Robert Ulmer: Build Upon a Strong Foundation, June 19, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰35.547’, W 134⁰36.925’

(approaching Red Bluff Bay in Chatham Strait)

Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  June 19, 2013

Weather conditions:  10.93⁰C, less than 0.5 km visibility in thick fog, 95.42% relative humidity, 1013.38 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 24⁰ and 35⁰)


Explorer’s Log:  Survey, sample, and tide parties

Scientists are explorers, wandering the wilderness of wonder and curiosity their with eyes and minds wide open to events, ideas, and explanations that no other humans may have previously experienced.  And by definition, explorers — including scientists — also are builders, as they construct novel paths of adventure along their journeys, built always upon the strong foundations of their own reliable cognitions and skill sets.

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement

Starting from their own observations of the world around them, prior knowledge, and context, scientists inject creativity and insight to develop hypotheses about how and why things happen.  Testing those ideas involves developing a plan and then gathering relevant data (pieces of information) so that they can move down the path of whittling away explanations that aren’t empirically supported by the data and adding to the collective body of knowledge, so that they and others might better fathom the likely explanations that are behind the phenomena in question.

Rainier lowering a launch vessel

NOAA Ship Rainier lowers launch vessel RA-5 for a survey excursion.

Because progress along the scientific path of discovery and explanation ultimately depends on the data, those data must be both accurate and precise.  Often these terms are confused in regular conversation, but each word has its own definition.

Approaching the shore from the skiff

A view from the skiff of the shoreline where the benchmarks and tide gauge staff already are installed.

Accuracy is a description of the degree of closeness or proximity of measurements of a quantity to the actual value of that quantity.  A soccer player who shoots on goal several times and has most of his shots reach the inside of the net is an accurate shooter.  Likewise, a set of measurements of the density of a large volume of seawater is more accurate if the sample data all are near the actual density of that seawater; a measurement that is 0.4% higher than the actual density of the water is just as accurate as another measurement of the same water that is 0.4% below the actual density value.

HAST Curran McBride visually examining the condition of the tide staff

Before making more detailed data collections, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician (HAST) Curran first conducts a visual inspection of the previously-installed tide staff upon arriving at the shore.

Precision (also called reproducibility or repeatability), on the other hand, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results.  If every shot attempted by the soccer player strikes the left goalpost four feet above the ground, those shots aren’t necessarily accurate – assuming that the player wants to score goals – but they are very precise.  So, similarly, a set of measurements of seawater density that repeatedly is 5.3% above the actual density of the water is precise (though not particularly accurate).

HAST Curran McBride collecting data near the tide staff

HAST Curran collects data near the tide staff during the closing level run in Behm Canal.

The NOAA teams that conduct hydrographic surveys, collect seafloor samples, and gather data about tide conditions must be both accurate and precise because the culmination of their work collecting data in the field is the production of nautical charts and tide reports that will be used around the world for commerce, recreation, travel, fisheries management, environmental conservation, and countless other purposes.

Cabin of the launch vessel

Crew of the survey/sample team in the cabin of the launch vessel (and the Coxswain piloting the boat)

Hydrographic surveys of some sort have been conducted for centuries.  Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show men aboard boats using ropes or poles to fathom the depths of the water.  In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a mandate establishing the Survey of the Coast.  Since that time, government-based agencies (now NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey) have employed various systems of surveying depths, dangers, and seabed descriptions along the 95,000 miles of navigable U.S. coastlines, which regularly change due to attrition, deposition, glaciation, tectonic shifts, and other outside forces.

Analyzing data aboard the launch

Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician Barry Jackson and Physical Scientist Kurt Brown analyze historic and new data from multi-beam sonar aboard the launch vessel.

For most of that history, data were collected through a systematic dropping of weighted lines (called “lead lines”) from boats moving back and forth across navigable channels at points along an imaginary grid, with calibration from at least two shore points to assure location of the boat.  Beyond the geometry, algebra, and other mathematics of measurement and triangulation, the work was painstakingly slow, as ropes had to be lowered, hauled, and measured at every point, and the men ashore often traveled alongside the boat by foot across difficult and dangerous terrain.  However, the charts made by those early surveys were rather accurate for most purposes.

Starboard of launch vessel RA-4

Starboard of launch vessel RA-4

The biggest problem with the early charts, though, was that no measurements were made between the grid points, and the seafloor is not always a smooth surface.  Uncharted rocks, reefs, or rises on the seabed could be disastrous if ships passed above them.

HSST Barry Jackson collecting sea floor sample

HSST Barry Jackson pulls a line hand over hand to retrieve a scooped sea floor sample from a depth of more than 45 meters in Behm Canal.

HSST Barry Jackson analyzing sea floor sample

… and then analyzes what the scoop captured: mud and gravel in this case.

Starting in the 1990s, single-beam sonar became the primary mechanism for NOAA’s surveys.  Still looking straight down, single-beam sonar on large ships and on their small “launch vessels” (for areas that couldn’t be accessed safely by larger craft) provided a much more complete mapping of the seafloor than the ropes used previously.  Sonar systems constantly (many times per second) ping while traveling back and forth across and along a channel, using the speed and angle of reflection of the emitted sound waves to locate and measure the depth of bottom features.

Handwritten notes about sea floor samples

Data about sea floor samples first are recorded by hand on a chart aboard the launch vessel before being uploaded to NOAA computers later.

Sound waves travel at different speeds through different materials, based on the temperature, density, and elasticity of each medium.  Therefore, NOAA also deploys CTD devices through columns of surveyed waterways to measure electrical conductivity (which indicates salinity because of ionization of salts dissolved in the water, thus affecting solution density), temperature (which usually is colder at greater depths, but not necessarily, especially considering runoff from glaciers, etc.), and depth (which generally has a positive-variation relationship with water pressure, meaning more pressure – and thus, greater density – as depth below the surface increases).

CTD device about to be deployed

This CTD device measures conductivity, temperature, and depth in the water. All three affect the speed of the sound waves in water, and the speed of sound is a necessary bit of data when using sonar (which tracks reflected pings of sound) to determine the distance to the sea floor.

The most modern technology employed by NOAA in its hydrographic surveys uses multi-beam sonar to give even more complete coverage of the seafloor by sending sound waves straight downward and fanned outward in both directions as the boat travels slowly forward.  Even though sonar beams sent at angles don’t reflect as much or as directly as those sent straight downward, uneven surfaces on the seabed do reflect some wave energy, thus reducing the occurrence of “holidays” (small areas not well-defined on charts, perhaps named after unpainted bits of canvas in portraits because the painter seemed to have “taken a holiday” from painting there).

Acquiring hydrographic data

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Allix Slagle acquire hydrographic data with the ship’s Kongsberg EM-710 multi-beam sonar.

TAS Rob Ulmer retrieving sea floor sample in Behm Canal

Aboard the small launch vessel, everyone works. This is Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer hauling in a sea floor sample in Behm Canal.

But that’s not all.  To help sailors make decisions about navigation and anchoring – and often giving fishermen and marine biologists useful information about ecology under the waterline – NOAA also performs systematic samples of the types of materials on the sea floor at representative points in the waterways where it conducts surveys.  Dropping heavy metallic scoop devices on lines* dozens of meters long through waters at various locations and then hauling them back aboard by winch or hand-over-hand to inspect the mud, sand, silt, gravel, rocks, shells, plants, or animals can be physically demanding labor but is necessary for the gathering of empirical data.

* A note about terminology from XO Holly Jablonski:  Aboard the ship, lines have a job.  Think of a “rope” as an unemployed line.

Additionally, Earth’s moon and sun (along with several underground factors) affect the horizontal and vertical movement of water on Earth’s surface, especially due to their gravitational pulls as Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun and as the moon orbits Earth.  Therefore, information about tides is extremely important to understanding the geography of nautical navigation, as the points below the waterline are identified on charts relative to the mean low water mark (so sailors know the least amount of clearance they might have beneath their vessels), and points above the waterline are identified relative to the mean high water mark (including notation of whether those object sometimes are fully submerged).

Evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal

Can you see the evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal? Color differences form strata along the rocks, and lowest leaves of the trees give further evidence of the highest reach of the water.

Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod

Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod upon the “turtle” using a carpenter’s bubble-leveling device.

To gather accurate and precise data about tidal influences on local waters, NOAA sends tides-leveling shore parties and dive teams into difficult conditions – commonly climbing up, down, and across rock faces, traversing dense vegetation, and encountering local wildlife (including grizzly bears here in Alaska!) – to drill benchmarks into near-shore foundation rocks, install (and later remove) tidal gauges that measure changing water heights and pressures, and use sophisticated mathematics and mechanics to verify the levels of those devices.

Pondering the next measurement

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt and HST Brandy Geiger ponder the placement of equipment before the next level measurement.

Needless to say, this description is significantly less detailed than the impressively intricate work performed at every level by NOAA’s hydrographic scientists, and in the end, all of the collected data described in the paragraphs above – and more, like the velocity of the sonar-deploying vessel – must be analyzed, discussed, and interpreted by teams of scientists with broad and deep skills before the final nautical charts are published for use by the public.

Portable tools of the trade

A leveling rod is balanced on the highest point of a “turtle,” positioned carefully to be seen from multiple points.

As you choose where and how to proceed in your own journeys, remember that you can be more confident about your decision-making by using information that is both accurate and precise.  And keep exploring, my friends.

View from the benchmark

This is the view from the benchmark atop a rocky outcropping (under an 80-foot evergreen) along Behm Canal while righting a measurement rod with the tide gauge leveling party.

Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway

NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway

Every ship in the NOAA fleet also is a voluntary mobile weather station, and so are many other seagoing vessels around the world.  For many years ships have been required to report their locations and identities on a regular basis to agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and local or regional harbormasters.  Those periodic reports were (and still are) vital for local traffic control on the waters and for helping to provide quick response to emergency situations on vessels at sea.

View aft while launch is underway

The view aft through Behm Canal from the launch vessel

Eventually, someone insightful realized that having the ships also provide weather reports from their positions along with those identity-and-location reports would make a much richer and broader network of timely data for the National Weather Service, which is another branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  As NWS adds the weather data from those many boats to the data gathered at land-based NWS stations and from voluntary land-based reporters of conditions, their models and forecasts become stronger.

(For more info about being a volunteer weather observer or volunteering with NOAA in some other capacity related to oceans, fisheries, or research, please visit

Especially because weather conditions are the results of interactions among local phenomena, regional climate, and the global systems, building more accurate and precise forecast models depends on information from everywhere, but the result is that everyone benefits from the better forecasts, too.

Evidence of tectonic activity and rundown

Southeast Alaska is area with frequent tectonic activity, including uplift and earthquakes. Here a scar among the trees on the mountainside shows evidence of tectonic shifts, which also creates a ready path for meltwater to move downhill from the snowy mountaintop to the seawater below, taking trees and soil with it.

NOAA Ship Rainier ready for the returning skiff

NOAA Ship Rainier waits offshore, ready to receive the skiff returning with the tide/level shore party.

Rita Salisbury: Winding Down, April 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Rita Salisbury
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
April 14–29, 2013

Mission: Hawaii Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Hawaiian Islands
Date: April 29, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Temperature: 79°F / 26°C
Dewpoint: 68°F / 20°C
Humidity: 70%
Pressure: 29.98 in (1015 mb)
Winds: S 10.4 mph (S 17 kph)

Science and Technology Log:
This has been an amazing voyage for me; I have learned about science process and technology in a real world application that I can take back to my classroom and incorporate throughout my curriculum. Real science on this cruise involved using multiple survey methods to determine the population and of Bottomfish species in a prescribed area. Acoustics, video recording by BotCam, AUV, and ROV, fishing by professional fishermen, and fishing from the side of the research vessel were all techniques employed in this study. These different methods will be compared and, eventually, a process will be formulated that will probably combine several of the methods in order to compile data to help regulate the bottom fisheries.

Some of the methodologies, such as the BotCams, have been compiling data for five or more years, so there is a sizable amount of information upon which to base decisions. Adding to the general knowledge base is an important part of scientific research; without data it is impossible to make informed decisions.
After the last deployments of the AUV and ROV yesterday, we all pitched in to help pack equipment to get ready for today’s end of the cruise.  We cleaned floor mats, vacuumed, mopped, wiped down counters, and also cleaned our staterooms, heads, and common rooms. Even though this is a scientific research cruise, the scientists are considered guests on the ship and it only makes sense to help clean up. You never know when you’ll be back on the ship for more research and you sure want to be welcomed back!

Personal Log:
My mind is racing like a runaway train, thinking of ways to integrate what I’ve seen and learned on this cruise into my curriculum when I get back to Delaware. I cannot wait to sit down with my co-teachers, Dara Laws and Kenny Cummings, and brainstorm ways to make the science standards I am required to cover more meaningful and engaging to our students. We teach in a project-based, technology-rich environment and the possibilities to “amp up” the lessons and make them more rigorous, as well as captivating, are enormous. In addition to a fresh insight into science process, environments, populations, communities, and the overarching ecosystem, I now have real people I can contact to act as experts and representatives of their fields of study. I cannot thank NOAA, the Teacher at Sea program, Dr. Donald Kobayashi, Chief Scientist, or the Officers and Crew of the Oscar Elton Sette enough. Their openness and willingness to host another Teacher at Sea will make a difference to countless students in the years to come.

Not only did I make new contacts, I made new friends. I’m looking forward to making Clementine’s Chicken Curry for my family and friends and staying in touch with my new friends. I only wish every teacher I know could take advantage of such an amazing opportunity.

Carmen Andrews: Transforming Fish into Data, July 15, 2012

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

Mission: SEFIS Reef Fish Survey
Location: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida
Date: July 15, 2012

Latitude:      28 ° 50.28   N
Longitude:   80 ° 26.26’  W       

Weather Data:
Air Temperature: 28.6° C (83.48°F)
Wind Speed: 18 knots
Wind Direction: from the Southeast
Surface Water Temperature: 27.6 °C (81.68°F)
Weather conditions: Sunny and Fair

Science and Technology Log

How are fish catches transformed into data? How can scientists use data derived from fish to help conserve threatened fish species?

The goal of the Southeast Fishery-Independent Survey or SEFIS is to monitor and research reef fish in southeast continental shelf waters.  Marine and fisheries scientists have developed sophisticated protocols and procedures to ensure the best possible sampling of these important natural resources, and to develop fisheries management recommendations for present and future sustainability.

During the cruise, important commercial fish in the snapper and grouper families are caught over as wide an area as possible; they are also taken in large enough numbers that they can be worked up into statistically reliable metrics. In addition to counts and measurements, biological samples are also taken at sea for future analysis in land-based research labs.

Gag grouper ready for its work up

Gag grouper ready for its work-up

Scientists strive to render an informative snapshot of reef fish stocks in a given time interval. Reports that analyze and summarize the data are submitted to policy-makers and legislators to set fisheries rules, restrictions and possible quotas for commercial and sports fishermen.

After fish are caught and put on ice, processing includes several kinds of measurement that occur on deck. This data is referred to as ‘Length Frequency’. Tag information from the trap follows the fish through all processing.  Aggregate weight measurements for all the fish of one species caught in a trap are made and recorded in kilograms.

David is weighing the gag grouper, with Adam P. looking on

David is weighing the gag grouper, with Adam P. looking on

The length for each fish in the trap is noted, using a metrically scaled fish board. Not all fish are kept for further processing.

David measuring the length of the gag grouper

David measuring the length of the gag grouper

Species-specific tally sheets randomly assign which fish from the catch are kept and which ones are tossed back into the ocean. These forms, which specify percentages of fish identified as ‘keepers’, are closely consulted by the data recorder and the information is shared with the scientist who is measuring the catch.

Shelly is recording length frequency measurement data

Shelly is recording length frequency measurement data

Length frequency data entries

Length frequency data entries

Red Porgy keep/toss percentage sheet

Red Porgy keep/toss percentage sheet

Kept fish are put in a seawater and ice slurry. The others are thrown over the side of the boat.

Age and reproductive sampling are done next in the wet lab.

Small yellow envelopes are prepared before fish work up can begin. Each envelope is labeled with cruise information, catch number, fish number, and the taxonomical name of the fish, using  binomial nomenclature of genus and species.

Adam P. and Shelly labeling envelopes and plastic specimen containers

Adam P. and Shelly labeling envelopes and plastic specimen containers

A small color-coded plastic container (the color indicates fish species tissue origin), with the fish’s source information riveted at the top, is also prepared. This container will store fish tissue samples.

The fish trap catch number is documented on another data form, along with boat and science team identification, collection method and other important information about the circumstances surrounding the fish catch.  Each species’ data is separately grouped on the data form, as individual fish in a catch are sequentially numbered down the form.

Me, transcribing fish weight & length data

Me, transcribing fish weight & length data

Each fish is weighed, and the weight is noted in grams. The scale is periodically calibrated to be sure the fish is weighed accurately.

Vermilion snappers and scamp, labeled and  ready for dissection

Vermilion snappers and scamp, labeled and ready for dissection

Three length measurements that are made: standard length (SL), total length (TL), and if the fish species has a fork tail — fork length (FL). The fish is laid, facing left on a fish board. The board is long wooden plank with a metric measuring scale running down the center.

Standard length does not include the caudal fin or tail. It begins at the tip of the fish’s head; then the fish measurer lifts the tail up slightly to form a crease where the backbone ends. Standard length measurement includes the fish’s head to end of backbone dimension only. Total length is the entire length of the fish, including the caudal fin. In fork-tailed species, the fork length measurement begins at the fish’s snout and ends at the v-notch in the tail.

Fish length measurements

Fish length measurements

Source: Australian Government – Department of Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Part of the dissection of every fish (except gray triggerfish) is the extraction of  otoliths from the fish’s head. An otolith is a bone-like structure made of calcium carbonate and located in the inner ear of fish. All vertebrates have similar structures that function as gravity, balance, movement, and directional indicators. Otoliths help fish sense changes in horizontal motion and acceleration.

To extract the otoliths, the scientist makes a deep cut behind the fish’s head and pulls it away from the body. The left and right otoliths are found in small slits below the brain. They must be removed carefully, one at a time with forceps. They can easily break or slip into the brain cavity.

Red snapper with removed otolith

Red snapper with removed otolith

Otoliths reveal many things about a fish’s life. Its age and growth throughout the first year of its life can be determined. Otoliths have concentric rings that are deposited over time. The information they show is analogous tree ring growth patterns that record winter and summer cycles. Other otolith measurements can determine when the fish hatched, as well as helping to calculate spawning times in the fish’s life.

The oxygen atoms in calcium carbonate (CaCO3) can be used to assay oxygen isotopes. Scientists can use these markers to reconstruct temperatures of the waters the fish has lived in. Scientists also look for other trace elements and isotopes to determine various environmental factors.

Each pair of otoliths is put into the small labeled yellow envelope.

The otoliths on the gray triggerfish are too small to be studied, so the spine from its back is collected for age and growth analysis.

Spine removed from a gray triggerfish

Spine removed from a gray triggerfish

The last step standard data collection is determining the sex and maturity of the fish. The fish is cut open at the belly, similar to preparing the fish as a filet to eat it.

Making a cut into a vermilion snapper

Making a cut into a vermilion snapper

If the fish is big, the air bladder must be deflated. The intestines are moved or cut out of the way. The gonads (ovaries and testes) are found, and the fish can be identified as a male or female. (Groupers can be hermaphroditic.) The fish’s stage of maturity can also be determined this way.  Maturational stages can be classified with a series of codes:

U = undetermined

1 = immature virgin (gonads are barely visible)

2 = resting (empty gonads – in between reproductive events)

3 = enlarging/developing (eggs/sperm are beginning to be produced)

4 = running ripe (gonads are full of eggs/sperm and are ready to spawn)

5 = spent (spawning has already occurred)

Dissected gonad specimens are removed from the fish and placed in a plastic containers, snapped shut and stored in a formalin jar to preserve them. These preserved samples will be analyzed later by histology scientists. Histology is the science of organ tissue analysis.

Dissected fish gonads

Dissected fish gonads

Red snappers have their fins clipped to provide a DNA sample. They may also have their stomachs removed and the contents studied to better understand their diets.

Video data from the underwater cameras is downloaded in the dry lab. This data will be analyzed once scientists return to their labs on land.

Personal Log

Many different kinds of echinoderms and other invertebrates have been pulled up in the fish traps. Several are species that I’ve never seen before:

Basket Star

I am holding a basket star. It is a type of brittle star in the echinoderm phylum.

A red sea star

A red sea star

Spikey sea star

Spikey sea star

Small crab, covered in seaweed, shell and sand

Small crab, covered in seaweed, shell and sand

We also catch many unusual large and small fish in the traps and on hooks. Several of these have been tropical species that I’ve only seen in salt water aquariums.





Hooked blacktip shark

Hooked blacktip shark

Scrawld Filefish

Scrawld Filefish

Spotted butterflyfish

Spotted butterflyfish

Jack knife fish

Jack knife fish

Andrea Schmuttermair: Collecting Data, June 30, 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 30, 2012

Ship  Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 2830.05N
Longitude: 8955.4W
Speed: 10 knots
Wind Speed: 7.11
Wind Direction: S/SW
Surface Water Salinity: 29.3
Air Temperature: 28.4C
Relative Humidity: 63%
Barometric Pressure: 1012 mb
Water Depth: 257.19m

Don’t forget to follow the Oregon II at:

Science and Technology Log

fish board

This is the fish board we use for measuring each critter in our sample.

Now that we’ve talked about how we collect, sort, and measure our catch, let’s take a closer look at the way we measure, weigh and sex our critters.

When measuring the critters, we use a fish board that is activated by a magnetic wand to measure the animal to the nearest millimeter.

When the fish is placed on the measuring line, we touch the magnetic wand to the board and the length is recorded into our computer program, FSCS (Fisheries Scientific Computer System).

Depending on the type of fish we catch, there are different ways to measure it.

scorpion fish total legnth

Here is Alex measuring the total length of our scorpion fish.

total length measurement

This is how we would measure a fish for its standard length, which is just before the tail fin starts.

fork length measure

This is how we would measure a fish for its fork length.

Cutlass measuring

For fish such as this cutlassfish, we measure the length from the head down to the anus, as seen here on the board.

When we are done measuring, the fish is placed on a scale to determine its weight to the nearest gram. When we confirm the weight of the fish, that weight is automatically put in the computer for us- no need to enter it manually.

Our last task is to determine the sex of the fish. For many fish, this is done by making an incision in the belly of the fish from their anus to their pelvic fins. It’s easiest to determine the sex when it is a female with eggs. In the males, you can see milt, or sperm, which is a milky white color.

male fish

This is a male fish. Notice the arrow pointing to the testes.

female fish

Here we have a female fish.

For the flatfish, you can see the female’s ovaries when you hold the fish up to the light. Males lack this feature.

male flat fish

This is a male flat fish.

female flat fish

Here we have a female flat fish- notice her gonads.

Because we were catching quite a few shrimp earlier in the leg, I got pretty good at sexing the shrimp. Remember, we take samples of 200 for each type of shrimp, and we often had more than one type of shrimp in each trawl. Male shrimp have a pestama on their first pleura to attach onto the females. The females are lacking this part. Although it’s not necessarily an indication of sex, on average the female shrimp tend to be larger than the males.

male shrimp

Here is a male shrimp.

female shrimp

Here we have a female shrimp, which is lacking a pestama.

You  know from my previous post what we do with the data we gather from the shrimp, but what about the other fish? With the other fish and critters we catch, we use the data to compare the distribution across the Gulf and to compare it to the historical data we’ve collected in the past to look for trends and changes.

Sometimes scientists also have special requests for samples of a certain species. Some scientists are doing diet studies to learn more about what certain types of fish eat.  Other studies include: species verification, geographic range extensions, age and growth, and distribution. Through our program, we have the ability to create tags for the scientists requesting the samples, allowing us to bag and freeze them to send to labs when we return to land.


There are 2 communal showers for our use on the bottom deck.

Personal Log

I’ve had a few people ask me what the living quarters and the food is like on the ship, so I wandered around the ship with my camera the other day to snap some shots of the inside of the Oregon II. There are 17 staterooms on board. Most of the staterooms are doubles, such as mine, and are equipped with bunk beds to sleep on. It makes me reminisce of my days at camp, as it’s been a while since I’ve slept on a bunk bed! We have a sink and some cabinets to store our belongings. Once a week they do room inspections to ensure our rooms are neat and orderly. Most importantly, they want to make sure that our belongings are put away. If we hit rough waters, something such as a water bottle could become a dangerous projectile.

Walter, doing what he loves

My stateroom is on the bottom deck, where there are also communal showers and toilets for us to use. We can do our laundry down here, providing the seas aren’t too rough. Most of the staterooms are on this bottom deck, as the upper 2 levels are the “living areas” of the ship. On the main deck is the galley, where we eat all our meals, or where we head to when we are trying to make it through the shift to grab a snack or a cup of coffee. This tends to be right around 4:30/5:00am for me, especially when we aren’t too busy. I’ve gotten used to the night shift now, but it still can be tiring, especially when we have a long wait in between stations. Our stewards take very good care of us, and there is always something to snack on. Meals have been pretty tasty too, with plenty of fresh seafood. My favorite!

chart room

Junie, one of the NOAA Corps officers, working in the chart room on the navigational charts

On the top deck we have the lounge, a place where we hang out in between shifts. We have quite a good movie selection on board, but to be honest we haven’t had the time to take advantage of it. They’ve kept us very busy on our shifts so far, and today is one of the first days we’ve had a lot of downtime. Outside we also have some workout equipment- a bike and a rowing machine- to use on our off time. When you set the rowing machine out on deck, it’s almost like you are rowing right on the ocean!


LT Harris, LT Miller, and Chris getting ready for the dive. Jeff and Reggie help them prepare.

The other day, 2 of the NOAA Corps officers, LT Harris and LT Miller (who is also the XO for the Oregon II) and 2 of the deck crew, Chris and Tim, got ready to go out on a dive. NOAA Corps officers need to do a dive once a month to keep up their certification. Sometimes they may need to fix something that is wrong with the boat, and other dives are to practice certain dive skills. They dove in the Flower Gardens, which is a national marine sanctuary with a wide diversity of sea life. I was hoping they’d see a whale shark, but no such luck. We stopped all operations for the duration of their dive.

Favorite Catch of the Day: Here are a few cool critters we pulled up today. In addition to these critters, we also started seeing some sea stars, lots of scallops, and a variety of shells.

angel shark

An angel shark

jelly soup

How about some jelly soup?
(there are about 500 jellies in there!)

large flounder

Southern Flounder

roundel skate

A roundel skate

Critter Query: This isn’t a critter question today, but rather a little bit of NOAA trivia. 

What is the oldest ship in the NOAA fleet and where is its home port?

Don’t forget to leave your answers in the comments below!

Kaci Heins: Surveying and Processing, September 30 – October 3, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kaci Heins
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
September 17 — October 7, 2011

Mrs. Heins Taking a CTD Cast

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Alaskan Coastline, the Inside Passage
Date: Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge

Clouds: Overcast 7/8
Visibility: 8 Nautical Miles
Wind: 21 knots
Dry Bulb: 12.0 degrees Celsius
Barometer: 997.0 millibars
Latitude: 55.23 degrees North
Longitude: -133.22 degrees West

Science and Technology Log

Watching The Sonar

I was able to go out on another launch boat Sunday to collect survey data.  It was a beautiful day with amazing scenery to make it by far the best office I have ever been too.  Despite the fact that the ship is usually “off the grid” in many ways, the location of their work environment, or office, in Alaska is visually stunning no matter where you turn.  Keeping your eyes off the cedar trees and focused on the sonar in a launch can be challenging at times!  However, when there is a specific job to be done that involves time and money, then the scenery can wait until the job is finished.  During Sunday’s launch survey we had to clean up some “Holidays” and acquire some cross line data.

View Of the Data Acquired For the Ship On The Bridge

The word “Holiday” might lead to some confusion about what you might think we are doing when you read that word.  Holiday =vacation right?  In this case it is when there is a gap, or missing information, in the survey data that is acquired.  This poses a problem for the survey technicians because this leaves holes in the data that they must use for their final charts.  Holidays can be caused by the boat or ship being off the planned line, unexpected shoaling (or where the water gets shallow) so the swath width decreases, or a slope angling away from the transducer so that a return path for the sound wave is not possible.  The speed, direction, weather, swells, rocking of the boat, and the launches making wider turns than anticipated. It is easy to see where holidays occur as we are surveying because amidst the rainbow of color there will be a white pixel or square showing that data is missing.  When we are finished surveying or “painting” an area, we communicate with the coxswain where we need to go back and survey over the missing data or holidays.  If there are holidays or data is missing from the survey, then the survey technicians must explain why the data is missing in their final Descriptive Report.  This document covers everything that was done during the project from how the area was chosen to survey, what data was collected, what data wasn’t collected and why.  This is where holidays are explained, which could be due to lack of time or safety concerns.

Ship Hydrographic Survey

This launch was a little different because we were cleaning up holidays from the Rainiers’ multibeam.  Not only do the smaller survey boats collect sea floor surface data, but the Rainier has its own expensive multibeam sonar as well.  The ships sonar is called a Kongsberg EM 710 and was made in Norway.  Having the Rainier fitted with a multibeam sonar allows the ship to acquire data in deeper water and allows for a wider swath coverage.  The lines that are surveyed on the ocean floor are also much longer than those in a launch.  This means that instead of taking around 5-10 minutes to acquire a line of data, it can take around 30 minutes or more with the ship.  This is great data because again, the ship can cover more area and in deeper water. We also took the ships previous data and ran cross lines over it.  The importance of running a cross line over previous survey data helps to confirm or deny that the data acquired is good data.  However, there is a catch to running a cross line.  To confirm the data they have to use a different system than what was used before, the cross line has to be conducted on a different day, and it has to be during a different tide.  All of this is done to know for sure that the data is acquired has as few errors as possible before the projects are finished.

Rainier Multibeam Sonar

Personal Log

Each day when the scientists go out and survey the ocean floor they acquire tens of gigabytes of information!  The big question is what is next after they have acquired it all?  When they are on the launch they have a small external hard drive that holds 500 gigabytes to a terabyte of information plugged into their computer.  At the end of the day all their information and files are downloaded to this hard drive and placed in a water tight container in case it happens to get dropped.  Keeping the newly acquired data safe and secure is of the utmost importance.  Losing data and having to re-survey areas due to a human error costs tens of thousands of dollars, so everything must get backed up and saved constantly.  This is where I have noticed that computer skills and file management are so important in this area of research.

Once we get off of the boats the data is brought upstairs to what is called the plot room.  This is where all the survey technicians computers are set up for them to work on their projects.  The technicians that are in charge of downloading all the data and compiling all the files together is called night processing.  There are numerous software programs (tides, CTD casts, POS, TPU, Hypack,) and data from these programs that all have to be combined so that the technicians can produce a finished product for the Pacific Hydrographic Branch (part of Hydrographic Surveys Division), who then process the data some more before submitting to Marine Charting Division to make the final chart. The main software program that combines all the different data is called Caris and comes out of Canada.  Once all of the data has been merged together it allows the technicians start cleaning up their data and produce a graphic plan for the launches to follow the next day.  Every movement on the keyboard or with the mouse is very important with surveying because everything is done digitally.  Numerous new files are created each day in a special way so that anyone that reads the name will know which ship it came from, the day, and the year.  File management and computer skills are key to keeping the flow of work consistent and correct each day.

Hydrographic Survey Data In Caris

We have also had numerous fire drills while on the ship.  This is very important so that everyone knows where to go and what to do in case of an emergency.  They had me help out with the fire fighters and the hose this time.  I learned how to brace the fire fighter so that the force from the hose doesn’t knock them over.  I never knew that would be an issue with fire fighting until this drill.  I learn so many new things on this ship every day!

Fire Drill Practice

Student Questions Answered


Animals Spotted


Sea Otters

Question of the Day

Kevin Sullivan: Zooplankton, September 1-5, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kevin C. Sullivan
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
August 17 — September 2, 2011

Mission: Bering-Aleutian Salmon International Survey (BASIS)
Geographical Area:  Bering Sea
Date:  September 1-5, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge 

Leg 1 has concluded.  Oscar Dyson is currently at port in Dutch Harbor.  Please use link (NOAA Ship locator) to follow ship in future research cruises and current location/conditions.

Science and Technology Log

I am back home and my expedition aboard the Oscar Dyson has come to a conclusion.  My travels home had me leaving Dutch Harbor at 7:30 PM and arriving into Newark, NJ the following day at 2:30 pm EST, an incredibly long, red-eye flight back home.  Although my involvement aboard the ship has come and gone, the ship is currently in port at Dutch Harbor taking on more fuel and supplies and readying to do a “turnaround trip”.  For Leg II they will be heading back out into the Bering Sea to obtain further data.  The following is a map that depicts the stations for Leg 1 and 2.  For Leg 1, all of the green stations (40#) represents the areas where we conducted our research.  For Leg II, they will be focusing on the black circle stations.  When all of this field work is complete, and the numbers are “crunched” they can be extrapolated out to get a better idea of the overall health of the Bering Sea ecosystem as detailed in prior blogs.

BASIS 2011 Station Grids

BASIS 2011 Station Grid

So, before I left Alaska, I was discussing a bloom and readying the blog platform for a discussion of zooplankton and other higher-ordered interactions of the Bering.  Ok, so moving on…the next feeding level in the marine world would be the primary consumers….the zooplankton.  Zooplankton, although a very simplified explanation, are essentially animals that drift (planktonic) while consuming phytoplankton (for the most part).  These zooplankton in turn, are a resource for consumers on higher trophic levels such as the Pacific Cod, salmon,  and Walleye Pollock (which are a primary focus on this survey).  Zooplankton are typically small and in order to obtain samples from the sea, we have been utilizing specialized nets (information and pictures to follow) to extract, analyze and collect them for further investigations back at the lab.

The following picture is a good visual to represent this flow of energy that we have been discussing since the first Blog Entry.  An important observation is that the sun is the “engine” that initiates all of these interactions.  The exchange of carbon dioxide compliments of Photosynthesis and respiration, the abundance of phytoplankton in the photic zone (see last blog entry), which are food for the zooplankton, which in turn, become food for higher-order carnivores.

Marine Food Chain
Marine Food Chain

One of the more important zooplankton species out in the Bering are the euphasiids.  These are small invertebrates found in all of worlds oceans.  The common name is Krill.  These species are considered a huge part of the trophic level connection, feeding on the phytoplankton and converting this energy into a form suitable for the larger animals.  In the last blog, I put in some pictures of euphasiids that we caught.  These euphasiids have a very high lipid content (fat) and in turn, are what is responsible for getting salmon their richness in oily flesh, the Omega Fatty acids, and there natural, pink-fleshed color.  I have read before about the differences between farm-raised vs. wild salmon from a nutritional standpoint.  Farm-raised salmon often lack the abundant Omega oils that are found in the wild species.  Also, it is true that in order for the farm-raised salmon to get their pinkish color to the flesh, they are fed a nutritional supplement to give the color….essentially, like adding a food dye.  So, in class this year, we will have to be very careful when analyzing the pros and cons of aquaculture/fish-farming.

Personal Log

Although my official involvement with the Oscar Dyson has come to an end, I will take with me the experiences and knowledge for a lifetime.  It was everything I was hoping it would be and then so much more.  These blogs, the pictures, the video…… all do the expedition no justice.  However, I have pledged to make every effort possible to spread the word about NOAA and its mission and this is exactly what I will do.  I have several more decades of career in front of me and I know that between now and that date, I will use this recent expedition countless times and will hopefully convince the general public about the overall importance of government agencies like NOAA and how common resources must be valued and protected to ensure the health of all of Earth’s inhabitants.

There are so many people who I would like to thank for providing and delivering such an extraordinary experience.  All of the crew aboard the Oscar Dyson, from the engineers, to the chef,  and captain……Thank You.  Your professionalism and ability were truly inspiring.

To the Scientists, You were really the “teachers at sea”.  May you always continue your motivated path to revealing the beautiful secrets this planet has to offer.  Also, my hope that it continues to be done in a fashion that I saw while during my time on the water…..In a professional, unbiased, non-political fashion.  You have reassured my passion for the sciences and have given me fuel to disprove any “non-believers” who claim that the sciences have become corrupted.  In the end, you have shown me the most universal and balanced approach at reaching the truth.

Thanks for reading.

Jessie Soder: Drag It Along, Dump It Out, Count ‘Em Up, August 14, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jessie Soder
Aboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
August 8 – 19, 2011 

Mission: Atlantic Surfclam and Ocean Quahog Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise:  Northern Atlantic
Date: Wednesday, August 14, 2011 

Weather Data
Time:  16:00
Location:  41°47N, 67°47W
Air Temp:  18°C  (64°F)
Water Temp:  16.5°C  (62°F)
Wind Direction:  SE
Wind Speed:  6 knots
Sea Wave height:  0
Sea Swell:  0

Science and Technology Log

A fellow volunteer, Rebecca, and myself measuring clams

When I found out that the Teacher at Sea trip that I would be on was a clam survey, I thought, “Oh, clams.  I see those on the beach all the time.  No problem.”  I learned that the clams are collected using a hydraulic dredge.  I knew  that a dredge was something that you dragged along the bottom of the ocean.  That seemed simple enough.  Drag it along, dump it out, count ‘em up, and you’re done.

Quickly, I learned that this project is not that simple!  A few questions came to mind after we had done a couple of tows:  How many people are needed to conduct one tow for clams and quahogs? (operate the machinery, the ship, sort through a tow, collect the data, etc.)  How many different jobs are there during one tow?

Sorting through contents of a dredge

Those questions are hard to answer, and I don’t have a precise answer.  What I have learned is that it takes a lot of people and everyone that is involved has a job that is important.  I asked the Chief Scientist, Victor Nordahl, how many people he preferred to have on a science team per watch.   He told me that it is ideal to have six people dedicated to working on sorting the contents of the dredge, processing the catch, and collecting data per watch.  Additionally, he likes to have one “floater,” who can be available to help during each watch.  This seems like a lot of people, but, when there is a big catch this number of people makes the work much more manageable.  There are six people, including myself, on my watch.  Four of us are volunteers.

Each time the dredge is lowered, pulled along the ocean floor, and then brought back onto the ship it is called an “event.”  In my last post I included a video of the dredge being hauled up onto the deck of the ship after it had been pulled along the bottom.  An entire tow, or “event,” is no small feat!  During my watch Rick operates the machinery that raises and lowers the dredge.  (Don’t forget the dredge weighs 2500 pounds!)

There are also two people working on deck that assist him.  (You can see them in the video from my last post.  They are wearing hard hats and life vests.)  Additionally, an officer on the bridge needs to be operating and navigating the ship during the entire event.  There are specific times where they must speed up, slow down, and stop the ship during a tow.  They also have to make sure that the ship is in the correct location because there are planned locations for each tow.  Throughout the entire event the science team, deck crew, and the bridge crew communicate by radio.

Rick, in front of the controls he uses to lower and raise the dredge

As I said, this project is not simple!  To make it more complicated, equipment often breaks, or is damaged, which means that the deck crew and the science team have to stop and fix it. On this trip we have stopped to fix equipment several times.  Various parts of the dredge get bent and broken from rocks on the ocean floor.  Before the dredge is lowered, the bottom is scouted with a depth sounder to try to avoid really rough terrain.  On the screen of the depth sounder different substrates are shown in different colors.  For example sand is shown in green and rocks are shown in red.  We try to avoid a lot of rocks.  However, all the rocks cannot be avoided and sometimes we hit them!

Personal Log

Vic getting a hair cut

Before coming on this trip I was told that the work can be strenuous and, sure enough, it is.  Sometimes a tow brings up hundreds of pounds of rocks (with some clams mixed in!) that we need to sort through and, as you know, rocks are heavy!  The work is also a bit, well, gross.  We have to measure all the clams, whole and broken and we also have to collect weights of “clam meat.”  That means that we have to open the shells and scrape the meat out.  I have a pretty high tolerance for gross things, but I am starting to grow weary of clam guts!

In between tows there is a little bit of down time to catch your breath, drink coffee and eat cookies, watch the ocean, and read a book.  During one of these breaks, the Chief Scientist Victor Nordahl, took the moment and had his hair cut!