Data from the Bridge (at beginning of log)
Latitude: 28.07 Longitude: 93.27.45 Temperature: 84°F Wind Speeds: ESE 13 mph large swells
Science and Technology Log
9/21/19-We left Galveston, TX late in the afternoon once the backup parts arrived. After a few changes because of boat traffic near us, were able to get to station 1 around 21:00 (9:00 pm). We baited the 100 hooks with Atlantic Mackerel. Minutes later the computers were up and running logging information as the high flyer and the 100 hooks on 1 mile of 4mm 1000# test monofilament line were placed in the Gulf of Mexico for 60 minutes. My job on this station was to enter the information from each hook into the computer when it was released and also when it was brought onboard. When the hook is brought onboard they would let me know the status: fish on hook, whole bait, damaged bait, or no bait. Our first night was a huge success. We had a total of 28 catches on our one deployed longline.
We caught 1 bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas), 2 tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), 14 sharp nose sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), 2 black tip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus), 7 black nose sharks (Carcharhinus acronotus), and 2 red snappers (Lutjanus campechanus). There were also 3 shark suckers (remoras) that came along for the ride.
I was lucky to be asked by the Chief Scientist Kristin to tag the large tiger shark that was in the cradle. It took me about 3 tries but it eventually went in right at the bottom of his dorsal fin. He was on hook #79 and was 2300mm total length. What a great way to start our first day of fishing. After a nice warm, but “rolling” shower I made it to bed around 1:00 am. The boat was really rocking and I could hear things rolling around in cabinets. I think I finally fell asleep around 3:00.
9/22- The night shift works from midnight to noon doing exactly what we do during the day. They were able to complete two stations last night. They caught some tilefish (Lopholatilus chamaeleonticeps) and a couple sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus). My shift consists of Kristin, Christian, Taniya, and Ryan: we begin our daily shifts at noon and end around midnight. The ship arrived at our next location right at noon so the night shift had already prepared our baits for us. We didn’t have a lot on this station but we did get a Gulf smooth hound shark (Mustelus sinusmexicanus), 2 king snake eels (Ophichthus rex), and a red snapper that weighed 7.2 kg (15.87 lbs). We completed a second station around 4:00 pm where our best catch was a sandbar shark. Due to the swells, we couldn’t use the crane for the shark basket so Kristin tried to tag her from the starboard side of the ship.
We were able to complete a third station tonight at 8:45 pm. My job this time was in charge of data recording. When a “fish is on,” the following is written down: hook number, mortality status, genus and species, precaudal measurement, fork measurement, and total length measurement, weight, sex, stage, samples taken, and tag number/comments. We had total of 13 Mustelus sinusmexicanus; common name Gulf smooth-hound shark. The females are ovoviviparous, meaning the embryos feed solely on the yolk but still develop inside the mother, before being born. The sharks caught tonight ranged in length from 765mm to 1291mm. There were 10 females and 3 male, and all of the males were of mature status. We took a small tissue sample from all but two of the sharks, which are used for genetic testing. Three of the larger sharks were tagged with rototags. (Those are the orange tags you see in the picture of the dorsal fin below).
I spend most of my downtime between stations in the science dry lab. I have my laptop to work on my blog and there are 5 computers and a TV with Direct TV. We were watching Top Gun as we were waiting for our first station. I tried to watch the finale of Big Brother Sunday night but it was on just as we had to leave to pull in our longline. So I still don’t know who won. 🙂 I slept good last night until something started beeping in my room around 4:00 am. It finally stopped around 6:30. They went and checked out my desk/safe where the sound was coming from and there was nothing. Guess I’m hearing things 🙂
Shout out! – Today’s shout out goes to the Sturgeon Family – Ben and Dillon I hope you are enjoying all the pictures – love Aunt Kathy
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico Date: July 18, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge Latitude: 29.43° N Longitude: 86.24° W Wave Height: 1 foot Wind Speed: 7 knots Wind Direction: 220 Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 31°C Barometric Pressure: 1017.5 mb Sky: Few clouds
Over the course of this research experience, I have realized that I was not entirely prepared to assist on this voyage. While I think I have pulled my weight in terms of manpower and eagerness, I quickly realized that not having a background in the biological sciences limits my capacity to identify species of fish. Not growing up in the Gulf region, I am already limited in my understanding and recognition of fish variety through their common names like shrimp, grouper, and snapper. Countless other varieties exist most of which have no commercial fishing value such as boxfish, sea robin, spadefish, and scorpionfish. Fortunately, the microbiology grad student paired with me during wet lab processing has been patient and the fishery biologists assigned to this research party have been informative showing me the basics to fish identification (or taxonomy).
The wet lab aboard Oregon II is the nexus of the research team’s work. While the aft deck and the computer lab adjacent to the wet lab are important for conducting research and collecting data, the wet lab is where species are sorted, identified, and entered into the computer. The lab has a faint smell of dead fish and briny water. While the lab is kept clean, it is hard to wash the salt off the surfaces of the lab entirely after every research station.
Alongside the buckets and processing equipment are textbooks, quick reference guides, and huge laminated charts of fish species. Most of the reference material has distinctive color photographs of each fish species with its scientific name listed as the caption. The books in this lab are focused on Gulf and Atlantic varieties as these are what are likely to be found during the surveys. Fishery biologists have a wealth of knowledge, and they pride themselves on knowing all the species that come through the lab. However, occasionally a variety comes through the lab they cannot identify. Some species are less common than others. Even the experts get stumped from time to time and have to rely on the books and charts for identification. To get experience in this process, the biologists have given me crustaceans to look up. I struggle to make matches against pictures, but I have gotten better at the process over the weeks.
As I have learned more about the scientific names of each species we have caught, I have also learned that scientists use a two-name system called a Binomial Nomenclature. Scientists name animals and plants using the system that describes the genus and species of the organism (often based on Latin words and meaning. The first word is the genus and the second is the species. Some species have names that align close to the common name such as scorpionfish (Scorpaena brasiliensis). Others seem almost unrelated to their common name such as scrawled cowfish (Acanthostracion quadricornis).
Fortunately for those of us who do not identify fish for a living, technology has provided resources to aid in learning about and identifying species of fish we encounter. The FishVerify app, for example, can identify a species, bring up information on its habitat and edibility, and tell you its size and bag limits in area based on your phone’s Global Positioning System (GPS). The app is trained on over a thousand different species with the beta version of the app focused on 150 species caught in the waters of Florida. On our research cruise, we have encountered over 150 species so far.
Did You Know?
The naming system for plant and animal species was invented by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s. It is based on the science of taxonomy, and uses a hierarchical system called binomial nomenclature. It started out as a naming system for plants but was adapted to animals over time. The Linnaean system has progressed to a system of modern biological classification based on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, both living and extinct.
Nearly two weeks into this experience and the end of my time with NOAA aboard Oregon II, I find that I have settled into a routine. Being assigned to the “dayshift,” I have seen several sunsets over my shoulder as I have helped deploy research equipment or managed the bounty of a recent trawls. I have missed nearly all the sunrises as the sun comes up five hours after I have gone to bed.
However, these two features along the horizon cannot match the view I have in the morning or late at night. After breakfast and a shower midmorning, I like to spend about 30 minutes gazing at the water from one of the upper decks. The clean light low along the water accentuates its blueish-green hue. In my mind, I roll through an old pack of crayons trying to figure out what color the water most closely represents. Then I realize it’s the Green-Blue one. It is not Blue-Green, which is a lighter, brighter color. The first part of the crayon color name is an adjective describing the second color name on the crayon. Green-blue is really blue with a touch of green, while blue-green is really green with some blue pigment in the crayon. Green-Blue in the crayon world is remarkably blue with a hint of green. The water I have admired on this cruise is that color.
The Gulf in the east feels like an exotic place when cruising so far away from shore. While I have been to every Gulf state in the U.S. and visited their beaches, the blue waters off Florida seem like something more foreign than I am accustomed. When I think of beaches and seawater in the U.S., I think of algae and silt mixed with the sand creating water with a brown or greenish hue: sometimes opaque if the tide is rough such as the coast of Texas and sometimes clear like the tidal pools in Southern California. Neither place has blue water, which is okay. Each place in this world is distinct, but to experience an endless sea of blue is exotic to me.
In contrast to vibrant colors of the morning, the late evening is its own special experience. Each night I have been surprised at how few stars I can see. Unfortunately, the tropic storm earlier in the week has produced sparse, lingering clouds and a slight haze. At night the horizon shows little distinction between the water and the sky. The moon has glided in and out of cover. However, the lights atop the ship’s cranes provide a halo around the ship as it cruises across the open water. What nature fails to illuminate, the ship provides. The water under this harsh, unnatural light is dark. It churns with the movement of the boat like thick goo. Yet that goo teems with life. Every so often a crab floats by along the ships current. Flying fish leap from the water and skip along the surface. Glimpses of larger inhabitants dancing on the edge of the ship’s ring: creatures that are much larger than we work up in the wet lab but illusive enough that it can be hard to determine if they are fish or mammal. (I am hopeful they are pods of dolphins and not a frenzy of sharks).
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico Date: July 16, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge Latitude: 28.51° N Longitude: 84.40° W Wave Height: 1 foot Wind Speed: 6 knots Wind Direction: 115 Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 30.8°C Barometric Pressure: 1021 mb Sky: Clear
In my previous blog, I mentioned the challenges of doing survey work on the eastern side of the Gulf near Florida. I also mentioned the use of a probe to scan the sea floor in advance of trawling for fish samples. That probe is called the EdgeTech 4125 Side Scan Sonar. Since it plays a major role in the scientific research we have completed, I wanted to focus on it a bit more in this blog. Using a scanner such as this for a groundfish survey in the Gulf by NOAA is not typical. This system was added as a precaution in advance of trawling due to the uneven nature of the Gulf floor off the Florida Coast, which is not as much of a problem the further west one goes in the Gulf. Scanners such as these have been useful on other NOAA and marine conservation research cruises especially working to map and assess reefs in the Gulf.
Having seen the side scanner used at a dozen different research stations on this cruise, I wanted to learn more about capabilities of this scientific instrument. From the manufacturer’s information, I have learned that it was designed for search and recovery and shallow water surveys. The side scanner provides higher resolution imagery. While the imagining sent to our computer monitors have been mostly sand and rock, one researcher in our crew said he has seen tanks, washing machines, and other junk clearly on the monitors during other research cruises.
This means that the side scanner provides fast survey results, but the accuracy of the results becomes the challenge. While EdgeTech praises the accuracy of its own technology, we have learned that accurate readings of data on the monitor can be more taxing. Certainly, the side scanner is great for defining large items or structures on the sea floor, but in areas where the contour of the floor is more subtle, picking out distinctions on the monitor can be harder to discern. On some scans, we have found the surface of the sea floor to be generally sandy and suitable for trawling, but then on another scan with similar data results, chunks of coral and rock have impeded our trawls and damaged the net.
Did You Know?
In 1906, American naval architect Lewis Nixon invented the first sonar-like listening device to detect icebergs. During World War I, a need to detect submarines increased interest in sonar. French physicist Paul Langévin constructed the first sonar set to detect submarines in 1915. Today, sonar has evolved into more sophisticated forms of digital imaging multibeam technology and side scan sonar (see https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/lewis_clark01/background/seafloormapping/seafloormapping.html for more information).
When I first arrived aboard Oregon II, the new environment was striking. I have never spent a significant amount of time on a trawling vessel or a research ship. Looking around, I took many pictures of the various features with an eye on the architectural elements of the ship. One of the most common fixtures throughout the vessel are posted signs. Lamented signs and stickers can be found all over the ship. At first, I was amused at the volume and redundancy, but then I realized that this ship is a communal space. Throughout the year, various individuals work and dwell on this vessel. The signs serve to direct and try to create consistency in the overall operation of the ship and the experience people have aboard it. Some call the ship “home” for extended periods of time such as most of the operational crew. Others, mostly those who are part of the science party, use the vessel for weeks at a time intermittently. Before I was allowed join the science party, I was required to complete an orientation. That orientation aligns with policies of NOAA and the expectation aboard Oregon II of its crew. From the training, I primarily learned that the most important policy is safety, which interestingly is emblazoned on the front of the ship just below the bridge.
The signs seem to be reflective of past experiences on the ship. Signs are not only reminders of important policies and protocols, but also remembrances of challenges confronted during past cruises. Like the additional equipment that has been added to Oregon II since its commission in 1967, the added signs illustrate the history the vessel has endured through hundreds of excursions.
Examples of that history is latent in the location and wording of signs. Posted across from me in the computer lab are three instructional signs: “Do not mark or alter hard hats,” “Keep clear of sightglass do not secure gear to sightglass” (a sightglass is an oil gauge), and “(Notice) scientist are to clear freezers out after every survey.”
Author and journalist Daniel Pink talks about the importance of signs in our daily lives. His most recent work has focused on the emotional intelligence associated with signs. Emotional intelligence refers to the way we handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. He is all about the way signs are crafted and displayed, but signs should also be thought of in relation to how informative and symbolic they can be within the environment we exist. While the information is usually direct, the symbolism comes from the way we interpret the overall context of the signs in relation to or role they play in that environment.
Mission: Leg III of SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 8, 2019
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 30.35° N Longitude: 88.6° W Wave Height: 1-2 feet Wind Speed: 10 knots Wind Direction: Northwest Visibility: 10 nm Air Temperature: 33°C Barometric Pressure: 1012 mb Sky: Few clouds
Day one of my trip and we are delayed leaving. Growing up in Oklahoma, you think you know weather until one of the NOAA fishery biologists assigned to the ship provides you a lengthy explanation about the challenges of weather on setting sail. As he put it, the jet stream is throwing off the weather. This is true. Studies have suggested that for a few years the polar jet stream has been fluctuating more than normal as it passes over parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The jet stream is like a river of wind that circles the Northern Hemisphere continuously. That river meanders north and south along the way. When those meanders occur over the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, it can alter pressure systems and wind patterns at lower latitudes and that affects how warm or raining it is across North America and Europe.
This spring in Oklahoma, it has led to record-breaking rains that have flooded low lying areas across the Great Plains and parts of the southeastern United States. Thunderstorms have generally been concentrated in the southern and middle section of the US as the jet stream dips down. The NOAA biologist also indicated that the delay in our departure could be blamed on the El Niño effect.
El Niño is a natural climate pattern where sea water in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. This leads to greater precipitation originating from the ocean. According to NOAA scientists, El Niño is calculated by averaging the sea-surface temperature each month, then averaging it with the previous and following months. That number is compared to average temperatures for the same three-month period between 1986 and 2015, called the Oceanic Niño index. When the index hits 0.5 degrees Celsius warmer or more, such as right now, it’s classified as an El Niño. When it’s 0.5 degrees Celsius cooler or more, it’s a La Niña. During an El Niño, the southern part of the U.S. typically experiences wetter than average conditions, while the northern part is less stormy and milder than usual. During a La Niña, it flips, with colder and stormier conditions to the north and warmer, less stormy conditions across the south. However, the El Niño this year has been classified as weak, which means typically the wetter conditions do not push into the Gulf of Mexico region, but exceptions can occur. With the fluctuating jet stream, the El Nino has vacillated between the Plains region and the upper South and regions closer to the Gulf. Thus, the storm causing our delayed departure comes from a weather condition that has been pushed further south by the jet stream.
While these may be causes for the delayed departure, the actual sailing conditions at the time of our voyage are the main concerns. Looking at the NOAA Marine Forecast webpage (https://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/zone/off/offnt4mz.htm), the decision for our delay is based on a storm producing significant wave heights, which are the average height of the highest 1/3 of the waves. Individual waves may be more than twice the average wave heights. In addition, weak high pressure appears to dominate the western Gulf and will likely last mid-week. Fortunately, we are set sail into the eastern Gulf off the coast of Florida. We should be able to sail behind the storm as it moves west. We do have to watch the surface low forming along a trough over the northeast Gulf later in the week. The National Hurricane Center in Miami (which provided weather data in the Atlantic and the Gulf for NOAA) predicts that all of this will intensify through Friday (July 12) as it drifts westward. This will produce strong to near gale force winds and building seas for the north central Gulf. Hopefully by then we will be sailing south of it.
Did You Know?
The weather terms El Niño and La Niña can be translated from Spanish to English as boy and girl, respectively. El Niño originally applied to an annual weak warm ocean current that ran southwards along the coast of Peru and Ecuador around Christmas time before it was linked to a global phenomenon now referred to as El Niño–Southern Oscillation. La Niña is sometimes called El Viejo, anti-El Niño, or simply “a cold event.” El Niño events have been occurring for thousands of years with at least 26 occurring since 1900.
I boarded NOAA’s Oregon II yesterday when the ship was virtually empty. It was Sunday, and we were not set to leave until mid-afternoon the following day (and now Tuesday, July 9). Spending the night on the ship was more comfortable than I had expected. While the stateroom was cramped (I share it with one other crew member), the space is surprisingly efficient. I had plenty of space to store my gear. The bunkbed was more cozy than restricted.
My first day in Pascagoula, MS was spent learning about the town. Pascagoula is a port city with a historic shipyard. Pascagoula is home to the state’s largest employer, Ingalls Shipbuilding, the largest Chevron refinery in the world, and Signal International, an oil platform builder. Prior to World War II, the town was a small fishing community, but the population jumped with war-driven shipbuilding. The city’s population peak in the late 1970s, but today, there are less than 25,000 in the area. Pascagoula continues to be an industrial center surrounded by the growing tourism industry across the Gulf region to the east and west of the port. The population also declined when Naval Station Pascagoula was decommissioned in 2006. The old naval base is located on manmade strip of land called Singing River Island and is in the middle of the port. The port still maintains a large Coast Guard contingent as well as serving as the home portfor the NOAA Ships Gordon Gunter, Oregon II, and Pisces. The NOAA port is actually called the Gulf Marine Support Facility and is located a block from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Mississippi Laboratory.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 1, 2019
Interview with Scientist Melanie Damour
Melanie Damour is the Co-Principal Investigator and Co-Chief Scientist on the expedition. She is responsible for directing all archaeological aspects of the investigation. We talked about her path to her career, and her advice for young people who might want to pursue ocean science.
When I asked her what sea creature she would choose to be, she immediately answered “A mermaid. Mermaids have the agility of fish, but they are smart.” Melanie may not be a mermaid, but she is agile as a fish and smart.
Melanie knew from early childhood what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her father was a fire and rescue diver, and Melanie sometimes got to see him at work. She was fascinated by scuba diving. With her father’s support, she learned to scuba dive when she was only eight years old. The second event that shaped her career was a visit to the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. This historic sailing ship is open to the public and played an important role in the war for independence from Britain. When Melanie visited this ship, she was awed by the ship and its history, and decided that somehow she was going to marry her two favorite things – diving and maritime history – for her career.
She got her scuba diving certification when she was 14 years old, and studied history in high school. She went to Florida State University to study anthropology. She took classes in archaeology, cultural and physical anthropology, and linguistics, all the disciplines within Anthropology. She was offered a teaching assistantship which allowed her to get into a graduate program and study submerged paleoindian sites in Florida. The offer was too good to refuse, so she began her graduate work at Florida State right away. Now she works for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) as a marine archaeologist.
Melanie reflected on what makes a good scientist. Her first response was that good scientists are always asking questions; being curious is what leads to new understandings. It’s also important to be open-minded. Scientists can’t expect things to turn out a certain way as this would blind them to what is actually happening. A scientist has to be persistent in the face of problems and always be looking for different ways and better ways to attack a problem. The ability to work well in a team is key. Each member of a good team contributes to the end goal. Taking into account different perspectives leads to a more accurate and complete picture.
Melanie has worked on projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Her personal research interests led her to Guatemala, where she worked in Lake Petén Itzá on a submerged Mayan port site. She went to Panama to map a Spanish merchant ship that sank off the coast in 1681. This is her favorite shipwreck so far. It is well preserved by the river sediments that poured into the Gulf there. The ship contains hundreds of wooden boxes full of supplies that Spain had sent to the colonies. The boxes contain nails and scissors, and some yet to be opened my contain books that are still preserved. After this expedition, Melanie is heading to Mexico to dive with her husband on a site that may turn out to be her new favorite. They will be looking for the wreck of one of the ships belonging to Hernán Cortés, the Spanish explorer. In 1519, Cortés sank his own ships to prevent his crew from leaving and returning to Cuba. This set the course for the conquest of the Aztecs. Last summer, Melanie and her husband found an anchor and wood that dated to the early 1500s. The wood was determined to be from Spain. This puts the anchor in the right time frame to be one of Cortés’ sunken ships.
Melanie pointed out that it isn’t easy to get a job as a marine archaeologist because it is a small field and there are not many permanent jobs. But she also encourages anyone who wants to pursue this as a career to be persistent and not give up. “It’s not always a straight line from A to B,” she says; in fact, you may discover that when your plan isn’t working out, you actually prefer the new track your life takes – that Plan B option that you may not have known existed when you began your career.
“The greatest threat to our oceans today is humans,” Melanie said. “Our lack of consideration for the consequences of our actions is the greatest threat we face.”
Marine archaeology is one of many subdisciplines in ocean sciences, and the future of our oceans depends on many scientists working together to reverse the trajectory of degradation we are on.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 30, 2019
When the ROV returns to the ship, the scientists jump into action. The sediment cores are brought into the lab for sampling.
Dr. Justyna Hampel, an aquatic biogeochemist and postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Southern Mississippi, is researching how microorganisms colonize on and around deep sea shipwrecks. She is taking sediment samples for DNA testing, and identifying nutrients in sediment pore water, the water trapped inside the sediment. Her study will help us learn about the relationship between microbes and shipwreck biomes. It took many hands to process the core sediments for her research.
As assistant to graduate student Rachel Mugge, I felt a bit like a nurse in an operating room. Every sample was taken carefully to ensure it was not contaminated.
Here’s how it went: Carefully remove the plug from the bottom of the core sample tube. Slide the core onto the extruder quickly so as not to lose any sediment. (An extruder is a wheel on a threaded bolt. It is precisely calibrated to measure 2 cm increments as you turn the wheel 4 2/3 times. )
Remove the lid and use a siphon hose to remove the sea water on the surface. Rachel does this by placing one end of the hose in the core tube and the other end in her mouth and sucking gently to get the flow of water going. Once it is moving she lets the water drain into a basin. Try this at home! You can get water to flow up and over an obstacle with this technique.
Next Rachel turns the extruder wheel until the mud is exposed at the top of the tube. She describes the mud to lab manager Anirban Ray, who writes it down next to the sample number. (“S 54, brown, unconsolidated, black streaks, tube worm burrows.”) I snap the paper wrapping off a wooden tongue depressor and hand it to her. She uses it to dig a sample out of the center of a sediment core. I hand her an open vial and she fills it. I cap it. Next she puts some sediment into a petri dish and Anirban seals and labels it. Then I hand her an open sterile whirl-pak for a final blob of sediment. I whirl this little baggy and twist tie it closed. Vials and whirl-paks go in the deep freezer. We do these three steps 40 times for 120 samples. The challenge I find in this kind of repetitive task is how quick and efficient can I be while still being careful and precise? Let me tell you. Pretty fast and efficient.
At the same time this was going on, Justyna was extracting pore water (water that comes from inside the sediment) to analyze it for nutrients.
While we worked, I had a porthole at my station to keep an eye on the ocean as we cruised out to our third and final shipwreck. Dolphins raced with our ship this evening. Silvery flying fish skittered over the water reminding me of hummingbirds, the way their fins were a blur of movement. The color of the ocean now can best be described in terms of watercolors. Ultramarine. That says it all.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 27, 2019
Yesterday was a doozy of a day I think everyone on the ship would agree. One frustrating setback after another had to be overcome, but one by one each problem was solved and the day ended successfully. If you would like to read more about this expedition, it is featured on the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research website.
The first discovery yesterday morning was that the ship’s pole-mounted ultrashort baseline tracking system (USBL) had been zapped with electricity overnight and was unusable. This piece of equipment is a key piece of a complex system. Without it we would not know precisely where the ROV was, nor could we control the sweeps of the ROV over the shipwrecks for accurate mapping. The scheduled dive time of 1330 (that’s 1:30PM!) was out of the question. There was even talk of returning to port to get new equipment. Yikes. This would cost the expedition $30,000-$40,000 for a full 24 hours of operation, and no one wanted to do this.
Max, the team’s underwater systems engineer, worked his magic, and replaced the damaged part. This required expert knowledge and some tricky maneuvers. Once this was fixed, the next step was to send a positioning beacon down to the seafloor to calibrate the signal from the ship to the ROV so that we would be able to track it precisely. Calibrating means that the ship and the ROV have to agree on where home is. The beacon is attached to three floats connected together to make a “lander”, and then 2 heavy weights are attached as well. The weights take the beacon down. The lander brings it back to the surface later. The deployment went without a hitch. However, when the lander floated to the surface, we noticed it was floating in a strange way. When we hauled it aboard, we discovered that one of the glass floats had imploded – probably due to a material defect under the intense pressure at 1200m below sea level – and all we had left of that unit was a shattered mess of yellow plastic.
In spite of that, the calibration was complete and we could send the ROV on its mission. We loaded the experiments onto the back of the ROV, along with another lander and weights. This was the exciting moment! The crane lifted the ROV off the ship deck and swung it out over the water. But in the process, the chain holding the weights broke and, with a mighty groan from all of us watching, both of them sank into the sea. Back came the ROV for a new set of weights. Luckily nothing was damaged. By 1745 (5:30PM), 5 hours after the scheduled time, the ROV went over the side for a second time successfully. Once this was done the Chief Scientist was able to crack a smile and relax a bit.
Now we had an hour to wait for the ROV to reach the sea floor again, and begin its mission of deploying and retrieving experiments. Inside the cabin of the ship, some of us sat mesmerized by the drifting phytoplankton on the big screen, hoping to see the giant squid that had been spotted on the last expedition. Up in the pilothouse the captain was on duty holding the ship in one spot for as long as it took for the ROV to return. Not an easy job!
Yesterday I saw what scientific exploration is really like. As someone said, “Two means one, and one means none,” meaning that when you are out at sea, you have to have a second or even a third of every critical piece of equipment because something is inevitably going to break and you will not be able to run to Walmart for a new one. Failures and setbacks are part of the game. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am looking at all that goes on on the ship through the lens of a classroom teacher. Yesterday’s successes were due to clear headed thinking, perseverance, and team work by many. These are precisely the qualities I hope I can foster in my students.
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 24-25, 2019
On Monday I was introduced to the R/V Point Sur in Gulfport, Mississippi. Every nook and cranny of this vessel is packed, and it took the science crew most of the day to pack it even fuller with all the equipment they need. The largest single item is the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Odysseus which makes a large footprint on the back deck. Over it hangs an enormous pulley that will be used to lift Odysseus in and out of the water.
When I arrived at the port, I met Dr. Leila Hamdan, the Chief Scientist, and some of the crew. We have two Rachels on board and they are both graduate students studying microbial biomes. Over time a layer of microbes form a “biofilm” on different kinds of wood and metal. This organic layer forms on the surface of a shipwrecks, and this is what the scientists are studying. They want to know how this layer speeds up or slows down the corrosion of shipwrecks and how other organisms use this habitat.
I was able to join in and help put together microbial recruitment experiment towers, or MREs for short. Each tower is a PVC pipe fitted with samples of wood, both oak and pine, and some metal samples. Each of these pipes fits loosely inside a second pipe, and then each set is roped together and attached to a float. Each tower is rigged in such a way that it will sink to the sea floor vertically, and then the outer pipe will rise to expose the inner tower and the sample plugs. After four months, the MREs will be retrieved, and the scientists will be studying what kinds of microbes grew on the samples. Their experiments add to our understanding of how shipwrecks act as a habitat for corals and other organisms
Finally, at the end of the day we had to quickly load the last of the gear on the ship before a huge container ship of bananas arrived to dock in our space. We set up a “fire line” to hand the last of the gear into the ship as fast as possible. We could see the huge Chiquita banana ship heading our way. The port was already stacked four high with Chiquita banana shipping containers and more bananas were coming! Who is eating so many bananas?!
As the newbie member of the crew, I was allowed to stay on board as the crew moved the ship from the large loading dock to the smaller pier on the other side of the port. This meant I got a taste of the ocean breezes that are going to help keep us cool once we leave land. I saw pelicans glide low over the water as I stood on the deck and imagined all the new and amazing things I am about to see and do.
If you’ve never been to Mississippi in the summer, I can tell you it is HOT and HUMID. It’s hard to imagine until you try to actually do something in it. If you were an egg, you would definitely fry on the sidewalk. Despite the heat, all over the ship crew and scientists are working, bolting things together, greasing mechanical parts, putting last minute touches on their experimental equipment, organizing the lab and working at laptops. To mitigate the heat and humidity outside, the air-conditioning runs on high inside the ship. This helps to keep the humidity from damaging the equipment, as well as to keep the crew happy. So it is actually COLD in here!
In addition to all this activity, a group of high school students visited the ship. They are participating in The Ocean Science and Technology Camp to learn about marine science careers and they will be tracking our progress from shore. Each of our many talented scientists shared a bit about their research and their roles in the ship. I will share more about that in another blog. We are scheduled to leave tonight at 1930 hrs, that’s 7:30PM for most of us! Stay with me, it’s going to be awesome!
Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 13, 2019
In just two weeks I will be shipping out of Gulfport, Mississippi on the University of Southern Mississippi Research Vessel Point Sur. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I will actually be a student again, learning all I can about ocean archaeology and deep-sea microbial biomes. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to learn what it is like to live and work at sea! In particular, I am looking forward to seeing how archaeologists work at sea. My undergraduate degree was in archaeology and I worked in the desert of New Mexico and southern Colorado where we mapped with pencil and paper, and took samples with a shovel. Ocean archaeology will require more sophisticated technology and a different approach!
Let me give you a little background about myself. My husband and I live in a tiny town called Husum on the White Salmon River in Washington State. My family enjoys outdoor activities including rafting and kayaking. This year my daughter is working as a raft guide on the White Salmon. I know when the commercial raft trips are passing by because I can hear the tourists scream as their boats go over Husum Falls! My son is studying Engineering in college and is spending this summer in Spain learning Spanish and surfing. Unfortunately for my husband, summer is the busy time for construction. As a general contractor, he will be working hard.
During the regular school year, I teach fourth grade math and science at the local intermediate school. One of our biggest science units each year is to raise salmon in the classroom and learn about the salmon life cycle, adaptations and the importance of protecting salmon habitat. In addition, this year we tackled a big project around plastic pollution in the oceans and how we can make a difference in our own community through education and action. My students are rightfully indignant about the condition of our oceans, and I have also become an ocean advocate since initiating this project.
Scientists on the Point Sur have several goals. First of all, they will map two shipwrecks that have never been explored. Both are wooden-hulled historic shipwrecks that were identified during geophysical surveys related to oil and gas exploration. Archaeologists hope to determine how old the ships are, what their purpose was, and their nationality, to determine if they are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). A third shipwreck we will visit is a steel-hulled, former luxury steam yacht that sank in 1944. It was previously mapped and some experiments were left there in 2014 which we will recover.
In addition to mapping, we will take samples of the sediments around the ships to see how shipwrecks shape the microbial environment. The Gulf of Mexico is a perfect place for this work because it is rich in shipwrecks. Shipwrecks create unique reef habitats that are attractive to organisms both large and small. I wonder what kinds of sea life we will discover living around the shipwrecks we visit?
The first question my students asked me was if I was going to scuba dive. While that would be exciting, it’s not allowed for Teachers at Sea! To gather information about the shipwrecks, we will deploy a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) called Odysseus (Pelagic Research Services, Inc.) . Odysseus will have a camera, a manipulator arm to gather samples, a tray to carry all the sampling gear and SONAR and lights. I think I will be content to watch its progress on the ship’s video screens.
School is almost out, and my fourth graders are chomping at the bit to get out if the classroom and begin their own summer adventures, but I hope they will follow my blog and keep me company while I am on board ship! Am I feeling a little intimidated? Absolutely! But also very excited to have the opportunity to participate in what is sure to be a great adventure.
Geographic Area of Cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico
Date: November 11, 2018
Weather Data from home
Conditions at 1615
Latitude: 43° 09’ N
Longitude: 77° 36’ W
Barometric Pressure: 1027 mbar
Air Temperature: 3° C
Wind Speed: SW 10 km/h
Science and Technology Log
View of the ship’s wet lab.
View of the water through the galley sink porthole.
View of the water through a porthole in the galley.
Participating in the Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey provided a porthole into several different career paths. Each role on board facilitated and contributed to the scientific research being conducted. Daily longline fishing activities involved working closely with the fishermen on deck. I was in awe of their quick-thinking adaptability, as changing weather conditions or lively sharks sometimes required a minor change in plan or approach. Whether tying intricate knots in the monofilament or displaying their familiarity with the various species we caught, the adept fishermen drew upon their seafaring skill sets, allowing the set and haulback processes to go smoothly and safely.
Even if we were on opposite work shifts, overlapping meal times provided the opportunity to gain insight into some of the careers on board. As we shared meals, many people spoke of their shipboard roles with sentiments that were echoed repeatedly: wanted a career that I could be proud of…a sense of adventure…opportunity to see new places and give back…combining adventure and science…wanted to protect the resources we have…
I had the opportunity to speak with some of the engineers and fishermen about their onboard roles and career paths. It was interesting to learn that many career paths were not direct roads, but winding, multilayered journeys. Some joined NOAA shortly after finishing their education, while others joined after serving in other roles. Some had experience with commercial fishing, and some had served on other NOAA vessels. Many are military veterans. With a name fit for a swashbuckling novel set on the high seas, Junior Unlicensed Engineer Jack Standfast, a United States Navy veteran, explained how the various departments on board worked together. These treasured conversations with the Engineering Department and Deck Department were enlightening, a reminder that everyone has a story to tell. I very much appreciate their patience, kindness, and willingness to share their expertise and experiences.
Lead Fisherman and Divemaster Chris Nichols:
In an unfamiliar setting, familiar topics surfaced in conversations, revealing similarities and common interests. Despite working in very different types of jobs, literacy was a popular subject in many of the conversations I had on the ship. I spoke to some of the crew members about how literacy factored into their daily lives and career paths. Some people described their family literacy routines at home and shared their children’s favorite bedtime stories, while others fondly remembered formative stories from their own childhood. Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols recalled the influence that Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling had on him as a young reader. He described how exciting stories such as Captains Courageous and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer inspired a sense of adventure and contributed to pursuing a unique career path. Coming from a family of sailors, soldiers, and adventurers, Chris conveyed the sense of pride that stems from being part of “something bigger.” In this case, a career that combines adventure, conservation, and preservation. His experiences with the United States Navy, commercial fishing, NOAA, and scuba diving have taken him around the world.
Echoing the themes of classic literature, Chris recommended some inspiring nonfiction titles and podcasts that feature true stories about human courage, overcoming challenges, and the search for belonging. As a United States Navy veteran, Chris understood the unique reintegration needs that many veterans face once they’ve completed their military service. He explained the need for a “tribe” found within the structure of the military or a ship. Chris described the teamwork on the ship as “pieces of a puzzle” in a “well-oiled machine.”
Chris also shared some advice for students. He felt it was easier for students to become good at math and to get better at reading while younger and still in school. Later in life, the need for math may resurface outside of school: “The things you want to do later…you’ll need that math.” As students grow up to pursue interests, activities, and careers, they will most likely need math and literacy to help them reach their goals. Chris stressed that attention to detail—and paying attention to all of the details—is extremely important. Chris explained the importance of remembering the steps in a process and paying attention to the details. He illustrated the importance of knowing what to do and how to do it, whether it is in class, during training, or while learning to dive.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
Team Never Quit Podcast with Marcus Luttrell & David Rutherford
Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin:
Before joining NOAA, Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin served in the United States Coast Guard for fifteen years (active duty and reserves). After serving in the military, Chuck found himself working in education. While teaching as a substitute teacher, he saw an ad in the newspaper for NOAA careers and applied. Chuck joined NOAA in 2000, and he has served on NOAA Ships Bell M. Shimada, Pisces, Gordon Gunter, and Oregon II.
Echoing Chris Nichols’ description of puzzle pieces in a team, Chuck further explained the hierarchy and structure of the Deck Department on the Oregon II. The Deck Department facilitates the scientific research by deploying and retrieving the longline fishing gear while ensuring a safe working environment. From operating the winches and cranes, to hauling in some of the larger sharks on the shark cradle, the fishermen perform a variety of tasks that require both physical and mental dexterity. Chuck explained that in the event of an unusual situation, the Deck Department leader may work with the Bridge Officer and the Science watch leader and step in as safety dictates.
In addition to his ability to make a fantastic pot of coffee, Chuck has an impish sense of humor that made our twelve-hour work shifts even more interesting and entertaining. Over a late-night cup of coffee, I found out that we shared some similar interests. Chuck attended the University of Florida, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and Ecology. He has an interest in writing and history, particularly military history. He co-authored a published paper on white-tailed deer. An avid reader, Chuck usually completes two or three books during a research cruise leg. He reads a wide range of genres, including sci-fi, westerns, biographies, military history, scientific texts, and gothic horror. Some of his favorite authors include R.A. Salvatore, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin. In his free time, he enjoys roleplaying games that encourage storytelling and creativity. For Chuck, these adventures are not about the end result, but the plotlines and how the players get there. Like me, Chuck has done volunteer work with veterans. He also values giving back and educating others about the importance of science and the environment, particularly water and the atmosphere. Chuck’s work with NOAA supports the goal of education and conservation to “preserve what we have.”
Longline fishing buoy
Red snapper scales
Far from home, these brief conversations with strangers seemed almost familiar as we discussed shared interests, goals, and experiences. As I continue to search for my own tribe and sense of belonging, I will remember these puzzle pieces in my journey.
My path to Teacher at Sea was arduous; the result of nearly ten years of sustained effort. The adventure was not solely about the end result, but very much about plotlines, supporting (and supportive) characters, and how I got there: hard work, persistence, grit, and a willingness to fight for the opportunity. Every obstacle and roadblock that I overcame. As a teacher, the longline fishing experience allowed me to be a student once again, learning new skills and complex processes for the first time. Applying that lens to the classroom setting, I am even more aware of the importance of clear instructions, explanations, patience, and encouragement. Now that the school year is underway, I find myself spending more time explaining, modeling, demonstrating, and correcting; much of the same guidance I needed on the ship. If grading myself on my longline fishing prowess, I measured my learning this way:
If I improved a little bit each day by remembering one more thing or forgetting one less thing…
If I had a meaningful exchange with someone on board…
If I learned something new by witnessing natural phenomena or acquired new terminology…
If I encountered an animal I’d never seen in person, then the day was a victory.
And I encountered many creatures I’d never seen before. Several species of sharks: silky, smooth-hound, sandbar, Atlantic sharpnose, blacknose, blacktip, great hammerhead, lemon, tiger, and bull sharks. A variety of other marine life: groupers, red snapper, hake, and blueline tilefish. Pelicans and other seabirds. Sharksuckers, eels, and barracudas.
The diminutive creatures were just as interesting as the larger species we saw. Occasionally, the circle hooks and monofilament would bring up small hitchhikers from the depths. Delicate crinoids and brittle stars. Fragments of coral, scraps of seaweed and sponges, and elegant, intricate shells. One particularly fascinating find: a carrier shell from a marine snail (genus: Xenophora) that cements fragments of shells, rocks, and coral to its own shell. The evenly spaced arrangement of shells seems like a deliberately curated, artistic effort: a tiny calcium carbonate collage or shell sculpture. These tiny hints of what’s down there were just as thrilling as seeing the largest shark because they assured me that there’s so much more to learn about the ocean.
Like the carrier snail’s shell collection, the small moments and details are what will stay with me:
Daily activities on the ship, and learning more about a field that has captivated my interest for years…
Seeing glimpses of the water column and the seafloor through the GoPro camera attached to the CTD…
Hearing from my aquatic co-author while I was at sea was a surreal role reversal…
Fishing into the middle of the night and watching the ink-black water come alive with squid, jellies, flying fish, dolphins, sailfish, and sharks…
Watching the ever-shifting moon, constellations, clouds, sunsets, and sunrise…
Listening to the unique and almost musical hum of the ship’s machinery and being lulled to sleep by the waves…
And the sharks. The breathtaking, perfectly designed sharks. Seeing and handling creatures that I feel strongly about protecting reinforced my mission to educate, protect, and conserve. The experience reinvigorated my connection to the ocean and reiterated why I choose to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Capturing the experience through the Teacher at Sea blog reinforced my enjoyment of writing, photography, and creative pursuits.
Dawn on the Gulf of Mexico
Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico
My first glimpse of Florida on the way to the ship.
In my introductory post, I wrote about formative visits to New England as a young child. Like so many aspects of my first glimpses of the ocean and maritime life, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial statue intrigued me and sparked my young imagination. At that age, I didn’t fully grasp the solemn nature of the tribute, so the somber sculpture and memorial piqued my interest in fishing and seafaring instead. As wild as my imagination was, my preschool self could never imagine that I would someday partake in longline fishing as part of a Shark/Red Snapper Survey. My affinity for marine life and all things maritime remains just as strong today. Other than being on and around the water, docks and shipyards are some of my favorite places to explore. Living, working, and learning alongside fishermen was an honor.
Water and its fascinating inhabitants have a great deal to teach us. The Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico reminded me of the notion that: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Whether misattributed to Plutarch or Yeats or the wisdom of the Internet, the quote conveys the interest, curiosity, and appreciation I hope to spark in others as I continue to share my experience with my students, colleagues, and the wider community.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in Teacher at Sea, and I am also grateful to those who ignited a fire in me along the way. Thank you to those who supported my journey and adventure. I greatly appreciate your encouragement, support, interest, and positive feedback. Thank you for following my adventure!
Did You Know?
Xenophora shells grow in a spiral, and different species tend to collect different items. The purpose of self-decoration is to provide camouflage and protection from predators. The additional items can also strengthen the snail’s shell and provide more surface area to prevent the snail from sinking into the soft substrate.
Essentially two books in one, I recommend the fact-filled Under Water, Under Earth written and illustrated by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski. The text was translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.
One half of the book burrows into the Earth, exploring terrestrial topics such as caves, paleontology, tectonic plates, and mining. Municipal matters such as underground utilities, water, natural gas, sewage, and subways are included. Under Earth is a modern, nonfiction, and vividly illustrated Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Diving deeper, Under Water explores buoyancy, pressure, marine life, ocean exploration, and several other subjects. My favorite pages discuss diving feats while highlighting a history of diving innovations, including early diving suit designs and recent atmospheric diving systems (ADS). While Under Earth covers more practical topics, Under Water elicits pure wonder, much like the depths themselves.
Better suited for older, more independent readers (or enjoyed as a shared text), the engaging illustrations and interesting facts are easily devoured by curious children (and adults!). Fun-fact finders and trivia collectors will enjoy learning more about earth science and oceanography. Information is communicated through labels, cross sections, cutaway diagrams, and sequenced explanations.
Geographic Area of Cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico
Date: September 30, 2018
Weather Data from Home
Conditions at 1515
Latitude: 43° 09’ N
Longitude: 77° 36’ W
Barometric Pressure: 1026.3 mbar
Air Temperature: 14° C
Wind Speed: S 10 km/h
Science and Technology Log
My students sent me off with many shark questions before I left for the Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey. Much of their curiosity revolved around one of the most fear-inducing features of a shark: their teeth! Students wanted to know:
Why do sharks eat fish? How and why do sharks have so many teeth? Why do sharks have different kinds of teeth? Do sharks eat each other? What hunts sharks, besides other sharks?
And one of my favorite student questions: Why do sharks eat regular people, but not scientists?
Most people think of sharks as stalking, stealthy, steel-grey hunters. With a variety of colors, patterns, fin shapes, and body designs, sharks do not look the same. They do not eat the same things, or even get their food the same way. Instead, they employ a variety of feeding strategies. Some gentle giants, like the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), are filter feeders. They strain tiny plants and animals, as well as small fish, from the water. Others, such as the angel shark (Squatina spp.), rely on their flattened bodies, camouflage, and the lightning-fast element of surprise. Instead of actively pursuing their prey, they wait for food to come to them and ambush their meal. These suction-feeding sharks have tiny, pointed, rearward-facing teeth to trap the prey that has been sucked into the shark’s mouth. This video demonstrates how the angel shark uses clever camouflaging and special adaptations to get a meal:
The sharks we caught through longline fishing methods were attracted to the Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus) that we used as bait. Depending on the species of shark and its diet, shark teeth can come in dozens of different shapes and sizes. Instead of just two sets of teeth like we have, a shark has many rows of teeth. Each series is known as a tooth file. As its teeth fall out, the shark will continually grow and replace teeth throughout its lifetime—a “conveyor belt” of new teeth. Some sharks have 5 rows of teeth, while the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) may have as many as 50 rows of teeth!
The sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) usually has about 14 rows of teeth. They may lose teeth every ten days or so, and most sharks typically lose at least one tooth a week. Why? Their teeth may get stuck in their prey, which can be tough and bony. When you don’t have hands, and need to explore the world with your mouth, it’s easy to lose or break a tooth now and then. Throughout its lifetime, a shark may go through over 30,000 teeth. The shark tooth fairy must be very busy!
Similar to our dining utensils, sharks’ teeth are designed for cutting, spearing, and/or crushing. The tooth shape depends upon the shark’s diet. Sharks’ teeth are not uniform (exactly the same), so the size and shape of the teeth vary, depending on their location in the upper and lower jaws. Some sharks have long, angled, and pointed teeth for piercing and spearing their food. Similar to a fork, this ensures that their slippery meals don’t escape. Other sharks and rays have strong, flattened teeth for crushing the hard shells of their prey. These teeth work like a nutcracker or shellfish-cracking tool. Still others, like the famously fierce-looking teeth of the great white, are triangular and serrated. Like a steak knife, these teeth are used for tearing, sawing, and cutting into their prey.
Beyond their teeth, other body features contribute to a shark’s ability to bite, crush, pursue, or ambush their prey. The powerful muscles that control their jaws and swimming ability, the position of their mouth, and the shape of their caudal (tail) fin all influence how a shark gets its food. Unlike humans, sharks do not chew their food. They swallow their food whole, or use their teeth to rip, shred, crush, and tear their food into smaller chunks that the shark can swallow. No need to floss or brush after a meal: sharks’ teeth contain fluoride, which helps to prevent cavities and decay.
Some people may find it hard to swallow the idea that sharks aren’t mindless menaces, but shark encounters are quite rare. Sharks have many extraordinary adaptations that make them efficient swimmers and hunters of other marine life, not humans. Whenever sharks come up in conversation, I am careful to dispel myths about these captivating creatures, trying to replace fear with facts (and hopefully, curiosity and respect). Since sharks can’t talk, I’m happy to advocate for them. Despite the way sharks are negatively portrayed in the media, I assure my students that sharks far prefer to eat bony fish, smaller sharks, skates, rays, octopus, squid, bivalves, crustaceans, marine mammals, plankton, and other marine life over humans. Instead of fear, I try to instill awareness of the vital role sharks fulfill in the ecosystem. We are a far greater threat to them, and they require our respect and protection.
As storms and hurricanes tear across the Gulf of Mexico, causing destruction and devastation, my thoughts are with the impacted areas. Before my Teacher at Sea placement, I never thought I’d spend time in the region, so it’s interesting to see now-familiar locations on the news and weather maps. One of my favorite aspects of being at sea was watching the sky: recognizing constellations while fishing at night, gazing at glorious, melting sunsets, and observing storm clouds gathering in the distance. The colors and clouds were ever-changing, a reminder of the dynamic power of nature.
Watching the recent storm coverage on TV reinforced the importance of strong and accurate communication skills. Similar to a sidebar on the page, much of the supplementary storm information was printed on the screen. For someone who needed to evacuate quickly or was worried about loved ones in the area, this printed information could be crucial. As I listened to the reporters’ updates on the storm damage, aware that they were most likely reading from scripted notes, I was reminded of the challenge of conveying complex science through everyday language.
One might assume that a typical day at sea only focused on science, technology, and math. In fact, all school subjects surfaced at some point in my experience at sea. For example, an understanding of geography helped me to understand where we were sailing and how our location influenced the type of wildlife we were seeing. People who were more familiar with the Gulf of Mexico shared some facts about the cultural, economic, and historical significance of certain locations, shedding light on our relationship with water.
Fishing is an old practice steeped in tradition, but throughout the ship, modern navigation equipment made it possible to fish more efficiently by plotting our locations while avoiding hazards such as natural formations and other vessels. Feats of engineering provided speed, power, drinkable water, and technological conveniences such as GPS, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi. In contrast to the natural evolution of sharks, these artificial adaptations provided many advantages at sea. To utilize the modern technology, however, literacy was required to input data and interpret the information on the dozens of monitors on board. Literacy and strong communication skills were required to understand and convey data to others. Reading and critical thinking allowed us to interpret maps and data, understand charts and graphs, and access news articles about the red tide we encountered.
I witnessed almost every person on board applying literacy skills throughout their day. Whether they were reading and understanding crucial written communication, reading instructions, selecting a dinner option from the menu, or referencing a field guide, they were applying reading strategies. In the offices and work spaces on board, there was no shortage of instructional manuals, safe operating procedures, informational binders, or wildlife field guides.
Writing helped to organize important tasks and schedules. To manage and organize daily tasks and responsibilities, many people utilized sticky notes and checklists. Computer and typing skills were also important. Some people were inputting data, writing research papers and projects, sharing their work through social media, or simply responding to work-related emails. The dive operation that I observed started as a thoroughly written dive plan. All of these tasks required clear and accurate written communication.
Each day, I saw real-life examples of the strong ties between science and language arts. Recording accurate scientific data required measurement, weight, and observational skills, but literacy was required to read and interpret the data recording sheets. Neat handwriting and careful letter spacing were important for recording accurate data, reinforcing why we practice these skills in school. To ensure that a species was correctly identified and recorded, spelling could be an important factor. Throughout the experience, writing was essential for taking interview notes and brainstorming blog ideas, as well as following the writing process for my blog posts. If I had any energy left at the end of my day (usually around 2:00 AM), I consulted one of my shark field guides to read more about the intriguing species we saw.
Did You Know?
No need for a teething ring: Sharks begin shedding their teeth before they are even born. Shark pups (baby sharks) are born with complete sets of teeth. Sharks aren’t mammals, so they don’t rely upon their mothers for food after they’re born. They swim away and must fend for themselves, so those born-to-bite teeth come in handy.
Smart About Sharks written and illustrated by Owen Davey
Appropriate for older readers, the clever, comprehensive text offers interesting facts, tidbits, and trivia. The book dives a bit deeper to go beyond basic shark facts and knowledge. I’ve read hundreds of shark books, and I appreciated learning something new. The text doesn’t shy away from scientific terminology and concepts, such as phylogeny (eight orders of sharks and representative species). The facts reflect recent research findings on shark behavior. Lesser-known species are included, highlighting the diversity in body shapes, sizes, and specialized features. From a design standpoint, the aesthetically appealing illustrations are stylized, colorful, and engaging. Simple infographics provide explanations of complex ideas. Fact meets fiction in a section about shark mythology from around the world. The book concludes with a discussion of threats to sharks, as well as ocean conservation tips.
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 027 39.81 N
Longitude 096 57.670 W
Barometric Pressure 1022.08mbar
Air Temperature: 61 degrees F
Those of us who love the sea wish everyone would be aware of the need to protect it. – Eugenie Clark
Science and Technology Log
After our delayed departure, we are finally off and running! The science team on Oregon II has currently completed 28 out of the 56 stations that are scheduled for the first leg of this mission. Seventy-five stations were originally planned but due to inclement weather some stations had to be postponed until the 2nd leg. The stations are pre-arranged and randomly selected by a computer system to include a distributions of stations within each shrimp statistical zone and by depth from 5-20 and 21-60 fathoms.
At each station there is an established routine that requires precise teamwork from the NOAA Corps officers, the professional mariners and the scientists. The first step when we arrive at a station, is to launch the CTD. The officers position the ship at the appropriate location. The mariners use the crane and the winch to move the CTD into the water and control the decent and return. The scientists set up the CTD and run the computer that collects and analyzes the data. Once the CTD is safely returned to the well deck, the team proceeds to the next step.
Step two is to launch the trawling net to take a sample of the biodiversity of the station. Again, this is a team effort with everyone working together to ensure success. The trawl net is launched on either the port or starboard side from the aft deck. The net is pulled behind the boat for exactly thirty minutes. When the net returns, the contents are emptied into the wooden pen or into baskets depending on the size of the haul.
The baskets are weighed and brought into the wet lab. The scientists use smaller baskets to sort the catch by species. A sample of 20 individuals of each species is examined more closely and data about length, weight, and sex is collected.
The information gathered becomes part of a database and is used to monitor the health of the populations of fish in the Gulf. It is used to help make annual decisions for fishing regulations like catch and bag limits. In addition, the data collected from the groundfish survey can drive policy changes if significant issues are identified.
I have been keeping in touch with my students via the Remind App, Twitter, and this Blog. Each class has submitted a question for me to answer. I would like to use the personal log of this blog to do that.
The thing I am most excited to bring back to Marine 2 is the story of recovery for the Red Snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. I learned that due to improved fishing methods and growth in commercial fishing of this species, their decline was severe. The groundfish survey that I am working with is one way that data about the population of Red Snapper has been collected. This data has led to the creation of an action plan to help stop the decline and improve the future for this species.
Our biggest challenge has been the weather! We left late due to Hurricane Michael and the weather over the past few days has meant that we had to miss a few stations. We are also expecting some bad weather in a couple of days that might mean we are not able to trawl.
The number one way that the NOAA Teacher at Sea program supports our environment is EDUCATION! What I learn here, I will share with my students and hopefully they will pass it on as well. If more people know about the dangers facing our ocean then I think more people will want to see changes to protect the ocean and all marine species.
We have not seen anything that is rare for the Gulf of Mexico but I have seen two fish that I have never seen before, the singlespot frogfish and the Conger Eel. So for me these were really cool sightings.
I have to admit that the most intriguing organism was not anything that came in via the trawl net. Instead it was the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin that greeted me one morning at the bow of the boat. There were a total of 7 and one was a baby about half the size of the others. As the boat moved through the water they jumped and played in the splashing water. I watched them for over a half hour and only stopped because it was time for my shift. I could watch them all day!
Do you know …
What the Oregon II looks like on the inside?
Here is a tour video that I created before we set sail.
Transcript: A Tour of NOAA Ship Oregon II.
(0:00) Hi, I’m Andria Keene from Plant High School in Tampa, Florida. And I’d like to take you for a tour aboard Oregon II, my NOAA Teacher at Sea home for the next two weeks.
Oregon II is a 170-foot research vessel that recently celebrated 50 years of service with NOAA. The gold lettering you see here commemorates this honor.
As we cross the gangway, our first stop is the well deck, where we can find equipment including the forecrane and winch used for the CTD and bongo nets. The starboard breezeway leads us along the exterior of the main deck, towards the aft deck.
Much of our scientific trawling operations will begin here. The nets will be unloaded and the organisms will be sorted on the fantail.
(1:00) From there, the baskets will be brought into the wet lab, for deeper investigation. They will be categorized and numerous sets of data will be collected, including size, sex, and stomach contents.
Next up is the dry lab. Additional data will be collected and analyzed here. Take notice of the CTD PC.
There is also a chemistry lab where further tests will be conducted, and it’s located right next to the wet lab.
Across from the ship’s office, you will find the mess hall and galley. The galley is where the stewards prepare meals for a hungry group of 19 crew and 12 scientists. But there are only 12 seats, so eating quickly is serious business.
(2:20) Moving further inside on the main deck, we pass lots of safety equipment and several staterooms. I’m currently thrilled to be staying here, in the Field Party Chief’s stateroom, a single room with a private shower and water closet.
Leaving my room, with can travel down the stairs to the lower level. This area has lots of storage and a large freezer for scientific samples.
There are community showers and additional staterooms, as well as laundry facilities, more bathrooms, and even a small exercise room.
(3:15) If we travel up both sets of stairs, we will arrive on the upper deck. On the starboard side, we can find the scientific data room.
And here, on the port side, is the radio and chart room. Heading to the stern of the upper deck will lead us to the conference room. I’m told that this is a great place for the staff to gather and watch movies.
Traveling back down the hall toward the bow of the ship, we will pass the senior officers’ staterooms, and arrive at the pilot house, also called the bridge.
(4:04) This is the command and control center for the entire ship. Look at all the amazing technology you will find here to help keep the ship safe and ensure the goals of each mission.
Just one last stop on our tour: the house top. From here, we have excellent views of the forecastle, the aft winch, and the crane control room. Also visible are lots of safety features, as well as an amazing array of technology.
Well, that’s it for now! Hope you enjoyed this tour of NOAA Ship Oregon II.
Challenge Question of the Day
Bonus Points for the first student in each class period to come up with the correct answer!
We have found a handful of these smooth bodied organisms which like to burrow into the sediment. What type of animal are they?
Today’s Shout Out: To my family, I miss you guys terribly and am excited to get back home and show you all my pictures! Love ya, lots!
We’ve been out at sea for three full days now and have traveled along the Gulf coast from Alabama to Texas. The Science Team has run mostly shallow longline sets during this time, meaning that we have fished in depths from 9 to 55 meters. As we move forward, we will fish stations at these depths and stations at depths of 55 to 183 meters, and from 183 to 366 meters. The locations of the stations are randomized based on depth and the area that is being fished. Due to the weather that hit south Texas the week before we joined this leg of the survey, we have been fishing the area that was impassable on the last leg of the survey.
As a member of the science team, there are five jobs that need to be done on each side of the set. When the line is being cast, someone needs to release the highflyer, clip numbers, sling the bait, work the computer, or cleanup. When the line comes in, there is a data collector, 2 fish handlers, a hook collector, and the computer person. The highflyer is the marker that is put on either end of the line, so that the line can be seen from the bridge. The data that is collected on paper and on the computer on each fish includes the number of the hook that they are on, species, length, and gender. Additionally, some sharks are tagged and a fin clip is taken.
After a line is set, we check the water using a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) Probe. It has a GoPro video recorder that takes a video of the water and the sea floor at the site of the line.
A few of the highlights from the catches so far: We had one catch that was coming up with mostly empty hooks, but then we caught a scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini). The shark was large enough that we used a cradle to pull it up to deck level. I got to insert the tag right below the dorsal fin.
We had another survey that caught 49 sharks, including Atlantic Sharpnose Sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), Blacknose Sharks (Carcharhinus acronotus), Spinner Sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna), and Blacktip Sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus). Between these, we had a number of lines that brought up some sharks and a few Red Snapper (Lutjanus campechanus). I have been able to dissect some of the Red Snapper, and collect their otoliths, which are their ear bones.
In the time between setting and retrieving lines, one of the ways we kept ourselves busy was by cleaning shark jaws that we had collected. I look forward to using these in my classroom as an example of an apex predator species adaptation.
During much the 12 hours of off time, I spend my time in my bunk. Working for 12 hours in the hot sun is exhausting, and it’s nice to have the room to myself while I try to get some rest. Though I share a bunk with another member of the Science Team, we work opposite shifts. So, while I’m on deck, she’s sleeping, and visa versa. As you can see, my daughter sent me with her shark doll, which I thought was appropriate, given that I was taking part in shark research on this ship.
While we were going slow one day, we had a pod of dolphins who swam along with us for a while. They were right beside the ship, and I was able to get a video of a few of them surfacing next to us.
Did You Know?
Many shark species, including the Atlantic Sharpnose shark, are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. These sharks form a placenta from the yolk sac while the embryo develops.
Quote of the Day
Without sharks, you take away the apex predator of the ocean, and you destroy the entire food chain
Question of the Day
While it is a common misconception that sharks do not get cancer, sharks have been found to get cancer, including chondromas. What type of cancer is that?
Geographic Area of Cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 16, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Conditions at 1106
Latitude: 25° 17.10’ N
Longitude: 82° 53.58’ W
Barometric Pressure: 1020.17 mbar
Air Temperature: 29.5° C
Sea Temperature: 30.8° C
Wind Speed: 12.98 knots
Relative Humidity: 76%
Science and Technology Log
Before getting into the technology that allows the scientific work to be completed, it’s important to mention the science and technology that make daily life on the ship safer, easier, and more convenient. Electricity powers everything from the powerful deck lights used for working at night to the vital navigation equipment on the bridge (main control and navigation center). Whether it makes things safer or more efficient, the work we’re doing would not be possible without power. Just in case, several digital devices have an analog (non-electronic) counterpart as a back-up, particularly those used for navigation, such as the magnetic compass.
To keep things cool, large freezers are used for storing bait, preserving scientific samples, and even storing ice cream (no chumsicles for dessert—they’re not all stored in the same freezer!). After one particularly sweltering shift, I was able to cool off with some frozen coffee milk (I improvised with cold coffee, ice cream, and milk). More importantly, without the freezers, the scientific samples we’re collecting wouldn’t last long enough to be studied further back at the lab on land.
Electricity also makes life at sea more convenient, comfortable, and even entertaining. We have access to many of the same devices, conveniences, and appliances we have at home: laundry machines, warm showers, air conditioning, home cooked meals, a coffee maker, TVs, computers with Wi-Fi, and special phones that allow calls to and from sea. A large collection of current movies is available in the lounge. During my downtime, I’ve been writing, exploring, enjoying the water, and learning more about the various NOAA careers on board.
To use my computer, I first needed to meet with Roy Toliver, Chief Electronics Technician, and connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi. While meeting with him, I asked about some of the devices I’d seen up on the flying bridge, the top deck of the ship. The modern conveniences on board are connected to several antennae, and Roy explained that I was looking at important navigation and communication equipment such as the ship’s GPS (Global Positioning System), radar, satellite, and weather instrumentation.
The weather devices on top are called anemometers, and they measure true wind speed and direction relative to the ship’s speed and direction. The term comes from the Greek word ‘anemos,’ which means wind. On the right is the fishing day shape, indicating to nearby ships that the Oregon II is using fishing gear.
These satellites help to provide the television and internet on the ship.
I was also intrigued by the net-like item (called a Day Shape) that communicates to other ships that we are deploying fishing equipment. This lets nearby ships know that the Oregon II has restricted maneuverability when the gear is in the water. At night, lights are used to communicate to other ships. Communication is crucial for safety at sea.
When I stopped by, Roy had just finished replacing some oxygen sensors for the CTD (that stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth). For more information about CTDs click here: https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/ctd.html
A dissolved oxygen sensor to be mounted on the environmental profiler, which collects environmental data through the water column.
A CTD refers to several electronic instruments that measure conductivity, temperature, depth, and other properties in the water column. Scientists are interested in changes in these properties relative to depth.
Without accurate sensors, it’s very difficult for the scientists to get the data they need. If the sensors are not working or calibrated correctly, the information collected could be inaccurate or not register at all. The combination of salt water and electronics poses many interesting problems and solutions. I noticed that several electronic devices, such as computers and cameras, are built for outdoor use or housed in durable plastic cases.
On this particular day, the ship sailed closer to an algal bloom (a large collection of tiny organisms in the water) responsible for red tide. Red tide can produce harmful toxins, and the most visible effect was the presence of dead fish drifting by. As I moved throughout the ship, the red tide was a red hot topic of conversation among both the scientists and the deck department. Everyone seemed to be discussing it. One scientist explained that dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico can vary based on temperature and depth, with average readings being higher than about 5 milligrams per milliliter. The algal bloom seemed to impact the readings by depleting the oxygen level, and I was able to see how that algal bloom registered and affected the dissolved oxygen readings on the electronics Roy was working on. It was fascinating to witness a real life example of cause and effect. For more information about red tide in Florida, click here: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/redtide-florida/
Preparing and packing for my time on the Oregon II reminded me of TheOregon Trail video game. How to pack for a lengthy journey to the unfamiliar and unknown?
I didn’t want to run out of toiletries or over pack, so before leaving home, I tracked how many uses I could get out of a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, shampoo bottle, and bar of soap, and that helped me to ration out how much to bring for fifteen days (with a few extras, just in case). The scientists and crew of the Oregon II also have to plan, prepare, and pack all of their food, clothing, supplies, tools, and equipment carefully. Unlike The Oregon Trail game, I didn’t need oxen for my journey, but I needed some special gear: deck boots, foul weather gear (rain jacket with a hood and bib overalls), polarized sunglasses (to protect my eyes by reducing the sun’s glare on the water), lots of potent sunscreen, and other items to make my time at sea safe and comfortable.
I was able to anticipate what I might need to make this a more efficient, comfortable experience, and my maritime instincts were accurate. Mesh packing cubes and small plastic baskets help to organize my drawers and shower items, making it easier to find things quickly in an unfamiliar setting.
Dirt, guts, slime, and grime are part of the job. A bar of scrubby lemon soap takes off any leftover sunscreen, grime, or oceanic odors that leaked through my gloves. Little things like that make ship life pleasant. Not worrying about how I look is freeing, and I enjoy moving about the ship, being physically active. It reminds me of the summers I spent as a camp counselor working in the woods. The grubbier and more worn out I was, the more fun we were having.
The NOAA Corps is a uniformed service, so the officers wear their uniforms while on duty. For everyone else, old clothes are the uniform around here because the work is often messy, dirty, and sweaty. With tiny holes, frayed seams, mystery stains, cutoff sleeves, and nautical imagery, I am intrigued by the faded t-shirts from long-ago surveys and previous sailing adventures. Some of the shirts date back several years. The well-worn, faded fabric reveals the owner’s experience at sea and history with the ship. The shirts almost seem to have sea stories to tell of their own.
Being at sea is a very natural feeling for me, and I haven’t experienced any seasickness. One thing I didn’t fully expect: being cold at night. The inside of the ship is air-conditioned, which provides refreshing relief from the scorching sun outside. I expected cooler temperatures at night, so I brought some lightweight sweatshirts and an extra wool blanket from home. On my first night, I didn’t realize that I could control the temperature in my stateroom, so I shivered all night long.
My preparing and packing didn’t end once I embarked (got on) on the ship. Every day, I have to think ahead, plan, and make sure I have everything I need before I start my day. This may seem like the least interesting aspect of my day, but it was the biggest adjustment at first.
To put yourself in my shoes (well, my deck boots), imagine this:
Get a backpack. Transport yourself to completely new and unfamiliar surroundings. Try to adapt to strange new routines and procedures. Prepare to spend the next 12+ hours working, learning, exploring, and conducting daily routines, such as eating meals. Fill your backpack with anything you might possibly need or want for those twelve hours. Plan for the outdoor heat and the indoor chill, as well as rain. If you forgot something, you can’t just go back to your room or run to the store to get it because
Your roommate is sleeping while you’re working (and vice versa), so you need to be quiet and respectful of their sleep schedule. That means you need to gather anything you may need for the day (or night, if you’re assigned to the night watch), and bring it with you. No going back into the room while your roommate is getting some much-needed rest.
Land is not in sight, so everything you need must be on the ship. Going to the store is not an option.
Just some of the items in my backpack: sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, sweatshirt, a water bottle, my camera, my phone, my computer, chargers for my electronics, an extra shirt, extra socks, snacks, etc.
I am assigned to the day watch, so my work shift is from noon-midnight. During those hours, I am a member of the science team. While on the day watch, the five of us rotate roles and responsibilities, and we work closely with the deck crew to complete our tasks. The deck department is responsible for rigging and handling the heavier equipment needed for fishing and sampling the water: the monofilament (thick, strong fishing line made from plastic), cranes and winches for lifting the CTD, and the cradle used for safely bringing up larger, heavier sharks. In addition to keeping the ship running smoothly and safely, they also deploy and retrieve the longline gear.
Another adjustment has been learning the routines, procedures, and equipment. For the first week, it’s been a daily game of What-Am-I-Looking-At? as I try to decipher and comprehend the various monitors displayed throughout the ship. I follow this with a regular round of Now-What-Did-I-Forget? as I attempt to finesse my daily hygiene routine. The showers and bathroom (on a ship, it’s called the head) are down the hall from my shared stateroom, and so far, I’ve managed to forget my socks (day one), towel (day two), and an entire change of clothes (day four). With the unfamiliar setting and routine, it’s easy to forget something, and I’m often showering very late at night after a long day of work.
One thing I never forget? Water. I am surrounded by glittering, glistening water or pitch-black water; water that churns and swells and soothingly rocks the ship. Swirling water that sometimes looks like ink or teal or indigo or navy, depending on the conditions and time of day.
Another thing I’ll never forget? This experience.
Did You Know?
The Gulf of Mexico is home to five species, or types, or sea turtles: Leatherback, Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley.
Many of my students have never seen or experienced the ocean. To make the ocean more relevant and relatable to their environment, I recommend the picture book Skyfishing written by Gideon Sterer and illustrated by Poly Bernatene. A young girl’s grandfather moves to the city and notices there’s nowhere to fish. She and her grandfather imagine fishing from their high-rise apartment fire escape. The “fish” they catch are inspired by the vibrant ecosystem around them: the citizens and bustling activity in an urban environment. The catch of the day: “Flying Litterfish,” “Laundry Eels,” a “Constructionfish,” and many others, all inspired by the sights and sounds of the busy city around them.
The book could be used to make abstract, geographically far away concepts, such as coral ecosystems, more relatable for students in urban, suburban, and rural settings, or as a way for students in rural settings to learn more about urban communities. The young girl’s observations and imagination could spark a discussion about how prominent traits influence species’ common names, identification, and scientific naming conventions.
We arrived off the coast of Florida on the evening of Sunday, July 15, and sampled stations in the eastern Gulf until the afternoon of Thursday, July 19. We used the same fishing method during this part of the cruise (bottom trawling), but added a step in the process, deploying side scan sonar in advance of every trawl. This measure was taken both to protect sea life on the ocean floor (sponges and corals) and to avoid damaging equipment. The sea bottom in this part of the Gulf—east of the DeSoto Canyon—is harder (less muddy) and, in addition to coral and sponge, supports a number of species markedly different than those seen in the western Gulf.
Side Scan Sonar
In contrast to single-beam sonar, which bounces a single focused beam of sound off the bottom to measure depth, side scan sonar casts a broader, fan-like signal, creating nuanced readings of the contour of the ocean floor and yielding photo-like images.
When we arrive a station in this part of the Gulf, we begin by traversing, covering the usual distance (1.5 miles), but then turn around, deploy the side scan sonar, and retrace our course. Once we’ve returned to our starting point, we recover the sonar, turn around again, and—provided the path on the sea bottom looks clear—resume our course through the station, this time lowering the trawl. If the side scan reveals obstructions, it’s a no-go and the station is “ditched.”
And Now for Something Completely Different . . . Fish of the Eastern Gulf
We spent the first half of this leg of the survey in the western Gulf of Mexico, going as far west as the Texas-Louisiana border. The second half we’re spending in the eastern Gulf, going as far east as Panama City. From here we’ll work our way westward, back to our homeport in Pascagoula.
Thanks to different submarine terrain in the northeastern Gulf—not to mention the upwelling of nutrients from the DeSoto Canyon—it’s a different marine biological world off the coast of Florida.
Here’s a closer look at the submarine canyon that, roughly speaking, forms a dividing line between characteristic species of the western Gulf and those of the eastern Gulf:
And here’s a selection of the weird and wonderful creatures we sampled in the eastern Gulf. As this basket suggests, they’re a more brightly colored, vibrant bunch:
Video credit: Will Tilley
Our move into the eastern Gulf marks the midpoint of the cruise, and we’ll be back to Pascagoula in a few short days. The seas haven’t been as serenely flat as they were in the eastern Gulf, nor has the sky (or sea) been its stereotypically Floridian blue, but I’ve found life aboard ship just as pleasurable and stimulating.
In my final blog post, I’ll have more to say about all the great folks I’ve met aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II—from its Deck Department members and Engineers, to its Stewards and NOAA Corps officers and inimitable Captain—but here want to reiterate just how thoughtful and generous everybody’s been. The “O2” is a class act—a community of professionals who know what they’re about and love what they do—and I couldn’t be more grateful to have visited their world for a while and shared their good company.
Busy as we’ve been, I haven’t had much time for sketching during this part of the cruise, and, as the selection of photos above suggests, I’ve concentrated more on taking pictures than making them. Still, I’ve begun a small sketch of the ship that I hope to complete before we reach Pascagoula. It’s based on a photograph that hangs in the galley, and that I’m going to attempt to reproduce actual size (3 3/8” x 7”) . Here’s where things stand early on in the process:
Did You Know?
Any of the western Gulf fish in the basket from my last blog post? Here it is again:
And here is a visual key to the four species I was fishing for, each figuring prominently in my blog post for July 15:
1: Red Snapper, Lutjanus campechanus
2: Longspined Porgy, Stenotomus caprinus
3: Gulf Butterfish, Peprilus burti
4: Brown Shrimp, Farfantepenaeus aztecus
A few Stenotomus caprinus and Peprilus burti have been left unhighlighted. Can you find them?
Geographic Area of Cruise: Western North Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 4, 2018
Introductory Personal Log
I’m thrilled to be joining NOAA Ship Oregon II for the second leg of the Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey. The adventure of a lifetime begins in Canaveral, Florida and concludes in Pascagoula, Mississippi. For two weeks, we’ll be studying sharks, red snapper, and other marine life in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Scientists will collect data on fish populations to find out more about their distribution, age, weight, length, reproduction, and other important information. Along the way, we’ll also sample water quality and collect other environmental data. Learning more about these creatures and their surroundings can help to keep their habitats safe and thriving.
This exciting opportunity is the next chapter in my lifelong appreciation for sharks and the sea. During a formative visit to the ocean at age three, I quickly acquired a taste for salt water, seafaring, and sharks. I saw my first shark, a hammerhead, in the New England Aquarium, and I was transfixed. I wanted to know everything about the water and what lived beneath the surface.
Enthralled by the ocean at age three. This trip launched a lifelong love of New England.
Revisiting the same beach as an adult…still enthralled.
The Giant Ocean Tank at the New England Aquarium
I had the same reaction when I found out I was selected for Teacher at Sea!
After discovering nonfiction in fourth grade, I could access the depths through reading. I was riveted to books about deep-sea creatures and pioneering undersea explorers. The more I learned, the more curious I became. As a younger student, I never indulged my aquatic interests in any formal academic sense beyond prerequisites because of my epic, giant-squid-versus-whale-like struggle with math. Because I was much stronger in humanities and social sciences, I pursued a predictable path into writing, literature, and education.
As a Literacy Specialist, I support developing readers and writers in grades K-5 by providing supplemental Language Arts instruction (Response to Intervention). To motivate and inspire my students, I share my zeal for the ocean, incorporating developmentally appropriate topics to teach requisite Language Arts skills and strategies.
In 2011, I initiated an ocean literacy collaboration with undersea explorer Michael Lombardi and Ocean Opportunity Inc. so that I could better answer my students’ questions about marine science careers and marine life. Our first meeting involved swimming with blue sharks offshore, and I knew I needed more experiences like that in my life. From chumming to helping with the equipment to observing pelagic sharks without a cage, I loved every aspect. This life-changing experience (both the collaboration and the shark encounter) transformed my instruction, reigniting my curiosity and ambition. Our educator-explorer partnership has inspired and motivated my students for the past seven years. After supporting and following my colleague’s field work with my students, I wanted a field experience of my own so that I can experience living, researching, and working at sea firsthand.
The only time I was in the shark cage.
The Snappa, Galilee/Point Judith, Rhode Island
Although my fascination with all things maritime began at an early age, working closely with someone in the field transformed my life. Instead of tumbling, I feel like Alice plunging into a watery wonderland, chasing after a neoprene-clad rabbit to learn more. Finding someone who was willing to share their field experience and make it accessible gave me the confidence to revisit my childhood interests through any available, affordable means: online courses, documentaries, piles of nonfiction books, social media, workshops, symposiums, aquaria, snorkeling, and the occasional, cherished seaside visit.
From Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland: A Big Golden Book; picture by the Walt Disney Studio, adapted by Al Dempster (Golden Press, 1978); from the motion picture based on the story by Lewis Carroll
We co-authored and published a case study about our collaboration in Current: The Journal of Marine Education, the peer-reviewed journal of the National Marine Educators Association (Fall/Winter 2016). We wrote about bringing the discovery of a new species of mesophotic clingfish to fourth and fifth grade struggling readers. Since a student-friendly text about the fish did not exist, I wrote one for my students at their instructional reading level, incorporating supportive nonfiction text features.
It’s reinvigorating to switch roles from teacher to student. Ultimately, this unconventional path has made me a more effective, empathetic educator. My students witness how I employ many of the same literacy skills and strategies that I teach. By challenging myself with material outside my area of expertise, I am better able to anticipate and accommodate my students’ challenges and misconceptions in Language Arts. When comprehension of a scientific research paper does not come to me easily on the first, second, or even third attempt, I can better understand my students’ occasional reluctance and frustration in Language Arts. At times, learning a different field reminds me of learning a second language. Because I’m such a word nerd, I savor learning the discourse and technical terminology for scientific phenomena. Acquiring new content area vocabulary is rewarding and delicious. It requires word roots and context clues (and sometimes, trial and error), and I model this process for my students.
Alexandria Bay, Thousand Islands
Being selected for Teacher at Sea is an incredible opportunity that required determination, grit, and perseverance. Although my curiosity and excitement come very naturally, the command over marine science content has not. I’ve had to be an active reader and work hard in order to acquire and understand new concepts. Sometimes, the scientific content challenges me to retrain my language arts brain while simultaneously altering my perception of myself as a learner. Ultimately, that is what I want for my students: to see themselves as ever-curious, ever-improving readers, writers, critical thinkers, and hopefully, lifelong learners.
I am so grateful for the opportunities to learn and grow. I deeply appreciate the support, interest, and encouragement I’ve received from friends, family, and colleagues along the way. I will chronicle my experiences on NOAA Ship Oregon II while also capturing how the scientific research may translate to the elementary school classroom. Please share your questions and comments in the comments section below, and I will do my best to reply from sea. My students sent me off with many thoughtful questions to address, and I’ll share the answers in subsequent posts.
Did You Know?
Pelagic fish have bodies designed for long-distance swimming. With their long pectoral fins, the blue shark (Prionace glauca) is highly migratory, traveling great distances across oceans.
For a simplified introduction to how scientists study sharks, I recommend the picture book How to Spy on a Shark written by Lori Haskins Houran and illustrated by Francisca Marquez. This read-aloud science book portrays the process of catching, tagging, and releasing mako sharks. The book includes shark facts as well as an introduction to tagging and tracking technology. For more information on how scientists use underwater robots such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to study sharks: https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/18whitesharkcafe/welcome.html
Back at home but there’s still so much to share! I’ll wrap up my amazing experience as a Teacher at Sea by introducing three more members of the NOAA Ship Oregon II family: Alonzo Hamilton, Executive Officer Andrew Ostapenko and Commanding Officer Captain Dave Nelson. At the start of my adventure, I wrote about flexibility. The Teacher at Sea Program also stresses that cruises “require high-intensity work that demands physical adeptness, endurance, and fortitude”. These three exemplify how fortitude, the ability to endure through life’s challenges and change, brings rewards throughout life.
Fishery Biologist Alonzo Hamilton
Alonzo Hamilton has been a fishery biologist for 34 years! He likes to say that he stumbled into NOAA. He graduated from community college before enrolling at Jackson State University, a historically black university in Mississippi with a full scholarship. Actually, he was offered two scholarships, one for minority biomedical researchers to become a surgeon and the other for general studies. He arrived on campus to discuss his options in the science department. It turned out that the biomedical research scholarship was given to another recipient. On the bright side, it made the decision to accept the general studies funding much simpler. Now he had to make a choice of which field to pursue. As he explored the halls of the science building, he happened upon the office of the head of the marine science program and popped in to ask some questions. After learning about the program, he decided to apply his scholarship toward coursework in this field.
After college, he began working on a research project for the Navy which paid for a master’s degree. Soon after, President Reagan froze research funding for the Navy. Fortunately, Alonzo was tipped off that NOAA did very similar research with an active, albeit smaller budget. So began a 34 year career as a NOAA fishery biologist.
Being an African American scientist in the deep south came with challenges, but he reminded his supervisors and others around him that, “I won’t limit myself to your box”, which has carried him through a long and storied career. Today, he is happy that he gets “paid to play in the ocean”, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Executive Officer (XO) Andrew Ostapenko
Most of the NOAA Corp officers you meet have a degree in science. I had the fortune of sailing with one of the few who doesn’t— the XO, LCDR Andrew Ostapenko. XO has a degree in political science from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His goal was to become a lawyer, but after considering the job prospects and the lifestyle—”no one ever calls lawyers when they are happy”, and they never retire —he looked into some other options. In 2005 he applied for the NOAA Corps. Although he didn’t have a science degree, the general education requirements at the University of St. Paul, which included calculus, chemistry and physics, met the NOAA Corps requirements.
Since joining NOAA, LCDR Ostapenko has held a variety of assignments. In Maryland he managed budgets and projects for the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, a part of the National Weather Service that provides forecasts for the nation. He worked in small boat life cycle management as a Port engineer/small boat officer in Norfolk, Virginia, disseminating policies across the NOAA fleet.
His sailing experience began on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson which performs hydrographic surveys that map the oceans to continuously update and improve nautical charts. He was a member of the first crew on NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker, accompanying her from Wisconsin where she was built to her homeport of San Diego. Last but not least, XO has been an augmenting officer for three months on NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson, another fisheries survey vessel based in Alaska where high seas and storms are a part of a normal day’s work.
NOAA assignments are three years for shore tours and two years for sea tours. LCDR Ostapenko currently has about a year left with Oregon II. As XO shows, there is no danger of getting stuck in mundane office job as a NOAA Corps officer.
“Lunch is on me!” invites the captain if you arrive to the galley after him. Captain Dave Nelson is the commanding officer (CO) of NOAA Ship Oregon II, and he’s gone a long way to realize that title. This is his 10th year as the captain of Oregon II, but he’s worked onboard since 1993. He refers to himself as a “hawsepiper”, urging me to look it up on the internet. Informally, it means to have started at the bottom as a deckhand and working up to becoming a captain. Captain Nelson is a Mississippi native and grew up shrimping and fishing with his dad. After high school he went to work on commercial boats that bring supplies to oil rigs. After over a decade, he felt that he needed a plan for the future– a stable pensioned job. He serendipitously stopped into the NOAA office as he was driving by on a day that someone had just quit and there was an opening to fill. The rest is Oregon II history.
The progression as a civilian begins with being a deckhand and progressing to Chief Boatswain. It takes 750 days at sea to qualify for the first license, the 3rd Mate license administered by the U.S. Coast Guard. It then takes 1100 more days to be eligible to test for the Masters license to become a captain. In 2008 the prospective captain lived in Seattle on a NOAA ship for 12 weeks for a prep course for the Masters exam. At this point, it’d be almost 30 years since he had been a student; not only did he have to learn the material for the test, he also had to learn how to study again. Soon-to-be Captain Nelson committed seven days a week for the entire 12 weeks to study and reviewing material to pass. He knew he wanted it.
CO Nelson’s joking attitude belies the pressure of being the captain of a ship. It’s a tremendous responsibility because he is accountable for everything, particularly the safety of everyone onboard. Every decision is made or approved by the captain and he sends reports to his supervisors every day.
He is one of a few captains in the NOAA fleet who is a civilian; most NOAA Commissioned officers rotate between boats every two years. This means that he is always training the new officers joining Oregon II from ensigns like Andy Fullerton and Chelsea Parrish to XO’s like Andrew Ostapenko. It takes a lot of patience; everyone comes in with different strengths, weaknesses and of course, personalities. The key, he says, is to “treat people like people” no matter who they are.
I somehow made it through almost three weeks living on Oregon II without falling down any stairs or tripping and landing on my face over a bulkhead door. Sure enough, it was hard to fall asleep at home without the rocking of the boat, but I’m happy to have my own shower again.
I’m so excited to show my students photos of so many of the things that I cover in class, or that they ask about, such as starfish regenerating lost arms and a video of wiggling tube feet on a severed arm (I accidently broke it off). I imagine they’ll also get to see critters they haven’t imagined-arrow and calico crabs, triggerfish, batfish…
I can’t believe how much I learned in such a short time about life and work at sea, careers, seafood, NOAA and its online resources. What I’ve shared in blogs is such a small fraction of everything I’ve experienced. I’m extremely grateful to everyone on Oregon II for being so welcoming and friendly, and for being so willing to speak with me. Although there were some setbacks, I got the chance to visit the lab and meet the wonderful scientists who showed me around. It’s hard work, but everyone agrees that it’s meaningful, rewarding and exciting.
Since coming home, my colleagues have commented that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity; that thought has crossed my mind as well. But watching everyone work, this is the everyday life of NOAA crew. I can’t help but think how few decisions it might have taken, maybe only 2-3 different choices, that might have made this my regular life too.
Did You Know?
NOAA Ship Oregon II earned the Gold Medal Award for rescuing three people off the coast of Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast. (This is where NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is located.) In 1998 when Captain Nelson was still a deckhand, he was woken from sleep between his watches. At about 2:30pm, a small overturned boat was spotted with a man, woman, and young girl on top. Captain Nelson was a small boat driver then; he launched a boat from Oregon II to rescue them and bring them to the Coast Guard.
Captain Dave surmises that they left port in Miami almost 200 miles south and got swept up in the Gulf Stream, a strong current of water that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and flows to Canada, affecting the climate even to Europe. It can create choppy conditions that capsized their boat.
They were extraordinarily lucky; the ocean is vast so the chances of Oregon II coming by and being spotted were slim. Their boat was too small to be detected by radar; if it had been dark, they might have been run over. Those are three people who are alive today because of NOAA Ship Oregon II.
Mission: Hydrographic Survey – Approaches to Houston
Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 21st, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude: 29° 11.6357’ N
Longitude: 093° 55.9746’W
Visibility: 10+ Nautical Miles
Sky Condition: 6/8
Wind: Direction: 224° Speed: 8.5 knots
Air: Dry bulb:31.5°C Wet bulb: 28.5°C
Science and Technology Log
In my previous post, I discussed the ship’s sonar. This time, I’ll go into more detail about the tools the Thomas Jefferson is using to complete its mission. The sonar that the ship uses is multi-beam echosounder sonar, which sends the pings down to the seafloor and receives echoes in a fan shape, allowing the ship to survey a wide swath beneath the ship.
In addition to the multi-beam sonar, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson utilizes two towfish, or devices that are towed in the water behind the ship.
The first is the side scan sonar. Like the multi-beam, this device uses pings of soundwaves to create images of its surroundings. However unlike the multi-beam, the side scan doesn’t capture any data from the area underneath it. Instead, it collects data to its sides. The side scan is connected to the ship via a cable, and is dragged through the water 6-15 meters above the seafloor. It is great for measuring the intensity of the return of the ping, which provides insights into the makeup of the seafloor.
The second towfish that the Thomas Jefferson is using is the MVP (like many things on the ship, MVP is an acronym, for Moving Vessel Profiler). The MVP truly gives the ship some of its most valuable data. As I discussed in my previous blog post, in order for us to accurately calculate the distance that the sonar’s pings are traveling, we need to know the amount of time it takes them to travel, as well as the velocity, or the speed, at which they’re moving. The singarounds I mentioned in my last post measure sound velocity, but only at the face of the sonar. Water conditions are not uniform – at the surface, water tends to be warmer, with less salinity. As you get deeper, however, the water tends to be colder and saltier. This means that the velocity of sound changes the deeper you get. Most of the time, the MVP rides just under the surface of the water, but periodically it will get cast down, to approximately 1 meter above the seafloor. It measures the water conditions of the entire water column from the surface to the seafloor, allowing us to calculate sound velocity all the way down.
The MVP measures the same water qualities as the CTD (a device I discussed in an earlier blog post), however, the MVP has a distinct advantage over the CTD. In order to use a CTD, the ship has to come to a stop while the CTD is lowered into the water. The MVP, however, can be used while the ship is in motion, which greatly increases productivity.
When surveying, many on the crew say it’s like mowing the lawn. The ship will capture a long stretch of data, called a line, and then turn around, and capture another stretch. 4% of these lines are cross lines, which run perpendicular, across a wide swath of lines of captured data. Cross lines allow the survey department to double check that the data they’ve captured is accurate.
A couple of days ago, I went up to the bridge shortly after sunset, and I was surprised what I saw. All the lights were off, and the screens of the various instruments had been covered by red filters. I was told that this is for maintaining night vision when on watch. Red light interferes least with our night vision, so anything that gives off light is switched to red.
While on the bridge, I had the opportunity to ask ENS Garrison Grant (who had recently been selected for a promotion to Lieutenant Junior Grade – congratulations Garrison!) a little about the NOAA Corps. I must admit that I was largely unfamiliar with them before joining the Thomas Jefferson.
The NOAA Corps as we know it today began in 1970, though its roots are much older. As president, Thomas Jefferson (for whom NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is named) created the United States Survey of the Coast, which would later evolve into the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey. Their early operations were not unlike the survey work that NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is doing today, though their tools were more primitive: surveyors wanting to determine the depths of America’s bodies of water didn’t have the benefit of sonar, and instead used lead lines – lead weights tied to the end of ropes. These surveyors would also play a vital role in our military history. They would often assist artillery, and survey battlefields. This is what led to the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey (and later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to gain a commissioned uniformed service. Due to the rules of war, captured uniformed service members could not be tried as spies.
To join the NOAA Corps today, you need to first have a bachelor’s degree. ENS Grant received his degree from Stockton University in Marine Sciences, but he says that it isn’t a requirement that the degree be in a maritime field. He says that some of his classmates had degrees in fields such as English or Communications. After getting a degree, you then apply to join the NOAA Corps (anyone interested should check out this website: https://www.omao.noaa.gov/learn/noaa-corps/join/applying). If selected, you would then complete the Basic Officer Training Class (BOTC), which generally takes about 6 months. After that, you’d be given your first assignment.
Did you know? Before NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson was operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it belonged to the U.S. Navy and was known as the U.S.N.S. Littlehales
This is the 3rd and final leg of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey for 2018, taking place between July 9 and July 20 in the Gulf of Mexico. “Groundfish” refers to fish that live on, in, or near the bottom of the ocean. SEAMAP stands for “Southeast Area Monitoring and Assessment Program,” and as the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission defines it, it’s an interagency (State, Federal, and university) “program for collection, management and dissemination of fishery-independent data and information in the southeastern United States” (https://www.gsmfc.org/seamap.php).
What is “fishery-independent data,” you ask? The key is understanding its converse: “fishery-dependent data.” Fishery-dependent data is gathered directly from (and in that sense, depends on) commercial and recreational fisheries. It’s furnished by “dockside monitors, at-sea observers, logbooks, electronic monitoring and reporting systems.” In other words, it’s all about what is caught for recreational or commercial purposes. By contrast, “fishery-independent data” are collected by “scientists from NOAA Fisheries science centers and partner agencies/institutes,” who seek to gather “information on fish stock abundance, biology and their ecosystem for inclusion in stock assessments.” Roughly speaking, then, the distinction is one between a particular target and that target’s larger biological context and ecological surround. Though I had an intuitive sense of this distinction, I wanted to hold myself to account and really learn what it meant. I’m a “Teacher at Sea,” yes, but I’m really a “Learner at Sea.”
I turned to a fellow member of the day watch, fisheries biologist Adam Pollack, and, after sketching the basic distinction for me, he directed me to the website for NOAA’s Office of Science and Technology, National Marine Fisheries Service, pointing me in particular to the webpage on Stock Assessment Basics, where, among other things, one can find terms like “fishery-dependent” and “fishery-independent data” neatly defined: https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/stock-assessment/stock-assessment-101). Not sure what stock assessments are? Watch theNational Marine Fisheries Service video: “The ABCs of Stock Assessments.” As I was going online to check out the definition of “fishery-independent data,” Adam told me this: “This is the world I live in.”
The purpose of the Summer Groundfish Survey is three-fold: “to monitor size and distribution of penaeid shrimp during or prior to migration of brown shrimp from bays to the open Gulf; aid in evaluating the ‘Texas Closure’ management measure of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s Shrimp Fishery Management Plan; and provide information on shrimp and groundfish stocks across the Gulf of Mexico from inshore waters to 50 fm [fathoms]” (https://www.gsmfc.org/seamap-gomrs.php). (A quick note on the Texas Closure. In order to protect young brown shrimp and help ensure that the shrimp harvest is more mature and hence more commercially valuable, the Texas shrimp fishery is closed annually between May 15 and July 17.)
On the first leg (June 7 to 20) of the Survey, the Teacher at Sea aboard was Geoff Carlisle; on the second leg (June 27 to July 5, 2018), the Teacher at Sea aboard was Angela Hung. You can find the first two “chapters” of our collective TAS Summer Groundfish Survery story here: https://noaateacheratsea.blog/
At the time of writing we’re still on our way to the fish survey station; it’s a 30-hour steam out of Pascagoula. I look forward to reporting on our catches and the technology we’ll be using in a future post.
I flew into Gulfport, MS, from San Francisco, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 8, and was met at the airport by friendly and informed Field Party Chief Christina Stepongzi. As we crossed the bridge over the Pascagoula River and NOAA Ship Oregon II came into view, Chrissy said proudly: “There’s home.” On arrival, I got a quick tour of the vessel I’ll have the privilege of calling home for the next 12 days, and Chrissy introduced me around. The folks I met that afternoon (and since) were all just great: gracious and good humored, warm and welcoming. That first jovial bunch consisted of Chief Marine Engineer Joe Howe, Chief Steward Lydell Reed, and Junior Unlicensed Engineer Jack Steadfast. I got settled into my stateroom, and, jet-lagged and short on sleep, I turned in early.
I woke rested Sunday morning and went out onto the dock to look around. I’d brought a sketchbook with me (intending to keep a sketch-journal as both a pastime and an aid to learning), and, since I had a couple of hours to myself before a meeting at 1230 hours, I decided to try sketching the ship. I found a comfortable spot in the shade, and got busy. I’d hoped to sketch the ship from stem to stern, realizing I wouldn’t be able to take it all in once aboard. I planned to divide the ship in half and draw the halves on facing pages in my sketchbook. Stores arrived at 1000 hours, and I watched various preparations taking place fore and aft. I also helped carry a few bags of groceries aboard.
Working briefly in pencil and mostly in ink, I committed myself to certain shapes and proportions early on, and it soon became clear that I’d have to omit the bow and stern, focusing on the middle of the ship and making the best of things. Many of the objects, devices, and structural forms I was drawing were unfamiliar, and I looked forward to having a crew member explain what I’d been drawing later on.
It was an absorbing and thoroughly satisfying way of introducing myself to the ship, and I had the pleasure of meeting a few more members of the crew while I sketched. Skilled Fisherman Mike Conway introduced himself and very generously offered to grab me a fast-food lunch, since meals aboard weren’t being prepared yet. Arlene Beahm, the Second Cook, stopped by to say hello, as did First Assistant Engineer William Osborn. When the time came, I went aboard for the “Welcome Aboard” meeting, an orientation to the ship and shipboard courtesies by Operations Officer Ryan Belcher. Thereafter we had a little time to ourselves, so I meandered about the ship, meeting fisheries biologist Alonzo Hamilton in the galley. He kindly answered my questions about the version of the ship I’d sketched in the morning. (What were the white cylinders with domed tops amidships? Satellite antennas. What where the propeller-like forms forward of them, above the bridge? Radar.) We embarked at 1400 hours, and I up went to the flying bridge (i.e., the open deck above the bridge) to watch our passage down and out the mouth of the Pascagoula River and into the Gulf of Mexico.
I got good looks at some Laughing Gulls and some Terns (that I’ll need to ID later), and watched a shrimp trawler working next to the channel behind Petit Bois and Horn Islands.
Once we were in the Gulf proper, we were joined for a while by some Bottlenose Dolphins. An hour or two later, as I sat astern watching the sun set, I caught sight of a pair of Frigatebirds, high above the ship, their stunning forked tails trailing behind them. I’d never seen one, let alone two, and I didn’t sketch them or take a photograph of them. But you know I’ll remember them.
Did You Know?
Magnificent Frigatebirds don’t dive after fish. They skim themfrom the surface or chase after other birds, stealing their catches. To learn more about the Magnificent Frigatebird, visit Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Magnificent_Frigatebird/
In a few short days, I’ll be flying to the Gulf Coast and going aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II, a 170-foot fisheries research vessel which first launched in 1967. I turned seven that year, and in my Southern California boyhood loved nothing better than exploring the cliffsides and mudflats of the Newport Back Bay, collecting seashells and chasing lizards and Monarch butterflies. Fifty years later, I’m just as smitten with nature and the marine environment, maybe more so. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, and these days my passion for the ocean takes the form of getting out on the water whenever I can (and longing to do so whenever I can’t): kayak-fishing along the coast from Marin to Mendocino, tide-pooling at Half Moon Bay, and whale-watching with my family in Monterey.
Though my childhood reading consisted almost entirely of field guides for shells and insects—and those by Roger Tory Peterson (no relation) were my most-prized books—I didn’t become a biologist. No, I became a professor of English instead, one who was drawn, not too mysteriously, to writers who shared my fascination with the sea and its creatures, novelists like John Steinbeck and Herman Melville, poets like Walt Whitman and George Oppen. As a non-scientist with an incurable case of “sea fever,” I simply couldn’t be happier to sail this summer as a NOAA Teacher at Sea, and I look forward to experiencing first-hand the rigors of life and work aboard a NOAA research vessel.
I have the great good fortune of teaching at a wonderful independent high school that has helped me to cultivate these interests within and beyond the classroom: Oakland’s College Preparatory School. I teach a year-long Freshman English course there as well as a handful of upper-level semester-long seminars, each focused on a special topic or theme. One of my favorite seminars is called “Deadliest Catches” (yes, a shameless allusion to those intrepid Bering Sea crabbers on Animal Planet), a course that offers a deep-dive into the encyclopedic wonders of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Every fall members of this course visit the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park to go aboard historic vessels and sing chanteys with a locally famous park ranger. We also team up with members of College Prep’s Oceanography class, taught by my colleague Bernie Shellem, for an afternoon of marine science aboard the R/V Brownlee, examining bottom-dwelling marine life, identifying fish and crustaceans, and studying water chemistry and plankton in the San Francisco Bay.
Another of my sea-related courses, and one that might stand to benefit even more directly from my TAS experience, is “Fish & Ships”: a week-long intensive class on sustainable seafood and Bay Area maritime history. Though the course is brief, it encourages students to reflect on big questions: how do their everyday choices affect the marine environment that surrounds them, and what does it mean to be an ethical consumer of seafood? We meet and eat with industry experts, and we take a road trip to Monterey, visiting its amazing Aquarium, kayaking on Elkhorn Slough (where its rescued sea otters are released), and feasting mindfully at restaurants that feature sustainable seafood.
In connection with this course and on a personal note, I’m especially interested in the shrimp species I’ll become well acquainted with on the upcoming cruise. I’m a big fan of shrimp tacos, and my favorite taqueria in Berkeley makes theirs from “wild-caught shrimp from the waters of Southeastern Louisiana.” An ad on the wall proclaims they’re a sustainable resource, informing customers that independent fisherman harvest the “Gulf Shrimp” using a method called “skim netting,” reducing by-catch (i.e., the unwanted capture of non-target species) and thereby doing less damage to the ecosystem. I’m fascinated by the ways supply-chain connections like these—between particular fishermen and the fish they fish for in a particular place and in a particular way—swirl out into so many different but interconnected orbits of human endeavor, binding them in one direction to the fisheries biologists who help determine whether their stocks are sustainable, and, in another, to fish taco aficionados and English teachers in far flung states who delight in their flavorful catches.
What am I bringing along to read, you may wonder. Well, for starters, it’s only fitting that my well-worn copy of Moby-Dick accompany me, and another old favorite belongs in my bags: Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez. More powerfully than any of his fiction, that work—which records the marine-specimen collecting trip Steinbeck made to Baja California with his longtime friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts—spoke to me as a young man and certainly helped inspire the voyage I’m about to take as a Teacher at Sea.
Did You Know?
Samuel Clemens’s pen name, Mark Twain, had a maritime source. In the parlance of riverboat pilots, the two words mean “two fathoms” (or 12 feet) of depth, “marked” (or measured) by the leadsman. The expression meant safe water for a steamboat, in other words.
“The solution to pollution is dilution” was a common refrain during the midcentury as large scale factories became more common. This mindset applied to both air and water as both seemed limitless. Looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, a relatively small body of water, it’s easy to see how this logic prevailed. Even the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh surface water in the world, accepted incalculable amounts of pollution and sewage from coastal factories, steel and wood mills, and of course major cities.
The rise of the modern technological age that took humans to the moon gave us the first glimpse of the fallacy of the “solution”. “Earthrise” is the first photo of the entire Earth taken from space, showing us how thin our protective atmosphere really is and how delicately the Blue Planet floats in the vastness of space. This is the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
To truly guide the development of national policies including those that protect air and water quality, federal agencies such as NOAA are responsible for collecting data about our atmosphere and oceans, now knowing that these ecological compartments cannot endlessly dilute the pollution we generate. What seemed to be an obvious solution has today ballooned into a number of serious problems, from acid rain and blinding smog in cities to burning rivers, mass fish die offs that wash up on Lake Michigan beaches and dying coral reefs in the oceans.
A major pollutant in the Gulf is sourced from industrial agriculture practices from as far away as Illinois and the rest of the Midwest farm belt. Fertilizer and pesticides enter local rivers that find their way to the Mississippi River which carries contaminants into the Gulf of Mexico.
We have reached the Gulf’s “Dead Zone”, yielding a few tiny catches. Station W1601 may have given the smallest catch ever—a clump of seaweed and a whole shrimp.
Hypoxia literally means “low oxygen”. When fertilizers used to grow corn and soy enter bodies of water, they likewise feed the growth of algae, which are not technically plants but they are the aquatic equivalent. But plants make oxygen, how can this lead to low oxygen? Algae and land plants only produce oxygen during the day. At night, they consume oxygen gas through respiration. They do this during the day as well, but overall produce more oxygen in the light through photosynthesis. For hundreds of millions of years, that’s been fine, but the recent addition of fertilizers and the warm Gulf waters cause an explosion of the kind of microscopic algae that are suspended in the water column and turn water bright green, or red in the case of “red tides”. These explosions are called algal blooms.
Algal blooms can cloud up water, making life hard for other photosynthetic organisms such as coral symbionts and larger seaweeds. At night, animals can suffocate without oxygen. During red tides, some algae release toxins that harm other life. When these organisms die and sink, bacteria go to work and decompose their bodies. The population of bacteria explodes, consuming the remaining oxygen at the sea floor. Animals that wander into the hypoxic zone also suffocate and die, feeding more decomposer bacteria that can survive with little to no oxygen. Thus, hypoxic areas are also called “dead zones”. The hypoxic zone is just above the sea floor, as little as a half a meter above, and oxygen levels can drop precipitously within a meter of the bottom.
NOAA scientists including those conducting the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish survey on Oregon II track the location, size and movement of the Gulf hypoxic zone using the conductivity-temperature-dissolved oxygen probe, or CTD. The CTD is sent into the water before every trawl to take a variety of measurements. Besides conductivity (a measure of ions), temperature and oxygen, the CTD also checks the salinity, clarity and amount of photosynthetic pigments in the water, which gives an idea of plankton populations. Ours uses two different sensors for conductivity, salinity, temperature and oxygen, double-checking each other. A pump pulls water through the various sensors and the measurements are sent directly to a computer in the dry lab to record these data.
The CTD is lowered to just under the surface of the water to make sure the pump is working and to flush the system. Then it is lowered to within a meter of the bottom. The CTD also has an altimeter to measure the distance from the bottom, while the ship also uses sonar to determine the water depth at each station. Water is measured continuously as the CTD is lowered and raised, creating a graph that profiles the water column. Crewmen are on deck controlling the winches according to the directions from a scientist over the radio who is monitoring the water depth and measurements in the dry lab.
The CTD also has bottles that can store water samples so oxygen can be tested a third time in the lab onboard. When we only get a few fish where the CTD recorded normal oxygen, the CTD is launched again to verify oxygen levels using all three methods. In the CTD output, oxygen is coded in green as a line on the graph and in the data tables. Most stations read in the 5-6 range, the cutoff for hypoxia is 2. We are reading less than 1 in the Dead Zone.
With storms in the path and not-so-plenty of fish in the sea, today is a slow day.
Looking out over the water, I can’t help but think how intrepid, even audacious, early mariners must have been. I know we are within a couple miles of the coast but there’s no sign of land anywhere in any direction. Even with the reassurance that satellites, radar, radios, AND trained NOAA Corps officers steering in the bridge are all keeping track of us, I still swallow a moment of panic. What kind of person decides to sail out in search of new continents when it only takes a couple hours to lose track of where you came from? And yet, the Polynesians set out thousands years ago in canoes from mainland Asia, the Aborigine ancestors managed to find Australia, and of course, Europeans sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas, whether they knew it or not. It was all possible through careful observations of the winds, waves, ocean currents, stars and other indications of direction, but I still have to think that that’s a pretty bold move when you don’t know if land lies ahead.
At least we’re not alone out here. These are some other animals that we’ll leave for the mammal survey and birders to count.
Dolphins appear around large catches for some pickings from the net.
Frigate birds, male in the upper left appear black, female below with a white breast.
Frigate bird inhabit tropical waters and are relatively uncommon in the U.S.
Brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
Gulls never left the side of NOAA Ship Oregon II.
Did You Know?
The CTD also shows the layers of ocean water. Looking at the graph again for the red (salinity) and blue (temperature) lines, we can see where they cross at about 15 meters. This shows where colder, saltier water starts compared to the warm surface water that is diluted by fresh water and mixed by wind.
What are groundfish? They are basically what they sound like, the fish that live in, on or near the bottom of a body of water. NOAA Ship Oregon II samples waters in coastal Gulf regions from Florida to Texas using an otter trawl net. Our net includes a “tickler chain” that moves just ahead of the opening to disturb the bottom sediment so that organisms swim up to be scooped up.
We tow for a short half hour at each station to get an idea of what species can be found at different locations. Fishing boats tow for much longer, hours at a time with larger nets. The cod end where the fish collect, is created by a knot beautifully tied by Chief Boatswain Tim Martin that holds during the tow but easily pulls open to release the catch which drops into large baskets. Tim works on the deck to launch the CTD (conductivity-temperature-dissolved oxygen probe) and the trawl net. The baskets are weighed and then dumped onto a conveyor belt to be sorted.
A look at what we caught at a station on June 30.
Another look at what we caught at a station on June 30.
This was one of the larger samples, filling up the entire conveyor belt!
We start by putting whatever looks alike together, which is much easier said than done. If it turns out to be tricky, the wet lab is equipped with a range of resource guides to reference. Once everything is sorted out, each species is individually sampled: the count of individuals, the total weight of that species, the lengths of up to 20 individuals, and the weight and sex of every fifth individual. This information is entered into Fisheries Scientific Computer Systems (FSCS) and added into a database that gets uploaded for public knowledge.
For commercial species, such as shrimp and red snapper, every individual is measured and sexed; up to 200 for shrimp and up to 20 red snapper.
It’s a lot of work, but data entry is relatively easy using a magnetic board. You line the specimen up at the end of the board and simply press the magnet at the end of the animal’s body. The board is connected to a computer and automatically sends the measurement when the magnet is pressed. The scale is also connected to a computer and sends that information directly. However, every species’ scientific name is manually entered into a list for each station before measurements are taken.
Fish are sorted and measured in the wet lab in Oregon II
The red handle contains a magnet. The length is recorded when the magnet touches the board. The fish is an Atlantic moonfish, Selene setapinnis.
Measuring butterfish, Peprilus triacanthus
These data are primarily used by NOAA for stock assessments. By documenting species abundances, size and distribution, fishery managers can calculate catch quotas for the year that maintains healthy stocks. These data are also used by NOAA for their database to help you make sustainable seafood choices: https://www.fishwatch.gov/ . It is also part of NOAA’s mission to be “Dedicated to the understanding and stewardship of the environment,” which is why everything that is captured is counted. Federal data are publicly available, so these surveys might be used by scientists to study a range of questions about any species that we counted, including the ecology of non-commercial species.
It’s really interesting to see exactly where seafood comes from. In the 10 miles or so between stations, the communities change drastically. Shrimp are abundant in east Texas, but not where blue crab start to appear in west Texas. It’s also interesting to see the different sizes (ages) of fish change between stations. One station brought in snapper over 10” long, while the next two stations delivered their 5-6” juveniles. Aside from that, I got the chance to handle so many species I’ve only seen on TV and never imagined that I would get to hold in my hand!
“Don’t give it a knife!”
“Stop giving it things!”
-things you say when trying to separate blue crabs that are latched onto each other
It’s reassuring to see the Gulf teeming with gorgeous biological diversity as evidence that U.S. fisheries are responsibly managed and that we have a strong model of stewardship in our seas—SEAMAP Groundfish Survey literally only scratches the surface of the coastline.
The meals in the galley are great. Valerie McCaskill of Naples, FL and Arlene Beahm from Connecticut are the Stewards onboard and they work diligently to feed us delicious home cooked meals. I’ll be a few pounds heavier when you see me after this trip. “Arlene’s trying to kill you with food!” Tim observed. These two ladies are stand-in moms, making sure we have heaping plates at meal times and snack times and anytime in between.
That’s a great thing because the 12 hour shifts work up an appetite. NOAA Ship Oregon II sails from one sampling station to the next, ranging from 5-12 miles in between, but as many as 20+ miles. On short runs, the next station comes up pretty quickly and we find ourselves finishing one just in time to start the next. We process four to five stations each shift with only short breaks during trawls.
It’s hugely humbling and an exercise in insecurity to watch the scientists work. At a glance they can recite the full scientific name of the hundreds of species that pour out of the net. I’ll be happy if I can come back with ten new species in my memory bank.
The researchers onboard have been doing this for years. Identifying species takes time and practice to learn like any other skill, and it showcases the dedication and fulfillment they find in this kind of work.
It’s hot, dirty work. There’s no air conditioning in the wet lab and around 1000+ fish can be brought aboard at a station. I, and probably everybody else within smelling range, am grateful to have hot showers and laundry onboard. Kristin Hannan emphasizes that “field work isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have to work in the field to study marine science.” But, the wet lab is where you witness the enthusiasm that brings the crew and the scientists back day after day in the heat of July, year after year. Squeals of excitement and giant grins appear with favorite species: Calappa crabs (I learned a name!), triggerfish, beautiful snail and clam shells, the infamous mantis shrimp, a chance sea anemone and of course sharks to name a few. Fisherman James Rhue, a crewman who works with Tim and operates the winches, comes to check out (as in play with) the catch a couple times a day; the fishing crew must be as skilled with identifications as the researchers—they do it during their off hours. During the half hour of the tow, we are often talking about plankton diversity in the dry lab.
As satisfying as the work can be for some, the challenges certainly come with living on a relatively small boat built in a different time. While long overnight shifts sound tough, seasickness jumps to mind more readily when you say “boat”. When you’re seasick, everyone volunteers a range of interesting remedies, from watching the horizon, which is qualified as BS; lying down; sleeping, which isn’t easy when you’re sick; eating to keep your stomach full, counterintuitive but actually a useful one; ginger candy; staying cool, which does not describe the wet lab; to just chewing on a chunk of raw ginger, distracting, I’m sure! The Teacher at Sea organizers recommend working to keep your mind off of the nausea. Arlene was also very kind and donated a couple of her seasickness patches to my cause. For me, standing outside and watching the waves for flying fish helped immensely in the few minutes between processing catches. And there is far too much work and creatures to see to think about my stomach.
Did You Know?
Although scientific names sound like gibberish, they are in Latin and often physical descriptions of the species. Portunus spinicarpus for example is a crab named for the long spike (spini) on its wrist (carpus).
Lagocephalus translates to “rabbit head”, the name given to the group of puffer fishes, but you might have to squint to see it.
If you enjoy a good seafood steam pot or boil—overflowing with shrimp, crabs, clams and corn and potatoes mixed in, rounded out with fish filets blackened/broiled/fried to your preference—then you have to thank hardworking scientists like Taniya Wallace. Taniya is a fisheries biologist and is the Chief Scientist aboard Oregon II for this leg of the 2018 SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey. On top of assessing the health of the Gulf fisheries that feeds Americans across the country, she is busy coordinating the group of scientists that form the research party on the boat. The specifics of the research will follow in upcoming posts, but today, I’d like you to meet a scientist.
Taniya was certain of becoming a nurse. Her high school offered vocational coursework in nursing to give students an early start into college degree programs. She was on track, until it came to clinicals. Nursing clinicals are the part of the program where students begin their training in real work settings to apply what is learned in the classroom. More importantly, clinicals introduces students to the realities of the job.
Nurses are among the ranks of hard working, underappreciated sectors of the health field because much of what they do goes unseen. For many in pre-nursing and nursing programs, clinicals ensures that students are experiencing what they are signing up for. For Taniya Wallace, her experience during this class compelled her to make the difficult decision to pursue a different program of study.
Taniya was accepted in Mississippi Valley State University, a historically black university, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. She began a position as a laboratory scientist until the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig that caused 11 deaths and the largest oil spill in history. Four million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico over three months before the underwater well was finally capped.
Taniya has always loved the water, and had previously shadowed her cousin who is also a marine scientist. Her aunt builds boats for Austal Shipyard in Alabama and her father works at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, MS, the very company that built Oregon II. With an urgent need to study the critical impacts of crude petroleum oil on the Gulf ecosystems, an opportunity on Oregon II was a natural fit. Taniya signed a three month contract–she’s been here ever since.
What has kept her going for eight years? As a scientist on a ship, she sees “something new every day” on the boat and on land when they stop at different ports. With a love of water, working in a lab at sea is a win-win.
The Teacher at Sea Program emphasizes to applicants that “flexibility and the ability to cope with the uncertain is crucial to the character of those who go to sea.” Taniya Wallace demonstrates this quality by shifting to a research program in college, joining NOAA Ship Oregon II, and by working at sea.
It is no exaggeration that flexibility is a requirement for working on a boat. In fact, I was scheduled to participate in the second leg of the SEAMAP summer groundfish survey on June 21, departing from Galveston, TX on the 22nd. Unfortunately, the trawl winch broke during the first leg (the first time ever for Oregon II which has been sailing for 50 years!), cutting their trip short. To try to make up the time, it was decided that the second leg would get an early start from Mississippi as soon as repairs were completed in Pascagoula, MS.
What originally was a week to get packed, find a plant sitter and cuddle with my cats became a last minute scramble to find rain boots and mow the lawn in the middle of a heat wave—I boarded a plane to Gulfport, MS on June 18 instead. (It was explained that this was not the typical direction in scheduling shifts.) I got to meet some of the fantastic crew members of Oregon II, as well as from neighboring Gordon Gunter, who invited me to play corn hole for the first time. This is the game where you are trying to throw bean bags through a hole cut in a plywood board that’s set on an incline. I spent the night on the boat in port.
There’s the requisite training and safety information for the ship in general. Taniya took over the interns and me for science brief. I learn that I’m assigned to the day shift which begins at 1200 noon the next day. Night shift starts at 2400 midnight that same day. The operations of the ship are 24 hours. It’s a long wait to get started and I’m looking forward to it.
We spend a night out at sea and I’m up and ready to sort some fish and shrimp. When I get to the galley, I find out that we are in fact, returning to Pascagoula because the trawl winch wasn’t fully repaired.
While issues like this are rare on Oregon II, a vessel that is widely regarded as extremely reliable, the process of science frequently hits stumbling blocks. TV shows like CSI and Bones and movies like Jurassic Park feature futuristic laboratories with state-of-the-art, if wildly impractical, equipment with colorful liquids, holograms, and scientists in lab coats and goggles who complete experiments in mere minutes. In reality, science is a lot messier and SLOWER. While wiling away the time today, I learned about a new hashtag for scientists full of internet examples: #badstockphotosofmyjob.
Real labs tend to have old equipment, space is limited so rooms are often crowded with large machines and many computers, and most liquids are colorless, stored in small, like the size of your pinky, tubes in a refrigerator or freezer. Particularly if you work outside, aka “the field”, and even if you don’t, a lot of equipment might be jerry-rigged from things picked up at Wal-Mart or Home Depot. Not to say that science is unreliable or not credible, but that projects are unique and a lot of times, you have to be creative and build what you specifically need. Then modify it until it works.