Jill Bartolotta: Start Your Engines, June 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jill Bartolotta

Aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

May 30 – June 13, 2019

Mission:  Mapping/Exploring the U.S. Southeastern Continental Margin and Blake Plateau

Geographic Area of Cruise: U.S. Southeastern Continental Margin, Blake Plateau

Date: June 1, 2019

Weather Data:

Latitude: 28°19.3’ N

Longitude: 079°21.6’

Wave Height: 1-2 feet

Wind Speed: 11 knots   

Wind Direction: 195

Visibility: 10 nautical miles

Air Temperature: 28°C

Barometric Pressure: 1012.5

Sky: Broken

Making the Engines Run

Engines on this ship are run with marine grade diesel. Before the diesel can be put through the engine it must be cleaned of any impurities. A centrifuge system is used to spin the diesel at a very fast pace in a circle. As the diesel spins any impurities are flung out leaving behind the purified fuel. If the fuel is not purified before it is put through the engines, they will gunk up and not function properly. NOAA Okeanos Explorer has 4 engines. Currently we are running 3 of them and the fourth one is the backup. There is also a fifth generator that can serve as a backup if needed. There are roughly 180,000 gallons of diesel on the ship and roughly 2,200 gallons of fuel are used per day.  In order to make the engine work, air in the engine is compressed causing the air to heat up. Then you spray fuel into the compressed air and the heat of their air causes an explosion leading to the process of combustion. In order to determine if complete combustion is occurring and the engine fuel is clean of impurities you look at the exhaust. If the exhaust is clear it means you are seeing full combustion and the fuel is clean. If the exhaust is not clean, black for example, it means that combustion is not complete or the fuel is dirty.

Fuel purification centrifuge
The fuel purification centrifuge system. If you look closely you can see a pink liquid, purified diesel.
Engine
One of the engines. There are four engines on board. Three are running and the fourth will be used as a backup.

Cooling the Engines

The engines must run at a temperature below 200°F. When these engines run they create heat so to keep them at a temperature under 200°F you need to cool them off using a heat exchanger. A heat exchanger is a series of pipes that run hot substances past cooler substances. These substances do not come into contact with one another, but are piped past one another. The heat transfers to the cooler substance through the series of pipes thus cooling the previously hot substance. On this ship, oil is used to lubricate the pistons on the engine, but it also serves a coolant. The oil is then cooled via freshwater called jacket water and the freshwater is cooled via seawater taken from the ocean. The ocean surface water is 74°F when it enters the ship and leaves the ship at roughly 84°F.

However where does this heat go? The first law of thermodynamics, The Law of Conservation of Energy, tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or converted. So why not convert this heat energy into some of use? Well guess what. The engineers on Okeanos Explorer do just that. Some of the heat goes into the seawater used to cool the jacket water and some of the heat is used in the desalination system.

Remember we left off with desalination in the previous blog.  They use the heat coming off the engines to heat the saltwater, evaporate it, and retrieve the freshwater. However, if you remember these engines must run below 200°F and in order to boil water you must be at a temperature of 212°F. I know many of you are probably thinking salt in water actually lowers the boiling point, but really the opposite is true. Salt actually increases the temperature needed to boil water. However, it is minimal so it won’t affect your pasta too much. Feel free to add that pinch of salt like a true chef.

In order to boil water with 200°F of temperature or less we need to change the pressure of the system. This is done through a vacuum that decreases the pressure in the system allowing water to boil at a lower temperature. It is similar to when you go hiking in the mountains (less pressure than when you are at sea level) and go to boil water. It boils quicker because less heat is needed since the pressure is lower. So by changing the pressure in the system to one that would be seen at a higher altitude, engineers are able to use the heat from the engines to boil the salt water on the ship, allowing us to have access to freshwater for drinking, bathing, and cooking purposes. Pretty ingenious right?

Maintaining Balance

Now hopefully you were paying attention in the first paragraph when I talked about how much fuel is on board and how much is used each day. As fuel is used, the weight on the ship will change affecting stability. A ship with weight is more stable in the water than a ship will little to no weight. Therefore as fuel weight is lost it must be replaced. One gallon of diesel weighs approximately 7 pounds. So if we are using 2200 gallons a day we are losing 15,400 pounds of weight. How do the engineers accomplish the task of adding more weight? What is all around us weighing 8.6 pounds per gallon??? Seawater! Yes! So ballast tanks are filled with seawater to add weight to the ship that is removed when fuel is used.

Ballast water filtration and UV purification system
Ballast water filtration and UV purification system. The parts to the right are the filtration system and the parts to the left are the UV system.

Ballast water is taken in through a filtration system before it even reaches its holding tanks (separate than the fuel tanks). The water first passes through a filter to remove large particles (such as larger pieces of plant material or debris) and then passes through a UV system that will kill any organisms. When the ballast water is released from their holding tanks in order to allow more fuel to come on board, the water must pass through the UV system once more to make sure nothing alive (plants, animals, bacteria, etc.) is getting into the water.

This purification of ballast water occurs to prevent invasive species from entering new areas. An invasive species is a plant or animal that is from somewhere else and is introduced through human actions. When these species establish in a new area and begin to outcompete native species, affect human health, and become costly to remove, they are classified as invasive.

Where I live on Lake Erie several species such as zebra and quagga mussels, round goby, and spiny water flea have all been introduced from ballast water from ships coming from the inland lakes of Eurasia. These ships would need to dump their water when they entered the shallower river ports of the Great Lakes, spurring a silent invasion. All four species are negatively affecting native populations of important species and are costly to manage. Then same is happening along the East Coast with species such as European green crab.

I would like each of you reading this blog to learn more about a species introduced to U.S. waters, whether they be fresh or salt, through ballast water. Feel free to let me know which organism you chose to learn more about in the comments section of the blog.

Personal Log

Today was a really special day at sea. It was my 30th birthday. I could not have imagined a more amazing place to turn 30. I spent the day learning all about the engine systems on board, out on the bow enjoying the breeze and sunshine while looking for ocean critters, and was treated to the sweetest cake ever. It was so kind of the chefs on board to make me a cake for my birthday. It was a red velvet cake (my favorite) with chocolate frosting and decorated with chocolate pieces and white icing. We had it with some chocolate raspberry swirl ice cream. Truly a wonderful celebration with my new friends.

Jill with birthday cake!
My delicious birthday cake. Thank you everyone for a great birthday!

I spent the hour before sunset enjoying a nice yoga and meditation session before the most amazing sunset we have seen at sea yet. The clouds and sun put on the most spectacular display of color. Afterwards I learned more about the happenings of the mission control room (basically the mapping hub for the ship). I learned how we launch equipment to collect water column data and how we clean the data removing noise. I will be writing a blog on the mapping mission soon.

After our shift ended, my roommate and I ventured to the bridge to learn about piloting a vessel at night. We learned what equipment they rely on and how they manage their night vision. And then the most spectacular part of the whole night! The stars! Wow! It looks like someone through glitter (plastic free glitter preferably) into the sky. I have never seen so many stars in my life. We saw the Milky Way, Big Dipper, Little Dipper, North Star, Jupiter and so many other constellations. It was a wonderful end to a great birthday day.

Did You Know?

Even numbered locations (such as muster stations or staterooms) on ships are located on the port (left) side of the ship and odd numbered locations are located on the (starboard) right side of the ship.

Sea Measurements

Different ways to measure are used at sea. You can see some measurement conversions below.

1 nautical mile = 1.151 statute mile

1 knot = 1 nautical mile per hour = 1.151 statute mile per hour

1° Celsius = 33.8 °F

Animals Seen Today

Flying fish

Northern gannet

Anna Levy: What Tummies Tell Us, July 15, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Anna Levy

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

July 10 – 20, 2017

 

Mission: Groundfish Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: July 15, 2017

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Scattered, mild storms continue, causing some delays in our fishing. However, they do lead to beautiful sunsets!

IMG_1087
Beautiful Gulf of Mexico sunset

Latitude: 29 18.790 N

Longitude: 84 52.358 W

 

Air temp: 28.7 C

Water temp: 29.7 C

Wind direction: light and variable

Wind speed: light and variable

Wave height: 0.3 meter

Sky: 80% cloud cover, no rain

 

Science and Technology Log

IMG_5442
TAS Anna Levy removes the stomach of a red snapper.

Data about the number and size of individual organisms can tell us a lot about the health of an overall population of a species. However, it doesn’t tell us much about the role that species plays in its community. If we want to understand that better, we need to know more about how it fits into its food web – what it eats and what eats it. If you were trying to collect information about what a fish eats, where would you look first? Its stomach!

So, after we measure certain species, we dissect them and remove their stomachs. We place each stomach in its own tiny bag, with a bar code that identifies which individual fish it belonged to. Back at a lab on land, scientists will carefully examine the contents of the stomachs to better understand what each species was eating.

IMG_1079
The bar codes that we use to label specimens.

 

factc_240
This map shows the native range of lionfish. Credit: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish-facts.html

For example, one of the fish currently under investigation in the Gulf of Mexico is the lionfish. This is an invasive species, which means that it is not native to the area. Its natural habitat is in parts of southern Pacific and Indian oceans, but it was first spotted in the Atlantic, off the coast of North Carolina, in 2002. Lionfish were most likely introduced to this area by humans, when they no longer wanted the fish as an aquarium pet. By 2010, its range had expanded to include the Gulf. And, with no natural predators in this area and rapid rates of reproduction, its numbers have increased exponentially.

Early dietary studies, which were focused on the lionfish in the Atlantic, show that the lionfish is a generalist. This means that, while it prefers to eat small reef fish, it is able to eat a wide variety of organisms including benthic invertebrates (like crabs) and other fish. This flexibility makes lionfish even more resilient and able to spread. These studies also found that lionfish stomachs were rarely empty, suggesting that they are highly successful predators, able to out-compete other top predators for food.

This has wildlife experts concerned about the impact lionfish will have on natural ecosystems. It is possible that lionfish will over-consume native species, causing native ecosystems to collapse. It is also possible that lionfish will out-compete and displace native, high level predators, like snapper and grouper. Scientists are working now to develop methods to try to manage this invasion.

Because ecosystems here are different from those in the Atlantic, scientists are now turning their attention to studying the lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico. The work that we did on the boat today should help them do just that!

To see the results of one such study, completed in 2014, see:

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105852

For more information and photos about the lionfish, please see:

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/stories/lionfish/lion02_invade.html

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/lionfish-facts.html

http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/mediacenter/2015/05/21_05.html

 

Personal Log

Often times, we teachers struggle to convince our students that, while all of the modern technology we have is great, they also need to understand how to solve problems without relying on it. (Most of us have probably been on at least one side of the old, “no, you don’t need a calculator to multiply by 10!” argument at some point in life.)   Well, in the past couple of days, I’ve seen two great examples of this onboard the ship.

The first relates directly to our survey work. Our CTD, the equipment mentioned in last post, has two sensors that both detect how much dissolved oxygen is in the water. Having two instruments collecting the same information (sometimes called redundancy) is important, not only so that there is a back-up in case one breaks, but also so that we can tell if they are measuring accurately.

The two oxygen sensors have been reading differently – one was about 0.7 mg/L lower than the other. This is an indication that one needs to be calibrated – but which one? To find out, Alonzo Hamilton, one of the senior NOAA scientists, used a classical chemical analysis technique called titration.

IMG_1082
This is the titration equipment found in the chemical lab on board the ship.

In a chemical titration, one substance is slowly added to another, while the scientist watches for a chemical reaction to occur. If you know how the two substances react, you can determine how much of the second substance is present, based on how much of the first was added to make the reaction happen.

Based on the results of his titration, Alonzo was able to determine which of the oxygen sensors was reading accurately. So, it definitely goes to show that there are important applications for that classic high school chemistry!

IMG_1173
The binnacle that houses the ship’s magnetic compass.

The other example relates more to the ability to navigate the ship. NOAA Ship Oregon II is equipped with advanced electronic navigation software, Gyro compass, radar, and GPS systems. However, when I was exploring the top deck (flying bridge) of the ship, I came upon this strangely low-tech looking instrument. I asked ENS Chelsea Parrish, a NOAA Corps Officer and member of the wardroom, about it. She explained that it is called a “binnacle,” a safeguard that houses a magnetic compass! The magnetic compass is the same type of technology used by mariners back in the 1300’s. It is critical to have in case of a power outage or other disruption to the ship’s electronic navigation technology.

 

 

Did You Know?

While they typically live in cold waters, there is one pod of orca whales (aka killer whales) that resides, year-round, in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s rare to see them, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled!

Dolphins, on the other hand, seem to be everywhere out here. I’ve caught at least a glimpse of them every day so far. In fact, a group of them swam up to investigate our CTD today as it was being lowered into the water.

 

Questions to Consider:

Research: Some other famous invasive species in our oceans include the green crab (Carcinus maenas), killer algae (Caulerpa taxifolia), a jellyfish-like animal called a sea walnut (Mnemiopsis leidyi), a marine snail called rapa whelk (Rapana venosa), and the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha). Where did each of these originate? How did they come to inhabit their invaded areas? What impact are they having?

Brainstorm: What measures could you imagine taking to manage some of these species?

Research: The specific type of titration used to determine the amount of dissolved oxygen in water is called the Winkler method. How does the Winkler method work?

 

 

 

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.

Dive053089 15 52 18

Dive053061 15 28 29 Cubya Dive052019 12 23 13 ???????????????????????????????

 

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

Jennifer Petro: Finding the Fish, July 7, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jennifer Petro
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 1 — 14, 2013 

Mission: Marine Protected Area Surveys
Geographic area of cruise: Southern Atlantic
Date: July 7, 2013

Weather Data
Air temperature: 27.°C (81.5°F)
Barometer: 1022.50 mb
Humidity: 73%
Wind direction: 195°
Wind speed: 6.1 knots
Water temp: 26.6° C (79.3°F)
Latitude: 34 44.62 N
Longitude: 75 91.98 W

Science and Technology Log

Today we find ourselves off of the coast of northern North Carolina where we will be for the next few days.  An exciting aspect about this cruise is that we will be multi-beam mapping (a blog about that very soon) and sending the ROV down for surveys in new areas off of North Carolina.  For the past few days I have been working with the team from the Panama City Southeast Fisheries Science Center identifying fish.  This can sometimes be a very difficult prospect when the ROV is flying over the fish at 2 knots.  The team from SEFSC consists of Andy David, Stacey Harter and Heather Moe.  David is a 23 year veteran of NOAA and has been working on the MPA project since 2004.  Stacey has been working on this project since its inception as well.  Heather is new to the team and is just coming off of a 1 year assignment with the NOAA Corps at the South Pole.
There are several major objectives of this survey cruise.

There are several major objectives of this survey cruise.

(1)  To survey established MPAs to collect data to compare to previous years’ surveys.

An important aspect of these cruises is to establish the effectiveness of an MPA.  In some MPAs there is usually no fishing allowed.  This includes trolling. bottom fishing (hook and line) as well as all commercial methods of fishing.  The MPAs we are studying are Type II MPAs where trolling is permitted.  They are looking for seven specific target species.

According to Andy, these species have been chosen due to their commercial value.  During each dive a record is taken as to the type of species seen.  We are specifically looking for the target species but we are keeping track of ALL the species that we see.  I think it is fantastic to see scientists get excited about seeing something new.  So far we have seen Oceanic Sunfish (2), Redband Parrotfish, Tautog (a more northerly found fish), Longsnout Butterflyfish and one fish species that we have not identified yet.  There is an emphasis on Lionfish counts to assist in gauging how the introduction of this invasive species is affecting the overall fish populations.  In some areas the Lionfish numbers have increased dramatically over the years.  Today we actually saw one try to eat a smaller fish!  They are very abundant in some locations and not in others but they have been present in 95% of our dives.

A Speckled Hind seen inside the North Florida MPA.
A Speckled Hind seen inside the North Florida MPA.

A Warsaw Grouper seen inside the North Florida MPA.
A Warsaw Grouper seen inside the North Florida MPA.

Stacey Harter, LT JG Heather Moe and I watching the big monitor and calling out the fish that we are seeing to be recorded.
Stacey Harter, LT JG Heather Moe and I watching the big monitor and calling out the fish that we are seeing to be recorded.

(2) Survey outside of the MPAs.

You may ask “Why survey outside the area?”  We want to know if the MPAs are indeed doing what they were designed to do: protect fish species.  That was very evident in Jacksonville where the numbers and size of Gag Grouper and Scamp far exceeded the numbers and size outside the MPA.

Andy David recording for the ROV video log species of fish we are seeing on the dive.
Andy David recording for the ROV video log species of fish we are seeing on the dive.

(3)  Survey new sites for possible MPA designation.

There is a process that is followed when determining if an area is a suitable MPA candidate.  What we are doing on this cruise is both mapping and surveying new areas that have been proposed as MPA sites.  This is the ground level stage.  The MPAs in the region that we are in are ultimately determined by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

A Gray Triggerfish protecting a nest of eggs.  Seen in the Edisto MPA as well as in a proposed site off of North Carolina.
A Gray Triggerfish protecting a nest of eggs. Seen in the Edisto MPA as well as in a proposed site off of North Carolina.

Data during the dives is collected in a few ways.  There are several video monitors that we watch and we call out species that we see.  A data keyboard, like the one Harbor Branch uses for invertebrates counts, is used to keep track of types and number of each species seen.  During every dive a video from the camera on the ROV is recorded and species are highlighted and recorded on to the DVD.  This data will be analyzed thoroughly back at the lab and then sent to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Personal Log

I am happy to announce that I have finally gotten my sea legs.  It wasn’t as bad as I had envisioned but I was definitely concerned that it would be a major issue.  We had some weather on Thursday, July 4 and that was the worst of it for me.  I now hardly feel the vessel move.  It has been fun over the past several days.  We are in the lab most of the days so we only get to really see the crew at mealtimes and after dinner.  The crew, from the CO to the engineers, are all great people.  They are happy to answer questions, point you in the right direction and are quick to say hi and ask you about your day.  Yesterday afternoon one of the engineers, Steve, gave us a tour of the engine room.  All of the ship’s infrastructure is supported by this room.  The engines run the generators for power, support the a/c, house the desalination filters (all the fresh water on board comes from salt water) as well as getting the boat from point A to point B.  I was impressed!

One of the 4 Caterpillar engines that keep Pisces running ship shape.
One of the 4 Caterpillar engines that keep Pisces running ship shape.

Today after our last ROV dive, a school of Mahi mahi followed it (the ROV) up to the surface.  The fishing was on!  The crew brought out rods, reels and bait and the fishing commenced.  Collectively we managed to land one bull or male and 2 smaller Mahi mahi.  It was a nice diversion for all of us, scientists and crew, as we were back to work all too quickly.  Fish tacos for dinner!

Hoping I can land this one!
Hoping I can land this one!

Fair weather and calm seas.

Jennifer

Did you know that…

Some grouper can grow to be so huge that when they open their mouths to feed, they create a suction that is powerful enough to inhale small prey.

Susan Kaiser: Blue Planet Connections, August 5, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Kaiser
Aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 25 – August 4, 2012

Mission: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Coral Reef Condition, Assessment, Coral Reef Mapping and Fisheries Acoustics Characteristics
Geographical area of cruise: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Date: August 5, 2012

Weather Data from the Bridge
Latitude:  24 deg 34 min N
Longitude:  81 deg 48 min W
Wind Speed:   2.5 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 32.1 C
Air Temperature:  29 C
Relative Humidity: 71 %

Science and Technology Log

Sunrise on the last day at sea.
Sunrise on the last day at sea.

It is easy to see why the Earth is nicknamed the Blue Planet. Its dominant physical feature is the sea water which covers approximately 70% of the surface making it appear blue even from space.   People have depended on the oceans for centuries not just for the obvious things such as food, transportation, jobs and recreation but also for the very oxygen we breathe and the fresh water we drink to survive.  Humans need the ocean for all these things and more. We are inextricably interconnected to the ocean; our survival depends on it.

The vastness of the ocean allows us to believe that human actions won’t have a major effect on it. For example, pollution that leaks into the ocean would be diluted by the huge amount of water so that no real harm would be done to the habitat or the organisms living in the ocean. This may have been true for a time when the human population was less than the 7 billion people now living on Earth. However, the fact is human actions do influence the ocean and in ways that matter. Often these impacts are unintended or accidental but they still lead to a change in the marine ecosystem.   Sadly, many times these effects are negative such as  the Deepwater Horizon/BP MC252 oil spill In 2010, an explosion on an oil drilling rig in the Gulf  of Mexico released almost 5 million barrels of oil into the ocean immediately changing the marine habitat and harming the organisms that lived there. Scientists are still determining the long term effects of this spill and helping to restore the area. In the past other spills have occurred such as the grounding of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 that released 11 million gallons of crude oil along the Alaskan coast.

Not all ocean impacts are large events related to the petroleum industry. Even small individual human decisions can be significant. For example, if a pet owner no longer wants to keep his exotic species pet he might release it into the wild or an environment where that organism isn’t usually found.

Mrs. Kaiser holding a speared Lionfish. Photo by Jeff Renchen.
Mrs. Kaiser holding a speared Lionfish. Photo by Jeff Renchen.

This is probably how the Lionfish,  scientific name Pterois volitans, has become established in the coastal waters near the Carolinas and Florida, according to Paula Whitfield, a NOAA marine scientist. It may seem like a minor problem that the Lionfish is now living in Gulf Coast ocean water. What do you predict will happen to the number of Lionfish in this area knowing that they have everything they need to flourish: food, water, space but no predators to hunt them?  They will reproduce and increase their numbers quickly. Lionfish will out number native species of fish and beat them out for those resources displacing them in their ecosystem. Lionfish will out compete native species decreasing their numbers and the diversity of organisms. While on our cruise the science team encountered groups of Lionfish living under large rocks at depths of 100 feet. They speared a specimen and brought it aboard to examine it closely. Lionfish are invading this marine habitat taking it over from the native species. Any organism that is introduced into a new ecosystem where it can rapidly increase numbers taking over native habitat is called an invasive species. One solution to this problem is to start catching Lionfish to eat! I am told they are yummy. People just need to be taught how to safely remove their poisonous fins and taste them!

These tiny (15-20mm) fresh water bivalves are invasive species.
These tiny (15-20mm) fresh water bivalves are invasive species.

Both animal and plant organisms can be invasive species squeezing out more desirable native organisms. In Nevada, we are on the alert to an invasion of  Quagga Mussels (Dreissena bugensis) that have been detected in Lake Mead near Las Vegas. These fresh water mollusks are transported on boat exteriors or in bilge water to other fresh water lakes across the United States. It is important that boaters carefully inspect and maintain their equipment to halt the progress of this invasive species to other lakes in Nevada and elsewhere.

The Blue Planet is home to us all. Our decisions and actions make a

Roof of the Nancy Foster Complex in Key West, Florida. Note the native plants.
Roof of the Nancy Foster Complex in Key West, Florida. Note the native plants.

difference on both a small and large scale. Each of us has a responsibility to make informed choices about these actions. Realizing our reliance on the ocean and other aspects of the environment and working within in these systems really benefits all of us. For example, when architects designed the Dr. Nancy Foster Florida Keys Environment Complex in Key West, Florida they created a Green Building.  This means they made choices to  “recycle”  a neighboring building saving building materials and using it for a new purpose. Office furniture was re-purposed to fit in the new energy efficient building that is LEED Silver certified. Contributing to the ecosystem, the roof is planted with native species of grasses that provide habitat for insects and birds. The plants are watered by rain. Excess rain water is collected and stored for other uses in the building helping to conserve water. While the Dr. Nancy Foster Complex building design is indirectly related to ocean preservation it represents a human action that benefits our Blue Planet. As with the release of a hand full of Lionfish, so can many small actions together can create a big impact. Choose to be connected to our  ocean in a positive way. Through a small act you do each day we can preserve and even improve our environment and oceans. The Blue Planet is a great place to call home.  Let’s help keep it that way.

Personal Log

Science Team. Photo by Lt. Josh Slater.
Science Team. Photo by Lt. Josh Slater.

As I finish writing this last blog from my home in Reno Nevada, I am reflecting on the many people I have met and the experiences I have had as a  NOAA Teacher at Sea. It is through NOAA’s interest in connecting scientists, mariners and educators that I was able to participate in this amazing experience but also because I took a chance and applied.  I might not have been chosen but I didn’t let that stop me from taking the risk. If I had not made the time to apply and prepared my essays and sample lessons look what I would have missed. The chief scientist, Scott Donahue, also took a chance on me and accepted me as an active participant on his research cruise. He and the science team went out of their way to make sure that I stayed safe and got an outstanding experience as an observer of their research. Everyone took  time to answer my questions and describe their research to reach a larger audience, YOU!

On the last day we sailed into port at Key West, few people aboard knew that

Ensign Richard De Triquet  (right) maneuvers the ship. Executive Officer CM Donn Pratt (left) observes.
Ensign Richard De Triquet (right) maneuvers the ship. Executive Officer CM Donn Pratt (left) observes.

Ensign Richard de Triquet was given the task of bringing the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster into dock.  It was his first time to manage this procedure! Commanding Officer LCDR Holly Jablonski knew he had the skill and took a risk  assigning Ensign De Triquet to maneuver the ship into port. Working as a team, the other officers on the bridge used binoculars to spot potential obstacles in the channel. They discussed the best course for the ship and provided input to Ensign De Triquet who announced the orders.  By the way, the docking was was smoothly accomplished and I got to observe the entire process including the debriefing. Congratulations Ensign De Triquet, nice work!

My NOAA Teacher at Sea experience is one that I will never forget! It was a pleasure to be a part of this science research cruise and to

Mrs. Kaiser snorkeling Ft. Jefferson. Photo by Alejandro Acosta, PhD.
Mrs. Kaiser snorkeling Ft. Jefferson. Photo by Alejandro Acosta, PhD.

meet such a wonderful group of people. My blog would not be complete without acknowledging several individuals in the group who were especially helpful.  Danielle Morley who cheerfully provided me with an overview of the VR2 research including a power point presentation and got me involved in the data collection. Hatsue Bailey who acted as my photographer whenever needed.  Sarah Fangman who provided ground transportation. Alejandro Acosta, PhD who took me snorkeling after a tour of  Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. He also was the underwater photographer of the organisms we saw that day. Thank you, everyone!

Just as people are interconnected to the ocean they are also interconnected to each other. All of the people I met on this adventure worked together toward a common purpose. Each one of them making their own contribution to reaching that goal. They did it by doing their best work and trusting that each member of the group would in turn do their part to their best ability. Effort and communication were key to their success. From what I witnessed it worked out perfectly.

These 2 sponges are over 100 years old. They are known as the "Redwoods of the Reef." Photo by Hatsue Bailey.
These 2 sponges are over 100 years old. They are known as the “Redwoods of the Reef.” Photo by Hatsue Bailey

Summer is quickly coming to an end and with it the excitement of a new school grows. My students and I  have the opportunity to make connections, to each other, to the Blue Planet and the organisms that live here. This year, if you are faced with a challenge, be brave and take it on. Assess an opportunity and take the risk to try something unfamiliar. Extend kindness to someone outside your existing circle of friends.  Put your toe in the water and get comfortable listening, observing, thinking and asking questions. You will be amazed what you will learn and the things you will experience. Take a chance. Reflect, communicate and work together.  Scientists and NOAA Ship Nancy Foster officers and crew showed how well this works to get the job done. Let’s follow their example so that your 7th grade year in science a memorable one too.

Mrs. Kaiser wearing the survival suit. Photo by Hatsue Bailey.
Mrs. Kaiser wearing the survival suit. Photo by Hatsue Bailey.

A crab exploring the ocean floor. Photo by Hatsue Bailey
A crab exploring the ocean floor. Photo by Hatsue Bailey

Scientist Danielle Morley changing out a VR2. Photo by Sean Morton.
Scientist Danielle Morley changing out a VR2. Photo by Sean Morton.

Marsha Skoczek: Lionfish, Groupers, and Bigeye, Oh My! July 11, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marsha Skoczek
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
July 6 – 19, 2012

Mission: Marine Protected Areas Survey
Geographic area of cruise:  Subtropical North Atlantic, off the east coast of South Carolina
Date:  July 11, 2012

Location:
Latitude:  32.2899N
Longitude:  78.5443W

Weather Data from the Bridge
Air Temperature:  28.1C (82.4F)
Wind Speed:   9.75 knots ( 11.2 mph)
Wind Direction:  From the SSW
Relative Humidity: 86 %
Barometric Pressure:  1017
Surface Water Temperature:  27.7C (80.6F)

Science and Technology Log

Lionfish off the South Carolina coast.

Even though our mission focuses on the five species of grouper and the two species of tilefish that I have shared in earlier postings, something that has surprised us all is the sheer number of lionfish that have invaded these reef areas.  I sat down with Andy David, Co-Principal Investigator on our cruise, to get the full scoop on this  invasive species.

An invasive species is one that does not naturally occur in an area but was either deliberately or accidentally released into the wild and competes with native species.  Alien invasive species often have very few, if any, natural predators to help keep their populations in check. As a result, invasive species populations often explode.  These invasive species begin competing with the native inhabitants for the same food supply potentially starving out the native fish and forcing them to move out of that region in search of food.

Lionfish native habitat.
Credit NOAA

Lionfish are native to the western Pacific.  They were first observed in the Atlantic Ocean in 1992 on coral reefs off West Palm Beach, FL.  Since the water temperature and bottom habitat in the South Atlantic very closely resemble that of the lionfish’s native habitat, conditions were favorable for the population to spread very rapidly.  Unlike most fish in this region the lionfish spawns year round, so it does not have a normal spawning season.  A female lionfish can spawn every couple of days and each time can release up to 15,000 eggs.  These eggs were carried off by the current and spread to other parts of the east coast.  Since few of the native Atlantic predators eat lionfish, they were able to reach maturity and continue building their population.  So what the genetic analyses indicates started as six individual lionfish off West Palm Beach in 1992, now has spread all the way north to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina via the Gulf Stream, then on other currents across to Bermuda and down to the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. And they have now made their way into the Gulf of Mexico and are moving along the coastal states in the Gulf. Check out this  animation demonstrating the spread of the lionfish.

Short bigeye with lionfish

Lionfish tend to live in the same rocky reef habitats as the grouper and short bigeye, so we see them together quite frequently on our ROV dives.  All of these reef fish are competing for the same food supply — small fish and crustaceans.  The grouper, short bigeye, and lionfish prefer to live in rocky overhangs or crevasses.  Lionfish are ambush predators and will wait for their prey to swim by and suck them into their mouths.  They also have a voracious appetite.

All of the lionfish we have seen are extremely fat and happy.  They are gobbling up the food supply just as fast as they can.  Often times we will see multiple lionfish using the same rock as shelter.  In fact, in a single three-hour dive covering about 1.5 nautical miles, we saw upwards of 150 lionfish!!  And that was only within the 6-10 foot wide field of view from the ROV camera.  There are plenty more that we were not able to document since they were out of view.  In one week alone we have seen nearly 700 lionfish! Imagine how much of the available food source a whole gaggle of lionfish can consume on the reef.  The concern is that the lionfish are using up all of the food available so that the commercially important fish such as grouper and snapper will no longer have anything to eat and will be forced to leave the area.  This could be devastating to the grouper population which could result in fewer fish being available for commercial and recreational fishermen as well as a blow to the species in general.

A gaggle of lionfish off the coast of South Carolina. Can you tell how many lionfish are in this picture?

So what can we do about this?  Agencies like NOAA are encouraging divers to hunt any lionfish they see and take them home to eatLionfish derbies are sponsored by local diving organizations, such as REEF,  to encourage divers to participate in these hunts.  But hunting lionfish with scuba divers will not solve the entire problem.

On this particular research cruise, we have seen lionfish down to depths of about 100 meters (330 feet).  This is well below the limits of recreational scuba diving.  Lionfish have been seen at depths of 300 meters (1,000 feet).  How can we control the spread of this invasive species at depth?  Some groups such as the Roatan Marine Park think that training sharks to prey on lionfish might be a solution.  This is a lengthy process and it is uncertain if the sharks would continue to hunt lionfish once they are out in nature on their own.  Some species of grouper and moray eels can also eat lionfish, but they prefer to just leave them alone rather than risk being the recipient of a sharp sting from those pesky poisonous fins.  The cornet fish might also prey upon juvenile lionfish by sneaking up on them from behind.  We have seen about a dozen cornetfish in this first week of ROV footage compared to the one per year that are seen normally.  Could the cornetfish be a partial solution to this invasion?  We can only hope.

There is also a concern with the push to make lionfish a commercial species.  Since they inhabit coral reefs, it is possible that lionfish, along with grouper and amberjacks, could become tainted with a toxin called ciguatera.  In a joint study between NOAA and the FDA in the seas surrounding the Lesser Antilles islands of St. Maarten, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, ciguatera was found in 26% of the lionfish sampled.  These larger reef fish prey upon the smaller herbivorous reef fish that have eaten the algae carrying the ciguatera toxin.  Through biomagnification, the lionfish, grouper, amberjacks and snapper carry enough of the toxin to make humans extremely ill.  Symptoms of ciguatera poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, muscle aches, and reversal of hot and cold sensation, just to name a few.  Symptoms can last for weeks to years depending on the individual.  This toxin cannot be removed from the fish by cooking, so the debate continues as to whether lionfish are safe enough to be marketed as a commercial fish in areas where ciguatera is present.

Personal Log

Here I am in the drylab counting lionfish from ROV images.

I am amazed at how quickly the lionfish have spread throughout the Western Atlantic region.  So what started out as six lionfish in 1992, now numbers over 10,000,000 just twenty years later.  Their coloring allows them to remain camouflaged so they are able to just sit and wait for food to come to them.  When we are looking at the ROV screen, it is not always easy to spot these invaders at first. Their prey probably don’t even realize that they are about to be eaten, they blend in that well.  Andy David says that with most invasive species, we see a spike in numbers initially, but eventually the numbers should come back down as the lionfish run out of food and as other predators learn how to eat them.  How long until we start to see a decline?  That remains to be seen.  Things may get worse before they get better, or we may already be seeing a decline in numbers.  More research needs to be done.

Ocean Careers Interview

Andy David

In this section, I will be interviewing scientists and crew members to give my students ideas for careers they may find interesting and might want to pursue someday.  Today I interviewed Andrew David, Co-Principal Investigator on this expedition.

What is your job title? I am a Research Fishery Biologist and the Chair of the NOAA Diving Control and Safety Board.

What type of responsibilities do you have with this job?  As a fishery biologist for NOAA, I am currently conducting research on the commercial fish of the South Atlantic such as grouper and tilefish.  As part of my research, we also study the habitat that these fish live in which are the shelf edge and deep reefs.  The data that we collect on these species is used to help fishery managers determine where the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico MPAs should be placed and if they should be maintained.

As the Chairman of the NOAA Diving Control and Safety Board, I work with the diving officers of other NOAA programs to monitor the safety of the roughly 500 divers in the agency.  We do this by creating a set of standards that all divers in NOAA must adhere to, testing new diving equipment, and working with other diving organizations to ensure safe and effective procedures are followed.  Our safety record is very good. We normally make close to 15,000 dives a year with an incident rate of below 0.01 percent.

What type of education did you need to get this job? I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and Biology from Stetson University in Deland, Florida.  My Master’s Degree is in Marine Science from the University of Southern Florida.  My Master’s work focused on the effects of genetically engineered bacteria in the marine environment. It wasn’t exactly what I thought I would study in graduate school, but it was an excellent opportunity that I could not pass up and it helped me to network with other scientists in the field.  This led to me getting my job with NOAA straight out of graduate school where I work on topics that have a greater interest to me.

What types of experiences have you had with this job?  Working on these deep corals projects has been very rewarding.  We have discovered many things on these projects, such as a greater coverage of deep coral reefs than was previously thought, new species of crustaceans, and range and depth extensions for several species.  Plus I get to spend time at sea every year while we conduct our research.

What advice do you have for students wanting a career in marine biology?  You do not have to go straight into marine biology at a school near the coast as an undergraduate.  In fact, it is probably better if you major in a core science such as chemistry or biology for your Bachelor’s and then focus more on marine science when you start looking for a graduate school.  Send your applications out to professors at universities with good marine biology programs.  If you are offered a position working with a professor who offers you research support, you should strongly consider taking it even if the research topic is not your favorite.  Graduate school is about learning how to become a good scientist — you have plenty of time to specialize in an area of interest to you when you get out of school.

Also, take internship opportunities when you can find them!  That is how scientists in the field get to know you and what you are capable of.  Internships might lead you to your first job out of college.  For example, Stacey Harter, the Chief Scientist on our cruise, started with Andy David as an intern.  When she graduated from college, they offered her a job!  Get internships!

Lesley Urasky: Get that fish outta here! The invasive lionfish, June 24, 2012

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 24, 2012

Location:
Latitude: 19.8584
Longitude: -66.4717

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 29°C (84°F)
Wind Speed:   16 knots (18 mph), Beaufort scale:  4
Wind Direction: from SE
Relative Humidity: 76%
Barometric Pressure:   1,015.3 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 28°C (82°F)

Lionfish in its native habitat. ( Source: National Geographic; Photograph by Wolcott Henry)

Science and Technology Log

One of the species the scientists are continually scanning for in their videos is the appearance of the Lionfish (Pterois volitans/miles); this is one fish they’re hoping not to see.  It is not native to these waters and is what is known as an invasive or exotic  species.

An invasive species is one that is not indigenous (native) to an ecosystem or area.  Many times these organisms are able to exponentially increase their populations because they may have no natural predators, competition for resources, or they may be able to utilize those resources not used by native organisms.  Most invasions are caused by human actions.  This may involve intentional introduction (many invasive plant species were brought in to create a familiar environment or crop/foraging source), accidentally (rats travelling on ships to distant ports), or unintentionally (people releasing pets that they can no longer take care of). Invasive organisms are problematic because:

  • They can reduce natural biodiversity and native species.
    • Push other species to extinction
    • Interbreed, producing hybrids
  • Degrade or change ecosystem functions
  • Economically:
    • They can be expensive to manage
    • Affect locally produced products causing a decline in revenue (decline of honey bees due to a mite infestation which, in turn, decreases pollination rates)

Within its native habitat, the Indo-Pacific region, the Lionfish  (Pterois volitans/miles) is not a problem because that is where they evolved.  It is in the family Family Scorpaenidae (Scorpionfishes). They inhabit reef systems between depths of 10 m – 175 m.  During the day, they generally can be found within crevices along the reef; at night they emerge to forage in deeper waters, feeding upon smaller fish and crustaceans.

Native range of the Lionfish

Lionfish are venomous and when a person is “stung” by the spines on the dorsal fin, they experience extreme pain, nausea, and can have breathing difficulties.  However, a sting is rarely fatal.  Despite the hazards of the spines, Lionfish are a popular aquarium species.  The problem arises when pet owners irresponsibly get rid of the fish in their aquariums.  Instead of giving them away to pet shops, schools, organizations, or other fish enthusiasts, or contacting a local veterinarian about how to humanely dispose of them, they release them into a nearby marine body of water.  It’s important to realize that even the smallest, seemingly isolated act can have such large consequences.  Remember, if one person is doing it, chances are, others are too. The responsibility of owning an organism is also knowing how to manage it; we need to realize how to protect our marine habitats.

This is where the problem in the Atlantic began.  The occurrence of Lionfish was first noticed along the southeastern coast of Florida in 1985.  An invasive species is considered established when a breeding population develops.  Since their establishment in the waters off of Florida, they have rapidly spread throughout the Atlantic as far north as Rhode Island/Massachusetts , throughout the Caribbean, and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Animated map depicting the spread of the Lionfish

While on our cruise every sighting of a Lionfish was cause for further examination.  There was one Lionfish that exhibited a behavior that Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist) had never seen before.  The fish was on the bottom and moving himself along instead of freely swimming.  Videos like this are instrumental in helping scientists figure out Lionfish behavior in their “new” environment as well as their interactions with the surrounding organisms and environment.  Hopefully, as this database continues to grow, scientists will develop new understandings of the Lionfish and its effect on the waters of the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico.

Divers are encouraged to kill any Lionfish they encounter.  The only safe way to do this is from a distance (remember, their dorsal spines are venomous); usually, this is accomplished by using a spear gun.  The Commander of the Pisces, Peter Fischel,  was doing a final dive off the pier before we left St. Croix.  He saw three Lionfish, speared them, and brought them to the scientific crew for data collection.  These were frozen and placed in a Ziploc back for preservation.  They will be examined back at the lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Three Lionfish caught along the Frederickstad, St. Croix pier. (Notice the 6″ ruler for scale.)

Personal Log

The science portion of the cruise is coming to a close. Today was our last day of sampling.  As with yesterday, no fish were caught by the day crew, so we were able to begin cleaning and packing throughout the day instead of waiting until the end.  A few days after we arrive in Mayport, Florida, the Pisces will be going out on another cruise along the east coast.  On Sunday, July 1st, Joey Salisbury will be arriving in Mayport with a trailer to unload all the scientific equipment and personal gear from this research cruise.

Bandit reel with St. Thomas in the background

In addition to packing, the wet lab and deck have to be cleaned.  This entails scrubbing down the tables, coolers, and rails along the deck where we baited our hooks to remove all the fish “scum” that has accumulated over the past three weeks.  Between the four of us, we were able to make quick work of the job.  There is only one task left for me to do, and that is to take all of our leftover bait, Atlantic Mackerel, and throw it overboard once we are away from the islands.  (The bait has been used over the course of the past two years, and has essentially outlived its freshness.)

Day operations crew on the Pisces Caribbean Reef Fish Survey (left to right: Ariane Frappier, Kevin Rademacher (Chief Scientist), Joey Salisbury, and myself).


I want to thank all the scientists on the day operations crew and the deck hands for making me feel so welcome, being ever so patient as I learned how to bait hook, load the bandit reel, remove otoliths, sex  the fish, and answer every type of question I had.  They’re all amazing people and are passionate about their jobs.  Kevin was not only great at thoroughly answering any and all questions, but anticipated those I might have and brought interesting things to my attention.  Thank you everyone for an amazing experience that I’ll never forget!

Another incredible person that helped make my trip memorable is my roommate, NOAA Operations Officer, Kelly Schill.  She was very welcoming and made me feel immediately at home on the ship.  She gave me a thorough tour and introduced me to the crew.  I interviewed her briefly about her job in the NOAA Corps.

Kelly Schill, Operations Officer aboard the NOAA ship Pisces. (Source: http://www.noaacorps.noaa.gov)

LU: Kelly, what is your job title and what do you do?

KS: I am a Lieutenant junior grade in the NOAA Corps.  The NOAA Corps is one of the 7 uniformed services and I serve as the Operations Officer aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces.

LU: How long have you been working with NOAA?

KS: I have worked for NOAA a total of 4 years; 3 of which were aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces as a NOAA Corps Officer. My first year, I was a physical scientist and developed geospatial visualizations to assist in the generation of navigational warnings and maritime safety information for Dangers to Navigation for the NOAA and contractor surveys.  I assisted NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson in the field with the acquisition, converting and cleaning of multi-beam and side-scan sonar data.

Aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces, my responsibility is to be the liaison between the ship’s crew and scientific party to ensure the mission is carried out smoothly and efficiently.  A big part of my job is to handle the logistics and transportation, such as project planning and setting up dockage at different ports from Texas to the Caribbean up to Massachusetts. Most importantly, to continue to learn the intricacies of the ship, effectively operate, and practice safe navigation at all times.

LU: What background and skills are necessary for your job?

KS:  A Bachelors Degree of sciences.  You must complete a year of chemistry, physics and calculus.  Geographic information System (GIS) is equally important. To be well-rounded, internships or field research experience is highly recommended.

Kelly Schill showing off the otolith she just extracted from a Red Hind.

LU: What type(s) of training have you been through for your job?

KS: Being in the uniform service, I was sent to Basic Officer Training Course (BOTC) to learn military etiquette, terrestrial and celestial navigation, safety aboard ships, search and rescue, fire prevention, hands on experience in driving small boats up to larger vessels, etc.  Once out of BOTC and on an assigned ship, I was able to attend further training:  hazardous material courses, dive school, rescue swimming, and medical. There are many more opportunities that were offered. I have only touched on a few.

LU: Have you worked on other ships not associated with scientific research?  If so, what was your job and what type of ship was it?

KS: No, all my experiences were on ships regarding scientific research:  NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson (hydrographic ship) and the NOAA Ship Pisces (fisheries ship).

LU: Does being on a science research ship bring any specific/different expectations than being on another type of merchant ship?

KS: I am unfamiliar with the expectations on a merchant ship.  Generally, the research vessels are used to support studies intended to increase the public’s understanding of the world’s oceans and climate. Research vessels are not set on a point A to point B system. Various operations are conducted from fisheries, bathymetry, oceanographic, to marine mammal data collection.   These various research projects dictate operation area.  Contrary to research vessels, merchant ships usually have a set destination, from point A to point B transporting cargo of one type or another.

LU:  We are in the middle of a huge ocean, and our destination – a specific sampling site – is a pinpoint on a map. What has to be considered to make sure you get to the exact location?

NOAA ship Pisces ECDIS map. This is a nautical map that is updated monthly.

Closeup of navigational maps showing the location of our sampling sites.

KS:  We use a number of tools: ECDIS, Rosepoint, paper charts, GPS, Dynamic Positioning, and of course manual operation. The scientists will provide a location where they want the ship to be for operations to take place. We use all navigational tools to navigate to that position by creating a route, based on a good GPS feed. Navigational tools include: ECDIS (shows an electronic vector chart), Rosepoint (shows an electronic raster chart), and paper charts.  Multiple navigational tools are for redundancy to ensure safe navigation.

All routes are created on the side of safety to avoid collision with shoals, wrecks, land, neighboring ships, platforms, buoys, obstructions, etc. Once, we are close to our sampling station, the ship is set up into the wind or the current (whichever force is stronger), reduce propulsion, turn rudder hard over to one side to assist in the reduction of propulsion and to line up on a heading in favor of wind or current. The bow thruster can assist in turns as well. Depending on how strict the mission is to hold an exact coordinate, the dynamic position is dialed in and activated.  Otherwise, the watch stander will manually control the engine speed, bow thruster, and rudder to maintain position utilizing outside forces, such as wind, swell, wave state, and currents.

The ship’s radar. The yellow objects at the bottom are St. Thomas and its surrounding small islands, while other vessels will appear in green.

LU: Once we reach a site, what do you need to do to maintain that position during the sampling process?

KS: Every ship has its perks and not all are the same in maintaining a position during the sampling process. Our ship has dynamic positioning (DPS) which uses the rudder, propulsion, and a bow thruster simultaneously to hold position. However, just like any software system, it only works as well as the operator.  The parameters have to be just right to accomplish this goal.  Parameters are set up based on wind speed, swells, sea state, and currents.  All must jive for a positive outcome. Our ship works more efficiently facing into the wind or current; whichever force is the strongest. If both are strong, we split the difference. Should either the bow thruster, main engine, or steering fail, the dynamic position will not properly compensate.

Dynamic Positioning System (DPS) screen. This instrument helps hold the ship at a precise location.

Kelly, thanks for the interview as well as being a great role model for women!  Remember, girls, if you want it, go get it!

Marian Wagner: My Final Words and Hurricane Irene’s in Charge, August 23, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Marian Wagner
Aboard R/V Savannah
August 16 — 26, 2011

Mission: Reef Fish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean (Off the Georgia and Florida Coasts)
Date: Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Fine Bunch to Live with at Sea: Front: Katie Rowe (Scientist), Sarah Goldman (Scientist Watch Chief, Night), Stephen Long (Scientist), Warren Mitchell (Lead Scientist). Middle: Marian Wagner (Teacher-at-Sea), Shelly Falk (Scientist), Christina Schobernd (Scientist, Video). Back: John Bichy (Marine Technician), Richard Huguley (Engineer), Harry Carter (2nd Mate), Raymond Sweatte (Captain), Michael Richter (1st Mate), David Berrane (Scientist Watch Chief, Day), Mike Burton (Scientist). Missing: Joel Formby (Master of the Galley)

Weather Data from the Bridge (the wheelhouse, where the controls of the ship are)

E-NE Wind at 10 knots  (This means wind is travelling 10 nautical miles per hour,
1.15 statute miles = 1 nautical mile)

Sea depth where we traveled today ranged from 33 meters to 74 meters

Seas 2-4 feet (measure of the height of the back of the waves, lower the number = calmer seas and steadier boat)

Science and Technology Log

IRENE: On Tuesday evening, we discussed the impact of Hurricane Irene on our cruise plans, and scientists and crew needed to make a decision about when we should return to dock. Originally, the plan was to return in the morning on Friday, August 26, but due to projections of Irene, they predicted that the seas would be too rough for us to lay traps beyond Wednesday (8/24).  When the seas are too rough, the traps bounce around and cameras do not pick up a steady, reliable picture.  When seas get to be 6-7 feet+ on a boat the size of the R/V Savannah (92 feet long), it also makes our work (and life) on the boat very difficult. Additionally, with Irene’s landfall projected in North Carolina, where half of the scientists live, they would need to get home in time to secure their homes and potentially evacuate.  Not in the case of Irene, but if a hurricane was expected to hit Savannah/Skidaway, where the boat moors, the ship’s crew would need to prepare for a hurricane-mooring.  To do this, they would run the ship up the Savannah River and put on a navy anchor that weighs 3,000 pounds.  Even with the use of the electric crane, it’s not an easy task to pull a 3,000 pound anchor onboard.  This would not be done unless a direct hit to the area was expected.  It has been done once before to the Savannah in the 10 years of her existence.  The forecast did not project Savannah to be affected by Irene, so we did not need to prepare for a hurricane mooring.

After difficult deliberation on Tuesday night about hurricane Irene’s potential Category (see how hurricanes are ranked here), and considering the success of the research accomplished on the trip already, scientists decided the most practical and reasonable decision was to dock Tuesday night, unpack Wednesday morning, and allow North Carolina scientists to return to their homes by Wednesday night.  (From reports I received post-Irene, there was landfall of the hurricane eye over their houses, but the storm weakened between Wednesday night and Saturday and was Category 1 when it came ashore.  None of them sustained significant loss.  Many downed trees and three days without power, but no floods or structure damage. Phew!)

NOAA’s National Weather Service is the sole official voice of the U.S. government for issuing warnings during life-threatening weather situations.  Follow Seattle’s “Weather Story” at NOAA’s National Weather Service.

OUR RESEARCH PROCESS…A STORY CONCLUDED

Here on my final blog entry, I want to finish the story of our research process.  Here’s the story I’ve told so far, in outline form:

  1. research begins with baiting fish traps and attaching cameras, and we stand-by on deck
  2. when we arrive at a research location with reef fish habitat (as observed via depth sounder and GPS), we drop the trap to the bottom and it sits for 90 minutes; buoys float above each trap so we can find and retrieve them near where traps were deployed, we run the Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth Profiler (CTD) to get information about abiotic conditions at each sampling site. The CTD takes vertical water column profiles, measuring: Pressure, Temperature, Conductivity/Salinity, Chlorophyll fluorometer, Color dissolved organic matter fluorometer (CDOM), Photosynthetic Active Radiation (PAR), Backscatter, Dissolved oxygen, and Transmissometer -10 and 25 cm path lengths
  3. after 90 minutes have passed, we return to the traps and pick them up, and secure the fish caught
  4. we identify each fish, measure length, weight, and frequency (how many fish were      caught), and then keep the fish that our research is targeting
  5. in the wet lab, we dissect target fish, removing parts of fish that are sent back to the lab for further research

AT THIS POINT, WE ARE DONE with our research with the bodies of the fish, but we have 99% OF THE FISH’S BODY LEFT! What should we do?

I was very impressed with the compassionate and humane action the scientists do with the fish after research.  Scientific research guidelines don’t dictate what a research study should do with edible fish flesh. We could have just discarded fish back into the ocean. However, scientists see an opportunity to provide food to people in need of  nutritional support in our communities, and they coordinated with a regional food bank in Savannah to do just that. Despite the work and time it takes to process the fish for donation, it did not seem to be considered a burden at all by any of the scientists.

I am perfecting my fillet!

Fresh fish fillets ready for food bank distribution

To process the fish for donation, we cut fish into fillets, wrap the fillets in butcher paper, and freeze them onboard the ship.

When we reached land, Warren
contacted the regional food bank, who came out to the dock with a refrigerated truck to pick up fish.  Within a few days the fish was distributed through charitable organizations in the region to people who were most in need.

These scientists are not just natural scientists but social scientists too! (just as I fancy myself!)

Personal Log

Captain Raymond Sweatte and First Mate Michael Richter

Interview with Raymond Sweatte, captain of R/V Savannah

Marian: What  makes a good crew?

Raymond: A crew that sees things that need to be done and does them because they know it all goes smoother when they do.

 

M: Have you ever run into or had a close call running into another ship?

Raymond: No, but the closest I came was when I was passing under the bridge at the Skidaway when a barge was coming through at the same time. Because it was easier for me to maneuver, I pulled over to side to let the barge use the majority of the channel. But the barge stayed on my side of the channel and was coming right at me. My boat was leaning upon the bank so there was no where for me to go.  I got him on the horn and asked, “What’s going on?”  He pulled over right away. He was new and very apologetic. 

M: Have you ever been in a terrible storm before?

Raymond: A few times we’ve had 15-16 foot seas coming back from the Gulf. When you have a north wind at 35 knots [strong wind coming from the North] and north-going current opposing the wind, the seas get very rough. Waves were coming up over the ship. [picture Marian’s eyes VERY wide at this point in the conversation] When seas are really rough, you get lifted up out of bed and down again. I remember trying to sleep one night in rough seas when my head kept hitting against the wall, so I turned around so my feet were up hitting against the wall.

M: What were things like before radar, satellite, and so many electronic navigation tools
you use today?

Raymond: Things were not as accurate. Communication was on a single sideband, navigation was with Loran-C, though VHF radio was somewhat the same as now.  To follow ships and determine their speed we had radar on dash but we had to use an eye cup we looked into to correlate with the radar, and then go over to the chart to plot them.  Then, we did it again six minutes later and multiplied by 10 to find their speed.  Now we have an automatic identification system [we can click on a ship on the radar] that tells us where they are, who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and what they are doing.  

M: What are the right-of-ways when vessels are crossing paths; who moves when two vessels are in course to collide?

Raymond: [On ships, aircraft and piloted spacecraft] a red light is on the left or port side of the craft and a green is on the right or starboard side. When two vessels have crossing paths, each will see a red or green light. If you’re looking at another vessel’s port side you see red, and it’s his right-of-way. If you are on their starboard side, you see the green light, and the right is yours.

Also, right-of-way rules give priority to vessels with the most difficulty maneuvering. The ranks in right-of-way, starting with the highest are:

1)Not under command

2)Restricted in ability to maneuver

3)Constrained by draft (stay away from shallower water to avoid running aground)

4)Fishing

5)Sail

6)Power

7)Sea Plane

Remember this mnemonic: New Reels Catch Fish So Purchase Some.

M: Who’s easier to talk to, a Navy Sub Captain or a Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot?

Raymond: I don’t have a problem talking with any of them. Coast Guard generally would call you first. Navy sub pilots I’ve found to be very cordial. They have changed their course when we had traps out.

M: What message would you say to students interested in being a captain?

Raymond: All kids have to follow their own heart. If they like water and this environment, they should follow their heart and become a captain.

Thank you Captain Raymond! It was a genuine pleasure to talk to you and experience life at sea under your command and with such a stellar crew. It is no wonder you are revered by everyone you work with.  Read more about Captain Raymond Sweatte in the Savannah Morning News!

The powerful significance of this trip for me was that I did not just study a science lesson from a book or lab, but I was essentially given a chance to live a different life, that of a fisheries field biologist.  I did not dabble in the work; it was a full explosion into the curiosities, reasonings, and daily routines of working with live fish and fish guts while sharing friendship, humor and stories with scientists and crew aboard a boat that was a small bounded island of rich human culture within a vast ocean of life and scientific questions waiting to be answered.  I loved it.  If only I didn’t love teaching more…I could definitely live that life.  Thanks NOAA, thanks NC SEFIS folks, thanks SC DNR folks, and thanks Skidaway Institute of Oceanography folks.  You are all in my heart and in my classroom!

FASCINATING EXTRAS!

Flying fish!

At night especially, when looking out at the seascape, I noticed flying, bug-looking specimens scurrying out of and into the ocean’s surface.  WHAT WERE THEY?! I wondered. So I asked and learned they were FLYING FISH! A few of them flew right up on the vessel’s work deck.  Their wings are modifications of the pectoral fins.  They are so fascinating and their coloring was greenish/blue iridescence, a stunningly beautiful color!

RED SNAPPER: PROTECTED STATUS

“The Gulf and South Atlantic red snapper populations are currently at very low levels (overfished), and both red snapper populations are being harvested at too high a rate (overfishing).” See more where this quote came from at Fish Watch: US Seafood Facts.

It was clear to me how significant the concern for the red snapper population was when I learned that funding for this fisheries survey was drastically increased following the recent determination that red snapper were overfished and overfishing was occurring.  Fisheries managers, field biologists and members of the general public all want to see the red snapper population improve.  This cruise provided scientific data that will be useful when the status of the U.S. South Atlantic red snapper population is assessed again.

The lionfish's spines are so poisonous the only way to hold them is placing fingers in their mouths.

History of measuring speed in NAUTICAL MILES:

Wonder how a vessel’s speed was measured hundreds of years ago? Log Lines, knotted ropes with a log tied to one end and knots every nautical mile and one-tenth of a nautical mile, were tossed off the end of the ship while the knotted rope unraveled behind it. When the sand on a minute sand glass ran out, the rope was reeled back in and the knots counted to determine ship’s speed in knots-per-minute.

 LIONFISH: INVASIVE SPECIES

In its native waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the lionfish population is not a problem. There it has natural predators and natural parasites to keep it from overpopulating, yet it can survive well enough to maintain a healthy sustainable population. However, in the Caribbean waters and along the Eastern Coast of the United States, the lionfish has recently been introduced, and the effects are alarming. “Lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history by drastically reducing the abundance of coral reef fishes and leaving behind a devastated ecosystem.”  See more where this quote came from at NOAA’s research on invasive lionfish here. In the U.S. south Atlantic, they consume large quantities of reef fish and have no natural predators or parasites. Their population is thriving in large numbers, and it is devastating other fish species.  Mark Hixon, Oregon State University zoology professor, co-authored a study in 2008 with Mark Albins that showed “a lionfish can kill three-quarters of a reef’s fish population in just five weeks.” Read NPR story here. This is a cool way to view an environmental problem: see this animated map of the lionfish invasion! Red Snapper

Kimberly Lewis, July 15, 2010

NOAA Teacher at Sea Kimberly Lewis
NOAA Ship: Oregon II
July 1 -July 16, 2010

Mission: SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Sunday, July 15, 2010

One more day for me, many more days for the scientist who monitor our seas

Birds, Sharks, Fish, Water Chemistry……. Everything needs to be monitored for the ‘big picture’

Date: Wednesday July 14, 2010Weather Data from the Bridge 
Time: 1115 (11:15 AM)
Position: Latitude 28.59.313 N, Longitude 94.28.958 W
Present Weather: partly cloudy
Visibility: 8 nautical miles
Wind Speed: 11.21 kts
Wave Height: 3 feet
Sea Water Temp: 29.7 C
Air Temperature: Dry bulb = 30.1 degrees Celsius; Wet bulb = 26.3
Barometric Pressure: 1017.50 mbScience and Technology Log 
(this log is a little lengthy, but very important concepts)Southeast Fishery Bulletin released a statement on July 12, 2010 regarding the Shrimp Fishery to re-open on July 15, 2010 off the coast of Texas. Data that we have been collecting on board the Oregon II is sent daily to the regional office for review. From our data over the past week and data collected by the Texas parks and Wildlife Dept, the NOAA Fisheries Service has announced the size of the brown shrimp have reached a mark that allows the trawling to re-open from 9 to 200 nautical miles off Texas.

The shrimp fishery is closed annually off Texas to allow brown shrimp to reach a larger and more valuable size prior to harvest, and to prevent waste of brown shrimp that might otherwise be discarded due to their small size. http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/bulletins/fishery_bulletins.htm

During our sampling I have personally seen many sizes of shrimp. The past few days the brown shrimp have been very large. Personally, I have not seen shrimp this large before…… but living in Ohio most of our shrimp comes frozen and already beheaded.
When sexing shrimp the larger shrimp are usually female. This is the case with many species of organisms. As we are counting through the first 200 shrimp for data collecting, you can almost guess before looking what the sex of some shrimp will be just based on their size.

Tuesday the idea of whole ecosystem-based management was addressed.

An article by Hughes (2009) shows a relationship between species of seagrass and the species that they provide with habitat and/or food source. The data shows the importance of an ecosystem-based mgmt approach that incorporates interdependencies and facilitation among species (Hughes et al. 2009). This is the concept that is taking place by the US National Marine Fisheries Service (which is a department within NOAA) in relation to the “essential fish habitat” which approaches the protection of sea-grasses (Hughes et al. 2009).

What about the IUNC (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List? As of now, threats to biodiversity are often listen on a species-by species basis (Hughes et al. 2009). The research in the Hughes (2009) article suggests looking at connections between threatened species and their habitats…… ecosystem-based conservation. Again, the NOAA fisheries have already started this trend.

Some things that are done on the NOAA fisheries ships to maintain low variables throughout the years of sampling are keeping the same gear and using the same sampling methods. As far as site selection, the stations are random stratified. An example of this would be not going to the same station year after year, but sampling 20 stations in Area A. So the following year it may be another random 20 stations in Area A.

Habitat quality also plays a role in sampling. Commercial fishermen may question why NOAA chooses to sample in a place that has low or no fish, but it is important to monitor all areas. As the high quality habitat looses fish due to the fishing industry, fish from another area will move in. At first glance it may seem like the populations are fine, but if the other areas are being depleted because fish are moving into the prime area you start to see a shift in an ecosystem.

Here in the gulf we are not seeing any invasive species in our sampling areas, which is great news. A few years back some Australian jellyfish were making their way in, but you mainly see those closer to the coast. We have had good catches while we have been out, in other words a good proportion of organisms based on the depth of the water.

“Sorting the Catch”

So finally what can I say about ecosystem management? Hooray for the US Nat’l Marine Fisheries!

Works Cited: 

Hughes, R. Williams, S. Duarte, C. Heck, K. Waycott, M. 2009. Associations of concern: declining seagrasses and threatened dependent species. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 242-246.

“Shrimp, eels, various fish, etc.”

Personal Blog:

We have finished up our Texas stations and we are headed to the Louisiana west delta. I have been scrambling around to get some good photos of the lab, the sea, etc. because it has hit me that I only have two more days on the boat.

Usually journaling and photo taking come easy for me on my summer expeditions, but this one has really been a lot of work. With 12 hour shifts and trawling happening all throughout the night, there is not much down time. Which is probably fine b/c you are in the middle of the sea on a boat. What else would you do? This isn’t a Carnival cruise line. Hahaha.

I have really adjusted to sea life and night shift. Each day when I get off of my shift I hit the bed hard…… and don’t wake up until 10pm!

Chefs Walter and Paul have continued to feed us all well, too good at times. Everyone on the ship has kept their day 1 attitude and hospitality toward me and the other volunteers. It can be tough living in a small place, but it seems to work well on the Oregon II.

Tara Treichel, April 27, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Treichel
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
April 15-27, 2008

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: April 27, 2008

Weather data from the bridge 
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind: 11 knots
Waves: 1-2 feet
Ocean swells: 3-4 feet
Sea temperature: 23.0
Air temperature: 23.0

At 120 feet, the water has absorbed red, yellow and green wavelengths of light, muting the brilliant colors of these Lionfish and other reef organisms (the Lionfish in the foreground is partially illuminated by the video camera)
At 120 feet, the water has absorbed red, yellow and green wavelengths of light, muting the brilliant colors of these Lionfish and other reef organisms (the Lionfish in the foreground is partially illuminated by the video camera)

Science and Technology Log 

I wanted to explain a little more about the purpose of the Lionfish study. The technical name of the study is Assessment of Lionfish Ecosystem and Fisheries Impacts. The Principal Investigator/Chief Scientist is Paula Whitfield, who works out of the NOAA Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. Several years ago, Paula had heard reports of Lionfish seen off the coast of North Carolina. A recreational diver, Paula visited these sites to see for herself; what began as a casual observation turned into the guiding question for a complex Lionfish ecosystem study that is now in its seventh year. As I understand, the guiding questions framing the study are:

  1. Initially the scientists needed to understand, to what extent Lionfish have invaded the coastal waters of the eastern US. Under this broad question fall many sub-questions: Are they successfully reproducing? How large is their population? Are they expanding their geographic range, and is their population growing? Finally, what biological and physical factors may limit their survival (i.e. what environmental conditions do they need to survive)?
  2. After the initial research results revealed a widespread and well-established presence of Lionfish, researchers refined their objectives to better understand the fisheries and ecosystem impact of Lionfish. This is a very broad question and includes many sub-questions such as: What species are they eating? Is the number of “conspicuous fish” species (large and easy to see and count) decreasing in areas where Lionfish are present? Are the number of “cryptic fish” species (small typically prey species that hide within the habitat) decreasing in areas where Lionfish are present?
  3. The scientists also seek to better understand how Lionfish impacts may be further complicated by other variables such as overfishing and climate change. Examining this question requires looking at many other aspects of the marine ecosystem as indicators of ecological health. Sub-questions are: How are the physical and chemical ocean parameters changing over time (e.g. sea temperature, ocean currents, chemical composition)? How are algal populations changing over time? How are invertebrate and soft-bottom communities changing over time?

Initial results of the study were eye-opening. Everywhere the research team went, they found Lionfish. From 20042007, the data across the sampling sites showed an increase in population of well over 300%. Considering that these fish have no known predators, and females release 30,000 eggs at a time, it is not hard to imagine the severe impact that these fish could potentially have on the marine food web and ecosystem. In addition, Lionfish are tropical reef fish, which require warm water to survive and reproduce. As climate change occurs, it is conceivable that Lionfish could expand their range in response to rising sea temperatures or a shift in Gulf Stream currents.

Paula Whitfield (right), Chief Scientist of the study, and I enjoy the sunshine.
Paula Whitfield (right), Chief Scientist of the study, and I enjoy the sunshine.

Miriam Hlawatsch, August 6-7, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: August 6-7, 2007

The science team awoke to this notice on Monday, August 6th.
The science team awoke to this notice on Monday, August 6th.

Personal Log 

Bad news… late Sunday night the ship’s main computer, the Integrated Vessel Monitoring and Control system failed. The IVMC functions as the brain of the ship —monitoring engineering related systems such as propulsion, ship’s power, fire main, tank levels, alarms, etc. CDR James Verlaque returned NANCY FOSTER to the Ft. Macon Coast Guard Station.  We awoke to find the mission on hold—so, for two days; I became a Teacher in Port. At one point during our stay, NANCY FOSTER was relocated from the Coast Guard station to the state port in Morehead City. To everyone’s delight, we learned we would be underway again at 0900 hours, August 8th. As most of the scientists live nearby, they returned to their homes and jobs at the NOAA research facility in Beaufort, NC. The ship was very quiet while they were away…

CDR James Verlaque supervises as ENS Marc Weekley docks NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER in the Morehead City port.
CDR James Verlaque supervises as ENS Marc Weekley docks NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER in the Morehead City port.

Science Log 

Objective #6: Deploy and retrieve temperature sensors… 

Understanding that lionfish are tropical and their survival is dependent upon temperature, Chief Scientist Paula Whitfield continues to collect data to answer questions regarding the role temperature plays in lionfish distribution in North Carolina waters. Along the North Carolina shelf, temperature in waters deeper than 90 feet are moderated year round by the warm Gulf Stream current. Data collected from surveys on this research cruise suggest lionfish are not found in high numbers in water shallower than 90 feet. Laboratory studies have revealed lionfish will not tolerate temperatures below 11ºC (52ºF) and it appears they stop eating at temperatures below 16ºC (61ºF). Lionfish will die at 10ºC (50ºF). To better understand the role temperature plays in limiting lionfish distribution, temperature sensors were deployed along the seafloor to monitor seasonal bottom water temperatures. Sensors deployed during the 2006 mission were retrieved and will be analyzed. New sensors are being deployed during this mission and will be retrieved in 2008.

NOAA divers, Thor Dunmire and Roger Mays analyze air supply tanks during our stay in the Morehead City port.
NOAA divers, Thor Dunmire and Roger Mays analyze air supply tanks during our stay in the Morehead City port.

How do the warm waters of the Gulf Stream contribute to lionfish distribution along the southeastern coast of the US?
How do the warm waters of the Gulf Stream contribute to lionfish distribution along the southeastern coast of the US?

Gulf Stream winter temperature gradient for Onslow Bay, NC.
Gulf Stream winter temperature gradient for Onslow Bay, NC.

Chief Scientist Paula Whitfield
Chief Scientist Paula Whitfield

Miriam Hlawatsch, August 5, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: August 5, 2007

Crew of the NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER deploys a small boat at a pre-marked dive site.
Crew of the NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER deploys a small boat at a pre-marked dive site.

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: 0º
Wind Speed: 0
Sea Wave Height: 0 ft.
Swell Wave Height: 2-3 ft.
Seawater Temperature: 29ºC
Sea Level pressure: 1015.5 mb (millibars)
Cloud Cover: 0-1 oktas

Personal Log

The weather continues to be extremely favorable for dive operations and I look forward to assisting as dive tender again tomorrow morning. For the past week, I’ve observed as the NOAA divers and crew of the NANCY FOSTER work together to facilitate the study of lionfish in their watery habitat. Also, I’ve watched with great interest as the divers prepared themselves for their underwater excursions. Having purchased a wet suit in preparation for my Teacher at Sea adventure I thought I had an appreciation for these preparatory activities. Imagine my surprise when Coxswain Leslie Abramson informed me my wetsuit was too big (I couldn’t imagine squeezing into anything smaller). NOAA diver Roger Mays clarified the issue noting, tongue in cheek, that the proper fitting wetsuit should take at least five minutes to put on and the experience should hurt. Obviously there is more to diving than the wetsuit “experience,” so I asked Doug Kesling from NOAA’s Undersea Research Center (NURC) for specific information regarding diver training and specialized equipment.

A team of NOAA divers leaves the NANCY FOSTER. Small boats are used to transport the scientists and their equipment to and from the actual dive sites.
A team of NOAA divers leaves the NANCY FOSTER. Small boats are used to transport the scientists and their equipment to and from the actual dive sites.

Science Log 

Doug Kesling addressed three key components–training, equipment and dive operation procedure. All divers on the NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER are certified to dive with standard open water SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) techniques. Additional training in scientific diving research methods is provided by the NOAA Diving Program and the NOAA Undersea Research Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Divers use standard dive equipment that consists of dive mask, fins, snorkel, cylinder, buoyancy compensator, scuba regulator, dive computer and wet suit. Additional tools–tape measures, quadrates, goody bags, video and still photographic equipment–also must be transported by the divers to the sea floor. To conduct their underwater research, the scientists dive to depths of 100 to 120 feet. Prior to each dive, the divers fill their Scuba cylinders with an enriched air nitrox (EANx) mixture to 3500 psig. Each mix must be analyzed to ensure a safe breathing mix for the targeted depth. Compared to tanks of compressed air (21 % oxygen), the enriched mixture enables the scientists to double the amount of time they can spend underwater. In preparation for their dive, divers don wet suits and load their equipment onto the small boats. The boats are lowered from the mother ship onto pre-marked dive sites. Working in buddy teams of two or three, the divers’ underwater work times range from 25 to 30 minutes. To return to the surface divers first ascend to a depth of 20 feet. At this point they conduct a safety stop of three to five minutes to allow off gassing of nitrogen (inert gas) from the body before surfacing. Divers then surface and are recovered by the small boats.  The boats return to the mother ship where they are hoisted back on deck and off loaded.

NOAA diver Roger Mays conducts a safety stop to decompress before surfacing.
NOAA diver Roger Mays conducts a safety stop to decompress before surfacing.

Dive Team A: NOAA divers, Brian Degan, PaulaWhitfield, Doug Kesling, and Wilson Freshwater
Dive Team A: NOAA divers, Brian Degan, PaulaWhitfield, Doug Kesling, and Wilson Freshwater

Dive team B: NOAA Divers Jenny Vander Pluym, Thor Dunmire, and Roldan Muñoz (left) and Dive team C: NOAA divers Brad Teer, Roger Mays, and Tom Potts
Dive team B: NOAA Divers Jenny Vander Pluym, Thor Dunmire, and Roldan Muñoz (left) and Dive team C: NOAA divers Brad Teer, Roger Mays, and Tom Potts (right)

Miriam Hlawatsch, August 4, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: August 4, 2007

On the Bridge, XO LT. Stephen Meador and CO CDR. James Verlaque plot the course for NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER.
On the Bridge, XO LT. Stephen Meador and CO CDR. James Verlaque plot the course for NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER.

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: 215º
Wind Speed: 1 knot
Sea Wave Height: 1 ft.
Swell Wave Height: 2-3 ft.
Seawater Temperature: 28.5ºC
Sea Level pressure: 1016.0 mb (millibars)
Cloud Cover: 3-5 oktas, cumulous

Personal Log

While on the Bridge today, Commanding Officer James Verlaque allowed me a brief opportunity to steer the ship and set the course for a new dive location. Activity on the Bridge continues to fascinate me. It takes tremendous attention to detail to keep NANCY FOSTER safe in the water. It is most evident that the success of the scientific mission and the safe efficient operation of the ship are a result of the true spirit of cooperation between the crew and scientists aboard. The fact that everyone (crew and science) shares the mess during meals serves to reinforce the team approach. Certainly, it afforded me an opportunity to get to know many on an individual basis.

NOAA Officers keep NANCY FOSTER safe and on course.
NOAA Officers keep NANCY FOSTER safe and on course.

Science Log

Objective #5: Conduct multi-beam sonar transects using RV NANCY FOSTER at multiple locations.  

NANCY FOSTER is one of a fleet of research and survey vessels used by NOAA to improve our understanding of the marine environment. She is equipped with sonar technology to conduct hydrographic surveys of the sea floor. Chief Scientist Paula Whitfield explains that, for this mission, specialized multi-beam sonar technology is used to create detailed maps of potential dive areas. Habitat mapping is important because it provides specific information that will allow her to make decisions about where to send divers for sampling; otherwise, there could be a great deal of wasted effort, both in terms of time and resources. Multi-beam Bathymetric Sonar is technology that provides detailed, full-coverage mapping of the sea floor using multiple sonar beams (sound waves) in a fan-shaped pattern or swath. The ship goes back and forth in straight lines over a pre-determined area much like a lawn mower goes back and forth over the grass, making sure the entire area has been covered. In addition to habitat mapping, multi-beam hydrographic surveys have many applications such as navigation safety and civil engineering projects.

Example of a Multi-beam swath
Example of a Multi-beam swath

Multi-beam survey results
Multi-beam survey results

NOAA scientists Paula Whitfield and Brian Degan compare bottom topography for dive site selection (left) and hydrographic survey technicians Missy Partyka and Mike Stecher (left).
NOAA scientists Paula Whitfield and Brian Degan compare bottom topography for dive site selection (left) and hydrographic survey technicians Missy Partyka and Mike Stecher (left).

Miriam Hlawatsch, August 3, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: August 3, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea Miriam Hlawatsch recording weather data on the Bridge of the NANCY FOSTER.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Miriam Hlawatsch recording weather data on the Bridge of the NANCY FOSTER.

Weather Data from Bridge
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: 186º
Wind Speed: 11 knots
Sea Wave Height: 1-2 ft.
Swell Wave Height: 2 ft.
Seawater Temperature: 28.6ºC
Sea Level pressure: 1017.3 mb (millibars)
Cloud Cover: 8 oktas, cumulous, cumulonimbus

Personal Log

I’ve been recording weather data for the last two days and spent three hours on the Bridge learning the responsibilities of the watch crew. When NANCY FOSTER began hydrographic multi-beaming at 1500 hours, there were several ships (tankers and small craft) in the area. The NOAA Officers on watch had to keep a careful eye on those vessels and, at times, let them know survey work was going on … so move over, please! Also, I’ve been able to watch as our dive locations were plotted on the nautical chart of Onslow Bay. Ensign Lecia Salerno explained that, as Navigation Officer, one of her duties is to update the nautical charts when NOAA informs her of changes. She must record these updates by hand as new charts are only printed every few years.

NOAA Teacher at Sea Miriam Hlawatsch attempting to read sea swells and sea wave height from the Bridge.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Miriam Hlawatsch attempting to read sea swells and sea wave height from the Bridge.

Science Log

Objective #3: Conduct cryptic/prey fish sampling using a special enclosure quadrat net. 

In order to collect cryptic (small) prey fish, NOAA scientist Dr. Roldan Muñoz sets up a special enclosure net during his dive rotation. Divers in the next rotation retrieve the net with captured specimens. Dr. Muñoz examines the catch to determine the type and number of prey fishes (what lionfish may be eating) within a square meter. Such data provides a better understanding of the habitat community.

Objective #4: Characterize and quantify habitat and macroalgae with digital still photography and specimen collections. 

Currently, not much is known about off shore Hard Bottom habitats where lionfish appear to be thriving. In order to understand the impact an outside force (i.e. lionfish) has upon a marine community, scientists must first examine the community in its original state. In other words, a baseline must be established. When Marine Phycologist Dr. D. Wilson Freshwater dives, his goal is to identify habitat characteristics and existing macroalgae. This is done via still photographs and specimen collections gathered every five meters along the transect line.

Dr. Freshwater’s photo showing seven types of algae.
Dr. Freshwater’s photo showing seven types of algae.

Back in the lab, Dr. Freshwater processes his samples for species identification and DNA analysis. He reviews the photos, creates a list of everything he sees, then uses the computer to establish the percentage of cover and frequency of occurrence for each species. A comparison of the different sites is made and, from this empirical data, an overall picture of the community structure begins to emerge.

Note: I learned the term Hard Bottom refers the rocky outcrops that cover much of the continental shelf along the southeastern US from Cape Hatteras, NC to Cape Canaveral, FL. Fish are drawn to the hard bottom outcroppings; here, they find a source of food and shelter on what is otherwise a vast sandy sea floor. It explains why recreational fishermen often seek out hard bottom areas.

Dr. D. Wilson Freshwater processing algae specimens in the lab aboard NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER.
Dr. D. Wilson Freshwater processing algae specimens in the lab aboard NOAA ship NANCY FOSTER.

NOAA scientist Dr. Roldan Muñoz counting cryptic fish collected.
NOAA scientist Dr. Roldan Muñoz counting cryptic fish collected.

Hard Bottom habitat with lionfish invader.
Hard Bottom habitat with lionfish invader.

Miriam Hlawatsch, August 2, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: August 2, 2007

NOAA Junior Officer Emmons with NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER in the background.
NOAA Junior Officer Emmons with NOAA Ship NANCY FOSTER in the background.

Weather Data from the Bridge
Visibility: 10 miles
Wind Direction: 060
Wind Speed: 11 knots
Sea Wave Height: 1-2 ft.
Swell Wave Height: 2 ft.
Seawater Temperature: 28.3ºC
Sea Level pressure: 1016.8 mb (millibars)
Cloud Cover: 3-5 oktas, cumulous, cumulonimbus

Personal Log

Today I served as assistant dive tender for two dive rotations. That means I stay in the small boat with the coxswain (driver) and keep track of the divers by watching their bubbles. While the divers were working below I took the opportunity to converse with NOAA Junior Officer Trey Emmons and learned a great deal about the NOAA Officer Corps. Trey received a degree in Meteorology/Marine Science from NC State, Raleigh and will serve on the NANCY FOSTER for two years. During one outing I actually put on my snorkel gear and took some underwater shots of divers ascending to the surface.

NOAA diver Brad Teer ascending to the surface.
NOAA diver Brad Teer ascending to the surface.

Science Log

Previously, I mentioned the multi-faceted nature of Paula Whitfield’s current lionfish research. Having done my homework before joining the cruise I was familiar with her lionfish work since 2004. Paula explained how her research has evolved from finding, counting and sampling lionfish for life history analysis to her current objectives that now include analysis of the native habitat community. With the aid of hydrographic surveys (mapping the sea floor) using multi-beam sonar technology, Paula hopes to expand the search area to determine lionfish distribution changes since 2000. Paula has an ambitious plan to accomplish her objectives and I will attempt to translate and provide an explanation for each. Feel free to email any questions to me at mhlawatsch@mac.com.

Objective #1: Conduct visual transect surveys to quantify lionfish and native fish populations, and characterize habitat at locations within Onslow Bay. 

Paula’s divers will count lionfish and native fishes. They will also examine and define lionfish habitats by setting up visual transect surveys at pre-selected locations within Onslow Bay. A transect survey is set up by running a tape measure for 50 meters (transect line). The divers will observe and record what they see for five meters on either side of the transect line.

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Note: I always thought the term fish was both singular and plural and found myself confused to hear the scientists use the term fishes. Scientist Thor Dunmire explained that using fish was appropriate when referring to many fish of one species. However, the use of fishes applies when referring to several different species of fish.

Objective #2: Conduct video transect surveys to quantify, smaller potential prey fish populations and characterize habitat. 

Identify what lionfish may be eating by using visual observation and video cameras to record the smaller fish populations within the habitat. Video footage can be reviewed after the dive for more detailed information.

NOAA Diver Roldan Muñoz working with a transect line.
NOAA Diver Roldan Muñoz working with a transect line.

Miriam Hlawatsch, July 29, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Miriam Hlawatsch
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 29 – August 10, 2007

Mission: Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina
Date: July 29 – August 1, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea, Miriam Hlawatsch, dons a survival suit
NOAA Teacher at Sea, Miriam Hlawatsch, dons a survival suit

Day 0

Personal Log

I report to the NANCY FOSTER a day early and find all is quiet. Tim Olsen, Chief Engineer and Lt. Sarah Mrozek, Officer of Operations were the first to greet me. Sarah and Tim help me to my stateroom where I stow my gear and settle in for my adventure. Later in the evening I meet several other shipmates, including Lt. Stephen Meador, the ship’s Executive Officer, or XO.

Day 1

Personal Log

I’m awake and dressed by 0600 hours. The ship is still quiet but not for long. The scientists come aboard early and we are underway by 0930 hours. At 1000 hours, Chief Scientist, Paula Whitfield, conducts a science briefing for the eleven-scientists/research divers involved in the lionfish mission. Additionally, Lt. Sarah Mrozek, Operations Officer and Lt. Stephen Meador, XO, brief the scientists on ship procedures and safety. During the Abandon Ship drill everyone aboard must put on a survival suit. The suits are all the same size and it was quite comical to see me, at 5 ft, wearing the same suit as someone who is 6’2” tall.  After lunch the NANCY FOSTER reaches the first dive site located in Onslow Bay, approximately 19 nautical miles, S/SE of the Beaufort Inlet. It’s exciting to watch the divers ready themselves and deploy to sea.

Divers from the NANCY FOSTER ready themselves for the first dive of the mission.
Divers from the NANCY FOSTER ready themselves for the first dive of the mission.

Day 2

Personal Log 

I thought I had the seasick thing beat because I wore the anti-seasick wristbands my student, Troy Wilkens, gave me. Unfortunately, at about 1800 hours, I became sick while discussing the mission with Paula. On her advice I took some medication and went to bed. I did not find my “sea legs” until this evening at about 1900 hours. Apparently, sleep is the best remedy but I lost most of the day. I feel well enough to begin my work so I spend what is left of the evening viewing underwater video shot during today’s dives. Divers today visited two sites at 210 Rock, 27 miles almost due south of Beaufort Inlet.

Day 3

Divers take a small boat to the dive site.
Divers take a small boat to the dive site.

Personal Log

While discussing the mission with Paula I realize that, unlike similar missions in the past, her 2007 research is multi-faceted. I will elaborate on the facets when I better understand how they all relate. At the moment I am feeling a bit overwhelmed…  Today’s dive site is located 24 nautical miles S/SE of Beaufort Inlet.

Scientific Log: What are Lionfish? 

Common name:  Lionfish, Red lionfish, and turkey fish. Scientific Name: Pterois volitans (Pisces: Scorpaenidae). Lionfish are identified by their distinctive red, maroon and white stripes; fleshy tentacles above the eyes and below the mouth; fan-like pectoral fin and long separated dorsal spines. These tropical fish can grow to approximately 17 in. / 38.0 cm or more. Native to Indo-Pacific waters, the scope of their territory is huge. They can be found from western Australia and Malaysia, to southern Japan and southern Korea, as well as throughout Micronesia.

A lionfish swims in the Atlantic Ocean, not its native habitat
A lionfish swims in the Atlantic Ocean, not its native habitat

Why Research Lionfish in North Carolina?  

Non-native (meaning invasive) to waters along the southeastern United States Coast lionfish are now established and reproducing along the continental shelf from Florida to North Carolina. Since 2000, lionfish have been primarily found in water depths greater than 130fsw (feet sea water) due to warmer water temperatures created, year round, by the Gulf Stream. Now, there is evidence the lionfish population is increasing and surviving closer to shore than researchers originally thought.

Why is the Invasion of Lionfish a Problem? 

There are several reasons lionfish are a potential problem.

  • Lionfish are members of the Scorpion fish family and known for their venomous spines. Although there have been no known fatalities caused by lionfish stings, they are reported to be extremely painful. As they increase in numbers, and move closer to shore, there is a greater risk of encounters with humans.
  • Lionfish have no known natural predators in the Atlantic. They are voracious feeders and may compete with native species for food that would be disruptive to the ecosystem. They also may pose a threat to the commercial fishing industry.

Chris Monsour, June 26, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Monsour
Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette
June 12 – July 12, 2007

Mission: Lobster Survey
Geographical Area: Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
Date: June 26, 2007

Above is an example of the bluestriped snapper that was caught off of Necker Island. This species has become a nuisance since it was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands.
Bluestriped snapper that was caught off of Necker Island. This species has become a nuisance since introduced to the Hawaiian Islands.

Science and Technology Log 

Today we hauled our first set of lobster traps at Necker Island.  I must say the Chief Scientist was right when he said there would be less lobster here.  I think we may have caught 25 lobsters out of 160 traps. Very disappointing numbers, less than one lobster per trap. It is possible that the traps were in too deep of water and the substrate being sand made conditions unfavorable. We will be here for 13 more days or for 13 more sets, depending on how you want to look at it. A majority of what we caught today were different types of crustaceans and bluestriped snapper.

The bluestriped snapper is a non-native species that was brought to Hawaii from French Polynesia in the 1950’s. The fish’s native distribution is the Indo-Pacific from east Africa – Tuamotus; north to southern Japan; south to New Caledonia. The fish was brought to Hawaii to fill a vacant niche in the reef community, a shallow water snapper.  The bluestriped snapper does not have a good reputation.  In Hawaii, the bluestriped snapper share the same habitat with native fishes and this may result in competition for habitat use and food sources. Evidence has been documented which suggests that bluestriped snapper may displace native fish from important refuge habitat.  However this remains a controversial topic and more research investigating the ecological niche of L. kasmira is needed. From what I saw today though, the most common fish brought up from the traps was the bluestriped snapper.

NOAA Teacher at Sea Chris Monsour holds up an example of a sponge crab that was captured off Necker Island.
Chris Monsour holds up an example of a sponge crab that was captured off Necker Island.

When I searched the internet for “bluestriped snapper” and “Hawaii”, I found that many of the links discussed the fish as being a great aquarium fish and really no other use.  Yes, I will admit the fish are great to look at, but what will be the future impact?  The discussion of the bluestriped snapper led into the problems which exists in Lake Erie with the invasive round gobi, zebra mussel, and purple loosestrife.  The main difference here in Hawaii is that this species was introduced intentionally and the impact is yet to be seen. Granted, it has been over 50 years since the bluestriped snapper was introduced, but most of the people I have talked to on the ship see it as a nuisance and not a threat.

Today, as mentioned earlier, I saw more species of crustaceans, especially crabs. There were two groups that I have been seeing quite a bit and that is hermit crab and sponge crab.  Anyone who has explored a tide pool is familiar with the hermit crab.  Although an external skeleton like other crabs covers their front parts, their long soft tails are not protected.  Hence, they use empty snail shells for protection and are very difficult to remove.

One of the many hermit crabs that was caught during OSCAR ELTON SETTE’s cruise of the North West Hawaiian Islands poses for a picture.
One of the many hermit crabs that was caught during the cruise poses for a picture.

The other species that has really caught my attention is the sleepy sponge crab. The sleepy sponge crab is considered to be the most evolutionary primitive of the true crabs. As I found out, they are very slowing moving and nocturnal. They use their hindmost legs to carry a piece of sponge over its back. The crab uses the sponge for camouflage and within the sponge is living a whole myriad of other organisms like sea stars and forminifera (algae).  Unfortunately as I found out, when the sponge comes off the back of the crab, you can’t put it back on.

Personal Log

I was posed this question by the CO (commanding officer) of the ship: What does a Teacher at Sea do on a transit day after a hard week of lobstering at Maro Reef? 

Transit days are spent catching up on reading, laundry and rest.  I finished up one book and read the first half on another. On Sunday at twilight we had a pyrotechnic display on the fantail of the ship. Essentially we had to get rid of the expired flares, so we had a good time setting them off.  Then on Monday before we set the gear, we had four sets of drills which included a quarters escape drill.  Right now though, I am glad to see Necker Island, the first land I have seen in a long time (it resembles Abe Lincoln’s profile).  So with this I will be posting another log in a few days.

Questions of the Day 

1. What type of relationship exists between the sponge crab, the sponge on it’s back , and anything living in the sponge?  Commensalism, mutualism, or parasitism?

A hui hou,… Chris

Patricia Greene, July 16, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Patricia Greene
Onboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai
June 26 – July 30, 2006

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical Area: Central Pacific Ocean, Hawaii
Date: July 16, 2006

The ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus) is one type of butterflyfish that is also a coral predator.
The ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus) is one type of butterflyfish that is also a coral predator.

Science and Technology Log

When you think of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and predators, the first thing that comes to mind may be the apex predators; tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks and species of huge fish such as the jacks. Corallivores (an animal that feeds on corals) may include fish, sea stars or mollusks.  Generally, two types are recognized; obligate corallivores; those that feed only on corals and facultative corallivores; which feed on corals, algae, sponges, and mollusks.However, while snorkeling the Kure Atoll, I was reminded that there is another group of predators here; the corallivores. I observed a crown of thorns that appeared to be feeding on the coral and upon further research I discovered and recognized a variety of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands creatures that I have seen that also specialize in feeding on corals.

The crown of thorns feeds by inverting its stomach through its mouth, and then digests the corals externally. Human attempts at controlling populations of crown of thorns have been relatively unsuccessful and causes of these population spikes or outbreaks have been a topic of debate. Some believe they are natural occurrences and occur in cycles while other scientists believe they are due to human causes such as increased sedimentation and pollution.The crown of thorns (Acanthaster planci) has cryptic coloration and toxin-filled spines.  It prefers to feed on rice corals (Montipora), lace corals (Pocillopora), and cauliflower corals (Acropora). Ironically, the crown of thorn eggs and larvae are often fed on by the stony corals. Other natural enemies of the crown of thorns is the harlequin shrimp and the fireworm. This little shrimp does not kill the crown of thorns, but merely creates a small, open wound. This is known as “facilitated predation.” The larvae of the fireworm then enter the cavity, reproduce, and the offspring eat the crown of thorns from the inside out; eventually causing death.

The crown of thorns (Acanthaster planci) is a major predator of coral reefs.
The crown of thorns (Acanthaster planci) is a major predator of coral reefs.

We have also observed a variety of butterflyfish on the reefs; all that are also coral predators. The ornate butterflyfish (Chaetodon ornatissimus), the oval butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunulatus), the fourspot butterflyfish (Chaetodon quadrimaculatus), and the multiband butterflyfish (Chaetodon multicinctus), are all obligate corallivores. Other butterflyfish that eat both corals and invertebrates include; the threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) and the teardrop butterflyfish (Chaetodon unimaculatus).

We have also identified the spotted pufferfish (Arothron meleagris) hiding in the corals of Kure Atoll’s lagoon. This unique creature has a beak-like mouth with sharp frontal teeth for removing pieces of substrate and flat teeth in the back for grinding. They feed on a variety of organisms, including the stony corals and calcareous algae. They have a unique adaptation that allows them to lodge their bodies into a crevice or hole and then puff up so it is impossible for a predator to dislodge them. Their tissue is relatively toxic to humans.The shortbodied blenny (Exallias brevis) is an obligate corallivore. It prefers the lobe (Porites lobata) and finger coral (Porites compressa). The spotted color of these fish blends nicely with the colonies of coral. Removing tiny bites these fish have little impact on the health of the corals. The coral colony is able to regenerate new polyps and fill in he bite marks.

The shortbodied blenny (Exallias brevis) is an obligate corallivore, which feeds on coral.
The shortbodied blenny is an obligate corallivore, which feeds on coral.

The blue-eye damselfish (Plectroglyphidodon johnstonianus) inhabits the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands coral reefs. It feeds only on coral, preferring the lace, antler, cauliflower, finger and lobe corals. These small fish are very territorial and will defend their nests, hiding in the corals that also serve as food. Most of the coral predators do not pose any major threats to the coral reefs. They are natural inhabitants of the reefs and do little damage. The crown of thorns can cause mass devastation; during major outbreaks at other Pacific Ocean locations the coral cover was reduced from 78% to 2%. In 1970, approximately 26,000 crown of thorns were destroyed off the southern coast of Moloka`i. However, during all of dives in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands we only observed two crown of thorns, which is good news for this remote region.

Patricia Greene, July 13, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Patricia Greene
Onboard NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai
June 26 – July 30, 2006

Mission: Ecosystem Survey
Geographical Area: Central Pacific Ocean, Hawaii
Date: July 13, 2006

Old fishing nets get piled up on the pier on Green Island at Kure Atoll waiting for the marine debris crew to pick up
Old fishing nets get piled up on the pier on Green Island at Kure Atoll waiting for the marine debris crew to pick up

Science and Technology Log

One reason the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are so unique is that they contain some of the most isolated, pristine, and genetically pure coral reefs in the world.  Kure Atoll is approximately 1,200 miles from the main Hawaiian Islands. It represents one of the last intact, predator-dominated reef ecosystems. It is a critically important habitat to a wide range of species including seabirds, sea turtles, monk seals, and sharks.  The earliest creatures arrived on these islands by swimming, flying, or floating for thousands of miles and then with the passage of time, evolved into genetically different species. These species are referred to as ‘endemic’ meaning they are unique to that area.

Historically, man’s greatest impact on the ecosystems of NWHI has taken two major venues; importation of terrestrial alien or exotic species and mass slaughter or over-harvesting of existing endemic species.  Understanding the past can help us protect the future of the NWHI.Hawai`i has a very high incidence of marine endemism due to the age of the islands (Kure Atoll is approximately 28 million years old) and the relative isolation from other coral reefs. The prevailing currents generally run from east to west; keeping larvae from other reefs from reaching Hawai`i. Also, the waters here tend to be cooler and the wave action intense, deterring foreign species from colonizing. The marine ecosystems have been far less impacted by man than the terrestrial ecosystems. Only 11 aquatic invasive marine invertebrate, fish, and algal specifies have been identified in the NWHI.  The magnitude of the problem of aquatic invasive species is far greater in main Hawaiian Islands than in NWHI. Endemism and diversity in the NWHI has reportedly been higher than the main Hawaiian Islands for some corals and other reef species. However, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have not been free from human influence.

Early influence of man can be traced back approximately 1,000 years ago when Polynesians were the first to change the natural ecosystems of the islands. They brought to the main Hawaiian Islands animals such as boars, dogs and rats. However, the first documented evidence of mammals being introduced to the NWHI occurred in 1894 when entrepreneurs from a rabbit canning industry released rabbits that literally devoured all the vegetation on some islands; Laysan, Lisianski, and Southeast Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Other alien or exotic plant and insect species (those that have been brought from other areas) drastically changed the existing ecosystems by destroying or out-competing many of the native endemic species. Until very recently the exotic Polynesian rats were major predators on Kure Atoll; eating the bird eggs and killing chicks. Today all the NWHI are completely rat free.

An old Coast Guard anchor sits deep within the Verbesina, a bright yellow flowering plant in the sunflower family that is an exotic, invasive plant on many of the atolls.
An old Coast Guard anchor sits deep within the Verbesina, a bright yellow flowering plant in the sunflower family that is an exotic, invasive plant on many of the atolls.

The Verbesina encelioides that we viewed on Kure Atoll; a bright yellow flowering plant in the sunflower family, is an excellent example of an exotic, invasive plant. This weed has literally suffocated and killed native plants as well as engulfed open space used as  nesting sites. Without weeding efforts by researchers, scientists and volunteers the birds would no longer have “runways” to allow the fledgings to run, take-off, and try their wings. Approximately 312 plant species have been identified on the NWHI. Thirty-seven species are indigenous, 12 endemic, the other remaining 267 are alien or exotic species.

Of the 485 species of insects and spiders found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands over 300 of them have been introduced by accident. Only 100 out of 485 are indigenous and another 80 are endemic. It is estimated over 20 new species of insects are introduced accidentally to mainland Hawai`i every year. This is just one reason why strict regulations are in place to minimize the introduction of new species to the NWHI. Exotic insects have devastating effects on the natural ecosystems. Ants on Kure Atoll have plagued the seabird chicks, who are relatively immobile during their early years and stay in the same nest area. Ants also displace native insects and can have such a major influence on ecosystems that they invade, or are introduced to, that they are called “ecosystem busters.”

In addition to the biological invasions, man has also brought other contaminants to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Even though the area is thousands of miles from human inhabitation the islands remain impacted by man’s past military occupation. Kure Atoll is still recuperating from the remains of a Coast Guard station, LORAN tower and unlined dump site on the island. Contaminants may include elevated levels of copper, nickel, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s). Midway contamination from military operations include; petroleum, DDT, PCB’s, and heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury. Over 75 million dollars were allocated by the Department of Defense for extensive clean up efforts on Midway Atoll just prior to the Naval Air Facility’s transfer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The remoteness of the area does not protect the islands from the prevailing ocean currents and man's trash.
The remoteness of the area does not protect the islands from the prevailing ocean currents and man’s trash.

During the Navy’s tenure at Midway,  in an effort to protect their pilots and aircraft, they would permit the deaths of thousands of albatrosses which are large enough to cause a danger to aircraft during landing or takeoff. In the short period 1957-58, over 36,000 birds were slaughtered and unknown thousands in subsequent years in an attempt to keep a major runway clear of albatross on Sand Island. When dead albatrosses began piling up on Midway, the commanding officer ordered them dumped at sea. However, with poetic justice, the prevailing currents carried an entire barge’s contents of rotting bird carcasses back to the beach at Midway and sailors had to pick them up and bury them.In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were exploited and ravished by seal hunters, whalers, feather hunters, pearl divers and guano miners. Seals, sea turtles, seabirds, sharks and whales were slaughtered en mass. In 1824 the ship Gambiamay have taken as many as 1,500 seals. The ship’s log of the Ada (1882) reported taking 103 sea turtles in just three days. Japanese feather hunters slaughtered thousands of seabirds. In the period from 1904 to 1915 counts of 284,000, 64,000, 119,000 and 200,000 dead birds and literally tons of feathers, were confiscated from Japanese poachers. These numbers represent only a fraction of the slaughter; only those who were caught poaching; many hundreds of thousands of bird deaths went undocumented and undetected.

The black-lipped pearl oyster (Pinctada margarifera) is one of the most obvious examples of the devastation man’s exploitation may cause. Masses of oyster beds were discovered at Pearl and Hermes in 1927. Within only three years of discovery estimates of over 200,000 oysters or 150,000 tons had been harvested and the oysters almost eliminated. An act was passed in 1929 making it illegal to take pearl oysters in Hawaiian waters. Later, in 1930, an expedition was sent to determine the extent of the damage to the oyster beds; only 480 oysters were found. By 1950 only six oysters were observed, and in 1969 only one oyster was found. More recent surveys in 1969, 1996, and 2000 found only a few oysters while a comprehensive 2003 NOAA study documented sightings of over 1,000 individual oysters. However, while the latter study suggests the oyster population may be starting to recover, almost 80 years have passed and the numbers do not begin to compare to the pre-exploitation levels. The pearl oyster clearly demonstrates the damage a coral reef can sustain from over-harvesting and the inordinate length of time it may take to recover even under full protection.

Fortunately, the entire reef is partially protected from many human influences by location and strict State and Federal restrictions. Existing in such a remote location the atolls and islands do not have the typical issues of coastal pollution and eutrophication from human inhabitation, tourism, development or agriculture like the main Hawaiian Islands. For the most part, the only humans to visit this isolated wilderness are researchers and scientists and they must sign and adhere to strict government permits and quarantines. All clothing or soft goods must be frozen for 48 hours to help prevent alien insects or seeds from going ashore. All dive gear must be soaked in a bleach solution after each use. Many varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables are forbidden on the islands.

However, the remoteness of the area does not protect the islands from the prevailing ocean currents and man’s trash. Currents in the North Pacific carry plastics and marine discards to the island shores. A portion of this debris may be terrestrial in origin while much of it obviously originates from fishing ships. As we walked along the shores of Kure Atoll we observed thousands of articles of domestic or household origin and items that were clearly from marine origins such as floats, nets, and other equipment connected with the industry. Based on past and current marine removal operations it is estimated that over 1,000 tons of debris has accumulated in the NWHI. Yearly accumulation rates are estimated at 40-80 tons. These amounts will continue indefinitely unless we educate and reduce the sources.

Legally, acts have been passed since the early 1900’s in attempts to protect the fragile creatures of the NWHI. Earliest efforts by Teddy Roosevelt (1909) attempted to protect the seabirds from the feather hunters by establishing the Hawaiian Islands Reservation. This reservation granted protections from Nihoa to Kure Atoll (minus Midway Atoll which at the time was owned by the U.S. military).  Since sea turtles travel from the NWHI to feeding grounds throughout the main Hawaiian Islands full protection did not occur until 1973 with the Endangered Species Act. Wild dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while the Hawaiian Monk Seals are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The NWHI are of critical importance to monk seals and the sea turtles. The majority of the monk seals in existence live in the NWHI. Over 90% of green sea turtles depend upon the French Frigate Shores for their breeding grounds.  Researchers take surveys and collect information on the life cycles of the animals in an attempt to aid recovery of the populations and ensure that any of these species will not become extinct. Data is collected on monk seals, spinner dolphins, seabirds, and turtles by researchers in the NWHI.

Most recently, President Bush changed the designation of the marine area from a coral reef ecosystem reserve to include the islands as a Marine National Monument to effect more immediate change. By doing this the eight fishing permits that currently exist for the area will be phased out in five years and the entire Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will fall under more stringent long term protection.

However, legislation and presidential actions will not stop the debris that is carried from thousands of miles by ocean currents and deposited on the shores of these islands or correct some of the more subtle impacts of man that remain. We need to look deeply into the past, reflect upon our trespasses, and learn from our mistakes. Only education, protection and careful scrutiny of our environment and natural resources will accomplish this and provide future protection. Prevention is a better solution than attempts to clean-up. History tells us we must be better care-takers of our fragile coral ecosystems.

Thomas Nassif, July 24, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 24, 2005

The SCUBA invention has extended the reaches of human exploration from land to the deep-sea.
The SCUBA invention has extended the reaches of human exploration from land to the deep-sea.

Weather Data

Latitude: 34°10’N
Longitude: 76°39’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 34°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 30°C (86°F)
Sea level pressure: 1016.5 mb
Cloud cover: 2/8, cumulus, cirrus

Science and Technology Log 

The last dive of the research cruise couldn’t have been more exhilarating. Unfazed by the gusty winds, choppy seas, and ripping ocean currents, the divers explored one last shipwreck on the ocean floor. The Naeco was a U.S. tanker that was destroyed by a Nazi U-boat during WWII. The torpedo shattered the Naeco’s bow and stern into two pieces, sinking them to the ocean bottom nearly 7 miles apart. The divers returned to the surface with stories about the stern (back) of the Naeco and thrilling reports of lionfish of every size and number.

The more I think about my experiences aboard the Invasive Lionfish Cruise, the more I begin to see two parallel themes here: the deep-sea diver and the lionfish. Human action led to the introduction of lionfish into a foreign habitat, but at the same time, one person invented the SCUBA, which introduced humans to the mysteries of the deep-sea.

Thomas Nassif interviews Casey Coy on the dive deck for his video documentary on lionfish and deep-sea divers.
Thomas Nassif interviews Casey Coy on the dive deck for his video documentary on lionfish and deep-sea divers.

Lionfish can only swim so far north of their tropical paradise in the southeastern Atlantic before the temperature becomes too cold, whereas humans can only dive so deep before the pressure of the sea becomes too great. Lionfish have scales for protection, fins for locomotion, gills for respiration, and swim bladders for buoyancy. SCUBA gear makes it possible for humans to be like fish, even if it adds 200 lbs to your body! They include a BCD (buoyancy compensator device) to control buoyancy, wet suits for protection and insulation, fins for underwater movement, and regulators attached to tanks for respiration. But lionfish are different from most fish because of their venomous spines that make  them the “ultimate survivors” in their new habitat. Similarly, SCUBA divers are equipped with high-tech gear that may not be familiar to most people, yet it helps humans to survive and explore the underwater environment.

“The bow of the ship left traces of beautiful pigments on the sky’s canvas, an eternal embrace between the first ember of light and a lucid sky.”
“The bow of the ship left traces of beautiful pigments on the sky’s canvas, an eternal embrace between the first ember of light and a lucid sky.”

Yet there is one difference between lionfish and humans that became most apparent over the course of my cruise. Whereas lionfish may harm the local ecosystem by lowering the number and diversity of native fish in the Atlantic, deep-sea divers are in a unique position to help our society by increasing our knowledge and creating a better understanding of the importance of preserving native habitats.

Reflections…

On the final morning of the cruise my eyes met a resplendent sunrise that shot stars across the shimmering waters of an endless sea. As we headed to the east I grew quiet within… the bow of the ship almost seemed to leave traces of beautiful pigments on the sky’s canvas, an eternal embrace between the first ember of light and a lucid sky. Land  is but hours away, but the memories of this journey will never leave my mind.

Who could forget such a fascinating, diverse group of personalities; Paula the lionfish enthusiast, Doug underwater photographer extraordinaire, Jay and the underwater hunt, Casey and the underwater flex, Christine the lion queen, Roldan king of transect, and last but certainly not least, Joe and the quest for Choco-tacos.

Thomas Nassif, July 22, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 22, 2005

A lionfish and two lobsters pose for the camera at Lobster Rock. Today the divers collected a total of 23 lionfish from this dive site.
A lionfish and two lobsters pose for the camera at Lobster Rock. The divers collected a total of 23 lionfish

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°38’N
Longitude: 76°55’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus

Science & Technology Log  

Today the divers explored Lobster Rock, collecting a total of 23 lionfish for the flow through aquarium aboard the ship. Water from the ocean flows into and out of the tank yhrough pipes on the deck to simulate the ocean environment. This brings the total laboratory aquarium at Beaufort.

Today I also interviewed the Chief Scientist, Paula Whitfield. Most amazing to me was how her life story evolved from a childhood fascination with Jacques Cousteau to her current passion for lionfish research. Paula grew up watching the underwater videos of Jacques Cousteau, and it was at that point that she knew she wanted to become a diver. “I was a diver first, but the more I dove, the more I was formulating questions in my mind…I was curious about everything that had to do with water and marine life.” She worked for a sea grass ecologist for many years, not running the show, but she saw how the scientific process worked. Her desire to become a marine biologist grew stronger,  and that’s when she decided to return to school to get her graduate degree.

Recently collected lionfish from the ocean floor are transferred to a flow through aquarium aboard the ship.
Recently collected lionfish from the ocean floor are transferred to a flow through aquarium aboard the ship.

So how did Paula become one of the leading scientists in lionfish research? She responds: “It stemmed from my recreational diving – I was diving constantly in my spare time, and working for a charter boat business that attracted recreational divers from all over the world.” And then one day she began seeing lionfish off the coast of North Carolina, which was very unusual for this area. Paula knew they were Pacific fish, but she needed proof that lionfish were now in the Atlantic. “From that point on, I collected evidence was finally able to convince NOAA when a world-renown scorpion fish expert confirmed that her collected specimens were lionfish.

Once Paula was aboard a diving ship, and she was ordered to do a routine dive to the ocean bottom. The first thing she saw was right angle patterns, which hardly exist in nature. All of the sudden Paula saw a porthole lying in the sand. Back then she wasn’t a technical diver with all the fancy gear she has today. So she clutched the porthole with her knees and climbed up the anchor line. When Paula reached the surface, everyone aboard the ship stared at her in disbelief when she said: “I think it’s a wreck. I have a porthole.” She fondly remembers feeling “excited to be the first person to dive a virgin shipwreck.”

Diver and Marine Biologist Paula Whitfield swims alongside a lionfish, the focus of her research.
Diver and Marine Biologist Paula Whitfield swims alongside a lionfish, the focus of her research.

What Paula finds most fascinating about lionfish is how they established themselves in such large numbers in the Atlantic within a short period of time. Because of this she calls lionfish the “ultimate survivors.” But overall, she feels very affectionate towards all sea creatures, including “everything from sea spiders and feather dusters to larger fish because it’s such a different world down there. It’s important for us to know how we’re affecting that world in order to make a positive change.”

Paula’s words of advice for those who want to become marine biologists: “I think it’s important if you can become a diver – just to be able to put your head in the water to see what’s going on is more rewarding than just dropping sensors into the ocean. It opens more doors, and by seeing the environment firsthand you are able to formulate more questions about it. All this helps you become a better marine biologist, even if you don’t dive all the time.”

Thomas Nassif, July 21, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 21, 2005

Thomas Nassif on the Bridge gathering measurements from the ship’s weather log.
Thomas Nassif on the Bridge gathering measurements from the ship’s weather log.

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°30’N
Longitude: 77°09’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 290°
Wind speed: 15 kts
Sea wave height: 3′
Swell wave height: 3-5′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C (84°F)
Sea level pressure: 1019.9 mb
Cloud cover: overcast, cumulus and stratus

Science & Technology Log

The day began with rocky seas, gusty winds, strong ocean currents, and the tallest swells we’ve had since our departure from port last week.  These ocean conditions are nothing extraordinary for the ship’s crew, but extremely tough for the divers.  The diving site for this morning was Southeast Tower 2, not far from the old Frying Pan Tower that was used by the Coastguard to collect and transmit ocean conditions.  The Tower’s location 35 miles off the Atlantic coast atop a 45-foot deep rock formation made it among the most valuable navigational aids for collecting ocean data such as wave height and water temperature.

The 187-foot NANCY FOSTER in the Atlantic.  The Bridge is located on the very top level of the ship.
The 187-foot NANCY FOSTER in the Atlantic. The Bridge is located on the very top level of the ship.

The first dive of the morning went smoothly.  But the second dive team was not so fortunate. After jumping off the ship they were swiftly pulled past the dive site buoy by strong ocean currents. Having missed the dive site, the divers ended up at an entirely different location on the ocean floor! This is why it is so important for ships to record the weather conditions and their location at sea.  These measurements take place on the Bridge, the command center of the ship.

Every day, I walk to the Bridge to get the weather data that appears at the top of my daily logs. Here is an explanation of the terms:  Latitude tells you how far north or south you are from the equator (which is 0° latitude), while Longitude tells you how far east or west you are from Greenwich, England (0° longitude).  Together, Latitude and Longitude give the exact location of the ship. Visibility is how far ahead you can see from the ship.  On a very foggy day you may only have a visibility of 10 feet, whereas on a clear day you can see all the way to the horizon, or 10 nautical miles.  Wind direction tells you which way the wind is blowing from – 0° is north, 90° is east, 180° is south, and 270° is west. Sea wave height and Swell wave height are height estimates of the smaller ripples and larger waves, respectively. Sea level pressure (or barometric pressure) indicates what the trend of the weather has been. High barometric pressures (like today – 1019mb) usually mean sunny weather; rain cannot build up in clouds if they are being squeezed together by high pressure. Low barometric pressures tell you that rain or stormy weather is on the way. Inside the eye of a hurricane barometric pressures can be as low as 875mb!  Under low pressures clouds can expand and fill up with rain.  Cloud cover is a number between 0 and 1 that describes how much of the sky is covered with clouds.  4/8 means that half of the sky is covered with clouds, 1/8 means very few clouds, 7/8 is mostly clouds, and overcast (or 8/8) is all clouds.

A lionfish has many fins.  The outstretched pectoral fins are not venomous.  The shorter, pointier spines are venomous.  From right to left they are: dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines. Photo courtesy of Christine Addison.
A lionfish has many fins. The outstretched pectoral fins are not venomous. The shorter, pointier spines are venomous. From right to left they are: dorsal, pelvic, and anal spines. Photo courtesy of Christine Addison.

Every day the ship sends all of this weather information to the National Weather Service (NWS) by satellite.  The NWS will in turn fax this information to other ships that will be traveling in our area so they can get a better idea of what the weather is like at our location. And when our ship steams ahead to a new dive site tomorrow, we will be grateful if another ship was in the same area.  The weather information that ship collected will help us know more about the weather!

Question of the day

How many sets of venomous spines do lionfish have?  Where are they found on its body?

Lionfish (like most fish) have five different types of fins.  But in Lionfish, some fins have sharp, venomous spines. The dorsal (back), pelvic (waist), and anal fins all have pointy, venomous spines that look like injection needles. The caudal and pectoral fins, on the other hand, are not venomous and look more like ordinary fish fins.

Thomas Nassif, July 20, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 20, 2005

A underwater photograph of the City of Houston shipwreck. Over time the ribs of the ship’s hull have been covered by sponges (pink fluff) and soft coral (colorful branches). Tomtate fish are pictured to the right.
A underwater photograph of the City of Houston shipwreck. Over time the ribs of the ship’s hull have been covered by sponges (pink fluff) and soft coral (colorful branches). Tomtate fish are pictured to the right.

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°38’N
Longitude: 76°55’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus

Science & Technology Log  

My excitement and fascination with this entire diving expedition grew even more when I heard that the divers would be exploring two shipwreck sites on the ocean floor today – “18 Fathom” in the morning and “City of Houston” in the evening. Fathoms are an old unit of measurement still used by navigators today to describe the depth of the ocean (1 Fathom = 6 feet deep). The dive site “18 Fathom” is a mystery shipwreck that was discovered at a depth of 108 feet (18 Fathoms). Shipwrecks provide excellent habitats for a variety of fish, including lionfish. The broken down hull and old passageways of a  shipwreck create a manmade reef upon which algae and coral grow, smaller fish hide, and larger fish feed. Rather than scrap old ships, many countries around the world clean and sink their old ships to the ocean floor to create artificial reefs for fish and other marine organisms.

An explosion of Tomtate (white fish) and Vermilion Snapper (red fish) envelop the water in a silvery red glow.
An explosion of Tomtate (white fish) and Vermilion Snapper (red fish) envelop the water in a silvery red glow.

After lunch, the boat steamed ahead to the next dive site, City of Houston. Far beneath the ocean surface looms an old Civil War Era shipwreck. Thousands of fish including Tomtate, Vermilion Snapper, and Silverside enveloped the divers, making the surrounding waters shimmer with silvery red. At times the number of fish were so great that the divers had trouble seeing even a few feet in front of them! Over one  hundred years after the City of Houston wrecked and fell to the seafloor, you can now see coral and algae taking over the entire manmade structure. Even so, it is still possible to make out obvious structures of the ship, including the engine and the hull.

Personal Log 

Today I went snorkeling off the NF4 once again and had a fantastic time swimming in the 84°F water under a beaming sun – It’s unbelievable that the Atlantic Ocean can be so warm during the summer months! Also, I’ve watching the divers in action as they descend to the ocean floor, collect live lionfish, and take stupendous photos of the deep ocean all inspire me to someday become a professional SCUBA diver myself.

Question of the day

What type of air do SCUBA divers breathe?

This depends on how deep you plan to dive. Regular air (the kind we breathe on land) is mostly nitrogen and only 21% oxygen. The tanks that the deep-sea divers carry on their back are filled with regular air, and they can dive up to 150 feet by breathing this air through a mouthpiece (or regulator). Other divers that only need to dive up to 113 feet (like our safety divers) use Nitrox, which has more oxygen (36%) than regular air. Finally, at depths up to 20 feet deep, SCUBA divers can breath pure oxygen (100%). The deep-sea divers on our cruise switch to pure oxygen 20 feet before they reach the ocean surface to speed up their decompression.

The two dangers with SCUBA diving and the air they breathe are:

1 – Too much oxygen can be toxic to your body. The deeper you dive, the less oxygen you should have in the air you breathe. 2 – At the same time, too much nitrogen can make you feel light-headed and put you to sleep underwater. Jacques Cousteau, French inventor of the SCUBA, called this “Rapture of the Deep.” That is why it is so dangerous for divers to spend too long in the deep ocean.

Thomas Nassif, July 19, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 19, 2005

“A fiery ball of radiant yellow…penetrated the hues of deep blue and wispy whites.”
“A fiery ball of radiant yellow…penetrated the hues of deep blue and wispy whites.”

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°38’N
Longitude: 76°55’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus

Science & Technology Log  

Today was by far the most beautiful sunrise we’ve had since our departure from land last week. A fiery ball of radiant yellow captured the sky, as its luminous rays penetrated the hues of deep blue and wispy whites in the surrounding sky. This morning the divers visited Kinny 1 and 2 (also known as K1 and K2). But this was no ordinary dive… K2 happened to be the most challenging and strenuous dive yet. The ocean currents were moving faster than we expected. The ship pulled up-current from the dive site (marked by an orange buoy), to put the divers in position. All they would have to do is jump off the ship and drift down-current to find the buoy. But when the divers jumped off the ship they were swept away by the strong ocean currents well past the buoy. The NF4 picked up the divers, who had to take off all 200lbs of their SCUBA gear, and wait to be taken to the correct diving site. The divers eventually finished their mission at K2, but were very exhausted when they returned to the NANCY FOSTER.

Thomas Nassif aboard the NF4 dive boat. The NANCY FOSTER is pictured in the background.
Thomas Nassif aboard the NF4 dive boat. The NANCY FOSTER is pictured in the background.

Today I finally got my chance to step off the NANCY FOSTER for the afternoon. I boarded the NF4 (diver recovery boat) and we steamed off into the open sea. Soon thereafter we watched from a distance, as the divers leap off the NANCY FOSTER. Our job was to keep an eye on the divers to ensure their safety during the 130-foot descent to the ocean floor. The NF4, along with the NANCY FOSTER and RHIB, all bear the “divers flag” when we deploy SCUBA divers into the ocean. This red flag with a diagonal white stripe warns other ships in the immediate area that there are divers in the water.

I also went snorkeling in the ocean to watch the SCUBA divers decompress underwater. After the divers finished their dive to the ocean floor, they stopped at 20 feet from the ocean surface to breath pure oxygen from a long tube supplied from the surface by the RHIB (the air we breathe everyday is only 21% oxygen). If the divers chose instead to shoot straight up to the ocean surface, they risk getting the “bends,” a painful experience that occurs when nitrogen bubbles form in the blood.

The divers safely returned to the ship with 6 lionfish in their nets – the aquarium aboard the NANCY FOSTER now has a total of 25 live lionfish! The scientists plan to transport them to a more permanent home at the NOAA Beaufort Laboratory when we arrive at port next week. To simulate the natural conditions of the ocean, scientists will place the lionfish in a “flow through aquarium” that transports ocean water through a pipe into and out of the aquarium. By having several aquaria full of lionfish in the lab, scientists hope to learn more about their diet and how often they reproduce.

Question of the day

Do lionfish reproduce in the same way as fish? How often do they reproduce?

Yes – Lionfish reproduce like most fish, through External Fertilization. Eggs are released from the female into the water and then fertilized by sperm from a male fish. The thing that makes lionfish so different from most fish is this: Female lionfish release a floating mass of eggs that stick together (most fish release eggs that disperse and spread out from each other in the water). Scientists think that lionfish are more successful at reproducing because the floating masses of eggs are more likely to be fertilized. We do not know how often lionfish reproduce – this is one of the biggest questions scientists want to find out! The reproductive periods of fish overall can be very different. Some species of fish, like Salmon, reproduce only once in their entire lifetime. Tropical organisms like the Parrotfish, on the other hand, reproduce every day! It will be very helpful for us to know how often female lionfish reproduce so that we may better understand their impact on the local ecosystem.

Thomas Nassif, July 18, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 18, 2005

Diver Christine Addison conducts a visual transect survey with a clipboard and meter tape along the ocean floor.
Diver Christine Addison conducts a visual transect survey with a clipboard and meter tape along the ocean floor.

Weather Data

Latitude: 33°38’N
Longitude: 76°55’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 240°
Wind speed: 13 kts
Sea wave height: 1-2′
Swell wave height: 2-3′
Sea water temperature: 28.9°C
Sea level pressure: 1018 mb
Cloud cover: 6/8, Cumulus, Altocumulus

Science & Technology Log  

Today we awoke to a cloudy overcast day, providing the divers some relief from the sweltering heat we’ve had the past few days. The jet-black wet suits that keep the divers thermally insulated on the ocean floor can become extremely hot under a scorching sun! Every day for the remainder of the cruise we will try to complete 2 dives in the morning and 2 dives in the afternoon, each at a different location along the seafloor. (The divers are divided into two rotating teams, so that each person will only have to dive once in the morning and once in the afternoon).

Thomas Nassif watches Roldan Munoz perform a lionfish dissection, removing the stomach and gonads for further analysis.
Thomas Nassif watches Roldan Munoz perform a dissection, removing the stomach and gonads for further analysis.

This morning the divers visited Big Fish 1 and Big Fish 2, appropriately named after an 18-inch lionfish that was caught by a local fisherman. At Big Fish 2, the dive team descended to a depth of 143 feet, and they were stunned at the sight of 5 enormous lobsters; several were hiding beneath rocks while two other lobsters chased after one another across the sand. They also spotted several large grouper (approx. 30 lbs each). They conducted a 100-meter visual transect by steadily unreeling meter tape in a straight line. Along those 100 meters of line, they counted 17 lionfish (mostly juveniles), a big surprise considering the sandy bottom and featureless bathymetry (elevation) of the region. Lionfish typically thrive near rocky outcrops and coral reef structures that provide niches for other organisms that would serve as potential food sources (including baby shrimp, grouper, and snapper). Findings like the one at Big Fish 2 suggest that lionfish can flourish anywhere, from flat sandy bottoms to hard rocky outcrops, we suspect that as long as the water temperature remains warm enough to support a tropical habitat.

On the fourth and final dive of the day, the divers speared 3 lionfish and brought them back onto the ship for analysis. The scientists dissected the lionfish within 30 minutes of being brought onto the ship to ensure high quality stomach and reproductive system samples. First they recorded the weight, total length, and standard length (backbone only) of the lionfish. Next they removed both gonads and recorded the combined weight to determine the reproductive status of the lionfish. Finally they removed the stomach to determine the diet of the lionfish. We found two small fish that the lionfish had ingested. The lionfish remains were then frozen for future morphological (external) analysis. Scientists at the NOAA Beaufort Laboratory will conduct spine & ray counts on the fins and observe the facial features to see if there is any correlation with the development of the bearded spine, a feature that lionfish are thought to acquire as they age.

Question of the day

Do lionfish have any predators?

Great question! Lionfish do not have any known predators, but scientists aboard the NANCY FOSTER are hoping to someday answer this question. In Florida there was a reported sighting of a goliath grouper eating a lionfish. Other than that we do not know for sure. Of course it would be a good thing to find out. If it turns out that lionfish do not have any predators, then that would be bad news for the local ecosystem. Lionfish would be able to reproduce without limit and continue eating prey until resources are heavily depleted, thereby starving other fish that are important to the fisheries industry such as grouper.

Thomas Nassif, July 17, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 17, 2005

Deep-sea diver Christine Addison takes a leaping plunge into the ocean off the deck
Deep-sea diver Christine Addison takes a leaping plunge into the ocean off the deck

Weather Data

Latitude: 34°43’N
Longitude: 76°42’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 200°
Wind speed: 11 kts
Sea wave height: less than 1 foot
Swell wave height: none
Sea water temperature: 87 F, 30.5°C
Sea level pressure: 1017.9 mb
Relative Humidity: 86%
Cloud cover: 2/8, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Cirrostratus

Science and Technology Log

Early this morning at 0545 hours the NANCY FOSTER arrived at her next two dive locations (SEPAPNEW1 and SEPAPNEW2), 34 nautical miles due south of Beaufort Inlet. We are traveling along the Atlantic Continental Shelf, which runs along the Western boundary of the Gulf Stream. I asked the Chief Scientist, Paula Whitfield: “Why do all of our dive sites fall along the border rather than in the heart of the Gulf Stream? Since the water is much warmer in the Gulf Stream wouldn’t we be far more likely to see Lionfish since they are a tropical fish?” Paula informed me that further east of us the ocean depth drops to about 300 feet, beyond the maximum depth (150 feet) our SCUBA divers could reach. Furthermore the Gulf Stream currents would pose many risks to the divers – even a 1-2 knot current is enough to rip off a diver’s mask. Paula carefully chooses the dive locations using a bathymetric map of the ocean floor (similar to a topographic map for land).

The NF4 (shown in front) is transporting divers back to the ship after a successful dive. The RHIB (shown behind) carries an oxygen manifold that delivered pure oxygen to the divers during their ascent from the ocean floor.
The NF4 (shown in front) is transporting divers back to the ship after a successful dive. The RHIB (shown behind) carries an oxygen manifold that delivered pure oxygen to the divers during their ascent from the ocean floor.

Several things must happen before the SCUBA divers actually jump off the boat. First, drop buoys are deployed into the water to mark the exact location of each dive site. A drop buoy basically consists of bright orange buoy that floats on the ocean surface to let the ship know where the divers are located. To hold the orange buoy in the same location, it is attached to an anchor and a 10-lb weight by a 150-ft cord that sinks to the ocean floor. The drop buoy also helps the divers orient themselves during their descent to the ocean floor. By following the bright yellow cord during their descent, the divers can reach the exact dive location on the ocean floor.

The next step is to deploy two small boats, the RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) and the NF4. The RHIB holds the oxygen manifold, which supplies pure oxygen to the SCUBA divers after they finish their dive and begin their gradual ascent to the ocean surface (divers must decompress or wait at 20 feet below the ocean surface after their dive to ensure they acclimate to the change in pressure). The NF4 is a larger more sturdy boat used to recover the divers and bring them back safely to the ship.

Finally the divers are ready to jump off the ship, and this is no easy task. Imagine having to jump off the side of the ship with 200 pounds of SCUBA gear strapped to your back. Most of this weight is due to two enormous air tanks that deep-sea divers must carry to ensure they have enough air to

Personal Log

Today was an extremely busy day! Somehow the dive teams were able to squeeze in 4 different dive locations on the ocean floor in the same day – 2 dives in the morning and 2 dives in the afternoon. This time the divers were equipped with nets to capture live Lionfish and spear guns to collect dead Lionfish. The divers returned to the ship with 19 Lionfish! Amazingly, they collected 17 live Lionfish and stored them in the holding tank aboard the ship. The scientists performed a dissection on the remaining two Lionfish (that arrived to the ship already dead). Watching the dissection made me realize that the internal anatomy of the Lionfish is no different from any other fish (except for their venomous spines of course!)

Question of the day

Are Lionfish edible?

Jose, I must admit that I answered your question incorrectly at the Carnegie Institute summer course…Yes (to my surprise) Lionfish can be eaten, and their venomous spines have no harmful affects when ingested. In fact, some members of the scientific team have tasted Lionfish, and described the white meat of the fish as chewy, not tender, and a bit fishy tasting. Hopefully I will have the opportunity develop a recipe for Lionfish curry before the cruise is over.

Thomas Nassif, July 16, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 16, 2005

Underwater photograph of a lion fish taken by Doug Kesling, deep-sea diver on the NANCY FOSTER.
Underwater photograph of a lion fish taken by Doug Kesling, deep-sea diver on the NANCY FOSTER.

Weather Data

Latitude: 34°43’N
Longitude: 76°42’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 200°
Wind speed: 11 kts
Sea wave height: less than 1 foot
Swell wave height: none
Sea water temperature: 87 F, 30.5°C
Sea level pressure: 1017.9 mb
Relative Humidity: 86%
Cloud cover: 2/8, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Cirrostratus

Science and Technology Log

After the final computer tests, our ship finally left for sea today at 1310 hours. The NANCY FOSTER steamed ahead through choppy waters to the first dive site of the Lionfish study, “210 Rock.” The dive site is located 27 nautical miles off the coast of Cape Lookout, North Carolina. At 1800 hours four SCUBA divers leaped off of the starboard side of the ship in search of Lionfish. They were equipped with two underwater video cameras and two waterproof clipboards to record their observations. The divers leaped off the boat and dove to the ocean floor (to a depth of 108 feet) to tally the number of Lionfish compared to other native species of fish within a given distance (this is called a visual transect survey).

Thomas Nassif helping on deck to deploy a drop camera that sends real-time video footage of the deep sea to the ship’s television monitors.
Thomas Nassif helping on deck to deploy a drop camera that sends real-time video footage of the deep sea to the ship’s television monitors.

Now for a brief interlude…

What are Lionfish and why are we taking the time to study them? Lionfish are members of the scorpion fish family that are not native to the Atlantic Ocean. Organisms like the Lionfish that arrive, survive, and successfully reproduce in an ecosystem where they did not previously exist are called an invasive species. Lionfish are a very colorful fish with venomous spines originally from the Indo-Pacific coral reefs of southeastern Asia. Ever since their accidental release into the Atlantic Ocean in 1992, Lionfish have reproduced quickly and established themselves in increasing numbers along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to North Carolina. Lionfish are ambush predators that use their venomous spines to paralyze and swallow whole fish (baby shrimp, snapper, and grouper). For this reason, their presence in the Atlantic may negatively impact the local ecosystem and pose a vital threat to the commercial fisheries industry.

Back to the divers…

Upon their return to the ship from 210 Rock, the divers discovered 10 Lionfish, all of them juveniles, approximately 20 cm. in length. Lionfish have been reported in the vicinity before, but not until recently. This suggests a possible Lionfish migration into the area from the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream several miles away in the Atlantic (Lionfish can only survive in warmer, more tropical water temperatures). Now for some good news: The divers saw an impressive variety of native fish including Adult Gag, Scamp, Red Grouper, Blue Angel Fish, Soap fish, Spotfin Hogfish, Spanish Hogfish, White Grunt, Bank Sea Bass, Black Sea Bass, Almaco Jack, and Spade Fish. All of this suggests that the ecosystem near 210 Rock is biologically diverse, vibrant, and healthy. Hopefully it will remain that way, despite the looming threat of the Lionfish in the horizon…

This map clearly shows the Gulf Stream in the Southeastern Atlantic (look for a dark red streak off the coast of Florida).  Darker reds are the warmest ocean temperatures, blues are the coldest.
This map clearly shows the Gulf Stream in the Southeastern Atlantic (look for a dark red streak off the coast of Florida). Darker reds are the warmest ocean temperatures, blues are the coldest.

Personal Log

I was relieved that we were able to get at least one dive off today, despite our ship’s delayed departure. Most amazing was the video footage that the divers brought back onboard the ship – they captured several Lionfish on video, hidden beneath rocks and carefully camouflaged in their background environment. Watching the video makes me realize that the ocean floor is a dramatically different landscape than what we are accustomed to on land!

Question of the Day

Should we worry about Lionfish closer to shore along the beaches of the Atlantic Coast? Is their sting venomous enough to kill a person?

Luckily for us, a venomous spine from a Lionfish is not enough to kill a person, but they can cause a painful sting. You will also appreciate the fact that Lionfish will probably never invade beaches along the Atlantic coastline. This is because temperature limits their distribution in the Atlantic. The Gulf Stream is a warm current of the Atlantic Ocean that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and runs northeastward along North America. Because the Gulf Stream remains several miles offshore from the Atlantic coastline, these waters can remain somewhat warm during the winter, despite frigid inshore water temperatures. This is why Lionfish can survive in the Gulf Stream (where it is warmer in the wintertime) but not closer to the coast (where winter water temperatures are far colder). Additionally, Lionfish cannot survive north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina due to the colder water temperatures along the northeastern Atlantic coastline. For this reason, scientists consider Cape Hatteras a “Zoo-geographical boundary” beyond which Lionfish cannot stay alive.

Thomas Nassif, July 15, 2005

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Thomas Nassif
Onboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
July 15 – 24, 2005

Mission: Invasive Lionfish Survey
Geographical Area: Southeast U.S.
Date: July 15, 2005

THE BOUNTY: A replica of The Bounty, an 18th Century British Naval Research Vessel.
THE BOUNTY: A replica of The Bounty, an 18th Century British Naval Research Vessel.

Weather Data

Latitude: 34°43’N
Longitude: 76°42’W
Visibility: 10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 200°
Wind speed: 11 kts
Sea wave height: less than 1 foot
Swell wave height: none
Sea water temperature: 87 F, 30.5°C
Sea level pressure: 1017.9 mb
Relative Humidity: 86%
Cloud cover: 2/8, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Cirrostratus

Science and Technology Log

My first morning aboard the NOAA research vessel NANCY FOSTER began with a loud pounding sound on my door at 2am. I immediately awoke to a voice from the Lieutenant, “Thomas Nassif, you must move your car immediately!” Evidently I was parked directly in front of a giant crane on the portside of the ship. Later in the day I marveled at the enormous size of the NANCY FOSTER, which stands at 187 feet long and 894 tons. Eight SCUBA divers diligently worked on deck to ensure that their diving equipment was in good working condition when the deep-sea dives get underway tomorrow. We were scheduled to depart Morehead City today, but due to a problem with the ship’s computer system we are not leaving for the open sea until tomorrow morning at 1000 hours. Two specialists arrived early this afternoon to work on the computer system that runs the entire ship, including propulsion, navigation, lighting, and air conditioning. Imagine how complicated the computer system must be, having been built in Canada, programmed with Russian software, and used on an American ship! Evidently they are the only computer specialists in the entire US who know how to fix the NANCY FOSTER’s intricate computer system.

Thomas Nassif stands in front of the NOAA research vessel NANCY FOSTER.
Thomas Nassif stands in front of the NOAA research vessel NANCY FOSTER.

We took advantage of the delay in our departure to walk along the Morehead City Port to check out The Bounty, a replica of the legendary 18th century British Naval ship that sank off the shores of Tahiti. I imagined what it must have been like to be aboard The Bounty in the 1700’s. Unlike the NANCY FOSTER’s heavy reliance on computers to run the entire ship, the Bounty only needed a ship’s wheel for steering and enormous sails to propel the ship forward. This replica of the Bounty was built in 1961 for the Marlin Brando movie “Mutiny on the Bounty” and more recently appeared in “Pirates of the Carribean.” The original Bounty was an 18th century British Naval ship under the direction of Captain Bligh. A member of the crew, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny against the ship’s captain to protest his extremely strict and regimented control over the crew. While on route to Tahiti, a mutiny erupted between the Captain Bligh and the crew over whether to proceed around the tip of South America (Cape Horn), one of the most treacherous routes for ships to circumnavigate. And to think that one of the major goals of the Tahiti expedition was to collect Bread Fruit for possible use as a food staple for British colonies in the Caribbean. One of the scientists aboard our cruise commented: “I tasted bread fruit once in Micronesia. I must admit it was one of the foulest tasting foods I’d ever had. Bread fruit is hard, yellow, grainy, and terribly bitter.”

Question of the day

How many people are aboard the ship for the Lion Fish Cruise?

There are 16 crew members aboard the NANCY FOSTER to ensure the ship runs properly and 7 scuba divers who will conduct deep-sea research on Lion Fish. Additionally there are two reporters from the Philadelphia Enquirer who are researching the Gulf Stream. And finally one teacher (that’s me) who plans to create a video documentary about the Lion Fish cruise.