Caitlin Fine: Flexibility! August 6, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Fine
Aboard University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith
August 2 – 7, 2011

Mission: South Florida Bimonthly Regional Survey
Geographical Area: South Florida Coast and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 6, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 4:24pm
Air Temperature: 31.6°C
Water Temperature: 32.6°C
Wind Direction: Southwest
Wind Speed:  4 knots
Seawave Height: calm
Visibility: good/unlimited
Clouds: partially cloudy (cumulous and cirrus clouds)
Barometer: 1013nb
Relative Humidity: 62%

Science and Technology Log

Many of you have written comments asking about the marine biology (animals and plants) that I have seen while on this cruise. Thank you for your posts – I love your questions! In today’s log, I will talk about the biology component of the research and about the animals that we have been finding and documenting.

We have another graduate student aboard, Lorin, who is collecting samples of sargassum (a type of seaweed).

Sargassum sample from Neuston net tow

There are two types of sargassum. One of those types usually floats at the top of the water and the other has root-like structures that help it attach to the bottom of the ocean.

Lorin is filtering a sample from the Neuston net in the web lab

We are using a net, called a Neuston net, to collect samples of sargassum that float. The Neuston net is towed alongside the ship at the surface at specific stations. This means that the ship drives in large circles for 30 minutes which can make for a rocky/dizzy ride – some of the chairs in the dry lab have wheels and they roll around the floor during the tow!

Towing the Neuston net along the side of the ship

Lorin and other researchers are interested in studying sargassum because it provides a rich habitat for zooplankton, small fish, crabs, worms, baby sea turtles, and marine birds. It is also a feeding ground for larger fish that many of you may have eaten, such as billfish, tuna, and mahi mahi.

Small crab that was living in the sargassum

The net not only collects sargassum, but also small fish, small crabs, jellyfish, other types of seaweed, and small plankton.

Small fish from the Neuston net

Plankton can be divided into two main categories: zooplankton and phytoplankton. As I  said in my last post, phytoplankton are mostly very small plants or single-celled organisms that photosynthesize (they make their own food) and are the base of the food chain. Zooplankton are one level up on the food chain from phytoplankton and most of them eat phytoplankton. Zooplankton include larva (babies) of starfish, lobster, crabs, and fish.

Small zooplankton viewed through the dissecting microscope

We also use a Plankton net to collect samples of plankton. This has a smaller mesh, so it collects organisms that are so small they would fall through the Neuston net. Scientists are interested in studying the zooplankton that we catch in the Plankton net to understand what larger organisms might one day grow-up and live in the habitats we are surveying. They study the phytoplankton from the Plankton net to see what types of phytoplankton are present in the water and in what quantities.

Washing off the Plankton net

Today we collected so many diatoms (which are a type of phytoplankton) in the Neuston net that we could not lift it out of the water! This tells us that there are a lot of nutrients in the water (a diatom bloom) – maybe even harmful levels. I am bringing some samples of the diatoms and zooplankton home with me so we can look at them under the microscopes at school!

Evidence of a diatom (phytoplankton) bloom in the Gulf of Mexico

The marine biologists on this cruise are mainly interested in looking at phytoplankton and zooplankton, but we also have seen some larger animals. I have seen many flying fish skim across the surface of the water as the boat moves along. I have also seen seagulls, dolphins, sea turtles, cormorants (skinny black seabirds with long necks), and lots of small fish.

Small flying fish from the Newston net

Personal Log

Working as an oceanographer definitely demands flexibility. I have already mentioned that we chased the Mississippi River water during our second day. After collecting samples, we had to find blue water (open ocean water) to have a control to compare our samples against.  We traveled south through the night until we were about 15 miles away from Cuba before finding blue water. All of this travel was in the opposite direction from our initial cruise plan, so we have had to extend our cruise by one day in order to visit all of the stations that we need to visit inside the Gulf of Mexico. This has meant waking-up the night shift so we can all change their airplane tickets and looking at maps to edit our cruise plan!

Changes to our cruise plan on the survey map

Many of you are writing comments about sharks – I have not seen any sharks and I will probably not see any. The chief scientist, Nelson, has worked on the ocean for about 33 years and he has sailed for more than 1,500 hours and he has only seen 3 sharks. They mostly live in the open ocean, not on the continental shelf where we are doing our survey. If there were a shark nearby, our ship is so big and loud that it would be scared away.

Playing with syringodium

Today I saw a group of about 4 dolphins off the side of the ship. They were pretty far away, so I could not take pictures. Their dorsal fins all seemed to exit the water at the same time – it was very beautiful. A member of the crew spotted a sea turtle off the bow (front) of the ship and I saw several different types of sea birds, especially seagulls.

Yesterday afternoon we passed through the Gulf of Mexico near the Everglades and there were storm clouds covering the coastline. The crew says that it rains a lot in this part of the Florida coast and that Florida receives more thunderstorms than any other state. It is strange to me because I always think of Florida as “the sunshine state.”

Grey sky and green water in the Gulf of Mexico

The color of the ocean has changed quite a lot during the cruise. The water is clear and light blue near Miami, clear and dark blue farther away from the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, cloudy and yellow-green in coastal Gulf of Mexico, and cloudy and turquoise in the Florida Bay. Scientists say that the cloudiness in coastal Gulf of Mexico is caused by chlorophyll and the cloudiness in the Florida Bay is caused by sediment.

It has been hot and sunny every day, but the wet lab (where we process the water samples and marine samples), the dry lab (where we work on our computers), the galley and the staterooms are nice and cool thanks to air conditioning! I can tell that I am getting used to being at sea because now when we are moving, I feel as though we are stopped. And when we do stop to take measurements, it feels strange.

Did you know?

NOAA does not own the R/V Walton Smith. It is University of Miami ship that costs NOAA from $12,000 to $15,000 a day to use!

Organisms seen today…

–       Many sea birds (especially seagulls)

–       2 cormorants (an elegant black sea bird)

–       10-12 dolphins

–       1 sea turtle

–       Lots of small fish

–       Lots of zooplankton and phytoplankton (especially diatoms)

–       Sargassum and sea grass

Caitlin Fine: Chemistry Is All Around Us, August 4, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Fine
Aboard University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith
August 2 – 6, 2011

Mission: South Florida Bimonthly Regional Survey
Geographical Area: South Florida Coast and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 4, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 10:32pm
Air Temperature: 30°C
Water Temperature: 30.8°C
Wind Direction: Southeast
Wind Speed:  7.7knots
Seawave Height: calm
Visibility: good/unlimited
Clouds: clear
Barometer: 1012 nb
Relative Humidity: 65%

Science and Technology Log

As I said yesterday, the oceanographic work on the boat basically falls into three categories: physical, chemical and biological. Today I will talk a bit more about the chemistry component of the work on the R/V Walton Smith. The information that the scientists are gathering from the ocean water is related to everything that we learn in science at Key – water, weather, ecosystems, habitats, the age of the water on Earth, erosion, pollution, etc.

First of all, we are using a CTD (a special oceanographic instrument) to measure salinity, temperature, light, chlorophyll, and depth of the water. The instrument on this boat is very large (it weights about 1,000 lbs!) so we use a hydraulic system to raise it, place it in the water, and lower it down into the water.

CTD
Lindsey takes a CO2 sample from the CTD

The CTD is surrounded by special niskin bottles that we can close at different depths in the water in order to get a pure sample of water from different specific depths. Nelson usually closes several bottles at the bottom of the ocean and at the surface and sometimes he closes others in the middle of the ocean if he is interested in getting specific information. For each layer, he closes at least 2 bottles in case one of them does not work properly. The Capitan lowers the CTD from a control booth on 01deck (the top deck of the boat), and two people wearing a hard hat and a life vest have to help guide the CTD into and out of the water. Safety first!

Once the CTD is back on the boat, the chemistry team (on the day shift, Lindsey and I are the chemistry team!) fills plastic bottles with water from each depth and takes them to the wet lab for processing. Throughout the entire process, it is very important to keep good records of the longitude and latitude, station #, depth of each sample, time, etc, and most importantly, which sample corresponds to which depth and station.

We are taking samples for 6 different types of analyses on this cruise: nutrient analysis, chlorophyll analysis, carbon analysis, microbiology analysis, water mass tracers analysis and CDOM analysis.

The nutrient analysis is to understand how much of each nutrient is in the water. This tells us about the availability of nutrients for phytoplankton. Phytoplankton need water, CO2, light and nutrients in order to live. The more nutrients there are in the water, the more phytoplankton can live in the water. This is important, because as I wrote yesterday – phytoplankton are the base of the food chain – they turn the sun’s energy into food.

Carbon
Sampling dissolved inorganic carbon

That said, too many nutrients can cause a sudden rise in phytoplankton. If this occurs, two things can happen: one is called a harmful algal bloom.  Too much phytoplankton (algae) can release toxins into the water, harming fish and shellfish, and sometimes humans who are swimming when this occurs.  Another consequence is that this large amount of plankton die and fall to the seafloor where bacteria decompose the dead phytoplankton.  Bacteria need oxygen to survive so they use up all of the available oxygen in the water. Lack of oxygen causes the fish and other animals to either die or move to a different area. The zone then becomes a “dead zone” that cannot support life. There is a very large dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River. So we want to find a good balance of nutrients – not too many and not too few.

The chlorophyll analysis serves a similar purpose. In the wet lab, we filter the phytoplankton onto a filter.

chlorophyll
I am running a chlorophyll analysis of one of the water samples

Each phytoplankton has chloroplasts that contain chlorophyll. Do you remember from 4th grade science that plants use chlorophyll in order to undergo photosynthesis to make their own food? If scientists know the amount of chlorophyll in the ocean, they can estimate the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean.

Carbon can be found in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) or in the cells of organisms. Do you remember from 2nd and 4th grade science that plants use CO2 in order to grow? Phytoplankton also need CO2 in order to grow. The carbon dioxide analysis is useful because it tells us the amount of CO2 in the ocean so we can understand if there is enough CO2 to support phytoplankton, algae and other plant life. The carbon analysis can tell us about the carbon cycle – the circulation of CO2 between the ocean and the air and this has an impact on climate change.

The microbiology analysis looks for DNA (the building-blocks of all living organisms – kind of like a recipe or a blueprint). All living things are created with different patterns or codes of DNA. This analysis tells us whose DNA is present in the ocean water – which specific types of fish, bacteria, zooplankton, etc.

The water mass tracers analysis (on this boat we are testing N15 – an isotope of Nitrogen, and also Tritium – a radioactive isotope of Hydrogen) helps scientists understand where the water here came from. These analyses will help us verify if the Mississippi River water is running through the Florida Coast right now. From a global viewpoint, this type of test is important because it helps us understand about the circulation of ocean water around the world. If the ocean water drastically changes its current “conveyor belt” circulation patterns, there could be real impact on the global climate. (Remember from 2nd and 3rd grade that the water cycle and oceans control the climate of Earth.) For example, Europe could become a lot colder and parts of the United States could become much hotter.

This is an image of the conveyor belt movement of ocean currents

The last type of analysis we prepared for was the CDOM (colored dissolved organic matter) analysis. This is important because like the water mass tracers, it tells us where this water came from. For example, did the water come from the Caribbean Sea, or did it come from freshwater rivers?

I am coming to understand that the main mission of this NOAA bimonthly survey cruise on the R/V Walton Smith is to monitor the waters of the Florida Coast and Florida Bay for changes in water chemistry. The Florida Bay has been receiving less fresh water runoff from the Everglades because many new housing developments have been built and fresh water is being sent along pipes to peoples’ houses. Because of this, the salinity of the Bay is getting higher and sea grass, fish, and other organisms are dying or leaving because they cannot live in such salty water. The Bay is very important for the marine ecosystem here because it provides a safe place for small fish and sea turtles to have babies and grow-up before heading out to the open ocean.

Personal Log

This cruise has provided me great opportunities to see real science in action. It really reinforces everything I tell my students about being a scientist: teamwork, flexibility, patience, listening and critical thinking skills are all very important. It is also important to always keep your lab space clean and organized. It is important to keep accurate records of everything that you do on the correct data sheet. It can be easy to get excited about a fish or algae discovery and forget to keep a record of it, but that is not practicing good science.

It is important to keep organized records

It is also important to stay safe – every time we are outside on the deck with the safety lines down, we must wear a life vest and if we are working with something that is overhead, we must wear a helmet.

I have been interviewing the scientists and crew aboard the ship and I cannot wait to return to Arlington and begin to edit the video clips. I really want to help my students understand the variety of science/engineering and technology jobs and skills that are related to marine science, oceanography, and ships. I have also been capturing videos of the ship and scientists in action so students can take a virtual fieldtrip on the R/V Walton Smith. I have been taking so many photos and videos, that the scientists and crew almost run away from me when they see me pick up my cameras!

Captain Shawn Lake mans the winch

The food continues to be wonderful, the sunsets spectacular, and my fellow shipmates entertaining. Tomorrow I hope to see dolphins swimming alongside the ship at sunrise! I will keep you posted!!

Did you know?

The scientists and crew are working 12-hour shifts. I am lucky to have the “day shift” which is from 8am to 8pm. But some unlucky people are working the “night shift” from 8pm to 8am. They wake-up just as the sun is setting and go to sleep right when it rises again.

Animals seen today…

zooplankton under the dissecting microscope

–       Many jellyfish

–       Two small crabs

–       Lots of plankton

A sampling of zooplankton

–       Flying fish flying across the ocean at sunset

–       A very small larval sportfish (some sort of bluerunner or jack fish)

Some moon jellyfish that we collected in the tow net