John Bilotta: A World of Wonder under the Waves, Days 1-4 in the South Atlantic MPAs, June 20, 2014

NOAA Teacher at Sea

John Bilotta

Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster

June 17 – 27, 2014

 

Mission: South Atlantic Marine Protected Area Survey

Geographical area of cruise: South Atlantic

Date: June 20, 2014

Weather: Sunny with clouds.  26.6 Celsius.  Wind 13 knots from 251 degrees (west).  1-2m seas from the north.

 ** Note: Upon request, note that if you click on any picture it should open full screen so you can the detail much better!

 

Science and Technology Log

Research mission objectives – what am I doing out here?

Gathering data on habitat and fish assemblages of seven species of grouper and tilefish in the South Atlantic MPAs . These species are considered to be at risk due to current stock levels and life history characteristics which make them vulnerable to overfishing.   Information gathered will help assess the health of the MPAs, the impact management is having, and the effectiveness of ROV exploratoration to make these health assessments.

Science Part I:  Multibeam sea floor mapping  Multibeam sonar sensors — sometimes called multibeam acoustic sensors echo-sounders (MB for short)  are a type of sound transmitting and receiving system that couple with GPS to produce high-resolution maps of the sea floor bottom. See how it works by checking out this cool NOAA animation. MB mapping is occurring all night long on the Nancy Foster by a team of expert mappers including Kayla Johnson, Freidrich Knuth, Samantha Martin, and Nick Mitchell (more on them and their work and NOAA careers in a future blog).  Our Chief Scientist Stacey Harter has identified areas to map.

OK, so we aren't exactly MB mapping in this photo but I wanted to introduce everyone to my host Chief Scientist in one of my first pictures.

OK, so we aren’t exactly MB mapping in this photo but I wanted to introduce everyone to my host Chief Scientist Stacey Harter in one of my first pictures.

By morning, after the mappers have worked their magic on the data, Stacey is able to see a visual representation of the sea floor.  She is looking for specific characteristics including a hard sea floor bottom, relief, and ridge lines – important characteristics for the groupers, tilefish, hinds, and other fish species under protection and management.   Stacey uses these maps to determine transects for ROV exploration.  Those transect lines are used by both the scientists driving the ROV and the navigation crew aboard the Nancy Foster.  Once down on the ocean floor, the ROV pilot follows this transect and so must the ship high above it in the waves driven by the crew.  Although 3 floors apart – it’s amazing to hear the necessary communication between them.  (Watch for one of my future posts that will highlight a MB map and a sample transect line.)

Science Part II:  ROV exploration – Completion of 8 dives

By the time this posts, we will have made 8 dives with the SubAtlantic Mohawk 18 ROV from University of North Carolina. (perhaps we will have made more dives because internet via satellites is slow and I am uncertain when this will really get posted.)

JB and ROVs first date aboard the aft deck on the Nancy Foster

JB and ROVs first date aboard the aft deck on the Nancy Foster

The ROV joined the mission with its two pilots, Lance Horn and Jason White.  Pilots extraordinaire but I otherwise see them as the ROV’s parents guiding and caring for its every move.  The technology aboard the ROV is incredible including a full spectrum video camera, a digital camera, sensors to measure depth and temperature, and 4 horizontal thrusters and one vertical thruster with twin propellers.   The ROV has donned a pair of lasers which when projected on the sea floor allow the scientists to measure items.

JB attaching the CTD probe to the ROV with instructions from Steve Matthews.

JB attaching the CTD probe to the ROV with instructions from Steve Matthews.

John receiving launch instructions from Andy David; including about how the cable attaches to the ROV and the fiber optic line.

John receiving ROV deployment instructions from Andy David; including about how the cable attaches to the ROV and the fiber optic line.

 

ROV deployment

ROV deployment

 

The ROV control station is daunting!  As one may imagine, it does include three joysticks accompanied by multiple switches, buttons, lights and alarms – all just a fingertip away from the ROV pilot.   Five monitors surround the pilot – some of them are touch screen activated adding more to the selection of options at their fingertips.  Is a Play Station a part of your daily routine?  Perhaps you should consider a career at NOAA as a ROV pilot!

ROV operations station. 1. Power supply, 2. Joystick controllers, 3. Multiple switches, 4. Four monitors for the ROV pilot alone, 5. Two monitors for the video and digital pictures, 6.  Laptop controlling digital pictures, and 7.  Multiple DVD recorders.

ROV operations station. 1. Power supply, 2. Joystick controllers, 3. Multiple switches, 4. Four monitors for the ROV pilot alone, 5. Two monitors for the video and digital picture technician, 6. Laptop controlling digital pictures, and 7. Multiple DVD recorders.

 

While the ROV drives and explores a set transect line, six additional scientists and assistants identify and record habitat, fish species, invertebrates, and other items that come into vision on any one of the monitors scattered around the lab located inside the ship.  Two scientists are recording fish species and a scientist accompanied by me the past two days are identifying habitat and invertebrates.

JB Invertebrate Logging

John assisting Stephanie Farrington (not pictured) with habitat and invertebrate identification and logging.

Of course, the ROV is on the move constantly, so fish and items of interest are flying by – you don’t have time to type or write so the scientists use short cut keyboards pre-coded with species and habitat descriptors.   Meanwhile another scientist is narrating the entire dive as everything is being recorded and yet another is controlling DVD video recording and centering and zooming the digital camera capturing hundreds of pictures during a dive.  You would be surprised by the number of computers running for this operation!  What is amazing is that everything will be linked together through a georeferrenced database using latitude and longitude coordinates.

Science Part III.  What have we seen and discovered?

On June 19th & 20th we completed 8 dives.  Some of the first species we saw included the shortbigeye, triggerfish, reef butterflyfish, and hogfish (Here is a good link of fish species on the reefs located here.)   We also observed a few stingrays and speckled hind.  For invertebrates, we saw a lot of Stichopathes (tagged as dominate during the dives) and fields of Pennatulacea (long white feathers).  We also saw echinoderms and solitary cap coral (a singular, white tube coral) and discovered a Demospongiae that Stephanie, one of the Research Biologists (see below) hadn’t seen yet; we called it a bubble-wrap sponge in my hand-written notes.

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Things that we saw today that we wished we hadn’t seen: 

Pollution  So with much of my teaching centered around clean water and pollution prevention and mitigation, I was saddened to discover the following items on the ocean floor during the first five dives: Plastic bags, cans, a barrel, a clearly visible rubber surgical glove, and an artillery shell. Interesting – from the ROV you can easily spot what the scientists call ‘human debris’ as it often has straight lines and corners, distinctly human crafted shapes – not like mother nature engineers.

Plastic balloon found during dive #2 at about 60 meters.

Plastic balloon found during dive #2 at about 60 meters. Photo credit: NOAA UNCW. Mohawk ROV June 2014.

Black plastic garbage bag found at about 60 meters.  NOAA UNCW. Mowak ROV June 2014.

Black plastic garbage bag found at about 60 meters. NOAA UNCW. Mohawk ROV June 2014.

 Invasive species – Lionfish are everywhere!  Why are Lionfish undesirablehttp://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish.html 

Lionfish - multiple sitings today.  Photo credit:  NOAA UNCW

Lionfish – multiple sitings today. Photo credit: NOAA UNCW Mohawk ROV. June 2014.

 

Career highlight:  Stephanie Farrington, Biological Research Specialist

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution at Florida Atlantic University

Masters of Science in Marine Biology.  Bachelors of Science in Marine Science and Biology.

Stephanie’s expertise is in collecting, classifying, and mapping marine biology with emphasis in habitats and invertebrates.  She is also proficient in ArcGIS for mapping and maintaining a database of everything she sees, discovers, and observes.  During this research trip, she is the scientist charged with identifying the habitat with an emphasis on the invertebrate species that speckle the sea floor.  For the past two days I have shadowed her side – watching the video feed from the ROV and logging.  She is a wealth of information and I really appreciate sitting next to her the past two days.  She is a master in biology and a master in buttons – and a fun spirit too.

 

Personal Log

Day 2 was spent almost entirely in transit – getting north from Mayport to Georgia, almost 9 hours.  Part of that time was spent getting to know the research team and participating in safety drills.  Sorry everyone; I did not get a picture of me in my red gumby suit (aka the life saving immersion suit).  Upon recommendation from a colleague (you know who you are) I also spent two hours on a bench on the bow reading The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

“If Earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, the amount of water on the planet would be in a single half-liter bottle of Poland Spring in one of the van’s thirteen cup holders.” 

Although I have been out on the ocean before as well as the Great Lakes, on this day I simply felt tiny in a vast sea of blue.

For those who know me during my off-work hours, I also hit the ship’s gym -yes, that’s right, I am keeping up my routine with one exception.  My Paleo diet is now nearly broken – too much great food here from the ship’s chef’s, including ice cream.

Last night, at the end of Day 3 (Thursday) I spent the evening on the beach!  Well actually, what they call steal beach – a platform aft (behind) the ship’s bridge equipped with lounge recliners to watch the sunsets.  I sat up for seemingly hours trying to write all my excitements and discoveries in a log I am keeping.  Don’t worry though, I won’t make you read it all; my blog readers will only see a small snapshot of all I have been seeing and discovering!

 

Glossary to Enhance Your Mind

Each of my logs is going to have a list of new vocabulary to enhance your knowledge.  I am not going to post the definitions; that might be a future student assignment.  NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch has a great site of definitions HERE.  

  • Immersion suit
  • Transect
  • MPA
  • Invertebrates
  • Rugosity
  • Multibeam mapping
  • Bathymetry
  • Dominate species
  • Habitat
  • Echinoderms
  • CTD probe