Michael Wing: The Ocean Is Our Front Yard, May 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 26, 2015

Mission: Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Survey
Geographical Area: Northern California coast
Date: May 9, 2015

Science and Technology Log

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you’ve seen our “front yard” many times. You have looked west while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, walked on a beach and faced into the wind, maybe even gone on a whale watching trip. How well do we know it? Besides the fog and wind, the whales and waves, what’s out there? After living here for two decades, I’m going to find out.

What's it like out there?

What’s it like out there?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency of the federal government. They’re the people who run the National Weather Service, among other things. They also do oceanographic research, and through their Teacher at Sea Program they place teachers on oceanographic ships. I am one of those fortunate teachers.

I work at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. Lots of NOAA Teachers at Sea get on an airplane, fly to a distant city, board a big ship and cruise hundreds of miles out to sea; but my experience will be very local. I will never be more than about fifty miles from my house, as the gull flies. In fact, Sir Francis Drake High School is the closest major school to the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where a lot of my time will be spent. I will also be working the waters of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. A marine sanctuary is sort of like a national park that is underwater.

The cruise I will be on is a routine one; part of a scientific program called the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Survey (ACCESS). The California Current is a cold, south-running current; part of a global circulation pattern called the North Pacific Gyre. Upwelling of deep ocean water keeps it fertile. There used to be very productive commercial fishing here, before we caught too many fish in the 20th century. There are still lots of plankton, birds, and marine mammals. The ACCESS cruises happen three or four times each year. We sample, count and/or measure seawater temperature and salinity, plankton, krill, birds and whales and other marine mammals. This way we’ll know the ecological health of our front yard.

Our Front Yard

Our Front Yard

The boat I will work on is specially designed for this environment. NOAA has oceanographic vessels hundreds of feet long for offshore studies, but I will be on the R/V Fulmar, an aluminum-hulled catamaran only 67 feet long. She is technically a “small boat” and not a ship at all. She is fast and stable and six people can sleep on board, as I will. “R/V” stands for “Research Vessel.” A fulmar is a seabird that looks like a stocky gull. It spends nearly all of its life at sea. Northern Fulmars fish in the waters of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. A catamaran is a boat with two side-by-side hulls instead of one. My jobs will include standing watches, doing science, housekeeping chores and keeping this log.

Personal Log

What do I hope to get out of this? We do a plankton lab at my school, but it is very basic. I should be more of a plankton expert after this experience. I have been interested in the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary ever since Drake High became a NOAA Ocean Guardian School last year. We picked up hundreds of pounds of marine plastic debris on the beaches of the Point Reyes National Seashore and analyzed where it comes from. A lot of it is related to commercial crabbing and fishing and international shipping. Also, I and my students read flipper tags on northern elephant seals for the National Park Service, and our seals swim though these waters. So, I’ll keep an eye out for floating plastic and elephant seals.

Really, though, I can’t yet know what this experience will lead to. Serendipity is a guiding principle for most scientists; the word implies luck, chance, surprise, and the wisdom to respond appropriately to the unexpected. It means spotting opportunities and following up on them. Since I’m so local, maybe there will be a way to get a new collaboration going with NOAA. Maybe just being in a new environment with new people will make me think outside of my daily grind. All of my best ideas have come to me while traveling.

Unlike practically every other teacher in the world, I have the same students two years in a row. So if you are one of my wonderful ninth graders now, you will be one of my wonderful tenth graders when I come back from this experience. So, to my wonderful ninth graders now (and ninth-graders-to-be): Follow this blog in July! Post a comment, question, or idea. We’re going to follow up in the fall.

Did you know that Sir Francis Drake missed discovering the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay when he sailed these waters in 1579? (The “Golden Gate” is the channel of water that the bridge crosses over; there was a Golden Gate long before there was a bridge.) We shouldn’t criticize him too harshly for that because the Spanish sailed past the Golden Gate every year for 250 years without seeing it or discovering the bay! Apparently, it doesn’t look like much from out at sea.