NOAA fisheries research vessels often work with colleges to help provide experiences for the students by allowing them to come on the ship to collect data for their research. On this leg, Makaila Hernandez was aboard to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) under Dr. Alexis Janosik for the University of West Florida. Water samples are taken from different sampling sights in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental DNA tells scientists what organisms are in the area of water. DNA can be found in the water when organisms shed materials such as the skin, scales, feces, mucous, and gametes. Once the water is collected, a lab will extract the DNA from the water. The extraction is done in such a way that only the purest form of DNA is obtained. It will then be amplified so that it can go through the DNA sequencing process for organism identification. Collecting DNA for the purpose of knowing what organisms are present is done for several different reasons. It helps check the biodiversity and compare the health of the ecosystem to the previous years.
NOAA Ship Pisces
On this mission we have 28 people aboard Pisces. Without the engineers, technicians, deck crew, and the NOAA corps, the scientists wouldn’t be able to do their job. As most of you know, when things go wrong with a vessel out in the ocean, you have to rely on those within. The engineers work hard and I haven’t gotten to talk with them as much as I would have liked, but after all they have been busy down below keeping the ship going. While touring and visiting the bridge, the amount of technology there and knowledge from the officers on maneuvering the vessel is astonishing. I even had a slight go at it, and with the waves and current my travel line was a bit everywhere and not even close to being as straight as theirs. No worries, they were right by my side the whole time.
Drew Barth, Second Assistant Engineer
Drew grew up in Montana and has been working for NOAA for around 18 years. Drew has worked his way up through the years, and the knowledge he knows about how to keep everything on this ship running is incredible. I had no idea there was so much down below us, and the amount of things that have to be checked and continuously working to keep this working vessel going. Drew tried to summarize all the things he did to me from operating all the equipment (including plumbing, HVAC, engine), maintaining all of the equipment, and every 2 hours all gauges have to be completely checked. At midnight a full report of how much fuel is being consumed as well as other things. Drew said some challenges he has had to deal with are bad weather, flooding, and having to fix multiple things at once. Drew states that working hands-on, growing up with a dad as a mechanic, and taking welding vocational classes really helped him, but training today can be done by attending a maritime school.
Today is our last day at sea. Later this evening we will start working our way towards Pascagoula, MS. We are finishing up our last camera drops and preparing to disembark. I can already tell this morning by looking at the water that we are getting closer to Mississippi. The coloration of the water is more of a brown hue than blue due to the Mississippi River meeting the ocean. Several deck crew are making last minute plans as we prepare to port. I have met so many amazing people from all walks of Earth, and listening to their stories and how they ended up on Pisces is remarkable. There are a lot of hard-working and dedicated people who keep this ship running.
I can’t believe I have been on the ship now for two weeks. I have several more questions from my students back home that I can’t wait to answer when I get back. When I return there are only 10 days of school left, so it will be a whirlwind. I have been blessed to have experienced this, and I have learned so much that I hope to inspire my students to dream big and put themselves out there. I told them before I left how nervous I was and that blogging for the first time ever and doing the unknown was way out of my comfort zone. However, hopefully I have taught them that it is important to take chances and pursue things that they want to do even though they may seem scary. My hopes are to also talk about all the different career paths involved in keeping this mission going aboard NOAA Ship Pisces.
We are continuing our path due east. We (they) have surveyed 14 different banks and dropped 102 cameras.
Along the way we have been collecting water samples that contain environmental DNA (eDNA), and mapping at night. Caroline Hornfeck, graduate student at the University of West Florida, is collecting water samples once daily and at additional fixed sites. She is working under Dr. Alexis Janosik, participating in a multiyear study of reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and NOAA. The project’s goal is to characterize reef fish diversity in the northwest Gulf of Mexico using molecular tools and techniques.
Environmental DNA is a molecular tool used in aquatic ecosystems. eDNA contains DNA from all organisms in the water column. This DNA can be in the form of gametes (reproductive cells), fish scales, waste, etc. This approach is noninvasive and cost-effective, and does not require contact with the organism. Caroline collects test tubes of water, adds some magical juice that causes a chemical reaction, and the DNA begins to solidify in the test tube. You with me? THIS is real science.
Later in the lab, the eDNA is extracted and the samples are run through polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR amplifies (multiplies) genes and the sample is sent to a lab for additional science. Fancy technology makes millions of copies of the DNA. You piece it all together and use the data to assess reef fish diversity. Essentially, eDNA is like taking attendance in the reef community. Roll call.
I will leave it at that, though it’s much more complex. I am starting to remember why I avoided molecular biology. Caroline, I’m impressed.
Meet the Science Crew
Paul Felts Field Party Chief, Fisheries Biologist
What do you enjoy most about your job? “It’s the field work that I enjoy most. I love being out on the water (in moderation), participating in the various surveys. I have been a part of so many fun surveys – reef fish, snapper longlines, trawls, plankton, and mammals. I appreciate getting a break from the desk, reviewing footage, and annotating the research. I also enjoy working with the crew and building team camaraderie.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “It’s tough to decide. I have seen all sorts of cool stuff. One mammal survey we were out on the smaller boat and a sperm whale breached about 100-200 yards from the boat. Later those whales were lying on their sides at the surface with full bellies, seemingly just resting after a meal. The giant stingray and thresher shark are up there on my favorites as well.”
Paul is the Field Party Chief. He’s been with NOAA for 21 years. As a Fisheries Biologist at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Paul studies fish populations and their impacts. He knows every fish in the sea (or at least close). Out here, Paul coordinates scientific operations. He has to be on every minute of every day, and deal with the crews’ shenanigans, yet still shows up each morning with a smile on his face, ready to take on the day.
Amanda Ravas Fisheries Biologist
What do you enjoy most about your job? “My favorite part about my job is being out in the field… as long as I’m not seasick. Because I’m still so new, I love learning all the ins and outs of the projects, seeing the species I’ve been watching on our videos in person, and hearing stories from other scientists about all the cool projects they’ve been a part of.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “The coolest animal I’ve seen while out in the field is a manta ray which followed our boat for a few minutes as we were making our transit back ashore. And I always get super excited seeing any shark species while out at sea.”
Amanda is a Fisheries Biologist at the Panama City Laboratory. She’s been with NOAA for two years. She studies fish populations and their impacts. She may be tiny, but she’s mighty. Don’t underestimate her. She knows her stuff, and knows it well, and can keep up with the best of them.
Rafael Ortiz Program Support Specialist
What do you enjoy most about your job? “I enjoy being part of the NOAA Fisheries Mission at the MSLABS level. Being an administrator I find myself lucky to participate on various surveys with the scientist. I get to build a great working relationship and many friendships with them. I learn so much from them. Everything from science related topics to personnel life topics. I also feel that they have a higher respect for me than just some admin person.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “Oh so many to list. I’ve seen so much diversity on these surveys that it’s hard to list. I’m always amazed at what comes out of the ocean and the thought of things I’ve not seen or will never see. I’m fascinated by the smallest to the biggest ocean animals.”
Rafael is a Program Support Specialist. He has been with NOAA for seven years. He provides oversight, technical expertise, and support to personnel and field biologists. But don’t let him fool you; he’s a biologist at heart. These scientists are lucky to have him out here at sea. He works hard, and best of all, keeps everyone in good spirits.
Kenneth Wilkinson Electronics Technician
What do you enjoy most about your job? “All of it. I have done just about every survey – plankton, sharks, small pelagic, reef fish, Caribbean reef fish, and more. I have worked closely with NOAA enforcement, installing vessel monitoring systems and reporting illegal fishing. Surveillance in the Keys was a lot of fun. I enjoyed being down there. Most recently, I operate NOAA drones.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “The first to come to mind is the 12 ft. tiger shark during a longline survey. I also enjoyed building satellite tags and tagging sea turtles.”
Kenny is an Electronics Technician at the Southeast Fisheries Science Center. He has been with NOAA for 32 YEARS. He handles all the equipment from scientific to shipboard navigation and communication. What would we do without Kenny? This survey, as well as most, relies entirely on the technology. Kenny keeps us in check. I mean he’s the only one that knows what a transmissometer is.
Caroline Hornfeck Graduate Student, University of West Florida
What do you enjoy most about your job? “What I enjoy most about being a student in this field, is always adapting and learning new skills that can help me grow as a scientist. Whether that’s in the classroom, research lab at the University of West Florida, or aboard NOAA research vessels.”
What is the coolest animal you have seen or worked with? “One of the coolest animals I have seen is a spotted eagle ray. I hope further down in my research career I can work with elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) and implement better conservation management for keystone species.”
Caroline earned her B.S. in Marine Biology at the University of West Florida. She is pursuing her Master’s at UWF. She is doing real science out here. Are you even a scientist if you don’t collect DNA? This girl is going places for real.
When 2 or 3 o’clock rolls around, I have to shake things up a bit. I’ve started making rounds just to say hello and see what people are up to. I remind folks that what they do is really cool. I make my way to the bridge usually once or twice to bother them a bit. This is where the ship is commanded. It looks like some sort of spaceship up here. I roam around and try to make sense of the many gadgets and screens. Take a peek out the windows. The sun reflects intensely on the water. It’s hella bright out here.
Operations Officer, LT Christopher Duffy, asks “Do you want to drive?” I look over my left shoulder, I look over my right. Oh, he’s talking to me. “Uh, yeah I do.” I have absolutely no clue what I just signed up for. He seems to think I can handle it. I get the run down. The helm is the steering wheel – check. The main engine controls the propulsion – check. Then there are the bow thrusters. From what I understand, they are basically propellers on the side of the boat. I’m not really sure. I just know they improve maneuverability.
Navigation is an art and science. They transit to specific destinations and position and maneuver the ship and make it look easy. Navigators measure the distance on the globe in degrees. If you have forgotten, like I seemed to have, like a circle, the Earth has 360°. Compasses have four cardinal points (directions), right? – North (N), East (E), South (S), and West (W). Well, turns out when you’re real official, you use degrees instead of directions. As if directions weren’t confusing enough. LT Duffy, “When I say 10° right, you do just that and confirm when you’re there.” I can handle that. “Ten right.” I work with LT Duffy to retrieve our next buoy. Huddleston keeps a careful eye. This is fuuunnnnn. “You ready for a hard right?” “Like all the way?” Seems questionable. Oh he’s serious. “Hard right rudder.” SKKKIIIIRRRRRTTTTTTT. Man this thing can move. We Tokyo drift right into position. Nailed it. LT Duffy takes control to finish positioning (I made it easy for him). I’m grinning ear to ear.
“Are you comfortable giving commands?” “Yep.” The overconfidence kicks in. First things first, CONN candy. What’s that you ask? The officers up here have a secret drawer of tasty treats that they’ve been hiding from us this whole time. Gotta have some before taking command. Wait, what am I doing? LT Duffy explains, “You’ll be giving commands to LTJG, Ariane Huddleston, while she steers.” Uhhhhhhh. I see the fear in her eyes. “Just repeat after me.” Huddleston takes the wheel and I “give commands.” It clicks. This is my time to shine. I “very well’d” the heck out of those commands. So much fun, thank you crew!
Did You Know?
You know all those horrid COVID tests you had to take? You were doin’ science right there. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests genetic material (fluid from the nasal swab). The test detects the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists use the PCR technology to amplify small amounts of RNA from specimens into DNA, which is replicated until SARS-CoV-2 is detectable if present. It’s cool stuff guys.