Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast U.S. Atlantic Ocean
Date: September 6, 2019
I’m glad to get my land legs back. As I reflect on the wonderful experience of 2 weeks out at sea with scientists, I wish to sum it all up by two images below.
I re-posted (above) an important slide I presented earlier, that of a food web that includes plankton, krill, fish, birds, whales, and even us. Both the above images drive home the important message that all species are threads in this delicate fabric of life, coexisting and interdependent in a fragile planet with an uncertain and unsettling future. The loss of threads from this tapestry, one by one, however minuscule or inconsequential they may seem, spells doom for the ecosystem in the long run. The NOAA Corps personnel and NOAA scientists are unsung heroes, monitoring the ecosystems that sustain and support us. In this age of fake news and skepticism of science, they are a refreshing reminder that there are good folks out there leading the good fight to save our planet and keep it hospitable for posterity.
The Teacher at Sea (TAS) program gives hope that the fight to study and protect precious ocean ecosystems will be taken up by future generations. I was privileged to work with NOAA’s Teacher at Sea staff (Emily Susko et al.) in their enthusiastic and sincere work to set teachers on a stage to inspire students towards conservation and science. They too are unsung heroes.
And one final note. Why is the TAS program predominantly K-12 in nature? Why aren’t more college professors participating? In the past few weeks, I have directly connected with hundreds of college students, many with the impression that being a biology major was all about going to med school or other health professions. Research, exploration, and science are unfortunately not in their horizon. If the TAS program makes one Harvey Walsh (our Chief Scientist) or Michael Berumen (my former student!) or even the iconic Jacques Cousteau in the future, imagine the positive impact it will have on our oceans for decades to come. I urge readers to forward this blog to college teachers and encourage them to apply for this fantastic program. We owe it to our planet and to all its denizens (including us) to recruit more future marine scientists.
In my final blog from the ship, I included a poster on Right Whales that covered NOAA’s strict policy guidelines for ships when the endangered Right Whales are around. It turns out it was a timely posting. Just as our cruise ended, Right Whales were seen just south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. NOAA triggered an immediate bulletin announcing a voluntary vessel speed restriction zone (see map below). While I am sad that we so narrowly missed seeing them, it is good to know that they are there in the very waters we roamed.
had a flurry of whale sightings as we passed over the famous Stellwagen Bank
National Marine Sanctuary. It’s a small
underwater plateau in Massachusetts Bay flanked by steep drop offs. Nutrients from the depths rise up by
upwelling along the sides, feeding phytoplankton in the shallow light-abundant
waters, and this creates perfect feeding habitat for whales.
Much of my time aboard this ship has been on the flying bridge (the highest point of access for us on the ship) scanning the seas for marine vertebrates. I have basically been an extra pair of eyes to assist my colleagues Chris Vogel and Allison Black, the seabird observers on board. From nearly 50 feet high above the water, the flying bridge gives nearly unimpeded 360° views of the horizon all around. I call out any vertebrate animal seen—fish, birds, reptiles, or mammals. Chris and Allison enter all of our data in a specific format in a software program called SeaScribe.
To calculate densities of each species, we need an estimate of how far the animal is from the ship for each sighting. For that we use a rather low tech but effective piece of equipment. The pencil!
This is how it works. The observer holds the pencil (photo above) upright with arm outstretched, aligning the eyes and tip of the eraser to the horizon (see photo below), and simply reads the distance band (Beyond 300m, 300-200, 200-100, or 100-50m) in which the animal is seen. Thanks to some fancy trigonometry, scientists found a way to estimate distance by using the height of the observer’s eyes from the water surface, the distance from the observer’s eyes to the eraser tip of the pencil when it’s held upright with arm outstretched, and the distance to the horizon from the height of observer’s eyes above water. I’ll spare you the trigonometric details but those curious to learn more can find the paper that introduced the technique here.
Seabirds are a challenge for a rain forest biologist like me. They move fast and vanish by the time you focus the binoculars! And the fact that the deck heaves up and down unexpectedly adds to the challenge. But slowly I got the hang of it, at least the very basics. I’ve recorded hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, boobies, gannets, jaegers, and skuas. Whales (sea mammals) seen include Finbacks, Humpbacks, Minkes, and Pilots. I am hoping to see a Right Whale but I know that the odds are against me. Time is running out, both for our voyage, and for them. Unfortunately, only a few 100 are left and the ocean is huge—the proverbial needle in the haystack. Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh tells me that this year so far, 8 Right Whales have died due to accidental collisions or net entanglements. Sadly, the future looks bleak for this magnificent animal. (More on Right Whales at the end of this blog).
I note that marine vertebrate biologists are good at extrapolating what little they can see. Much of their subjects are underwater and out of sight. So they have become good at identifying species based on bits and pieces they see above water. All they need often is a mere fleeting glimpse. Sharks are told by the size, shape, and distance between the fins that stick out, sea turtles by the shape and pattern on their carapace (top shell–see photos below); whales based on their silhouette and shape of back; and Molas based simply on the fact that they lazily wave one large fin in and out of the water as they drift by. (I thought it was the pectoral fin they waved, but it’s actually the massive dorsal fin. I’ve noted that the pectoral is rather small and kept folded close to the body).
Scientists can identify individual humpbacks based solely on the indentations and color patterns on their tail flukes. In effect, each individual animal’s tail fluke is its unique fingerprint. Since the tail fluke is often seen when the animal dives from the surface, scientists have a huge photographic database of humpback tail flukes (see photo below). And they track individuals based on this. My ecology students should know that scientists also estimate populations based on a modification of the capture-recapture method because each time an individual’s fluke is photographed, it is in effect, “tagged”. We do a nice lab exercise of this method by using marked lima beans masquerading as whales in my ecology lab.
spoke with Allison Black, one of our
seabird observers on board.
Q. Tell us something about yourself
A. I really love seabirds. I’m fortunate to have been able to do my Master’s work on them and observe them in their natural habitat. I have an undergrad degree in zoo and wildlife biology from Malone University in Canton, Ohio.
Q. You’re a graduate student now in which university?
A. Central Connecticut State University
Q. What’s your research project?
A. I conducted a diet study of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls on Tuckernuck and Muskeget Islands, Massachusetts.
Q. You have done these NOAA seabirds surveys before?
A. Yes, this is my third.
Q. What happens next, now that you are close to finishing your Masters?
A. I’m looking for full time employment, and would like to work for a non-profit doing conservation work. But until the right opportunity arises you can find me on a ship, looking for seabirds and marine mammals!
Q. What’s your advice to anyone interested in marine science?
A. I had a major career change after I did my undergrad. I thought I’d always be a zoo keeper, which I did for about two years until I decided that birds are really my passion, and I needed to explore the career possibilities with them. To focus on that avenue I decided to return to graduate school. So I would encourage undergrads to really find what drives them, what they’re really passionate about. I know it’s hard at the undergraduate level since there are so many fields and avenues under the Biology umbrella. And it’s OK if you haven’t figured that out for a while. I had a real change in direction from captive wildlife to ornithology, and I’m here at sea in a very different environment. I’m so glad I did though because following my passion has opened up some exciting avenues. I’m lucky to be getting paid to do what I really love right now. So grab any opportunity that comes by. It’s never too late to evaluate your career path.
My feelings are bitter-sweet as this wonderful 16-day voyage nears its end. My big thanks to NOAA, the ship’s wonderful command officers and staff, our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh, and my colleagues and student volunteers aboard for making the past 2 weeks immensely absorbing. Above all, kudos to the ship’s designers, who have clearly gone out of their way to make life aboard as easy as possible. In addition to the unexpected luxuries covered in my previous blogs, there is even a movie lounge on board with an impressive DVD collection of over 700 movies! Yesterday I saw our student volunteers play bean bag toss on the winch deck. Yes, you can throw darts too. The ship’s command even organized a fun sea animals-bingo game one evening, with winners getting goodies from the ship store (see below).
The engine rooms tour
As part of our grand finale, we were given a tour of the engine rooms (which are usually off bounds for non-crew members) by our genial First Engineer, Kyle Fredricks.
Did You Know?
NOAA has strict policies to avoid collision with whales, especially the highly endangered Right Whale.
We entered Canadian waters up north in the Gulf of Maine, and sure enough, the waters are cooler, the sea choppier, and the wind gustier than before. And the organisms are beginning to show a difference too. Our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh showed me a much longer arrow worm (Chaetognatha) from the plankton samples than we had encountered before (see photo below). And there are more krill (small planktonic crustaceans) now.
far in my blogs, I have focused on sampling of biological organisms like
plankton. But recall that in an
ecosystem monitoring survey like ours, we need to measure the abiotic
(non-biological) aspects too because the word Ecosystem covers a community of
organisms along with their biotic and abiotic environment.
today’s blog, I will highlight the ways various important abiotic components
are measured. You will learn about the
interdisciplinary nature of science.
(Feel free to pass this blog on to physics, chemistry, and engineering
majors you know—it may open up some career paths they may not have explored!). I will come back to biotic factors in my next
blog (seabirds and marine mammals!).
The CTD is a device that measures Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth. We lower a heavy contraption called a Rosette (named due to its shape, see photo below) into the water. It has bottles called Niskin bottles that can be activated from a computer to open at specific depths and collect water samples. Water samples are collected from various depths. Electrical conductivity measurements give an idea of salinity in the water, and that in turn with water temperature determines water density. The density of water has important implications for ocean circulation and therefore global climate. In addition, dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) is also measured in labs later to give an idea of acidity across the depths. The increased CO2 in the air in recent decades has in turn increased the ocean’s acidity to the point that many shelled organisms are not able to make healthy shells anymore. (CO2 dissolves in water to form carbonic acid). Addressing the issue of increasing ocean acidity and the resulting mass extinction of shell-building organisms has become a pressing subject of study. See the photos below of CTD being deployed and the real-time data on salinity and temperature transmitted by the CTD during my voyage.
The ship is equipped with a highly sensitive sonar device called EK-80 that was designed to detect schools of fish in the water. (See photo of it attached to the hull of our ship, below). It works by sending sound waves into the water. They bounce off objects and return. The device detects these echos and generates an image. It also reflects off the sea bottom, thus giving the depth of the water. See below an impressive image generated by our EK-80, provided kindly to me by our amicable Electronics Technician, Stephen.
The Acoustic Doppler
Current Profiler (ADCP)
use this instrument to measure how fast water is moving across an entire water
column. An ADCP is attached to the bottom of our ship (see photo below) to take
constant current measurements as we move.
How does it work? The ADCP measures water currents with sound, using a
principle of sound waves called the Doppler effect. A sound wave has a higher frequency as it
approaches you than when it moves away. You hear the Doppler effect in action
when a car speeds past with a building of sound that fades when the car passes.
The ADCP works by transmitting “pings” of sound at a constant
frequency into the water. (The pings are inaudible to humans and marine
mammals.) As the sound waves travel, they bounce off particles suspended in the
moving water, and reflect back to the instrument. Due to the Doppler effect,
sound waves bounced back from a particle moving away from the profiler have a
slightly lowered frequency when they return. Particles moving toward the
instrument send back higher frequency waves. The difference in frequency
between the waves the profiler sends out and the waves it receives is called
the Doppler shift. The instrument uses this shift to calculate how fast the
particle and the water around it are moving. (From whoi.edu)
The University of Hawaii monitors ocean currents data from ADCPs mounted in various NOAA ships to understand global current patterns and their changes.
Hyperpro is short for Hyperspectral profiler, a device that ground truths what satellites in outer space are detecting in terms of light reflectivity from the ocean. What reflects from the water indicates what’s in the water. Human eyes see blue waters when there isn’t much colloidal (particulate) suspensions, green when there is algae, and brown when there is dirt suspended in the water. But a hyperpro detects a lot more light wavelengths than the human eye can. It also compares data from satellites with what’s locally measured while actually in the water, and therefore helps scientists calibrate the satellite data for accuracy and reliability. After all, satellites process light that has traversed through layers of atmosphere in addition to the ocean, whereas the hyperpro is actually there.
Three enterprising undergraduate volunteers.
Volunteers get free room and board in the ship in addition to invaluable, potentially career–making experience.
David Bianco-Caron is doing his B.A. in Marine Science from Boston University (BU). His undergraduate research project at the Finnerty Lab in BU involves a comb-jelly (Ctenophore) native to the West Atlantic but which has become an introduced exotic in the East Atlantic. David studies a cnidarian parasite of the comb-jelly in an attempt to outline factors that could limit the comb-jelly. The project has implications in possible biological control.
Jessica Lindsay finishes a B.S. in Marine Biology later this
year and plans to get her Small Vessels operating license next year. This is her 2nd year volunteering
in a NOAA ship. She received a NOAA
Hollings Scholarship which provides up to $9500 for two years (https://www.noaa.gov/office-education/hollings-scholarship). It
entailed 10 weeks of summer research in a lab.
She studies how ocean acidification affects shelf clams.
Jonathan Maurer is a University of Maine senior working on a B.S. in Climate Science. He studies stable isotopes of oxygen in ocean waters to understand ocean circulation. The project has implications on how oceanic upwelling has been affected by climate change. He intends to go to graduate school to study glaciers and ocean atmosphere interactions.
See my previous blog for information on how to become a volunteer aboard a NOAA research ship.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing our Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Claire Surrey-Marsden. Claire’s smiling face and friendly personality lights up the ship every day.
Claire is a Lieutenant Commander in the NOAA Corps:
The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps is made up of 321 professionals trained in engineering, earth sciences, oceanography, meteorology, fisheries science, and other related disciplines. Corps officers operate NOAA’s ships, fly aircraft, manage research projects, conduct diving operations, and serve in staff positions throughout NOAA. Learn more: https://www.omao.noaa.gov/learn/noaa-commissioned-officer-corps
Q. Thanks for your time,
Claire. You’re the XO of this ship. What
exactly is your role?
A. The Executive Officer is
basically the administrator on board. We
help with staffing, we manage all the crew, we have a million dollar budget for
this ship every year that we have to manage.
Everything from food to charts to publications, all these get managed by
one central budget. I’m kind of the paper work person on board.
Q. What’s your background?
A. I have a marine biology
degree from Florida Tech. I’ve done marine mammal work most of my career. I joined
NOAA in 2007, before that I was a biologist for Florida Fish and Wildlife
Q. I heard you have done
necropsies of marine mammals?
A. I was a manatee biologist
for FFW for 3 years, we also dealt with lots of whales and dolphins that washed
up on shore. I’ve also done marine mammal work in my NOAA career. Worked with Southwest Fisheries Science
Center on Grey Whales and dolphins, and worked with Right Whale management with
the maritime industry and the coast guard.
Q. About a 100 college students,
maybe even more are following my blog now.
What’s your advice to them, for someone interested in marine biology/NOAA
Corps, what should they be doing at this stage?
A. Great question. Volunteer!
Find all the opportunities you can to volunteer, even if it’s unpaid. Getting your face out there, letting people
see how good a worker you are, how interested and willing you are, sometimes
you will be there right when there is a job opening. Even if it seems like a
menial task, just volunteer, get that experience.
Q. NOAA accepts volunteers
for ships every summer?
A. Yes, ecomonitoring and
other programs takes students out for 2-3 weeks, but there are other
opportunities like the local zoo. Even
stuff that isn’t related to what you’re doing. Getting that work experience is
Q. What’s the most
challenging part of your job as an XO in a ship like this?
A. Living on a small boat in the middle of the ocean can be challenging for people working together harmoniously. Just making sure everyone is happy and content and getting fulfillment for their job.
At the end of the interview, Claire handed me a stack of brochures describing the NOAA Corps and how you can become part of it. Please stop by my office (Math-Science 222) for a copy.
The seas have become
decidedly choppier the past few days.
It’s a challenge to stay on your feet!
The decks lurch unexpectedly.
Things get tossed around if not properly anchored. I have fallen just once (touchwood!) and was
lucky to get away with just a scratch.
I’ve had to take photo backups of my precious field notes lest they get
blown away. They came close to that once
The ship has a mini library with a decent collection of novels and magazines plus a lounge (with the ubiquitous snacks!). I found a copy of John Grisham’s The Whistler, and this has become my daily bed time reading book.
Interesting animals seen lately
I started this blog with a photo of an exceptionally long arrow worm. The cold waters have brought some other welcome creatures. I created a virtual stampede yesterday in the flying bridge when I yelled Holy Mola! Everyone made a mad dash to my side to look over the railings at a spectacular Ocean Sunfish (Molamola) floating by. The name Mola comes from the Latin word meaning millstone, owing to its resemblance to a large flat and round rock. I have been looking for this animal for days! Measuring up to 6 feet long and weighing between 250 and 1000 kg, this is the heaviest bony fish in the world. The fish we saw was calmly floating flat on the surface, lazily waving a massive fin at us as though saying good bye. It was obviously basking. Since it is often infested with parasites like worms, basking helps it attract birds that prey on the worms.
Another animal that almost always creates a stir is the dolphin. Schools of dolphins (of up to 3 species) never cease to amuse us. They show up unexpectedly and swim at top speed, arcing in and out of the water, often riding our bow. Sometimes, flocks of shearwaters circling around a spot alert us to potential dolphin congregations. Dolphins drive fish to the surface that are then preyed upon by these birds. My colleague Allison Black captured this wonderful photo of Common Dolphins frolicking by our ship in perfect golden evening light.
Did You Know?
(Ocean Sunfish) are among the most prolific vertebrates on earth, with females
producing up to 300,000,000 eggs at a time (oceansunfish.org).
NOAA does multiple concurrent missions, some focused on fisheries, some on oceanography, and some hydrography. It has a ship tracker that tracks all its ships around the world. Our ET Stephen Allen kindly shared this image of our ship’s location (marked as GU) plus the locations of two other NOAA ships.
my previous blog posting, I explained the importance of plankton as base of the
ecological pyramid upon which much of marine life in this ecosystem
depends. The past few days, I have
witnessed and experienced in-person how scientists aboard this sophisticated
research vessel collect and analyze sea water samples for plankton.
I spent some time with Kyle Turner, a guest researcher from the University of
Rhode Island doing his M.S. in Oceanography.
He operates a highly sophisticated device called the Imaging FlowCytobot
(IFCB). I was fascinated to learn how it
works. It is basically a microscope and
camera hooked up to the ship’s water intake system. As the waters pass through the system, laser
beams capture images of tiny particles, mostly phytoplankton (tiny
photosynthetic drifters). As particles
do, they scatter the light or even fluoresce (meaning, they emit their own
light). Based on this, the computer
“zooms in” on the plankton automatically and activates the camera into taking
photographs of each of them! I was
amazed at the precision and quality of the images, taken continuously as it
pipes in the water from below. Kyle says
this helps them monitor quality and quantity of plankton on a continual
students (especially bio majors). In
this corner of my blogs, I will interview some key research personnel on the
ship to highlight careers. Please learn
and be inspired from these folks.
Here is my interview with Kyle Turner.
Tell us something about your graduate program.
A. My research focuses on phytoplankton using bio-optical methods. Basically, how changes in light can tell us about phytoplankton in the water.
How does this IFCB device help you?
It gives me real time information on the different types of phytoplankton in
the location where we are. We can
monitor changes in their composition, like the dominant species, etc.
Why are phytoplankton so important?
They are like trees on land. They produce about half the oxygen in the
atmosphere, so they’re super important to all life on earth. They are also the
base of the marine food web. The larger
zooplankton eat them, and they in turn are eaten by fish, and so on all the way
to the big whales. They all rely on each
other in this big ocean ecosystem.
How are phytoplankton changing?
The oceans are warming, so we’re observing shifts in their composition.
What brought you into marine science?
I grew up on the coast. I’ve always
liked the ocean. I love science. So I
combined my passions.
What is your advice to my students exploring a career in marine science?
A. Looking for outside research opportunities is important. There are so many opportunities from organizations like NASA, NSF, and NOAA. I did two summer research internships as an undergrad. First was with NASA when I was a junior. I applied through their website. That was a big stepping stone for me. A couple of years later, I did another summer project with a researcher who is now my advisor in graduate school. That’s how I met her.
What are your future plans?
A. I’d love to get into satellite oceanography to observe plankton and work for NASA or NOAA.
I am pleasantly surprised by how comfortable this ship is. I was expecting something more Spartan. I have my own spacious room with ample work and storage space, a comfortable bed, TV (which I don’t have time for!), and even a small fridge and my own sink. Being gently rocked to sleep by the ship is an added perk!
food is awesome. We have two expert
cooks on board, Margaret and Bronley.
Did You Know?
NOAA Ship GordonGunter played a big role in recovery operations following Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Some interesting animals seen so far
Flying fish (they get spooked by the ship, take off and fly several yards low across the water!)
Cow-nosed Rays (see photo and caption below)
Leather-backed Sea-turtle (I’m used to seeing them on the beach in Trinidad—see my previous blog. It was a treat to see one swimming close by. I was even able to see the pink translucent spot on the head).
Seabirds (lots of them…. four lifers already—more on this later!)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 1, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge
I’ll update this when I get on board.
Greetings from land-locked Arkansas!
I am thrilled at the chance to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. In the latter half of August, I will be aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter assisting scientists on a Summer Ecosystem Monitoring Survey of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Ecosystem. I am particularly excited about surveying for marine mammals and sea turtles, although a lot of our work will involve monitoring spatial distribution of plankton. I cannot wait to learn novel techniques and measurements that I can later incorporate into my classes at the University of Arkansas—Fort Smith.
While aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter I will blog about my experiences. My students will follow my blogs and hopefully learn a lot from them. I hope to make my blog postings fun and informative at the same time. I will cater to a broad audience, from biology majors and non-majors (college students), to even some school children who are keen on following me and exploring potential science careers. So don’t be offended if I define basic terms or explain concepts you may have learned decades ago!
Science and Technology log
I will be embarking on an Ecosystem Monitoring mission. As my ecology students should know, the term ecosystem refers to a community of organisms along with their physical (or abiotic) environment. And a community is a group of organisms living and interacting in an area. To monitor the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf ecosystem, we will take extensive data on various components, both biotic (biological) and abiotic (physical). Such measurements are important because they alert us of possible changes in our environment and what that could mean to our well being and that of other life forms. In effect, we keep a finger on the pulse of our planet.
What is continentalshelf? It’s the relatively shallow (generally up to
about 100m or 330 feet depth) area of seabed around land. Much of this was exposed during glacial
periods when water was locked up as ice. This zone teems with life because of
its shallow nature, which allows light to penetrate and photosynthesis to
occur. It is therefore vital for the
fisheries industry in which many coastal human communities depend on for
The Project Instructions document we were all sent (by the
Chief Scientist, Dr. Harvey Walsh) indicates that the principal objective of
the survey is to assess the “hydrographic, planktonic, and pelagic components”
of the ecosystem. Hydrography (Ancient Greek–hydor, “water” and graphō,
“to write”) is a branch of the applied sciences that deals with
measurements and descriptions of the physical features of water, like ocean
currents and temperature. Plankton (Greek—errant or wanderer) are organisms,
both plants and animals, in the water that drift in the currents (most of them
are microscopic). Pelagic (Greek—of the sea) means oceanic, or belonging to the open
I will be part of an elite multi-disciplinary team, meaning,
we will have experts from various disciplines of science. We will be measuring
the distribution of water currents and water properties, plankton, sea turtles,
sea birds, and marine mammals. Much of
my career I have focused on ecology and behavior of vertebrates, especially
birds. The chance to learn hands-on and
in-depth on aspects like water chemistry and plankton biology challenges and
excites me. It gets me out of my comfort
zone and has the potential to make me a better-rounded biologist. After all, I regularly teach the impacts of global
warming and ocean acidification on coral reef organisms. Can there be a better way to hone my teaching
skills than actually do these studies hands-on, in the company of world’s
leading experts, in a state-of-the-art research ship?
Since much of the survey focuses on measuring plankton
distribution and abundance, it begs the question:
Why are plankton important?
Well, consider this.
Phytoplankton, the plant-like photosynthetic drifters, produce half of all oxygen on earth. That’s about the same as ALL oxygen produced
by land plants! So that alone should
convince you why they are vital.
But there is more. Their productivity (meaning, photosynthetic activity that converts sun’s energy into fuel) forms the energetic foundation of the food pyramid, and most of life in sea depends on it.
So, you take away plankton, and much of oceanic life will
collapse. No fish, no whales, no sea
turtles, no sea birds. Ultimately it
will affect all life on earth, including humans.
The disturbing news is, plankton are in trouble. Phytoplankton have declined 40% since the
1950s. Since the beginning of the
industrial age, they have dwindled about 1% a year. There seems a connection between warming waters
and this decline. In the North Atlantic,
the melting of Greenland ice has changed the physics and chemistry of ocean
waters. This has resulted in a decline
in ocean circulation and its upwelling of nutrients that the phytoplankton
So as you read this and take breaths of air, contemplate this: that oxygen you just took in probably came from phytoplankton. That’s why we need to start with measuring them to monitor our planet’s health. Our future depends on their well-being!
So I will be blogging quite a bit on these minuscule
creatures—what kinds there are out there, how they appear, how to measure their
abundance, and so on. Stay tuned.
For nearly 40 years, I have been mainly a terrestrial ecologist. I love taking people outdoors and making them into naturalists and field biologists. My forays into the oceanic realm have been limited. I once went on a sea birding cruise, which I described in this article.
Earlier, in my college days, I did a number of “turtle walks” – 10 km walks along the beach in my hometown of Chennai, India, to collect Olive Ridley Seaturtle eggs and relocating them to a protected hatchery. Since 2009, I have taught a tropical biology course in Trinidad, West Indies, where I take the class to a remote beach to observe massive Leatherback Seaturtles nest. A letter of mine on this appeared in the September 2009 issue of National Geographic (below).
So, my exposure to the other 70% of the earth’s surface, the
ocean, has been rather limited. I hope that
this NOAA program helps in my quest to fill that void.
My home for two weeks – NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
This is an ultramodern oceanographic research vessel whose main mission is to study marine mammals and other living resources. “Bigeye” 25 x 150 binoculars are used by scientists to scan for marine mammals. This includes a scale to enable distance measurement. A hydrophone array is towed to hear and record marine mammal sounds 24 hours a day.
She was once USNS Relentless, designed to assist the US Navy in collecting underwater acoustical data in support of Cold War anti-submarine warfare operations. After the end of the Cold War, she was transferred to NOAA. In 2010, NOAA used this ship to define the subsurface plume near the BP Deepwater Horizon site.
I am honored to be assigned to this vessel. I hope you will join me and enjoy and learn from my adventure out in the seas in this amazing ship.
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 26, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 39.487 N
Longitude: 73.885 W
Water Temperature: 25.2◦C
Wind Speed: 13.1 knots
Wind Direction: WSW
Air Temperature: 26.1◦C
Atmospheric Pressure: 1017.28 millibars
Water depth: 30 meters
Science and Technology Log
As if catching plankton and sneaking a peak with the microscope wasn’t exciting enough (see the picture of the larval eel!), there’s a lot more data being collected on this ship. All of it helps scientists understand what’s going on in this part of the Ocean. And some of it I am able to help with, which is my favorite thing about this cruise (well, maybe that and the incredible views).
I was able to examine some of the plankton samples with a microscope. Do you see the larval eel in the tray next to the scope?
The CTD rosette and niskin bottles
At some of our stations, we lower a big and important science tool (called a rosette) into the ocean that contains niskin bottles (bottles used for water sampling) and a Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth meter (CTD). As the rosette is lowered into the depths and raised back up, the scientists can remotely operate the open niskin bottles to snap shut at specific depths. This allows each bottle to come up to the surface with a sample of water from many different depths! Meanwhile, the CTD can take measurements of conductivity (which indicates the salinity of the water), temperature, and pressure, among other things. Scientists have thought of many ways to collect A LOT of data at one time.
Bringing the CTD up from the depths.
When the CTD comes back onto the ship, it’s time for us to use the samples for different purposes. We collect water from 3 different bottles (so 3 different depths) to test the amount of chlorophyll in the water. Do you know what the chlorophyll comes from? If you said plants, you’re right! What are some plant-like things that are drifting all over the ocean? You guessed it! Phytoplankton! So the amount of chlorophyll gives scientists evidence as to how much phytoplankton is in the water. But first, we need to extract (take out) the chlorophyll from the water. We run the water through special filters and soak the filters in a chemical that extracts the chlorophyll. Then we can put the sample through a special machine that uses light to sense the amount of chlorophyll. Wow. One thing I am learning on this trip is how important light is in understanding a water ecosystem.
Me extracting chlorophyll samples
Do you remember what a hypothesis is? It’s an educated guess that answers a scientific question. When scientists come up with a hypothesis, it gives them something to test in an investigation. If you were presented with the question, “At what depth is phytoplankton most abundant?”, what would be your hypothesis?
Another thing we do with the water samples is collect a bit from most of the bottles to preserve and send to the lab to test for the amount of nutrients. When you think of nutrients, you probably think of healthy vitamins for people. But nutrients for plants are actually made from broken down waste of animals. It’s important for ocean water to have a balanced amount of nutrients so that phytoplankton can be healthy. But too much nutrients can also cause algae and phytoplankton to overpopulate!
But that’s not all! The scientists also take samples from the niskin bottles to test for Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC). That sounds fancy, I know. Doing this basically helps scientists understand the pH of the water and look for evidence of ocean acidification (a result of climate change).
Jessica and I taking nutrient samples from the niskin bottles
Can you believe how much scientists can learn from dropping a big science tool into the water?
Scientist Spotlight – Harvey Walsh
Harvey is our Chief Scientist on the mission, meaning he oversees all of the scientific work happening on the ship. He has been so kind as to answer all of my many questions, including these:
Me – If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient, what would it be and why?
Harvey – I would like a tool that allows you to easily and quickly identify fish eggs and larvae. Currently, it is a time consuming process that involves sorting through samples and identifying them in the lab. There have been and continue to be efforts to use image analysis and genetics to speed up the process. An image analysis has progressed quicker for phyto- and zooplankton, but fish and fish eggs still lag behind.
Me – When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in ocean science?
Harvey – I always thought I would end up studying freshwater fisheries in Minnesota, where I grew up, but after the first two ocean cruises I participated in, I knew the ocean was more for me and the lakes had less of an appeal.
Me – How long has EcoMon (the ecosystem monitoring program we are using) been conducted and how was the protocol (the methods we use) created?
Harvey – EcoMon started in 1992 but it was modeled after a program that started in 1977. The bongo plankton sampling has not changed much since it started, but with new technology we have added the water chemistry
Harvey relaxing in the bridge deck
testing, optics, and other instruments.
To create the protocol, scientists from around the North Atlantic region got together to form the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries. This council had the job of looking at plankton sampling techniques and deciding the best way to monitor plankton communities.
Me – Can you share an example of a way that people have used EcoMon data to form and test a hypothesis?
Harvey – Our data helps scientists make connections between different species in a food web, for example. After people noticed that Atlantic herring (fish) populations were getting low, they used EcoMon data to come up with a hypothesis like this:
“Increasing haddock populations lead to a lower stable state of herring because haddock feed on herring eggs.”
If people want to know more about a certain species of fish and how it survives and thrives, they need to understand the whole ecosystem, including the food web!
This cruise continues to amaze me. Sometimes we’ll have several hours between stations when I love to learn from others, bring a pair of binoculars up to the fly bridge and join the seabird observers, or catch up on a good book. Being around the water all day is calming and serene. I feel that this is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Me and the NOAA Drifter Buoy decorated for Ocean Studies Charter School!
Another rare opportunity came yesterday when I was able to launch my drifter buoy as part of the NOAA drifter buoy program! First, I decorated the buoy with our school’s name and a symbol for each of the classes at our school – the Sharks class, the Rays class, the Dolphin class, and the Sea Star class. Then, after gaining permission from the ship command, we dropped the buoy overboard!
The buoy has a long canvas tube that extends out like a spring after you release it. This allows the buoy to have a long tail that reaches into the water so that it can catch the ocean currents and drift. If it was just the floating buoy, it would get moved by the wind instead of the currents.
Everyone runs to the bow when dolphins are riding the wake!
The buoy has a satellite tag that sends a signal to a satellite wherever it goes. This way, back home my students and I can track the buoy online and see where it ends up! Where do you think the buoy will go?
Everyone on board gets excited when we spot a pod of dolphins or a whale spout! I can’t wait to see what’s out there tomorrow!
Did You Know?
Great Shearwaters are sea birds that spend most of their lives out at sea and only come to land to nest. They can dive deep to catch fish but do not have to dry out their wings like some other birds. They are almost always found soaring by air currents and they prefer stormy and rough weather for stronger air patterns to lift them up.
A great shearwater in flight. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
If a plankton sample with 5,000 individual plankton contains 60% salps, 10% hake larvae, 20% arrow worms, and 10% crab megalops, how many arrow worms are in the sample?
Here’s a picture of an arrow worm from under a microscope. They are about the size of the letter “I” on your keyboard. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 22, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 991 N
Longitude: 590 W
Water Temperature: 22.3◦C
Wind Speed: 1 knots
Wind Direction: WSW
Air Temperature: 23.3◦C
Atmospheric Pressure: 66 millibars
Sky: Mostly Cloudy
Science and Technology Log
Haven’t you always dreamed of having your own Imaging Flow Cyto Bot (IFCB)? What an interesting scientific instrument that I am lucky enough to be taking care of while on this cruise! Before we even left the dock, Jessica Lindsey (volunteer from the Maine Maritime Academy) and I were trained by Emily Peacock, research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on how to run this amazing piece of equipment!
The IFCB is a computer, microscope, camera, and water flow controller all in one. Emily describes it as “plumbing combined with electronics”. It uses a water intake system from the ship to run a constant flow of water into extremely tiny hoses. As the water flows through these hoses, a laser beam of light shoots at every tiny particle that is in the water. The tiny particles in the water, mainly phytoplankton (microscopic drifting plants), react to the sudden burst of light. The phytoplankton scatters the light and also can react by fluorescing (reacting to one wavelength of light by giving off a different wavelength). The computer detects this scattering and fluorescing to determine where the phytoplankton is in the water flow. The microscope focuses in on each phytoplankton cell and the camera takes a picture! Scientists simply get the IFCB going and at the end of the day they have hundreds of pictures of plankton! Isn’t that incredible?!
Here I am learning how to use the IFCB! It is SO COOL!
One thing I’ve learned about this particular cruise is that it’s all about plankton! We are collecting samples and data for scientists at the University of Rhode Island, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NOAA’s own Narragansett Lab, just to name a few. What are all of these scientists studying? Plankton! Why? Plankton is the microscopic lifeblood of the ocean. The word plankton comes from a Greek word, oikos, meaning “drifter.” Plankton refers to all the living things of the ocean that are drifting with the currents. They are present throughout the water column and consist of two types: phytoplankton and zooplankton. Can you guess the difference? Phytoplankton is like a plant. It has chlorophyll and does photosynthesis. Zooplankton is an animal. There are many zooplankton species that hunt, hide, and do other things that larger animals do. Most plankton is microscopic or close to it. Phytoplankton does at least half of all the photosynthesis in the WORLD. So you can think that every other breath you take contains oxygen created by phytoplankton.
Both types of plankton are the base of the marine food chain. If major changes happen in the community of plankton in the sea, these changes will impact the entire food chain all the way up to the apex predators (top predators). So, as you can see, plankton is SUPER important. If plankton populations are healthy, it indicates that much of the rest of the ecosystem is healthy too.
Some scientists use equipment, like the IFCB, to study samples of phytoplankton.
Associate Researcher Emily showing us the program that allows you to see pictures of the phytoplankton sampled.
We also are collecting zooplankton in nets (called “bongo” nets) and preserving samples for scientists to analyze in the lab. More on that to come soon!
My students have been learning that scientists always start an experiment with a question.
Scientists on this mission are not exactly leading an experiment, but they are responsible for monitoring. The monitoring of an ecosystem tells us WHAT is happening there. Scientists from all over the world can then use the monitoring data that we find to research and experiment WHY things are happening the way they are. This is where the scientific method will come in and an experiment will start with a question.
For example, through the plankton samples that we take on this monitoring mission, scientists may notice a change in the amount of larval hake (tiny baby hake fish). They can then ask the question, “Why are larval hake populations decreasing?” which may lead them to a hypothesis such as, “larval hake populations are decreasing due to climate change”. They can test this hypothesis by comparing the plankton data to other types of data (such as pH and water temperature) in the same areas over time. Thus, an experiment!
So our job now is to collect the important data that can help scientists understand what’s happening and think of ways to investigate “why” and “how”.
Bottom line, I really love plankton. And you should too. That breath you just took? Thank plankton.
Pictures of glorious plankton!
Scientist Spotlight – John Loch – Seabird Observer
Enough about plankton! During all of this plankton excitement, I have also spent some time on the fly bridge (the top level of the deck of the ship), asking questions to our two seabird observers, John and Chris. Their job is to stand watch all day, looking for and identifying seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and any notable (large) animals. Here’s a little interview with John Loch, Seabird Observer:
John observing seabirds from the fly bridge
Me – Why is your job so important?
John – My job is to monitor seabird populations to help detect changes in numbers or distribution of species. We estimate a 300 square meter area around the ship and record all birds seen within that area. We enter our data into a computer, noting species, life stage, number seen, and direction of flight. Over time, we may notice trends in numbers and distribution which is important to understand this ecosystem.
Me – What do you enjoy most about your job?
John – I enjoy seeing anything new or rare.
Me – How could scientists use your monitoring data to lead an investigation (using the scientific method)?
John – Our data has shown, for example, that some populations of birds, such as the gannet, have steadily declined over the last 20 years. Researchers can ask “Why are gannet populations declining?” and can use oceanographic data in combination with bird observation data to come up with a hypothesis to test.
I was excited to get underway this afternoon! Although many of us slept on the ship last night, we have been on the dock until 2:30 this afternoon, when we finally watched the crew release the lines and the ship cruise through the harbor and out to sea!
A view of the bow as we head out to sea!!
We began our day with a scientist meeting where Harvey Walsh, our Chief Scientist, explained our route and the “stations” where we would be slowing down or stopping the ship to take our data. He explained our 3am-3pm/3pm-3am shifts that we alternate so that whenever a station is reached, day or night, data can be collected. I’m lucky to intersect these shifts and work “on watch” from 8am-8pm! This means that I will support and assist scientist in their data collection during this time, and generally be present and available.
Chief Scientist Harvey explaining our route on the Northeast Shelf.
We also heard from Libby, our Operations Officer, who explained our state rooms, bathrooms, shared spaces, and general “do’s and don’ts” of the ship.
Libby, our Field Operations Officer, explaining the safety procedures of Gordon Gunter
I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by our living quarters aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. I have my own state room with a shared bathroom, small closet, sink, and even a desk. It is quite spacious! I’m also excited about the food options on board, but more about that later!
The view from my state room…not bad!
Tonight is our first night out at sea! Luckily, I’m not feeling seasick, but rocking and rolling as I type this does feel pretty strange! Everyone says we’ll get used to it and it will feel normal in no time.
I am so excited for our first morning and sunrise out at sea! Stay tuned!
Did You Know?
Phytoplankton come in all different colors, just like the flowers in your garden. Since they are so tiny, we don’t see the colors unless there is a lot of plankton all together. They also contain more than one color in their cells, similar to leaves that change from green to brown, red, or orange.
Colorful phytoplankton, photo courtesy of NOAA
Question of the Day
Do you think the amount and type of plankton in an area can affect how many sharks live there? Why?
Do sharks rely on plankton? Photo courtesy of NOAA