Meredith Salmon: Xtreme XBTs, July 14, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Meredith Salmon

Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

July 12 – 31, 2018


Mission: Mapping Deep-Water Areas Southeast of Bermuda in Support of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation

Geographic Area:  Atlantic Ocean, south of Bermuda

Date: July 14, 2018

Weather Data from the Okeanos Explorer Bridge – July 14, 2018

Latitude: 28.58°N

Longitude: 65.48°W

Air Temperature: 27.4°C

Wind Speed:  13.96 knots

Conditions: Rain and clouds

Depth: 5183 meters


Science and Technology Log

Temperature and salinity are two main variables when determining the density of water. The density of water or any acoustic medium is a very important factor in determining the speed of sound in water. Therefore, temperature data collected by Expendable Bathythermograph (XBT) probes, as well as historical salinity profiles from the World Ocean Atlas, are used to create sound velocity profiles to use to correct for sound speed changes in the water column.

Expendable Bathythermograph (XBT) probes are devices that are used to measure water temperature as a function of depth. Small copper wires transmit the temperature data back to the ship where it is recorded and analyzed. At first, I was surprised to learn that temperature data is such an important component of multibeam mapping operations; however, I learned that scientists need to know how fast the sound waves emitted from the sonar unit travel through seawater. Since these probes are designed to fall at a determined rate, the depth of the probe can be inferred from the time it was launched. By plotting temperature as a function of depth, the scientists can get a picture of the temperature profile of the water.

On our expedition, we have been deploying XBTs on a schedule as the ship is making its way to the survey area. The XBT Launcher is connected to a deck box, which translates information to computer systems onboard so the data can be logged when the probes are deployed into the water. Aboard the Okeanos Explorer, up to 8 tubes can be loaded at one time and launched by scientists.

XBT closet in the Dry Lab
XBT closet in the Dry Lab


XBT Launcher
XBT Launcher on the Okeanos
xbt 2
Loading the XBT Launcher



xbt 1
Savannah and I after a successful XBT load


XBT Data
XBT Data from a launch aboard the Okeanos Explorer. The colors on the graph indicate the XBT number and the data is plotted on a temperature and depth scale.


 In addition to launching XBTs and collecting data, we completed a Daily Product so that we can communicate the data we have collected to anyone on shore. The Daily Products are completed not only to ensure that the hydrographic software systems are working correctly but to also inform the public our current location, where we have collected data, and if we are meeting the objectives of the mission. Once onshore, NOAA uses this information to analyze the quality of the data and use it for analysis for dive planning. In order to generate the Daily Field Products, we use hydrographic computer systems such as QPS Qimera for advanced multibeam bathymetry processing, Fledermaus for 4D geo-spatial processing, and Geocap Seafloor for digital terrain modeling. In addition, the Daily Field Products allow us to double check the quality of the data and search for any noise interferences due to the speed of the ship or the type of seafloor bottom (hard vs soft).


Personal Log

One of the coolest parts of learning aboard the Okeanos Explorer is the fact that I am a part of scientific exploration and discovery in real time.  Known as “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” the Okeanos Explorer is the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore our largely unknown ocean for the sole purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. This is the first U.S.-led mapping effort in support of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation and all of this information is going to be available for public use. Not only do I get the opportunity to be involved with “real-time” research, but I am also responsible for communicating this information to a variety of different parties on shore.

Being immersed in the “hands-on” science, learning from the survey techs and watch leads, and observing all of the work that is being done to collect, process, and analyze the data is a really exciting experience. I am definitely out of my element when it comes to the content since I do not have any prior experience with seafloor mapping, sonars, etc., but I am really enjoying playing the role as the “student” in this situation. There is definitely a lot to learn and I am trying to soak it all in!


Did You Know?

XBTs contain approximately 1,500 meters of copper wire that is as thin as a strand of hair!



Meredith Salmon: The Final Countdown, July 5, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Meredith Salmon

Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

July 12 – 31, 2018


Mission: Mapping Deep-Water Areas Southeast of Bermuda in Support of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation

Geographic Area of Cruise: Norfolk, Virginia to Bermuda

Date: July 5, 2018

 Weather Data from Home (Clarks Summit, PA)

41.4887°N, 75.7085°W

Air Temperature: 28.0° C

Wind Speed: 1.7 Knots

Wind Direction: Southwest

Conditions: Partly Cloudy, 69% Humidity



Hi everyone! My name is Meredith Salmon (yes, just like the fish) and I cannot believe that it is almost time to begin my adventure aboard NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer. This June, I finished my fourth year teaching Honors and Regular Biology at the Peddie School located in Hightstown, New Jersey. Peddie is an independent, coeducational boarding and day school that serves 551 students in grades 9-12. We welcome a diverse student body from all across the United States and the world. Our students represent a total of 23 states as well as 34 countries and 64% of students are boarding while the remaining 36% commute. Therefore, I am committed to creating a global classroom where students are engaged in a problem-based curriculum that emphasizes scientific investigation and critical thinking. In addition to teaching, I serve as the Assistant Girls’ Varsity Soccer Coach and will be the Assistant JV Girls’ Basketball Coach this winter. I have also coached winter track the past two years. I live and work as a Dorm Supervisor in a sophomore level female dormitory as well. Working as a teacher, coach, and dorm parent in the Peddie Community has granted me the unique opportunity to shape the lives of many students in and outside the classroom environment.

Myself (4th from the left) and fellow Peddie Faculty Coaches

Being immersed in current research while engaging with other scientists and crew members onboard the Okeanos Explorer is going to be an incredible experience. I am really excited to take what I learn in these next couple weeks and use it to design a Marine Science/Biology elective for next spring semester. I think it is so important for students to use science, engineering practices, and technology to become well versed in ocean literacy and discovery as well as NOAA’s endeavors in ocean exploration.  I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with you soon!


Okeanos Explorer
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer at sea. Image courtesy of Art Howard/NOAA OER.

More about the Mission:
The Okeanos Explorer will map an area southeast of Bermuda designated by the Atlantic Seabed Mapping International Working Group (ASMIWG) at the 4th Annual Galway Trilateral Meeting in April 2017. As part of the Galway initiative, the ASMIWG utilized a suitability model to identify priority regions in the Atlantic Ocean factoring in areas of public interest, sensitive marine areas, and areas with marine resource potential. This will be the first U.S.-led mapping effort in support of the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance/ASMIWG initiative.

Did You Know? 

From the end of May until early July, NOAA and partners conducted an extensive ocean exploration expedition aboard the Okeanos Explorer. The goal was to collect important baseline information about unknown and poorly understood deepwater regions of the Southeastern United States.  For more information and cool videos, check out their website!

Robert Ulmer: The Journey of a Lifetime, July 1, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 58⁰03.866’, W 147⁰10.219’

(transiting westward across the Gulf of Alaska toward Kodiak Island)


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:  July 1, 2013

Weather conditions:  10.88⁰C, 4 – 6 nautical miles of visibility through steady rain under a gray ceiling of low clouds, 92.28% relative humidity, 1005.24 mb of atmospheric pressure, wind speed 15.2 knots with a heading of 273⁰


Brown bear
This brown bear was eating while wandering along the shoreline of Red Bluff Bay. Do you think that the bear’s travel through forests and streams in search of food is an exploration or just another day at work? (Photo courtesy of Acting CO Mark Van Waes)

Explorer’s Log:  The journey of a lifetime

In 1968, NOAA Ship Rainier was commissioned in North Florida, and today she journeys westward across the Gulf of Alaska in a two-plus-day transit toward Kodiak Island, a beautiful passage between episodes of important work filled with good tales amid sublime scenery, but not a particularly unusual chapter among the forty-five years of her long and storied life.

In 1968, I was born in North Florida, and today I journey westward across the Gulf of Alaska in a two-day-plus transit toward Kodiak Island, a beautiful passage between episodes of important work filled with good tales amid sublime scenery, but not a particularly unusual chapter among the forty-five years of my long and storied life.

More than merely a pretty coincidence, there is a lesson in that bit of non-Euclidean parallelism.

Lighthouse and last land while leaving Icy Strait for the Gulf of Alaska
This is the last outcropping of land (mostly rocks) when leaving from Icy Strait into the Gulf of Alaska. If you look closely, you can see the lighthouse and communication station on the widest rock island.

Sometimes I hear talk of this or that “journey of a lifetime,” a label assigned to some exotic period of someone’s travel, usually to an unfamiliar geographic locale, and I am saddened by the label, at least in that context.  That set of words – journey of a lifetime – implies a pinnacle, an unmatchable moment, an unrepeatable level of excitement or happiness or liberation or engagement.  So, I wonder with melancholy, what happens next and for the rest of that person’s lifetime?  By that very announcement, it seems that the speaker is confining his future, limiting the potential flight of every moment ahead by a ceiling built before, doomed thenceforth to looking always backward for comparison instead of forward for the chance of equal or greater altitudinous joy, though likely in another setting.

LTJG Manda pauses from work to appreciate the scenery
Lieutenant Junior Grade (promoted today!) Damian Manda pauses from his work to appreciate the scenery of Lake Baranof…
Lake Baranof
… which is a beautiful sight and well-worth the moment of hesitation.

Undoubtedly, these three weeks in Alaska have provided me visual feasts that have never been available to me before and may never cross my eyes again – mountains, glaciers, icebergs, whales, otters, bears, albatrosses, sea lions, seals….  But I’ve seen just as much that is new and wonderful within the conversations among my shipmates, in the excitements about their scientific insights, and in the shared quiet musings with them along narrow walks through the woods, and those experiences very likely will resonate more across the pages of my future chapters than any visual spectacle will matter.

And after four and a half decades, I’m not ready to close my passport or retire my hiking boots, either.  I intend to take trips to all sorts of new places, looking with open eyes and seeking new perspectives, tasting new flavors and learning new steps along the way.

But just as importantly, I also will return to places I’ve been many times – at home, at work, in the cozy comfort of familiar surroundings – with the intention of seeing something new as often as I can.  Every year on my birthday, I sit alone for a few minutes and read The Emperor’s New Clothes to remind my comfortable self that truth and wisdom aren’t owned exclusively by the trappings of age, power, or previous experience, and that fresh eyes often see things that are difficult to envision through jaded lenses.  At the beginning of each new lap around the sun, perhaps I’m at the same relative location where I stood a year earlier, but I hope that I am, at the same moment, in a very different place than I was.

Maybe that’s why I love the classroom so much:  the ever-changing cast of new characters who take me with them as they explore places that I thought I’d been before.

Entering the Gulf of Alaska
Entering the Gulf of Alaska

Long before the Emerald Isle became the vibrant economy and site of many travel launches and destinations, some wise and long-forgotten Irishman first offered a lovely toast that still is oft-recited in places of gathering:  May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, and may the rains fall soft upon your fields until we meet again.  Even when most of the people of Ireland typically traveled only a few miles from home in a lifetime and, even then, primarily by foot and within the insulated boundaries of their home island, the kindest and warmest of wishes for one’s friends and family began with the recognition that all of the minutes of a lifetime are, in fact, a grand journey, to be lived intentionally and with robust and enthusiastic appreciation for the infinite gift of opportunities to explore.  From that vantage, the phrase, “journey of a lifetime,” becomes dynamic and broad, encompassing every moment of one’s own passage across the wide gulfs and the soaring mountains, the magnificent glaciers and the tranquil bays, the treks across and the travels through, the mornings and the evenings, the ideas and the dreams.

My Jewish friends offer in Hebrew the sentiment more simply, but grounded in the same value of living intentionally:  L’chaim.  To life!  The opportunities are to be cherished and celebrated, for life is not a spectator sport.

Watching the tide go out
Collecting data about tide levels can be tedious work, making it easy sometimes to lose sight of the tremendous beauty nearby.

In a few days, I will return to Florida and the schedule of usual life.  Lesson plans, grocery shopping, soccer practice, commuting to work…  The vital thing, I suppose, is to remember what I’m writing during this voyage after I return to that other set of voyages.  There are moments when everyone thinks that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, when we yearn to escape the daily routine.  Sometimes I become inundated with the day-to-day activities of my life and forget to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Florida that draws tourists from around the world or to celebrate the sounds of joyous laughter and learning among the students in my classroom.  I know that sometimes the same thing happens aboard Rainier, as the scientists and crew so intently focus on the critical and demanding work at hand that they occasionally are nonplussed by the awesome sights passing outside the portholes.  More than a week of staring at the same mountains along Chatham Strait, and now hour after hour of endless water as we cross the Gulf, from time to time the views from the rail understandably seem to fade into the background behind the data and the computer screens and the deadlines for the workers here, just like they do for the people in my jobs at home.

Measuring tidal changes
This tidal staff was almost completely submerged when we began recording data (every six minutes, measured to the centimeter) a few hours earlier.

But – especially when the days seem long and the tasks seem mundane for want of change – we must remember that, through the eyes of a person outside the routine, both the work and the setting can seem amazing.  Teaching young people about chemistry, mapping the floor of the sea… important and fun stuff!  Think about how excited elementary school students become about every job on Career Day and about every new experience when they are allowed to get their hands dirty and let their inner scientists, explorers, and artists thrive.  Crew members aboard Rainier have asked about my daily work activities with the same interested excitement that I’ve asked them about theirs, so clearly the phenomenon isn’t unavailable once we grow older.  The trick is to remember that the adventure always is happening, wherever we go, whatever we do, if only we pay attention to it.  Travel when you can.  But keep journeying in other ways even when you cannot travel.

Keep exploring, my friends
Keep exploring, my friends

And always, kind readers, may the road rise up to meet you, and may your journey of a lifetime be exactly that.  Keep exploring, my friends.

Did you know?

The spinning iron-and-nickel core of planet Earth acts as a giant magnet, and its magnetic fields not only protect us from potentially dangerous electromagnetic radiation from our sun and other stars, but they also pull the magnetic needles on our compasses.  However, magnetic north and geographic north generally are not in the same place, making navigation with a compass very difficult.  Geographic north is an agreed-upon point about which Earth’s axis spins (except for some wobbling), and that direction is the north referred to on most maps of locations on Earth’s surface.  Magnetic north, though, changes regularly, primarily driven by the spinning outer core layer of the planet, but also affected by several local conditions (like magnetized rocks in Earth’s crust, electric currents in the ionosphere and magnetosphere, and ocean currents).  Currently, Earth’s magnetic north pole (disregarding local compass variations) is moving eastward from Canadian territory toward Russia at a rate of more than thirty miles per year, and NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center provides updated information about magnetic declination for public use.

I live in Florida, which is so far south of both the magnetic north pole and the geographic north pole, that following a compass needle northward only takes me a small angle from the “true north” indicated on a map of the region, and so I can sight and aim for objects on the horizon once I’ve chosen an heading to walk when hiking in my home state.  In Southeast Alaska, though, the current angle between magnetic north and geographic north is approximately 20°, and so a navigator who uses a compass to determine north and then chooses to aim his travel toward a distant mountain in order to maintain a constant bearing might not just miss his mark by a few yards, but rather might be aiming for entirely the wrong mountain on the map!

Magnetic declination on compass rose near Kenai Peninsula
On this nautical chart showing the waters of the Gulf of Alaska near Kenai Peninsula, the compass rose designates geographic (“true”) north with the red star and also shows the local magnetic declination of more than 20 degrees eastward with the red arrow.

To address the variation in magnetic north, the electronic navigation devices on NOAA Ship Rainier employ a gyroscopic compass with mechanisms that always point the compass toward geographic north.  However, the bridge also has and uses a traditional magnetic compass in case the electronic gyroscopic compass fails.  Every time that a bridge officer gives new heading orders to the helmsman, the officer says something like, “Steer course 1-3-5,” and once the helmsman has turned the ship toward a heading of 135° (measured clockwise from the gyroscopic compass’s true north line), the officer will call, “Steady 1-3-5; checking 1-1-3.”  The second number is the heading on the magnetic compass, announcing that number so that bridge crew members will hear the magnetic-compass heading in case of electronic failure of the gyroscope, and to audibly drive home with each such order the compass variation that must be accounted for when using charts of the local waters.  Note that well-made navigational charts usually display both true (geographic) north and magnetic north, as well, like in the photo above.

Robert Ulmer: The Company You Keep, June 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰40.075’, W 134⁰20.96’

(southeast of Point Sullivan 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 25, 2013

Weather conditions:  Misty rain under a blanket of thick clouds and fog, 13.76⁰C, 84.88% relative humidity, 1001.09 mb of atmospheric pressure, very light variable winds (speed of less than 1.5 knots with a heading between 344⁰ and 11⁰)

  • Remember that headings on a ship are measured around a full 360⁰ circle clockwise from north.  Therefore, 344⁰ and 22⁰ are only 38⁰ apart directionally.
NOAA Ship Rainier, S-221, underway in Behm Canal
The operation of NOAA Ship Rainier, S-221, requires the cooperation of a large, hard-working, and multi-talented crew.

Explorer’s Log:  The crew of NOAA Ship Rainier

Especially as we leave the confines of childhood, society views us, at least in part, by our intentional decisions about which people make up our circle of friends and our group of colleagues.  Certainly such outside judgments can be unfair when based only on short-term glimpses, predisposed biases, or moments misunderstood for lack of context, but I think that long-term observations of our personal associations can provide meaningful information about us.

With Ai Wei Wei's zodiac sculptures in Washington, DC
With Ai Wei Wei’s zodiac sculptures in Washington, DC
With the crew after the 5K race at O'Leno State Park
After the 5K race at O’Leno State Park

My closest circle of friends – intentionally – is populated by a rich gumbo of personalities, ideas, ideals, physiques, insights, humors, tastes, preferences, and behaviors, all of which serve to stimulate my mind, activate my creativity, enrich my soul, entertain my spirit, and motivate my direction.  In other words, they are the scaffolding that supports me and the team that carries me along through so many parts of my own explorations.  Jasmine’s appreciation of intelligence and beauty, Collin’s sharp wit, Reece’s focused intensity, Dad’s analysis, Mom’s honesty, Lisa’s support, Grandma Madeline’s generosity, Aunt Marilyn’s and Uncle Marc’s welcome, Aunt Lynn’s spunkiness, Cheryl’s cool, Dillon’s quiet observation, Jack’s vision, Teresa’s organization, Bob’s perspective, Katy’s goodness, Chris’s enthusiasm, Emilee’s wonder, Kyle’s repartee, Casey’s lyricism, Will’s genuineness, Rien’s kindness, Tyler’s motivation, Zach’s creativity, Brian’s investment in service, Matt’s passion for justice, Gary’s sense of direction, Tommy’s helpfulness, Silas’s wordsmithery, Loubert’s jocularity, Jonathan’s love….

At College Summit training
College Summit training

And then add the brilliant and rich colors and flavors and voices of my larger group of friends and acquaintances:  the teachers, administrators, students, and neighbors who daily contribute their own stories and wisdoms to my experiences, and the result – again, intentionally – is very nearly a portrait of me… or at least the me that I aspire to become in my own journeys.

(For my varied generations of readers, think of the Magnificent Seven, the Fellowship of the Ring, and/or the Order of the Phoenix.  This is my posse.)

In other words, we often are judged and almost always are defined by the company we keep.

Wedding celebration
Wedding celebration

The NOAA Ship Rainier is no exception.  Beyond the mechanical body of the ship herself, the personnel here are the essence of the vessel that carries them.

Acting CO Mark Van Waes maintains a vigilant lookout on the bridge
Acting CO Mark Van Waes maintains a vigilant lookout on the bridge.

Smart and funny, resourceful and dedicated, skilled and hard-working, the crew members of NOAA Ship Rainier are an impressive bunch, all of whom have enriched me in the short time that I’ve been aboard, and all of whom do their jobs and interact in ways that produce superb results.  And the wholeness of their shared strengths, talents, and personalities is far greater than the sum of their individual aspects, as always is the case when a team is well-assembled.

MB_2, Red Bluff Bay, Chatham Strait, Alaska, June 23, 2013
One of the NOAA Commissioned Corps Officers appreciates the beauty of Southeast Alaska.

For more than 150 (and sometimes more than 250!) days per year, the men and women aboard ships in the NOAA fleet sacrifice time away from their own homes, friends, and families – and regularly that remoteness isolates them from news, television, phone, and internet for days or weeks at a time – in service to the public at large through their assigned missions at sea.  Currently, nearly four dozen crew members serve aboard Rainier in several departments, each of which serves its own set of functions, but all of which are unified by their shared mission, like the instrumental sections of an orchestra in the production of a symphony.

NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, sharply outfitted aboard ship in their navy blue ODUs (operational dress uniforms), is one of the seven uniformed services in the United States government.  For this leg of the mission, the officers  aboard Rainier serve under Acting Commanding Officer (ACO) Mark Van Waes and Executive Officer (XO) Holly Jablonski to perform three sets of functions:  administrative, navigational, and participatory.  As the administrators of the ship, the officers are responsible for everything from payroll to purchases, and communications to goodwill.  In the navigational capacity, the officers are responsible for charting the courses to be traveled by the ship and moving the vessel along those courses, sometimes with helm in hand and sometimes by giving the command orders to effectuate those maneuvers.  Finally, aboard Rainier and her sister hydrographic vessels, the junior officers are trained members of the hydrographic survey team, participating at all levels in the gathering and processing of data regarding the floor of the sea.  Ultimately, the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps members work to define the missions of Rainier and oversee the execution of those missions.

NOAA Commissioned Officers and Third Mate Carl VerPlanck of the Deck Department navigate NOAA Ship Rainier
NOAA Commissioned Officers and Third Mate Carl VerPlanck of the Deck Department navigate NOAA Ship Rainier.

Deck Department

Members of the Deck Department let go the anchor on the bow
Members of the Deck Department let go the anchor on the bow.

Beyond the uniformed NOAA Corps crew members, Rainier also employs many highly-skilled civilian merchant mariners who work around the clock to support the officers in the duties of navigation and sailing of the ship while it is underway.  Essentially, while following the decisive command orders of the Officer Corps, the Deck Department handles the endless details involved in steering the ship and its smaller boats, along with deploying and anchoring those vessels.  Under the departmental leadership of Chief Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”) Jim Kruger, the members of the Deck Department all hold various levels of U.S. Coast Guard ratings in navigational watch-standing and deck operations, and their experiences and proficiencies earn them respect with regard to many facets of decision-making and operations on the bridge.

(The NOAA Corps and the Deck Department together have been responsible for the passage of NOAA Ship Rainier through the waterways of Southeast Alaska during my weeks aboard.  To see a cool video of NOAA’s travel through Alaska’s Inside Passage made using stop-motion photography by Ensign John Kidd, click here.)

Survey and Deck Department members work together to prepare for the day's launches
Survey and Deck Department members work together to prepare for the day’s launches.

Survey Department

The members of the Survey Department aboard NOAA Ship Rainier are civilian scientists (working hand-in-hand with survey-trained NOAA Corps officers) who have been trained in the specialized work of conducting surveys of the sea floor using single-beam sonar, multi-beam sonar, tidal gauges and leveling devices, CTD devices (to gather data about conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water column), and several very highly-technical components of computer hardware and software packages.

Only the highest point of this 150-meter-wide rock remains above the water line at high tide.
Can you see the horizontal lines on this rock formation? They are caused by cyclical changes in the elevation of the sea water as a result of tidal forces. Only the highest point (around where the bald eagle is perched) of this 150-meter-wide set of rocks (extending beyond the boundaries of this image in both directions several times the width of what this photograph shows) remains above the water line at high tide. However, the portions that become submerged remain extremely dangerous to seagoing vessels, which is why the work of the Survey Department is so important.

From Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technicians (HASTs) upward through the ranks to Chief Survey Technician (CST) Jim Jacobson, they are superb problem-solvers and analysts with undergraduate- and graduate-level degrees in the cartography, biology, geography, systems analysis, and many other fields of scientific expertise, and one survey technician aboard Rainier is an experienced mariner who transferred into the Survey Department with a broad educational background ranging from the humanities to computer science.  The members of the Survey Department spend countless hours gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and integrating data to produce nautical charts and related work products to make travel by water safer for everyone at sea.

Two-dimensional slice of data
The Survey Department compiles raw sonar and quantitative data from the ship and the launch vessels and first converts those data into a graphic file that looks like this…
... which becomes this ...
… which is a slice of this image …
… which then goes through this sounding selection stage before eventually being finalized into a nautical chart for public use.

Physical Scientists

 NOAA physical scientist Kurt Brown joins Rainier in surveying the sea floor of Chatham Strait

NOAA physical scientist Kurt Brown joins Rainier in surveying the sea floor of Chatham Strait.

One or two physical scientists join the ship’s crew for most of the field season from one of two NOAA Hydrographic offices (in Seattle, Washington and Norfolk, Virginia), where their jobs consist of reviewing the hydrographic surveys submitted by the ships to make sure that they meet NOAA’s high standards for survey data, and compiling those surveys into products used to update the approximately 1000 nautical charts that NOAA maintains.  The ship benefits from the physical scientists’ time on board by having a person familiar with office processing of survey data while the surveys are “in the field,” and also by receiving an extra experienced hand for daily survey operations.  The physical scientists also get a refresher on hydro data collection and processing along with a better understanding of the problems that the field deals with on a daily basis, and they bring this up-to-date knowledge back to the office to share with coworkers there.

Engineering Department

Oiler Byron Doran of the Engineering Department chooses the right tools for the job.
Oiler Byron Doran of the Engineering Department chooses the right tools for the job.

The Engineering Department is a combination of U.S. Coast Guard licensed Engineering Officers (CME, 1AE, 2AE, and 3AE) and unlicensed engineering personnel (Junior Engineer, Oiler, and GVA).  Their work is concerned with the maintenance of the physical plant of the ship — everything from stopping leaks to making mechanical adjustments necessary for Rainier‘s proper and efficient running in the water.  The engineers are skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who wield multiple tools with great dexterity as needs arise.

Electronics Technicians

Electronics Technician (ET) Jeff Martin hard at work
Electronics Technician (ET) Jeff Martin is hard at work.

The Electronics Technician aboard NOAA Ship Rainier (some ships have a larger department) has the important role of making sure that the many computerized systems — both hardware and software — are properly networked and functional so that navigation and survey operations can proceed effectively and efficiently.  Having trained on radar equipment with the U.S. Navy “back in the days of glass tubes,” ET Jeff Martin is an expert’s expert, adept at prediction and troubleshooting, and skilled at developing plans for moving systems forward with the ship’s mission.

Steward Department

Chief Steward Doretha Mackey always cooks up a good time and a great meal.
Chief Steward Doretha Mackey always cooks up a good time and a great meal.
Chief Steward Kathy Brandts and GVA Ron Hurt keep the crew happily well-fed.
Chief Steward Kathy Brandts and GVA Ron Hurt keep the crew happily well-fed.

The Steward Department runs the galley (the ship’s kitchen) and currently is composed of four crew members aboard Rainier.  Specifically, they are responsible for menu preparation, food acquisition, recipe creation, baking, and meal preparation for the 40+ people who must eat three meals (and often have snacks) spread across the entire day, both underway and at port, including special meals for away-from-the-galley groups (like launch vessels and shore parties), when local goods (like fish, fruits, and vegetables) are available, and/or for crew members or guests with dietary restrictions.  An army moves on its stomach.  The meals aboard this ship, by the way, show great diversity, technique, and nutritional value, including grilled fish and steaks, vegetarian casseroles, curried pastas, homemade soups, fresh salads, and a wide variety of delicious breakfast foods, snacks, and desserts.

Second Cook Floyd Pounds works to prepare a meal for the crew.
Second Cook Floyd Pounds works to prepare a meal for the crew.

So those are the current citizens of the seagoing vessel NOAA Ship Rainier, harmonizing within a common chord, travelers who together explore the seas by working together to achieve their unified mission.  They are the excellent company that I keep on this leg of the exploration.

As you endeavor upon your own journeys, remember always to choose your company wisely so that your efforts are supported when challenging, insulated when vulnerable, motivated when difficult, and celebrated when successful.  And once you are surrounded by those good people, keep exploring, my friends.

Even the sea otters take some time to relax and enjoy one another's company.
Sea otters enjoy one another’s company along their way.

Personal Log:  Enjoy yourself along the way

Although they all work long, hard hours at their many assigned tasks, members of the team aboard NOAA Ship Rainier also enjoy one another’s company and occasionally get to have a good time.  Sharing an isolated, moving home barely 70 meters long with four dozen people for several weeks at a time guarantees social interaction, and the sounds of testimonies of laughter and friendship regularly fill the air in and around the ship, both among the workstations and away from the ship.

Ensign Theresa Madsen and Second Assistant Engineer Evan McDermott, my exploration partners in Red Bluff Bay
Ensign Theresa Madsen and Second Assistant Engineer Evan McDermott, my exploration partners in Red Bluff Bay
One of Carl's many catches
One of Carl’s many catches

Since joining the crew of Rainier just a week and a half ago – and beyond the many exciting excursions that are simply part of the regular jobs here – I already have been invited to join various smaller groups in exploring a town, dining in a local eatery, watching a movie, climbing a glacier, fishing in the waters of Bay of Pillars, walking on a beach, and kayaking through beautiful Red Bluff Bay past stunning waterfalls, huge mountains, and crystal-clear icy streams, including a spontaneous hike into the deep and wild, verdant and  untrammeled woods above the shore, following uncut paths usually trod only by deer and bears on their way to the frigid water running down from the snow-capped peaks high above.

Evan replaces his socks after walking through the stream
Evan replaces his socks after walking through the frigid stream.
Evan takes the lead hiking into the woods (armed with bear spray and an adventurer's spirit)
Evan takes the lead hiking into the woods, armed with bear spray and an adventurer’s spirit!

Truly, the people aboard Rainier know how to enjoy the gift of life.  And I feel honored, flattered, privileged, and happy to be included among these new friends on their great adventures.

Beautiful waterfall in Red Bluff Bay
A beautiful waterfall that Theresa, Evan, and I explored in Red Bluff Bay

Robert Ulmer: Just Keep Walking, June 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰56.023’, W 133⁰56.343’

(at Frederick Sound in Keku Strait off Kake, Alaska)

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 22, 2013

Weather conditions: 14.08⁰C, overcast skies with increasing cloud coverage, 92.82% relative humidity, 1014.29 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3.5 knots with a heading between 10⁰ and 19⁰)

Passing cruise ship
This large cruise ship is one of many seagoing vessels ships in Southeastern Alaska that rely on NOAA-produced nautical charts for safe navigation.

Explorer’s Log:  Long days on the trail

Fog in the morning at the mouth of Bay of Pillars
Thick fog had settled on Chatham Strait, where the launches would be surveying for the day, as seen from the ship’s anchored location in Bay of Pillars.

When we think about explorers, we usually focus on the “big moments” – the crescendos of excitement that build as the storytellers regale us with tales of daring escapes from danger, amazing sights visible only from the summit, or exotic flavors tasted upon the foreign shore.  But life-long explorers know that those moments are far outnumbered by the sometimes seemingly endless minutes or hours, days or weeks, maybe even months or years of simply walking the path, step after step after step, watching the slow passing of tree after tree after tree.

Those less thrilling hours rarely are described in the grand adventure stories, but in those countless footfalls lie many of the greatest parts of exploration, for it is only in those moments that the explorer has time to ponder.

Smooth water and thick fog
Smooth water and thick fog are common conditions in the navigable waterways of Southeast Alaska, underscoring the importance of good nautical charts.

In 1905 a very bright young man in his mid-twenties worked for a few years as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland.  Although the post gave him access to interesting new inventions and processes being developed in electronics, thermodynamics, mechanics, and communications, his job often required him to grind through the daily routine of receiving, reviewing, and filing thousands upon thousands of technical and administrative documents, tasks which his brilliant mind could achieve without much effort.  Not too exciting, perhaps.  But it is only in that easy comfort of performing the same routine behaviors minute after minute that the young clerk found the quiet sanctuary to evaluate and synthesize a miasma of strange ideas and eventually synthesize them into five papers about matter, time, energy, space, and motion that would revolutionize the field of physics.

Indeed, not every person is Albert Einstein, but all explorers sometimes find themselves in that “cruise control” mode, where the body knows the routine mechanics to perform, and so the mind can invest in a different sort of exploration.  Inward.

A small cruise ship passing in Bay of Pillars
Small cruise ships can navigate deep into scenic waterways, like Bay of Pillars along Chatham Strait.
TAS Rob Ulmer casts the CTD device
Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer uses the winch aboard launch vessel RA-6 to cast the CTD device, which gathers data about conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water in the column from the surface to the sea floor.

A gardener mowing back and forth across the lawn, a painter applying the brush line after overlapping line to cover the wall, and a swimmer pulling stroke after stroke to swim his half-mile of warm-up laps all gain skill with their craft over hours or miles or practice, and so their minds can be freed to wander a bit, perhaps contemplating more deeply the patterns in the passing clouds, maybe solving a puzzle that has been teasing at the edge of consciousness, or maybe considering how a hedge of heather might look if planted in a certain area of the landscape.  Or – just as meaningfully – maybe the explorer in those moments revisits something far more personal or spiritual or metaphysical, some conundrum or quandary or dilemma, whether recent or from long ago, in a way that is available only because of the serenity of the repetition.  Sometimes such musings simply aren’t accessible when the mind is occupied with more accelerated or more cumbersome activity.

The CTD and the winch mechanism
This winch mechanism can lower the CTD device (the tube to the left) through many fathoms of water.
AB Jeff Mays casting the "fish" with the MVP
AB Jeff Mays casting the “fish” with the MVP

And as the explorer’s mastery of basic skills evolves from novice toward more expert levels, his place on the learning curve changes, as well.  The learning curve where the novice stands is steep, as every bit of investment offers the possibility of relatively fast and tremendous growth, while the marginal returns for the wise and skilled explorer of the craft come subtly from patient observation and insight.  For the rookie woodworker, for example, every spin of the lathe is an iteration of powerful change to be controlled and investigated and marveled at, but the more advanced craftsman who has milled thousands of dowels in his journey toward expertise in his craft has room during the lathe-work to possibly discover some small nuance about cutting bevels or reading grains that would be lost even if offered to the rookie in his excited novitiate mindset.

Operating the MVP
AB Tony Nielsen operates the Moving Vessel Profile (MVP) to cast and recover the “fish” as Rainier conducts a multi-beam survey of the sea floor in Chatham Strait.
 "Fish" in the water
The “fish” in the water

Some of my own moments of greatest inspiration have arrived when my friend Rien and I have been wordlessly walking the autumnally brisk trails of the North Georgia mountains.  No longer burdened with the previously-taxing questions of how to deal with unstable rocks at my feet or what gait to use on a certain downhill slope, in those miles of simply continuing to walk forward my cleared mind has unfolded complete verses of poetry, bits of insight about soccer or macroeconomics or how to differently arrange the gear in my backpack, even exact phrasings for whole lessons or assessments to be used in my classroom.  Those thoughts simply couldn’t have reached such clarity in the exciting exhaustion of the first morning’s climb up Amicalola Falls.

Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail
Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail

Yesterday morning, after Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves finished the usual pre-launch meeting on the fantail and dismissed the crews to their boats (with my shift remaining aboard the ship to learn some data processing skills), I began one of my most common activities aboard Rainier, taking photographs of the scene.  Pictures of the FOO and the Chief Boatswain coordinating launch activities, pictures of the rest of the crew at work, pictures of the ship herself, pictures of the waters and land features surrounding the ship…  all very routine.

Fog and rock in distance as launch vessel departs to survey Chatham Strait
This is the view forward across the bow of NOAA Ship Rainier as a launch vessel departs to survey the sea floor of Chatham Strait.
Closer view of fog over rock
Isn’t it difficult to not see the fog above the rock island now that you’re looking for it?

But then it happened.  I noticed in the distance beyond the bow of the ship a slight something.  Something different than usual.  A small hemispherical island – a rock, really – extending ten feet or so above the waterline, protruding through the fog that hovered ethereally a few feet above the water in every direction.  But it was the fog that caught my eye.  The fog didn’t just surround the rock; it blanketed the rock at not quite exactly the same elevation that it otherwise maintained above the nearby sheet of flat, still water.  And in the quiet comfort of my rote and repeated clicking of the shutter, I had an epiphany, a sudden symphonic upwelling of clarity about pressure and temperature and fluid dynamics and light that simply could not have happened if my thoughts had been cluttered with hasty necessities of rapid activity.

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran McBride discuss survey data in the plot room.
FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran discuss survey data in the plot room.

Like most insights, I’m not sure if or when that particular bit of understanding will ever matter again in my future, but at the moment it was pure and good in its value to the core of my inner explorer:  I saw something that I had not seen before.

Full of surprises!
Some very exciting information during multi-beam surveying aboard the launch vessel surprises TAS Rob Ulmer and HAST Curran.
Boys will be boys
A whole day of surveying aboard the launch vessel can become a long venture in close quarters!

So where does this soliloquy about walking the long and quiet path fit with my experiences aboard NOAA Ship Rainier?  For the past several days and for the next several coming days, two or three small, crewed launch vessels per day (and often the ship herself) are painting overlapping swaths of sonar across the sea floor in Chatham Strait.  Back, forth, back, forth….

Imagine mowing an enormous lawn miles long at a slow walking pace with a lawnmower that needs constant adjustment and calibration every time you pass a tree or shrub, all the while keeping data about the thickness of the grass, the color of the soil beneath, the amount of dew on the blades, and the exact rotational velocity of the motor.  And this lawn is not just enormous by usual standards, either.  It’s miles long, miles wide.  Rain, snow, wind, uneven ground, you just keep mowing.  And when you get finished for the day, not only do you know that you have dozens of days left before you finish mowing this lawn as it continues over the horizon, but you also discover as you look back out with your special viewing machinery at home that there are a few spots that you missed on the first pass and must clean up tomorrow before you can move forward, maybe because the mower blade malfunctioned, or maybe because the ground underneath was slightly tilted as you passed above it.  But you keep mowing, both because you want the job done, but also because you love the work and take great pride in your work product.

The boys finally reach a resolution in their debate about survey data.

Replace it with painting a giant wall, and the analogy to multi-beam sea floor hydrographic surveying still is nearly perfect.

Oh, and don’t forget that you have a partner at home who will spend hours analyzing every bag of grass clippings, sorting and organizing and then weaving every single blade of grass into a beautiful and varied quilt of fabric that she makes from the piece that you bring her after painstakingly separating out random bugs and sticks leaves from trees and shrubs that look like grass but aren’t….  Whew!  This partner (following the analogy) is a member of the post-launch evening processing crew, by the way, who begins work as soon as the launch vessels return and doesn’t finish until hundreds of lines of data have been uploaded, converted into other numerical and graphical forms, and then “cleaned” for initial post-survey analysis aboard ship before being more thoroughly analyzed for months or years at NOAA shore-side labs and offices before ultimately evolving into published nautical charts or other useful end-products.

Painting the floor
Launch vessel RA-4 “paints” the huge floor of Chatham Strait one slow swath at a time.
Same fishing boat, another pass
Aboard launch vessel RA-6, we passed this fishing boat several times while surveying a “polygon” of Chatham Strait.

Day after day, mile after mile, the NOAA survey teams explore the seas, quietly walking their own trail so that other explorers can more safely navigate their treks, as well.  And every once in an inspired while, the hydrographer can be heard uttering a gleeful, “Aha!” about some insight discovered along the way.

Keep walking, my friends, even when the trail is long.  Sometimes it is there that you will do your best exploring.

Passing a fishing boat
Another pass of the same fishing boat.  A long day for both crews, perhaps, but at least the magnificent scenery leaves plenty of room for pondering.

Rob Ulmer: Preparing to Leave Home, May 13, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Robert Ulmer
(Not yet aboard) NOAA Ship Rainier
At sea from June 16 to July 3, 2013
(Still home in Gainesville, Florida, N 29 42 30, W 82 22 48)

Mission: Hydrographic survey
Geographical area of cruise: Along the coast of Alaska, from Juneau to Kodiak
Log date: May 12, 2013

Personal Log

For as long as I can remember, I have loved maps. A good map is an invitation to explore, to let the mind wander in distant lands, among unfamiliar environs, and into new challenges, but always with the advice of the explorers who walked there earlier. Imagine being the first person to cross a dense bit of jungle or a vast glacier, to find an underground passageway of ancient caves, or to walk on the surface of some planet. Certainly, you or other people might have created speculative pictures in your head before your journey, hypotheses about what you might find. But those hypotheses must be tested, verified, investigated. The explorer bravely takes the advice of others, the creative ideas that grow from his own previous experiences and imaginings, and whatever other tools fit into his kit, and he walks forward.

That is what we humans are. Explorers.

Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain
Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain

Even young children are scientists. Starting from very little background knowledge, they do that most human of activities: They wonder. Uninhibited by the social structures of the adult world, they spend nearly all of their waking moments drawing new maps in their heads. Maps of the paths of beetles crossing the yard, maps of the grocery store aisles, maps of best hiding places on the playground or in the house… but not only geographic maps. They also “draw maps” of how to talk Mom into an extra snack, how to fill the bathtub with bubbly water, and how to put on a shirt.

Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island
Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island

When Euclid wrote Book 1 of his Elements, he laid down a road map of proofs so that others could confidently follow him to the Pythagorean Theorem. When Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers made drawings of their flying machines, they were mapping the paths that they had trod toward liberating humans from the clutches of Earth’s gravity. And when Grandpa wrote the recipe for his excellent gumbo, he, too, was a cartographer, taking notes about how he had done the work so that others might learn from it and, maybe, expand it into something more meaningful and delicious in their own lives.

The land and surrounding waters of Alaska have captivated humans for many ages. The majesty of the advancing and receding glaciers as they slowly carve valleys amid the mountains, the freedom of the soaring flights of eagles as they look down upon the rarely-visible orcas and belugas, the mystic palette of icy blues and whites against the vernal greens and floral splashes… People travel to, through, along, and across Alaska for commerce, for sightseeing, for escape, and for investigation, and the maps of those who have gone before them make those passages easier and more interesting, both by providing guideposts and by leaving other details to be explored by the new travelers with their own curiosities and motivations.

When I join CDR Rick Brennan (who is both the Commanding Officer and the Chief Science Officer of the ship), Executive Officer Holly Jablonski, and the rest of the crew of NOAA Ship Rainier in a few weeks, I will be learning how skilled scientists continue the grand tradition of mapmaking, using modern equipment to plumb the depths and chart the coasts from Juneau to Kodiak, updating the notes made by previous explorers so that the next travelers will have the confidence of our data before they add their own interesting pieces to their own maps. By participating actively in the expedition, I will be mapping new territory for my students and myself, too, as I gain first-hand evidence of how scientists in the field conduct the business of their science. Remember that more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface is covered with water, and we have more than 100 miles of atmosphere above our heads, and yet we’ve barely begun to explore those regions of our own home world. That makes the work and leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even more important because they are pioneers at this early stage in human exploration of those parts of our planet.

Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia
Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia

Don’t you wonder what it might have been like to hang out with Galileo as he peered through his telescope, to sit next to Beethoven as he composed and edited a symphony, or even to watch the patient musings of Mendel as he gardened peas season after season? I do. It’s difficult to remember what it felt like to be a young explorer, unburdened by almost any preconceptions. But exploration is always available if we are willing to open our eyes and minds, and to get our hands dirty while investigating our own surroundings.

Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island
Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island

And when I return to my 8th-grade classroom in tiny land-locked Lake Butler, Florida, at Lake Butler Middle School,  I’ll be able to share my own first-hand experiences and explorations aboard Rainier. I look forward to feeling the excitement bubble from inside me to capture the curiosities of my kids, as I act out the launching of depth-finding devices, display real data from my cruise, and share stories, notes, pictures, and videos to help them see and smell and hear what I witnessed. I look forward to my students’ questions after I return as much as I am excited about my own questions now. And I know that I won’t be able to answer all of those questions, but that’s the beauty of exploration: The students’ own wonderings will lead them to continue the explorations themselves, to enhance the maps with new notes, new details, and new points of interest.

Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab
Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab
View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida
View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida

Teachers always are motivating their students to dig in, to investigate, to think for themselves and take chances with new and creative ideas. Of course, my students read to learn what others before them have discovered, but they learn in other and sometimes more meaningful ways by designing and building their own rockets, by lifting heavy weights with different sets of pulleys, and by constructing legitimate scale models of their home solar system. As a teacher, I have great influence over the young people in my care, and so I also must explore so that my students can trust my insistence that learning by active engagement is necessary and a real commitment for life-long learning. By leaving the comfort of my home to conduct hydrographic surveys along the coast of Alaska with the crew of Rainier, I hope to model that commitment.

Students building models at Kennedy Space Center
Students building models at Kennedy Space Center

A last note: There’s something very poetic and temporal about starting my cruise at Juneau and ending it at Kodiak. Juneau is the capital of the state of Alaska, and Kodiak was the regional capital when Alaska was Russian territory. Moreover, regardless of the political boundaries, people of different tribes and nations have lived in the region since long before either country formally existed. Maybe what I’m saying is that the maps always will be re-drawn based on what people want to see in those maps. In some ways, people are just like people always have been, and in other ways they change. So does the land, so does the sea. And so I end this first blog where I started it, by respecting the role of the mapmaker as a trailblazer, a note-taker, a guide, and an explorer.

Keep exploring, my friends. And follow my blog here to travel with me and see where my explorations go next. Thanks for reading.