Susan Kaiser: Technology, Tool of the Marine Scientist, August 1, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Kaiser
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 25 – August 4, 2012

Mission: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Coral Reef Condition, Assessment, Coral Reef Mapping and Fisheries Acoustics Characteristics
Geographical area of cruise: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Date: August 1, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude:  24 deg 29 min N
Longitude:  83 deg 07 min W
Wind Speed:   1.4 kts
Surface Water Temperature:  28.38 C
Air Temperature:  29.3 C
Relative Humidity: 76%

Science and Technology Log

Cycles are patterns that repeat over and over again and science is full of examples of them: rock cycle, carbon cycle and life cycle just for starters. I am sure you can probably even name a few more. Tonight will be the last night of a full moon, another cycle, and with it Mutton Snapper  spawning will end for the time. When the Mutton Snapper, scientific name  (Lutjanus analis), gather in a large group marine scientists call an aggregation.

Mutton Snapper aggregation
Mutton Snapper aggregation

This means that the male and female fish swim to a particular location in the ocean increasing their numbers and the chance that many more eggs will be fertilized to produce the next generation of fish. The trick for the scientists is finding where on the ocean floor these aggregations will occur. Using the Remotely Controlled Vehicle (ROV), diver sightings of good habitat and even knowledge of where fishermen have made great catches, scientists can zero in on where to observe an aggregation.

However, there is one more technology tool that can help locate fish AND map the ocean floor at the same time. This is multibeam charting technology create the colorful maps of the hidden world below the water.

Bathymetry image showing depth of Lake Tahoe
Bathymetry image showing depth of Lake Tahoe made using multibeam charting technology.

You may have seen one of these beautiful images which use different colors to indicate changes in depth. I have always wondered how these charts were made. In fact, NOAA Ship Nancy Foster has crew members charting the ocean floor 24 hours a day while we are underway even when we are sleeping! Multiple sonar signals are directed from the ship toward  the ocean floor  when they bounce back the ship receives the signal on the computers. This signal shows on the computer screen as a small dot. When enough dots are arranged together at the depth they represent a picture of the ocean floor begins to emerge.  The trained eyes of the survey technicians are needed to create an accurate two dimensional image of what lies beneath the water. The charts they create allow ships to remain safe and avoid running aground. When ships and boats stay in the proper depth of water they do not harm fragile coral reef areas which are easily damaged by these destructive collisions. In addition to recording safe passageways and creating depth charts that mariners use as they navigate, this technology can also spot fish within the water column locating the fish aggregations the marine scientists are studying. Many NOAA ships are equipped with this same technology and explore other parts of the ocean gathering similar data.

Technology helps the research team compensate for changing conditions such as visibility, currents, and ocean depth. Each tool has strength and weakness. For example, this morning our boat deployed a Seaviewer drop camera which is tethered by the cord and carried down by a weight. We were at a location called Riley’s Hump where the current is fast!

ROV  technology would not work in this situation because it would be too difficult to maneuver in this current. It takes teamwork to handle the positioning of the boat while one scientist observes the computer screen for video and another pair manage the descent of the camera and weighted rope. However, the drop camera can only “look” one direction so once the fish swim past, the camera cannot follow them unlike the ROV in calm water. When used together, these technology tools allow scientists to develop an understanding of the habitat and the organisms that live on the ocean floor but they also have limitations.

Ben Binder deploys the Seaviewer drop camera over Riley's Hump location.
Ben Binder deploys the Seaviewer drop camera over Riley’s Hump location.

The marine scientists plan their data gathering with these variables in mind. On this trip they returned to the VR2 sites where they have been collecting data since 2008 but they are always looking for other areas of the habitat to study. While they dive to retrieve VR2s or use the ROV and drop camera they are identifying future research sites wondering which fish might prefer that spot.

Computer screen image as we pass over an aggregation site.
Computer screen image as we pass over an aggregation site. The baseline shows the ocean floor in profile. The mass of dots represent fish!

Their path is determined by questions: Do the Mutton Snapper live near their aggregation site or do they swim to this location from elsewhere? Do different groups of Mutton Snapper aggregate each full moon or is it the same group returning to Riley’s Hump? How often do these aggregations happen? All the technology available cannot answer these questions so when the time is right the scientists dive to make a direct observation of what organisms are living in the study area. On this cruise we learned that some areas did not have many fish on the day we visited yet other sites were rich with organisms.

The VR2 data will tell more of the story.  The scientists will revise their plan and add more data in the fall. In time they will learn the answer to these questions and then perhaps identify related or new questions to pursue. This is a cycle of research. You may have heard it called scientific method. It is a process of asking questions and trying to answer them through investigation and observations. It is a process I watched unfold for this marine science team. It was unforgettable!

Personal Log:

Every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary. Tackling new science words with my students breaking down their meaning to understand and remember them is something I do regularly. Living aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster for the last week has put me in role of learner again. My teachers are the marine scientists and mariners.  I am learning the names of organisms that we encounter and details about their behaviors. Some of this information I remember from my college classes but much of it is new. The mariners even have their own vocabulary! In fact, the Executive Officer, Donn Pratt, provided me with a list of seafarer vocabulary. I thought it was interesting and that you might enjoy reading it too:

Safety sign marking the spot to report or "muster"
Safety sign marking the spot to report or “muster”

Seafarers Nomenclature!!
Showers and toilets referred to on ships as “heads!”
Hallways are called “passageways.”
Windows are called “portholes.”
Bunk is called a “rack.”
Floors are called “decks.”
Ceilings are “overheads.”
Lastly…to report to a designated location is to “muster!”

More of a challenge for me is living at sea. I am still adjusting to the rocking motion of the ship. Thank goodness the water has been calm and my plan to prevent seasickness is effective. Today tested this hypothesis by performing a little science experiment. I skipped the seasickness medicine and took off the wrist bands. Within two hours my stomach was  feeling queasy so I popped the wrist bands back on and now feel fine. One of the scientists pointed out that it is effective because you believe it will work. That may be the case but I got the result I hoped for so I am a believer in sea bands.

Mrs. Kaiser on the bridge deck at the last full moon.
Mrs. Kaiser on the bridge deck at the last full moon

My former students know that I love the dictionary and we refer to it often in my classroom.  As I see it, the dictionary is a critical tool to both understand another person’s thinking as well as to communicate our meaning clearly. Unfortunately, I didn’t pack a dictionary and early in the cruise it became clear I needed one. I had worn out “Cool!” “Amazing” and  “Interesting” to comment on what I was seeing and living each day on this adventure.  I looked up the definition of “superlative” when our course pointed away from the “Dead Zone” but the list of synonyms didn’t help much. Perhaps the best way to describe my experience as a NOAA Teacher at Sea on NOAA Ship Nancy Foster is just this: I am in AWE!

Superlative: adjective. 1) of the highest quality or degree. 2) expressing the highest or a very high degree of a quality (e.g. bravest, most fiercely).

Awe:noun. a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

Marine science team with Mrs. Kaiser after deploying the ROV.
Marine science team with Mrs. Kaiser after deploying the ROV
NOAA Ship Nancy Foster compass.
NOAA Ship Nancy Foster compass.

Heather Haberman: Plankton, July 9, 2011 (post #3)

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Heather Haberman

Onboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
July 5 — 17, 2011

Mission:  Groundfish Survey
Geographical Location:  Northern Gulf of Mexico
Date:  Saturday, July 09, 2011

Weather Data from  NOAA Ship Tracker
Air Temperature:  30.4 C   (86.7 F)
Water Temperature: 29.6 C   (85.3 F)
Relative Humidity: 72%
Wind Speed: 6.69 knots   (7.7 mph)

Preface:  Scroll down the page if you would like to read my blog in chronological order.  If you have any questions leave them for me at the end of the post.

Science and Technology Log

Topic of the Day:  Plankton, the most important organisms on the planet.

Say the word plankton to a class full of students and most of them will probably think of a small one-eyed cartoon character.  In actuality plankton are some of the most important organisms on our planet.  Why would I so confidently make such a bold statement?  Because without plankton, we wouldn’t be here, nor would any other organism that requires oxygen for life’s processes.

Plankton are a vital part of the carbon and oxygen cycles.  They are excellent indicators of water quality and are the base of the marine food web, providing a source of food and energy for most of the ocean’s ecosystem’s.  Most plankton are categorized as either phytoplankton or zooplankton.

Question:  Can you identify which group of plankton are the plants and which are the animals based on the prefix’s?

Simple marine food web. Image: NOAA

Phyto comes from a Greek word meaning “plant” while planktos means “to wander”.  Phytoplankton are single-celled plants which are an essential component of the marine food web.  Plants are producers meaning they use light energy from the sun, and nutrients from their surroundings, to photosynthesize and grow rather than having to eat like animals, which are consumers.   Thus producers allow “new” energy to enter into an ecosystem which is passed on through a food chain.

Because phytoplankton photosynthesize, they also play an important role in regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere while providing oxygen for us to breathe.  Scientists believe that the oceans currently absorb between 30%-50% of the carbon dioxide that enters into our atmosphere.

Did you know:  It is estimated that marine plants, including phytoplankton, are responsible for 70-80% of the oxygen we have in our atmosphere.  Land plants are only responsible for 20-30%.

Diatoms are one of the most common forms of phytoplankton. Photo: NOAA

Question:  Since phytoplankton rely on sun and nutrients for their energy, where would you expect to find them in greater concentrations, near the coast or far out at sea?

Red and orange indicate high concentrations of phyoplankton. Concentrations decrease as you go down the color spectrum. Image from NASA's SeaWiFS mission

Notice the greatest concentration of phytoplankton occur near coastal areas.  This is because they rely on nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus for their survival.  These nutrients are transferred to the sea as rains wash them from our land into the rivers and the rivers empty the nutrients into the sea.  We’ll address the problems this is causing in my next blog.

Did you know:  The ocean is salty because over millions of years rains and rivers have washed over the rocks, which contain sodium chloride (salt), and carried it to the sea.

It is easy to identify water that’s rich in phytoplankton and nutrients because the water is green due to the chlorophyll pigment plankton contain.  The further away from the nutrient source you get, the bluer the water becomes because of the decrease in the phytoplankton population.

This tool is called a Forel/Ule scale. It is used to obtain an approximate measurement of surface water color. This helps researchers determine the abundance of life in the water.

Let’s go up a step in the marine food web and talk about zooplankton.  Zoo is Greek for animal.  Most zooplankton are grazers that depend on phytoplankton as a food source.  I’ve learned that larval marine life such as fish, invertebrates and crustaceans are classified as zooplankton until they start to get their adult coloration.  After hatching from their eggs marine larva are clear and “jelly like” which is an adaptation that helps them avoid being eaten by predators.  Camouflage is their only line of defense in this stage of development.

A zooplankton sample we collected aboard the Oregon II using a neuston net. Notice the small juvenile fish and all of the clear "jelly like" larva.

When plankton samples are collected two different methods are used.  One method uses a neuston net which skims the surface of the water for 10 minutes.  See the video below to watch a sample being collected.

I am securing the neuston net to the metal frame by lacing it with a line (rope for all of you land lovers)..

The second method is using the bongo nets which are deployed at a 45 degree angle until they are a meter shy of the ocean floor, then they are brought back up.  This method collects samples from the vertical water column rather than just the surface.  The samples we collect with the bongo net look much different from the samples we collect with the neuston net.  Bongo samples are filled with more larva and less juveniles.

Bongo nets getting ready to be lowered into the water column. They are called bongo nets because they resemble bongos. Photo: SEFSC

Plankton surveys are done in an effort to learn more about the abundance and location of the early life stages of fish and invertebrates.  All of the samples we collect are preserved at sea and are then sent to the Sea Fisheries Institute in Poland.  This is where all of the identification of fish larva and other zooplankton takes place.  This information is then used by researchers to study things such as environmental quality requirements for larva, mortality rates, population trends, development rates and larval diets.

On the right is the "cod end", or plankton collection chamber, which attaches to the end of the nets. We then sieve the contents of the cod end and funnel it into a jar along with some preservative.

Personal Log:

My last log mentioned bycatch as one of the bad things about bottom trawling.  Another problem associated with bottom trawling is the destruction of habitats as the net and “doors” sweep along the ocean floor.  So far we have had two nets tear as a result of this collection method.  It’s a good thing they keep ten extra nets onboard as back ups!

Here are some of the extra nets that are kept on deck.

Aside from the nets tearing off there has also been a problem with the wire that deploys the net.  It has been twisting which prevents the “doors” from opening the net wide enough for a good sample collection.  The crew has tried extending all of the wire off of the reel in an effort to untwist it.  It seems to be working well, but we still need to keep a close eye on it.

I have also had the opportunity to be the hottest I have ever been in my entire life.  We had an abandon ship drill where everyone had to get into their immersion suits.  Picture yourself in the Gulf of Mexico, standing on a black deck, in the middle of the day, in July, while putting on a full body jump suit made of neoprene.  Hopefully we won’t have to use them at any point during the cruise.