Catherine Fuller: Searching for Water in the Ocean, July 9, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 9, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57° 47.549 N
Longitude: 147° 30.222
Wave Height: 0-1 with swell of 4 ft
Wind Speed: 1.7 knots
Wind Direction: 170 degrees
Visibility: 5 nm
Air Temperature:  13.1 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

Ana’s Work: 

iron fish deployment
Dr. Aguilar-Islas oversees the iron fish deployment.
iron fish on deck
The “iron fish” on deck…
iron fish in water
..and in its habitat.

Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas and her team of Annie, Kelsey, and Carrie are studying how the different sources of iron in the Gulf of Alaska influence its chemical structure.  Iron is considered a micronutrient, because it is a nutrient that is needed in lower quantities than silicate, phosphate and nitrate, which are macronutrients. Iron is essential for phytoplankton.  Iron does not easily remain dissolved in ocean water, but has a tendency to precipitate and become a particle.  It is essential for many functions within phytoplankton, including gene function and photosynthesis, so the presence or absence of iron in the water is an indicator of the viability of the ecosystem. 

Testing phytoplankton in both an iron-limited environment and an iron-rich one allows scientists to pinpoint the effect that iron has.  The water in the Gulf of Alaska is notable for having more iron, leading to larger zooplankton as compared to areas, such as Hawaii, where the lack of macronutrients in the water means that they’re much smaller.  The Copper River plume was an example of a naturally occurring source of iron although its decrease is exponential the farther you move from the plume. 

In order to test samples without any contamination from being in an iron ship, Ana’s team created a “bubble” room or a clean space to do testing.  Her samples come directly from the “iron fish,” a collection instrument that is towed along the starboard side of the ship, and a pump on deck sends water through a tube that is carefully strung from the “fish” through the hallways and into the “bubble.”  The team is testing water samples for dissolved iron, particulate iron, and ligands (naturally occurring structures that bind iron and allow it to stay dissolved in seawater).  Both the filtered (any plankton filtered out) and unfiltered samples that Ana’s team collects are also used by other teams to provide context for their own experiments, especially testing the behavior of phytoplankton populations in iron-rich and iron-poor water.

looking in the bubble
The bubble from the outside.
Annie at the bubble
Annie spends many hours patiently taking water samples in the bubble.


The Search for “Perfect” Water

After completing our comprehensive zig-zagging study through the Copper River plume, it was decided to continue on a path south to find HNLC (high nitrate low chlorophyll) water.  We’re specifically looking for water with a salinity over 32.4 psu and nitrates over 3 micromoles. Water like this would be low in iron.  Normally, the lack of iron is a factor that limits photosynthesis,.  However, in areas with these numbers, phytoplankton communities have evolved to survive in an iron-deprived environment. 

What Clay, Suzanne and Ana hope to do is to introduce both Copper River iron-rich water and commercially available iron into samples of these communities to see if a “bloom” or a sudden growth in population will occur.  It’s been a long search so far, taking us through an offshore eddy, watching salinity numbers slowly creep up as we leave the plume’s fresh water influence behind us.  To pass the time, my cribbage board came out and I’ve lost to Pete, Seth and Ana (although I beat Seth once).  To help Suzanne and Ana find their water, Seth stitched together a composite satellite picture of the chlorophyll in the Gulf from images taken over the last few weeks.  This showed an eddy south of the Copper River plume that provided a possible location for the right sampling of water.

Our initial target was 58 degrees N, 146 degrees W, however, we’re continuing on the journey south to see if we can find the right spot.  For a long time, we were towing the Acrobat behind us, trying to get additional readings, however, our speed with the Acrobat is limited to a maximum of 7 kts.  Early this morning, the Acrobat was pulled in and we’re now cruising at about 10 kts.  We’re supposed to move over to the GAK (Seward) line of waypoints after this, but the joke is that we’ll reach GAK 125, i.e. Honolulu, before we find water that fits the parameters we need.

After careful monitoring of our position and the information screens in the computer lab, it seems that our target water is between 57 degrees 21 minutes N between 145 degrees 42.8 minutes W and 145 degrees 39.9 W.  Finding the perfect water is complicated by the number of anomalies in the sea surface. We’re having the bridge go through specific maneuvers to take us back and forth through the target patch of water. As we move through what seems reasonable, Ana’s iron fish will be deployed to start bringing in  “perfect” water samples. 

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies
These anomalies represent changes in sea surface temperature, and in turn in the chemical composition of the water. On the map, you can see the lines we’re surveying from left to right: Kodiak, Seward (GAK) and Middleton.
our course
Our zigzag course: the bridge asked if we were making course lines with an Etch-a-Sketch!

Since last night, there has been at least one person stationed in the computer lab with eyes on the underway data display to monitor the salinity and nitrate levels.  Today, with Dr. Strom, Clay and myself there, we jump every time the nitrate value does.  Once our target patch is isolated, Dr. Strom directs the bridge to zigzag the ship through it to find maximum nitrate values and then radios the iron fish team. It’s 2.1….it’s 2.7…quick! Collect samples!  It’s a crazy system, but for now it’s getting us the best results we can, considering the fluidity and changeability of the ocean. 

I’m not sure what the bridge thinks about our maneuvers, and we’re all imagining what they’re saying! They have been very patient and willing to go along with requests; they’re pretty used to the demands of scientists in search of specific answers.  We’re finding our highest values to be about 3.2 micromoles, and it seems that we’ve also narrowed down the “sweet spot.” In addition, a group of fin whales is moving through the area and is making regular appearances as we trace and retrace our path. At one point, Eric, the captain came down to chat and helpfully volunteered to look up the definition of “zig” and “zag” so that we would have our terminology correct.  Is zig the upward progression or the downward one?

Most of the science done on board is carefully planned and prepared for.  Methodologies are clean and precise in order to produce specific and incontestable results.  Sometimes, however, science requires taking advantage of the situation at hand to find optimum data.  Science can be messy and inexact, too, if the end result is finding the perfect drops of water in the ocean.


Personal Log

We are now over the 50% point in our trip.  It is a bit ironic that as the science team and the crew get to know each better and develop friendships, both sides are also looking ahead to the end of the trip.  It’s been fun to get to know the crew and to discover the personalities that make this ship run so smoothly. 

Our weather has been notably calm so far, with today’s nearly flat seas being the smoothest to date.  We have fog every day; every day the sea surface temperature is higher than the air temperature.  What might that be an indication of? Russ seems to think it’s a fairly unusual pattern.  Even though today’s temperature is in the mid-50s, the stillness and reflected light off the surface of the ocean almost make it seem warmer.  It looks like we can continue to expect fairly calm seas for the next few days, too.  Every day someone posts a weather forecast in the mess hall, and every day the forecast is similar.    

fog bank on the horizon
Seeing fog banks on the horizon is a daily occurrence.

We continue to eat remarkably well.  Today’s lunch was spaghetti or zoodles with eggplant parmigiana, shrimp, and hot veggies.  This week already, we’ve had pecan pies and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert and apple and berry turnovers for breakfast.  The food is definitely one of the benefits of being on this ship!


Did You Know?

The fresh water measured in the Copper River plume equates to a quarter of the yearly excess melt from area glaciers.  The question then is, where does the other three-quarters go?


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Ana: There are nutrients in the water that sea creatures need: large nutrients and small ones.  The small ones are important because they’re needed more often, like vitamins being a more regular part of your diet than hamburgers.


Sea Creatures seen today:

fin whales
A small group of fin whales came near us several times during our zigzag maneuvers.

Alexandra Keenan: Watching for Whales, June 21, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra Keenan
Onboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
June 18 – June 29, 2012

Mission: Cetacean Biology
Geographical area of the cruise: Gulf of Maine
Date: June 21, 2012

Weather data from the bridge:
Air temperature: 15.84° C
Wind speed: 7.42 knots
Wind direction: coming from N
Relative Humidity 94.9%

Science and Technology Log:

We departed from Naval Station Newport (NAVSTA) shortly after 2:00 pm on June 18th. During our first three full days at sea, we have been intermittently retrieving marine acoustic recording units (MARUs–more on this later) and recording whale sightings on Georges Bank.

Georges Bank is an elevated area of sea floor extending from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia. This special place is a feeding ground for cetaceans because the topography and position of the bank result in an upwelling of nutrient-rich water which supports a high level of productivity.

Our day begins at 7:30 am when we begin watch sessions.  Every hour and a half, we rotate through three stations. Scientists at two stations use high-power binoculars, dubbed “big eyes,” while a scientist at another station records sightings.

sighting data entry

Peter Duley enters data from a sighting on the fly bridge.

big eyes

Me on the “big eyes” scanning for whales.

The following information is recorded for each sighting:

  • species
  • position of animal relative to the ship
  • distance of animal from ship
  • number of animals in the group
  • calves (if present)
  • animal behavior (porpoising, swimming, breaching, etc.)
  • swim direction

Environmental conditions and ship position data are recorded concurrently. All of this data can then be used together to monitor certain species and to create statistical models of whale populations.

In this area, we expect to see humpback, sei, fin, pilot, and right whales. In order to distinguish species while on watch, we must take into account a few important characteristics:

Spout: The spout is a column of moist air emitted from the whale’s nostril (blowhole) on its back as it exhales. Right whales and humpbacks have short, bushy spouts, while fin and sei whales have tall, columnar spouts. If the wind is strong, it can be hard to distinguish them. Luckily, there are a couple of other ways to identify whales  from a distance.

Dorsal fin: This is the fin on the whale’s back behind the blowhole. Right whales do not have dorsal fins, and humpback whales have a bit of an extra “hump” on their dorsal fin. Fin and sei whales are slightly more tricky to distinguish. The best way to distinguish them is to recognize that the dorsal fin on a sei whale is taller than on a fin whale. There is also a white coloration pattern forward of the dorsal fin on a fin whale called a chevron. Sei whales do not have these. Fin whales also have white markings on their lower jaws, which sei whales do not have.

Fluke: The fluke is the whale’s “tail.” Humpbacks and right whales show their flukes more often than the others when they dive. Right whales have a very smooth black fluke, while humpback whales have more deeply notched flukes that can range in color from all white to all black.

So far on this cruise we have seen: humpback whales, pilot whales, fin whales, sei whales, minke whales, sperm whales, common dolphins, white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, striped dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, mola-mola, and a Portuguese man o’ war.

No right whales yet, though tomorrow we plan to cross the Great South Channel in order to retrieve more MARUs, with a possibility of a sighting there. There was also an aerial survey over Georges Basin– the extreme northern edge of George’s Bank– today that reported 12 right whales. We hope to see plenty before the cruise is over, as right whales are the species targeted for biopsy and photo-identification on this mission.

Common Atlantic white sided dolphin

Dozens of common dolphins surrounded the ship on June 19th.

dolphins near ship

Dolphins playing around the ship.

Listening to dolphins

Genevieve Davis records dolphin whistles using the ship’s hydrophone as I listen on headphones.

From the starboard 01 weatherdecks (the decks on the right side of the boat when facing forward), I was able to hear the dolphins whistling to each other as they played around the ship on June 19th. Scientists Denise Risch and Genevieve Davis recorded their acoustics using a hydrophone mounted on the ship’s centerboard.

Personal Log:

Henry B. Bigelow

Galley stores are loaded on to Henry B. Bigelow just before departure.

Seeing the Bigelow from my cab as we drove onto the pier on June 17th was a bit of a shock for me. I didn’t realize quite how huge it was going to be. As I sauntered up the gangway with my backpack, I thought there was no way I could get seasick on a ship this big. My confidence grew as we left port on the 18th and I felt fine. By the end of the next day (our first full day at sea), though, I was looking for a rock to hide under. A stationary rock.

Happily, today felt great. I feel like my normal self again, have gotten into the swing of things aboard, and know my way around the ship. Everyone here has been exceptionally welcoming and nice which made the seasickness easy to forget. Tonight the ship had a summer solstice party on the flybridge. The weather was absolutely beautiful– complete with an orange sunset and glassy seas.

survival suit

Me in my survival suit during an abandon ship drill.

Overall, things are going great here. The ship is  comfortable, the food is delicious, and the whale sightings have been absolutely incredible. I could get used to this.

The video below is a short tour of my stateroom.

Happy sailing!

Christopher Faist: Beast or Famine, July 30, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Faist
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
July 20 — August 1, 2011

Mission: Cetacean and Seabird Abundance Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic
Date: July 30, 2011

Weather Data
Air Temp:  19 ºC
Water Temp: 18 ºC
Wind Speed: 12 knots
Water Depth: 64 meters

Science and Technology Log

When traveling in the ocean you never know what you will get.  Scientists can try to predict the weather or the amount of animals that will be seen in a particular area but nothing is as valuable as going to the area and recording what you see.  For the last couple of days we have been traveling in deep water off the continental shelf of the east coast of the United States.  Yesterday, we made a turn toward the edge of the shelf and we were very surprised by what we found.  (Check the Ship Tracker to view our path.)

The ocean can best be described as a patchy, dynamic environment.  Some days we have traveled for hours and not seen a single animal but on days like yesterday, we saw so many animals our single data recorder was busy all day.  Since the start of this cruise we have averaged about 30 sightings a days.  Yesterday, we had 30 sightings in the first 30 minutes of observation and ended with over 115 sightings.

Two Common Dolphins

Two Common Dolphins

Species ranged from abundant Common Dolphin, to rare and elusive beaked whales.  The sighting conditions were so outstanding the Marine Mammal Observers were identifying everything from a small warbler to the second largest whale, a Fin Whale.  Large whales, like Sei and Minke Whales, were concentrated in one area, while the dolphins were seen in other areas.  We passed over several undersea canyons and cetacean abundance over these canyons was like nothing one of the scientists had ever seen.

Two tools in the ship’s wide array of scientific tools, help scientists document the small animals that the whales and dolphins might be feeding on over the top of the canyons.  One is the XBT, or Expendable Bathythermograph, and the second is a VPR, or Video Plankton Recorder.  The XBT is launched from the moving ship to document the temperature  and water density along the ship’s track.  They are inexpensive and record data in real-time, giving accurate and up to date information about the area the animals are most abundant.  The VPR is a tool used at night, while the ship moves slowly, to take pictures of the plankton that occurs along our route.

Example of a VPR image

Example of a VPR image

The combination of temperature, depth and photographs of plankton gives scientists a clear picture of the environment that congregates large densities of cetaceans.  By understanding the factors that contribute to cetacean population changes, scientists are able to make recommendations to lawmakers about how to protect this natural resource from human impact like bycatch from the fishing industry or ship strikes in commonly trafficked shipping lanes.

Personal Log

I am disappointed that we only have two days left on our trip.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at sea.  Crazy weather this morning of 30 knot winds and 6-8 foot seas will not be a fun memory but thankfully, this evening the weather settled down and we watched a beautiful sunset while playing games on the top deck.  I am not sure that I could be a marine mammal observer but I look forward to taking this unique opportunity and turning it into a learning experience for my students.

Since this will be my last post from sea I thought I would leave you with some images of ocean life that was not a marine mammal or seabird.  Enjoy.

Flying Fish

Flying Fish

Blue Shark

Blue Shark

Dusky Shark

Dusky Shark