Cathrine Fox: Issue Twelve: Better than any alarm clock

JULY 24 – AUGUST 14, 2011

Mission: Walleye Pollock Survey
Location: Kodiak, Alaska
Date: August 11, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 57deg 22.630N, Longitude: 152.02° W
Air Temperature: 13.6° C
Water temperature: 9.0° C
Wind Speed/Direction: 12kn/240°
Barometric Pressure: 1020.1
Partly cloudy (5%) and sun

Science Log:

Stern of the Oscar Dyson
Stern of the Oscar Dyson

Somewhere back in my family history there must have been a fishmonger, because I’ve been channeling something or someone. The entire process of watching the acoustic footprint of the ocean under the ship, deciding where to physically sample (trawl) populations, and then seeing and processing the fish that live 100 meters or more below us? Fascinating. Add to this camera drops to get snapshots of the ocean floor (more amazing footage this morning), and interesting ‘Methot’ plankton tows to sample what is available for the fish to eat and give a more accurate and complete picture? How many adjectives can I use?

Before we dive too far into the depths, let me explain/refresh what plankton are. Plankton are any drifting organisms that inhabit the water columns of bodies of water. In fact, their name derives from the Greek for “wanderer,” and it would be helpful if you thought of them as drifters in the current…from deep in the ocean to up on the surface. They are generally broken down into plant-like-photosynthesizing plankton (phytoplankton) and animal-like plankton (zooplankton).
Phytoplankton are “photosynthesizing microscopic organisms that inhabit the upper sunlit layer of almost alloceans and bodies of water” (wikipedia). If you have taken biology or forensics with me, I have described some of them ad nauseam: diatoms? Those organisms that are in every body of water on the planet? Ah, yes. I can see it all coming back to you.

Zooplankton encompass a diverse range of macro and microscopic animals. They generally eat the phytoplankton or one another. Examples include krill, copepods, jellyfish, and amphipods.

In the great food web of life, other organisms eat the zooplankton. Among them was a pod of 50+ Humpback whales in the Barnabas Trough off of Kodiak Island. They were exciting enough that I went from being sound asleep to dressed and on the bridge in less than five minutes. Issue 12, Humpback Whales: Better than any alarm clock I have ever known delves into these organisms (Cartoon citations 1, 2, 3 and 4).

Our chief survey technician, Kathy Hough, took a lot of photos the following day as we traveled from Barnabas Trough to Alitak Bay. The three photos that follow and descriptions are courtesy of Kathy.

Adventures in a Blue World, Issue 12
Adventures in a Blue World, Issue 12


Whale tail: Individual humpback whales can be identified by the black/white pattern on the ventral side of the fluke (tail).  The pattern is like a human's fingerprint, unique to one animal.
Whale tail: Individual humpback whales can be identified by the black/white pattern on the ventral side of the fluke (tail). The pattern is like a human’s fingerprint, unique to one animal.
There is evidence of three whales in the photo above: the closest whale's rostrum (blow hole) is visible.  The second whale is diving and you can see the peduncle (the stocky part of the tail before the fluke).  The glassy area in the back of the photo is evidence of a recent dive and is called a "footprint."
There is evidence of three whales in the photo above: the closest whale’s rostrum (blow hole) is visible. The second whale is diving and you can see the peduncle (the stocky part of the tail before the fluke). The glassy area in the back of the photo is evidence of a recent dive and is called a “footprint.”
This Humpback was last seen in this area in 2004, and has not been seen since.  The white marks on its fluke are from a killer whale attack!  Kathy emailled photos of the whales to observers, and they were able to identify individuals!
This Humpback was last seen in this area in 2004, and has not been seen since. The white marks on its fluke are from a killer whale attack! Kathy emailled photos of the whales to observers, and they were able to identify individuals!
All hands on deck... 100+ Humpback Whales.  Darin and Staci.
All hands on deck… 100+ Humpback Whales. Darin and Staci.

Our team of scientists sample plankton using a Methot net, which is fine mesh and captures macroscopic organisms. We sample plankton for the same reason that we physically trawl for fish: we need to make certain what we are “hearing” is what is down there, with a focus on the types and sizes of the plankton. Additionally, knowledge about what and where plankton populations are will help with modeling the entire ecosystem. If you know where the food lives, its abundance and composition, by extension you have a much greater understanding of the predators, both pollock and whale.

(If you get a chance, check out this video about how whales hunt with bubble nets; fascinating!)

Personal Log


I try to spend time on the bridge every morning before breakfast. I bring up a cup of tea and watch the horizon lighten until the sun pushes its way up above the lingering clouds. This morning, I saw the green flash for the first time. The green flash is not a superhero. It is not a myth. It is not a sailor’s fish tail. It is real. Furthermore, if you still don’t believe me, the green flash is in the “bible” of maritime studies, The American Practical Navigator (Bowditch, if you are on a first name basis). I was told by Ensign David Rodziewiczthat “if it is in Bowditch, it must be true.” So there.

The green flash appears on the horizon just after the sun sets or just before it rises. For one moment on that spot the sky looks as if someone broke a green glow stick and smeared a distant florescent mark. As fast as it was there, it is gone. The name is appropriate: green flash. It occurs because light is bent slightly as it passes through the atmosphere (refraction); this bending is greatest on the horizon. Since light is made up of different colors with different wavelengths, the bending causes the colors to be seen separately. Bowditch says it is like offset color printing (nice metaphor, eh?). The red end of the spectrum is first to rise. The blue end of the spectrum is scattered the most by the atmosphere, leaving behind the momentary and memorable second of green.

Evidently, to see the green flash is considered very good luck. I already feel very lucky. I am in one of the most beautiful places in the world, on a ship with interesting and intelligent people, driving around the Gulf of Alaska learning about science and occasionally checking out whales. If I can get luckier than this… well… wow.

Tomorrow is the last day of our cruise, but I have a few more cartoons up my sleeves, so keep checking back. In the meantime, thank you to the incredible staff of the Oscar Dyson, the scientists of MACE, my rockin’ cohort Staci, and the NOAA Teacher at Sea program.

Until our next adventure,

p.s. Whales have the worst morning breath I have ever smelled. I know it isn’t really their fault–imagine having 270-400 baleen sheets on either side of your mouth that you could get krill stuck in…

Take it to the Bridge...
Take it to the Bridge…
Oscar Dyson, me mateys.
Oscar Dyson, me mateys.

Chris Harvey, June 8, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Harvey
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
June 5 – July 4, 2006

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical Area: Central Pacific Ocean, Hawaii
Date: June 8, 2006

Science and Technology Log 

A splash of water on my face, a trip to the head, and a brief breakfast before work…that is all I wanted as I laid in bed at 7:15. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune today.  I wasn’t even looking for a penny on heads. All I wanted was a nice day full of sunshine and subtle rocking, and maybe a little “scientific work” on the side.

But today I officially became a man!  At least, I’m going to put in my application now to become a man!  I was interrupted from my breakfast of a sausage patty and fresh fruit by Garrett, one of the more experienced scientists onboard, to tell me that I had a meeting to attend. I was previously told that work began at 8 AM sharp, so my intentions were to enjoy my breakfast and then begin work at 8 AM sharp.  Instead, I skipped the rest of breakfast, lubed up in suntan lotion, and hit the fantail of the ship for the first part of a very long day.

We set 160 traps around Necker Island yesterday afternoon.  And after leaving them overnight, our task was to haul them up in the morning, take our catch to the lab to be scanned, weighed, and measured, re-bait the traps, and then stack them on the fantail to be set in new locations later in the day. Each scientist had a different job on the SETTE assembly line.  There were 1) the “crackers,” who opened the traps, removed any catch, and then re-baited the trap; 2) the “runner,” who brought the empty trap down the line and dropped off the bucket with the catch at the intermediary wet lab; 3) the intermediary wet lab, who took the fresh catch into the wet lab for examination, and brought the measured catch back to a trash can filled with salt water to act as a holding pen until the catch could be re-inserted where they were taken from at the bottom of the ocean (our scientists took great care to ensure that each lobster was returned very close to where it was taken from by dropping them to the ocean floor in a cage with a quick release. Rather than just tossing them overboard, where predators could eat them on the way down, the lobster are securely released in their natural habitat.);  4) the wet lab scientists, who took the catch and performed the required measurements on them; and 5) the stackers, who took the empty, re-baited traps and stacked them on the fantail to await being reset.

I was a stacker today, and will be again tomorrow until my rotation is up.  Stackers have the most difficult job because they have to stack the traps four high and then maneuver them across the deck and arrange them in a way so as not to clutter the deck.  Then, when everyone else’s job is done for the day, stackers are responsible for maneuvering the same traps across the same deck in order to be set later in the afternoon.  In addition, stackers have the joy of “swabbing the deck,” as I say in a not-so-good attempt to speak Pirate (Cakawww! My sister!  Cakawww!). Yes, that means we get to scrub the fish blood and any other acquired nastiness from the deck with our toothbrushes!  (Just kidding about the toothbrushes. We still use them to brush our teeth.  We got to use regular, long-handled brushes for this task.  But that doesn’t mean it was any easier or any more fun!)

We set 10 lines of 8 traps and 4 lines of 20 traps for a total of 160 traps in the water yesterday.  So from 8 AM until about 1:30 PM we hauled in the traps.  The hardest part of this was actually waiting for the ship to reposition after each string of traps.  If we had one string of 160 traps, the job wouldn’t have taken so long.  But we had to reposition the ship 14 times!

About 15 minutes after I stacked the last of the traps, I was given the order to begin setting them again.  Talk about government work!  Dig one hole, then turn around and fill it with sand! We set traps from about 1:45 until 4:00, with 20 minutes or so to clean the deck. I think the hardest part of the job was actually watching the deck go from being entirely empty, to entirely full, and then right back to being empty again.  That makes you feel like you haven’t done a thing at all, and you are so darn tired at the end of it all.

But a rewarding thing, aside from the collection of great scientific data, was that we got to throw all of the old bait over the side of the ship.  What do you think would take joy at the sight (or rather, smell) of rotten, dead fish?  That’s right boys and girls, sharks!!!!  In a matter of minutes we had about a dozen Galapagos sharks, raging from about 6 to 10 feet in length, fighting each other for the old mackerel.  The entire ship, crew and scientists, gathered around the side to watch the sharks fight it out about 8 feet below.  That was pretty cool! I offered to throw Amee overboard, but she didn’t want to go.  She said only if I went first. So I took a diving knife in my teeth, in the style of a true Pirate, and jumped over board to wrestle with the sharks!  (Can you tell it’s been a long day? Of course, I didn’t wrestle with the sharks.  But I did offer to throw Amee overboard!)

After the long day of stacking and resetting the traps and swabbing the deck, I ate a brief dinner and watched the end of a movie.  At this point I was notified that people were bottom fishing again outside.  Those of you who know me know that I cannot turn down a chance to bottom fish, even if I am exhausted!  So I headed outside to participate in the action.

But rather than fishing myself, I watched everyone else fish for a while.  One thing that I have learned over the years is to enjoy enjoyment. When other people have an opportunity to enjoy themselves, sometimes it is best for me just to sit back and let them.  So rather than fight my way into the fishing rotation, I let my colleagues fish away.  Believe it or not, some of them have never gone fishing before!  We used hydraulic wenches to fish anyway. And that didn’t seem like true fishing to me.  But since our goal was to catch fish in about 100 fathoms (600 feet) of water, you can count me out of fighting a fish all the way to the surface.

About midway through our fishing expedition, the sharks started showing up again.  Kenji, one of the ship’s crewmembers, caught a very nice sized snapper, but only managed to bring in a very nice sized head.  A shark got the rest of the body! He later landed a good-sized grouper. It seemed strange at first to fish from the ship.  But with scientific permits, we are able to collect specimen for measurements and population density studies. And after the fish have been chilled, the scientists cut into them and look for certain parts that tell them certain things (I don’t have a great memory of what parts they look for, and although I am a fan of eating fish, cutting them up has never been my favorite thing so I stay away from it as much as possible.).

Around sunset, I was given a chance to fish and, despite my focus on seeing a green flash (we saw one the first night at sea), I took over on the fishing wench.  As soon as my line hit bottom I had a fish on.  Huntley, another crewmember and now good friend of mine, told me to wait a couple more minutes to see if any more fish would take any more of the 4 baited hooks (we fished with 5 hooks in total).  I waited and it seemed as though I had at least another fish on, so I began to haul in the line.  Anyone who has ever fished knows that most, if not all, of the excitement of fishing comes from the anticipation of the catch.  The fishing line bridges the world above water to the world under water and, without singing the Little Mermaid song “Under the Sea,” I think it is our fascination with the unknown that makes this bridge so exciting.  In all my patience, I expected to have the largest and best catch. I am known for that sort of thing.  And about 30 or 40 feet from the surface, I felt my line jerk up and down really hard several times.  Had this occurred while my bait was on the bottom, I would have become very excited.  However, I knew exactly what that meant.  I hauled the line up to the surface and to my disbelief, the shark that took my fish also took my five-pound lead weight!  Jeff, the ship’s doctor and my fishing buddy, commented on the fact that some shark was going to be regretting its decision to swallow the weight. I laughed, but then thought about the countless Shark Week episodes I watched as a kid where they split open freshly caught sharks to examine their stomachs.  Sharks will truly eat anything.  Including nosy British girls who won’t stop staring over my shoulder as I type (Amee is standing behind me reading every word I write, making sure that I do not write poorly of her anymore!)

No green flash at sunset tonight.  But a beautiful “Miami Dolphin Sunset,” as I call it, when the sky is full of the Miami Dolphin’s shades of aqua and orange.  We are watching Groundhog Day tonight, and I am already late!  They say we are watching it because setting and hauling traps becomes one continuous blur of a day.  I believe them after a day like today.  Eight full, and much needed, hours of sleep will be immediately followed by a splash of water on my face, a trip to the head, and a brief breakfast before work…

Jennifer Richards, September 8, 2001

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jennifer Richards
Onboard NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown
September 5 – October 6, 2001

Mission: Eastern Pacific Investigation of Climate Processes
Geographical Area: Eastern Pacific
Date: September 8, 2001

Latitude: 19º 57.1N
Longitude: 108º 21.4W
Temperature: 30.0ºC
Seas: Sea wave height: 2-3 feet
Swell wave height: 3-4 feet
Visibility: 10-12 miles
Cloud cover: 4/8
Water Temp: 29.4ºC

Science Log

Today I met with the radar scientists from Colorado State University (Ft. Collins, Colorado). These guys are meteorologists who are studying the internal structure of storms over tropical oceans. As radar scientists, they rely primarily on radar systems for obtaining data. They are using pretty sophisticated equipment and software for their research, and have been spending the last several days just getting everything set up.

Although all four members of this group – Dr. Rob Cifelli, Dr. Walt Peterson, Mr. Bob Bowie and Dr. Dennis Boccippio – are very nice guys with a great sense of humor, from my perspective, they are somewhat the villains on the ship. These guys are hoping we will encounter storms- lots of them- the bigger, the better. Have any of you seen the movie “The Perfect Storm?”

Here’s some background information that will help you understand the research this group is working on. Storms on land and storms on the ocean tend to be about the same size vertically, but the way they function internally is quite different. On land, storms can be generated over pretty short periods of time, and can run themselves out pretty quickly. A lot of people in the mid-west are familiar with the daily rain storms that hit during summer afternoons- suddenly coming out of nowhere, and then disappearing as fast as they arrived. This is because land is full of heat pockets. You could have rivers, farms, asphalt and concrete highways, homes, and forests, and they all heat and cool at different rates. The differences in the rate of heating cause pressure gradients, which can lead to volatile weather conditions.

The ocean does not contain heat pockets the way the land does, and therefore, the air above the ocean heats more slowly. Pressure gradients in the air above the ocean are not as steep, so when storms are generated over the ocean, they grow slowly over long periods of time, and can become quite large. Do you remember hearing in the news about hurricanes? The weathermen will track hurricanes for many days to see where it is moving and how large it is getting. This is an example of an ocean storm growing slowly to a very large size.

If we can understand how storms form and behave in a certain area, it will help us understand the climate in that area. If you want to learn about the climate of San Diego, California, for example, it’s not very hard. You can visit the library and find all sorts of documents about the climate and typical weather conditions. There have been weather stations in San Diego for at least a hundred years, and there is plenty of data that has been collected. There aren’t too many surprises.

But what do we really know about climate over the oceans? Not a whole lot. Storms heat the atmosphere and affect the climate. NASA and NASDA (the Japanese Space Agency) have a satellite called TRMM (Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission) provides data about storms from very far away, but we don’t have oceans full of weather stations to show us exactly what’s going on at the surface and in the troposphere. Plus, TRMM can only measure what it sees from the sky- the tops of storms. You have to be on the ocean to see the rest of the storm. And since the satellite passes over each location on earth only twice a day, the data can be up to 12 hours old. When’s the last time you heard of a storm that hadn’t changed in 12 hours?

How do the atmosphere and the ocean interact? How are storms in the tropics different from storms in the mid-latitude regions? What impact does the tropical ocean water have on the air above it? What impact does it have on storms that form over it? That’s where this group from Colorado State University comes into the picture. The R/V RONALD H. BROWN is equipped with a Doppler Radar system that uses microwaves to echo off of condensed water, ice crystals, and hail. It can create 3D profiles of storms within 150 km of the ship. A satellite can only see the top of the storm, but the radar system on the ship can see the internal structure of it. And if we happen to be in the middle of a big storm, the radar can see everything going on around us for the duration of the storm (not just once every 12 hours, like the TRMM satellite). Unfortunately, hurricane Henrietta was too far away to effectively measure with the radar. These guys will also be launching weather balloons from the ship to gather additional atmospheric data in the sky above us.

What can the world hope to learn from the research being done by this group? Well, if we have a better understanding of how storms are behaving in the tropics, we will have a better understanding of the factors affecting ocean climate. Since events such as El Niño originate in the tropical area of the Pacific Ocean, this research may help us better understand what causes seasonal climate changes and El Niño and provide better forecasting of such events.

Travel Log: The air temperature is getting much warmer each day, and you can definitely tell we’re in the tropics. One of my students, Kalen, asked if I had seen any wildlife? Excellent question. I forgot to mention earlier that I saw a bunch of flying fish! They were really cool- almost looked like birds jumping out of the ocean, flying 10 or 20 feet, then diving back in. You could see them just about any time you looked for them during the last couple days. We also passed a huge school of at least a hundred porpoises, about a mile away. I’m hoping we’ll see some more a little closer so I can get some pictures for you.

Have you ever heard of sailors seeing a green flash at sunset? Captain Dreves announced last night that the conditions were good to see it, so I ran out on deck. After staring at the horizon a couple minutes I saw what looked like neon green flashes of lightening, only for a second. I waited and waited and finally the sun dipped below the horizon, but I’m not sure if I saw it. I’m not sure if what I saw was THE green flash, or if my eyes were getting strained from staring at the sunset too long. I told Captain Dreves “well, I guess I have 3 and a half more weeks to see it again” and he said “I was at sea 30 years before I saw my first one.” Oh, well.

Question of the day: What causes the green flash that sailors sometimes see at sunset?

Photo Descriptions: Today’s photos show some of the equipment that the group from the Colorado State University are using for their research. Dr. Rob Cifelli and Dr. Walt Peterson are working on the computer to establish the radar settings they will be using to collect data. Bob Bowie is standing at the radar station that controls the Doppler Radar unit on the ship. Dr. Dennis Boccippio inflates a weather balloon, which you see aloft in a separate picture. Finally, all four members of the CSU team pause for a picture.

Keep in touch,