just that and confirm when you’re there.” I can handle that. “Ten right.” I work with LT Duffy to retrieve our next buoy. Huddleston keeps a careful eye. This is fuuunnnnn. “You ready for a hard right?” “Like all the way?” Seems questionable. Oh he’s serious. “Hard right rudder.” SKKKIIIIRRRRRTTTTTTT. Man this thing can move. We Tokyo drift right into position. Nailed it. LT Duffy takes control to finish positioning (I made it easy for him). I’m grinning ear to ear.
“Are you comfortable giving commands?” “Yep.” The overconfidence kicks in. First things first, CONN candy. What’s that you ask? The officers up here have a secret drawer of tasty treats that they’ve been hiding from us this whole time. Gotta have some before taking command. Wait, what am I doing? LT Duffy explains, “You’ll be giving commands to LTJG, Ariane Huddleston, while she steers.” Uhhhhhhh. I see the fear in her eyes. “Just repeat after me.” Huddleston takes the wheel and I “give commands.” It clicks. This is my time to shine. I “very well’d” the heck out of those commands. So much fun, thank you crew!
Did You Know?
You know all those horrid COVID tests you had to take? You were doin’ science right there. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests genetic material (fluid from the nasal swab). The test detects the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists use the PCR technology to amplify small amounts of RNA from specimens into DNA, which is replicated until SARS-CoV-2 is detectable if present. It’s cool stuff guys.