Susan Kaiser: Blue Planet Connections, August 5, 2012

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

Mission: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Coral Reef Condition, Assessment, Coral Reef Mapping and Fisheries Acoustics Characteristics
Geographical area of cruise: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Date: August 5, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude:  24 deg 34 min N
Longitude:  81 deg 48 min W
Wind Speed:   2.5 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 32.1 C
Air Temperature:  29 C
Relative Humidity: 71 %

Science and Technology Log

Sunrise on the last day at sea.

Sunrise on the last day at sea.

It is easy to see why the Earth is nicknamed the Blue Planet. Its dominant physical feature is the sea water which covers approximately 70% of the surface making it appear blue even from space.   People have depended on the oceans for centuries not just for the obvious things such as food, transportation, jobs and recreation but also for the very oxygen we breathe and the fresh water we drink to survive.  Humans need the ocean for all these things and more. We are inextricably interconnected to the ocean; our survival depends on it.

The vastness of the ocean allows us to believe that human actions won’t have a major effect on it. For example, pollution that leaks into the ocean would be diluted by the huge amount of water so that no real harm would be done to the habitat or the organisms living in the ocean. This may have been true for a time when the human population was less than the 7 billion people now living on Earth. However, the fact is human actions do influence the ocean and in ways that matter. Often these impacts are unintended or accidental but they still lead to a change in the marine ecosystem.   Sadly, many times these effects are negative such as  the Deepwater Horizon/BP MC252 oil spill In 2010, an explosion on an oil drilling rig in the Gulf  of Mexico released almost 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean immediately changing the marine habitat and harming the organisms that lived there. Scientists are still determining the long term effects of this spill and helping to restore the area. In the past other spills have occurred such as the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 that released 11 million gallons of crude oil along the Alaskan coast.

Not all ocean impacts are large events related to the petroleum industry. Even small individual human decisions can be significant. For example, if a pet owner no longer wants to keep his exotic species pet he might release it into the wild or an environment where that organism isn’t usually found.

Mrs. Kaiser holding a speared Lionfish. Photo by Jeff Renchen.

Mrs. Kaiser holding a speared Lionfish. Photo by Jeff Renchen.

This is probably how the Lionfish,  scientific name Pterois volitans, has become established in the coastal waters near the Carolinas and Florida, according to Paula Whitfield, a NOAA marine scientist. It may seem like a minor problem that the Lionfish is now living in Gulf Coast ocean water. What do you predict will happen to the number of Lionfish in this area knowing that they have everything they need to flourish: food, water, space but no predators to hunt them?  They will reproduce and increase their numbers quickly. Lionfish will out number native species of fish and beat them out for those resources displacing them in their ecosystem. Lionfish will out compete native species decreasing their numbers and the diversity of organisms. While on our cruise the science team encountered groups of Lionfish living under large rocks at depths of 100 feet. They speared a specimen and brought it aboard to examine it closely. Lionfish are invading this marine habitat taking it over from the native species. Any organism that is introduced into a new ecosystem where it can rapidly increase numbers taking over native habitat is called an invasive species. One solution to this problem is to start catching Lionfish to eat! I am told they are yummy. People just need to be taught how to safely remove their poisonous fins and taste them!

These tiny (15-20mm) fresh water bivalves are invasive species.

These tiny (15-20mm) fresh water bivalves are invasive species.

Both animal and plant organisms can be invasive species squeezing out more desirable native organisms. In Nevada, we are on the alert to an invasion of  Quagga Mussels (Dreissena bugensis) that have been detected in Lake Mead near Las Vegas. These fresh water mollusks are transported on boat exteriors or in bilge water to other fresh water lakes across the United States. It is important that boaters carefully inspect and maintain their equipment to halt the progress of this invasive species to other lakes in Nevada and elsewhere.

The Blue Planet is home to us all. Our decisions and actions make a

Roof of the Nancy Foster Complex in Key West, Florida. Note the native plants.

Roof of the Nancy Foster Complex in Key West, Florida. Note the native plants.

difference on both a small and large scale. Each of us has a responsibility to make informed choices about these actions. Realizing our reliance on the ocean and other aspects of the environment and working within in these systems really benefits all of us. For example, when architects designed the Dr. Nancy Foster Florida Keys Environment Complex in Key West, Florida they created a Green Building.  This means they made choices to  “recycle”  a neighboring building saving building materials and using it for a new purpose. Office furniture was re-purposed to fit in the new energy efficient building that is LEED Silver certified. Contributing to the ecosystem, the roof is planted with native species of grasses that provide habitat for insects and birds. The plants are watered by rain. Excess rain water is collected and stored for other uses in the building helping to conserve water. While the Dr. Nancy Foster Complex building design is indirectly related to ocean preservation it represents a human action that benefits our Blue Planet. As with the release of a hand full of Lionfish, so can many small actions together can create a big impact. Choose to be connected to our  ocean in a positive way. Through a small act you do each day we can preserve and even improve our environment and oceans. The Blue Planet is a great place to call home.  Let’s help keep it that way.

Personal Log

Science Team. Photo by Lt. Josh Slater.

Science Team. Photo by Lt. Josh Slater.

As I finish writing this last blog from my home in Reno Nevada, I am reflecting on the many people I have met and the experiences I have had as a  NOAA Teacher at Sea. It is through NOAA’s interest in connecting scientists, mariners and educators that I was able to participate in this amazing experience but also because I took a chance and applied.  I might not have been chosen but I didn’t let that stop me from taking the risk. If I had not made the time to apply and prepared my essays and sample lessons look what I would have missed. The chief scientist, Scott Donahue, also took a chance on me and accepted me as an active participant on his research cruise. He and the science team went out of their way to make sure that I stayed safe and got an outstanding experience as an observer of their research. Everyone took  time to answer my questions and describe their research to reach a larger audience, YOU!

On the last day we sailed into port at Key West, few people aboard knew that

Ensign Richard De Triquet  (right) maneuvers the ship. Executive Officer CM Donn Pratt (left) observes.

Ensign Richard De Triquet (right) maneuvers the ship. Executive Officer CM Donn Pratt (left) observes.

Ensign Richard de Triquet was given the task of bringing the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster into dock.  It was his first time to manage this procedure! Commanding Officer LCDR Holly Jablonski knew he had the skill and took a risk  assigning Ensign De Triquet to maneuver the ship into port. Working as a team, the other officers on the bridge used binoculars to spot potential obstacles in the channel. They discussed the best course for the ship and provided input to Ensign De Triquet who announced the orders.  By the way, the docking was was smoothly accomplished and I got to observe the entire process including the debriefing. Congratulations Ensign De Triquet, nice work!

My NOAA Teacher at Sea experience is one that I will never forget! It was a pleasure to be a part of this science research cruise and to

Mrs. Kaiser snorkeling Ft. Jefferson. Photo by Alejandro Acosta, PhD.

Mrs. Kaiser snorkeling Ft. Jefferson. Photo by Alejandro Acosta, PhD.

meet such a wonderful group of people. My blog would not be complete without acknowledging several individuals in the group who were especially helpful.  Danielle Morley who cheerfully provided me with an overview of the VR2 research including a power point presentation and got me involved in the data collection. Hatsue Bailey who acted as my photographer whenever needed.  Sarah Fangman who provided ground transportation. Alejandro Acosta, PhD who took me snorkeling after a tour of  Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. He also was the underwater photographer of the organisms we saw that day. Thank you, everyone!

Just as people are interconnected to the ocean they are also interconnected to each other. All of the people I met on this adventure worked together toward a common purpose. Each one of them making their own contribution to reaching that goal. They did it by doing their best work and trusting that each member of the group would in turn do their part to their best ability. Effort and communication were key to their success. From what I witnessed it worked out perfectly.

These 2 sponges are over 100 years old. They are known as the "Redwoods of the Reef." Photo by Hatsue Bailey.

These 2 sponges are over 100 years old. They are known as the “Redwoods of the Reef.” Photo by Hatsue Bailey

Summer is quickly coming to an end and with it the excitement of a new school grows. My students and I  have the opportunity to make connections, to each other, to the Blue Planet and the organisms that live here. This year, if you are faced with a challenge, be brave and take it on. Assess an opportunity and take the risk to try something unfamiliar. Extend kindness to someone outside your existing circle of friends.  Put your toe in the water and get comfortable listening, observing, thinking and asking questions. You will be amazed what you will learn and the things you will experience. Take a chance. Reflect, communicate and work together.  Scientists and NOAA Ship Nancy Foster officers and crew showed how well this works to get the job done. Let’s follow their example so that your 7th grade year in science a memorable one too.

Mrs. Kaiser wearing the survival suit. Photo by Hatsue Bailey.

Mrs. Kaiser wearing the survival suit. Photo by Hatsue Bailey.

A crab exploring the ocean floor. Photo by Hatsue Bailey

A crab exploring the ocean floor. Photo by Hatsue Bailey

Scientist Danielle Morley changing out a VR2. Photo by Sean Morton.

Scientist Danielle Morley changing out a VR2. Photo by Sean Morton.

Lesley Urasky: Get that fish outta here! The invasive lionfish, June 24, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 24, 2012

Location:
Latitude: 19.8584
Longitude: -66.4717

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 29°C (84°F)
Wind Speed:   16 knots (18 mph), Beaufort scale:  4
Wind Direction: from SE
Relative Humidity: 76%
Barometric Pressure:   1,015.3 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 28°C (82°F)

Lionfish in its native habitat. ( Source: National Geographic; Photograph by Wolcott Henry)

Science and Technology Log

One of the species the scientists are continually scanning for in their videos is the appearance of the Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles); this is one fish they’re hoping not to see.  It is not native to these waters and is what is known as an invasive or exotic  species.

An invasive species is one that is not indigenous (native) to an ecosystem or area.  Many times these organisms are able to exponentially increase their populations because they may have no natural predators, competition for resources, or they may be able to utilize those resources not used by native organisms.  Most invasions are caused by human actions.  This may involve intentional introduction (many invasive plant species were brought in to create a familiar environment or crop/foraging source), accidentally (rats travelling on ships to distant ports), or unintentionally (people releasing pets that they can no longer take care of). Invasive organisms are problematic because:

  • They can reduce natural biodiversity and native species.
    • Push other species to extinction
    • Interbreed, producing hybrids
  • Degrade or change ecosystem functions
  • Economically:
    • They can be expensive to manage
    • Affect locally produced products causing a decline in revenue (decline of honey bees due to a mite infestation which, in turn, decreases pollination rates)

Within its native habitat, the Indo-Pacific region, the Lionfish  (Pterois volitans/miles) is not a problem because that is where they evolved.  It is in the family Family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes). They inhabit reef systems between depths of 10 m – 175 m.  During the day, they generally can be found within crevices along the reef; at night they emerge to forage in deeper waters, feeding upon smaller fish and crustaceans.

Native range of the Lionfish

Lionfish are venomous and when a person is “stung” by the spines on the dorsal fin, they experience extreme pain, nausea, and can have breathing difficulties.  However, a sting is rarely fatal.  Despite the hazards of the spines, Lionfish are a popular aquarium species.  The problem arises when pet owners irresponsibly get rid of the fish in their aquariums.  Instead of giving them away to pet shops, schools, organizations, or other fish enthusiasts, or contacting a local veterinarian about how to humanely dispose of them, they release them into a nearby marine body of water.  It’s important to realize that even the smallest, seemingly isolated act can have such large consequences.  Remember, if one person is doing it, chances are, others are too. The responsibility of owning an organism is also knowing how to manage it; we need to realize how to protect our marine habitats.

This is where the problem in the Atlantic began.  The occurrence of Lionfish was first noticed along the southeastern coast of Florida in 1985.  An invasive species is considered established when a breeding population develops.  Since their establishment in the waters off of Florida, they have rapidly spread throughout the Atlantic as far north as Rhode Island/Massachusetts , throughout the Caribbean, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Animated map depicting the spread of the Lionfish

While on our cruise every sighting of a Lionfish was cause for further examination.  There was one Lionfish that exhibited a behavior that Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist) had never seen before.  The fish was on the bottom and moving himself along instead of freely swimming.  Videos like this are instrumental in helping scientists figure out Lionfish behavior in their “new” environment as well as their interactions with the surrounding organisms and environment.  Hopefully, as this database continues to grow, scientists will develop new understandings of the Lionfish and its effect on the waters of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

Divers are encouraged to kill any Lionfish they encounter.  The only safe way to do this is from a distance (remember, their dorsal spines are venomous); usually, this is accomplished by using a spear gun.  The Commander of the Pisces, Peter Fischel,  was doing a final dive off the pier before we left St. Croix.  He saw three Lionfish, speared them, and brought them to the scientific crew for data collection.  These were frozen and placed in a Ziploc back for preservation.  They will be examined back at the lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Three Lionfish caught along the Frederickstad, St. Croix pier. (Notice the 6″ ruler for scale.)

Personal Log

The science portion of the cruise is coming to a close. Today was our last day of sampling.  As with yesterday, no fish were caught by the day crew, so we were able to begin cleaning and packing throughout the day instead of waiting until the end.  A few days after we arrive in Mayport, Florida, the Pisces will be going out on another cruise along the east coast.  On Sunday, July 1st, Joey Salisbury will be arriving in Mayport with a trailer to unload all the scientific equipment and personal gear from this research cruise.

Bandit reel with St. Thomas in the background

In addition to packing, the wet lab and deck have to be cleaned.  This entails scrubbing down the tables, coolers, and rails along the deck where we baited our hooks to remove all the fish “scum” that has accumulated over the past three weeks.  Between the four of us, we were able to make quick work of the job.  There is only one task left for me to do, and that is to take all of our leftover bait, Atlantic Mackerel, and throw it overboard once we are away from the islands.  (The bait has been used over the course of the past two years, and has essentially outlived its freshness.)

Day operations crew on the Pisces Caribbean Reef Fish Survey (left to right: Ariane Frappier, Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist), Joey Salisbury, and myself).


I want to thank all the scientists on the day operations crew and the deck hands for making me feel so welcome, being ever so patient as I learned how to bait hook, load the bandit reel, remove otoliths, sex  the fish, and answer every type of question I had.  They’re all amazing people and are passionate about their jobs.  Kevin was not only great at thoroughly answering any and all questions, but anticipated those I might have and brought interesting things to my attention.  Thank you everyone for an amazing experience that I’ll never forget!

Another incredible person that helped make my trip memorable is my roommate, NOAA Operations Officer, Kelly Schill.  She was very welcoming and made me feel immediately at home on the ship.  She gave me a thorough tour and introduced me to the crew.  I interviewed her briefly about her job in the NOAA Corps.

Kelly Schill, Operations Officer aboard the NOAA ship Pisces. (Source: http://www.noaacorps.noaa.gov)

LU: Kelly, what is your job title and what do you do?

KS: I am a Lieutenant junior grade in the NOAA Corps.  The NOAA Corps is one of the 7 uniformed services and I serve as the Operations Officer aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces.

LU: How long have you been working with NOAA?

KS: I have worked for NOAA a total of 4 years; 3 of which were aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces as a NOAA Corps Officer. My first year, I was a physical scientist and developed geospatial visualizations to assist in the generation of navigational warnings and maritime safety information for Dangers to Navigation for the NOAA and contractor surveys.  I assisted NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson in the field with the acquisition, converting and cleaning of multi-beam and side-scan sonar data.

Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces, my responsibility is to be the liaison between the ship’s crew and scientific party to ensure the mission is carried out smoothly and efficiently.  A big part of my job is to handle the logistics and transportation, such as project planning and setting up dockage at different ports from Texas to the Caribbean up to Massachusetts. Most importantly, to continue to learn the intricacies of the ship, effectively operate, and practice safe navigation at all times.

LU: What background and skills are necessary for your job?

KS:  A Bachelors Degree of sciences.  You must complete a year of chemistry, physics and calculus.  Geographic information System (GIS) is equally important. To be well-rounded, internships or field research experience is highly recommended.

Kelly Schill showing off the otolith she just extracted from a Red Hind.

LU: What type(s) of training have you been through for your job?

KS: Being in the uniform service, I was sent to Basic Officer Training Course (BOTC) to learn military etiquette, terrestrial and celestial navigation, safety aboard ships, search and rescue, fire prevention, hands on experience in driving small boats up to larger vessels, etc.  Once out of BOTC and on an assigned ship, I was able to attend further training:  hazardous material courses, dive school, rescue swimming, and medical. There are many more opportunities that were offered. I have only touched on a few.

LU: Have you worked on other ships not associated with scientific research?  If so, what was your job and what type of ship was it?

KS: No, all my experiences were on ships regarding scientific research:  NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson (hydrographic ship) and the NOAA Ship Pisces (fisheries ship).

LU: Does being on a science research ship bring any specific/different expectations than being on another type of merchant ship?

KS: I am unfamiliar with the expectations on a merchant ship.  Generally, the research vessels are used to support studies intended to increase the public’s understanding of the world’s oceans and climate. Research vessels are not set on a point A to point B system. Various operations are conducted from fisheries, bathymetry, oceanographic, to marine mammal data collection.   These various research projects dictate operation area.  Contrary to research vessels, merchant ships usually have a set destination, from point A to point B transporting cargo of one type or another.

LU:  We are in the middle of a huge ocean, and our destination – a specific sampling site – is a pinpoint on a map. What has to be considered to make sure you get to the exact location?

NOAA ship Pisces ECDIS map. This is a nautical map that is updated monthly.

Closeup of navigational maps showing the location of our sampling sites.

KS:  We use a number of tools: ECDIS, Rosepoint, paper charts, GPS, Dynamic Positioning, and of course manual operation. The scientists will provide a location where they want the ship to be for operations to take place. We use all navigational tools to navigate to that position by creating a route, based on a good GPS feed. Navigational tools include: ECDIS (shows an electronic vector chart), Rosepoint (shows an electronic raster chart), and paper charts.  Multiple navigational tools are for redundancy to ensure safe navigation.

All routes are created on the side of safety to avoid collision with shoals, wrecks, land, neighboring ships, platforms, buoys, obstructions, etc. Once, we are close to our sampling station, the ship is set up into the wind or the current (whichever force is stronger), reduce propulsion, turn rudder hard over to one side to assist in the reduction of propulsion and to line up on a heading in favor of wind or current. The bow thruster can assist in turns as well. Depending on how strict the mission is to hold an exact coordinate, the dynamic position is dialed in and activated.  Otherwise, the watch stander will manually control the engine speed, bow thruster, and rudder to maintain position utilizing outside forces, such as wind, swell, wave state, and currents.

The ship’s radar. The yellow objects at the bottom are St. Thomas and its surrounding small islands, while other vessels will appear in green.

LU: Once we reach a site, what do you need to do to maintain that position during the sampling process?

KS: Every ship has its perks and not all are the same in maintaining a position during the sampling process. Our ship has dynamic positioning (DPS) which uses the rudder, propulsion, and a bow thruster simultaneously to hold position. However, just like any software system, it only works as well as the operator.  The parameters have to be just right to accomplish this goal.  Parameters are set up based on wind speed, swells, sea state, and currents.  All must jive for a positive outcome. Our ship works more efficiently facing into the wind or current; whichever force is the strongest. If both are strong, we split the difference. Should either the bow thruster, main engine, or steering fail, the dynamic position will not properly compensate.

Dynamic Positioning System (DPS) screen. This instrument helps hold the ship at a precise location.

Kelly, thanks for the interview as well as being a great role model for women!  Remember, girls, if you want it, go get it!