Jessica Cobley: A Busy Return to Home, September 2, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Jessica Cobley

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

July 19 – August 8, 2019

Mission: Midwater Trawl Acoustic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska (Kodiak to Yakutat Bay)

Date: 9/2/2019

Weather Data from Juneau, Alaska:  

Lat: 58.3019° N, Long: 134.4197° W 
Air Temp:  12º C

Personal Log

Phew…finally a day to sit back and take a breath! A few days after getting back from sea, I attended our school district’s inservice and am now 2 weeks into the new school year. It is hard to believe how quickly the summer break goes by!

Back in Juneau, the sunny, warm weather has continued, which has also meant no shortage of adventures. Since getting home, friends and I have hiked the Juneau Ridge, fished in Lynn Canal, and hunted on Admiralty Island. It has been a warm welcome home! A group of us are also training for the upcoming Klondike Running Relay from Skagway, AK to Whitehorse, YT. Needless to day, I was VERY happy to have a treadmill and workout equipment on the boat to keep active while at sea.

Jess' dogs
Our pups at the end of a trail run to the Herbert Glacier in Juneau.
Admiralty Island
Spotting deer at sunset on Admiralty Island.
Jess and fish
Fishing after a night camping on a nearby island. Photo by Max Stanley

On the school side of things, I felt lucky to have some time to spend curriculum planning while at sea. It has helped me have a smooth start to the year and give the new 7th graders a great start. I am definitely looking forward to sharing my Teacher at Sea experience with all my new kiddos.

With the return to school, my relaxing days at sea have been replaced with nonstop action in and out of the classroom. Not only does the school year bring teaching science classes, but also an Artful Teaching continuing education course, coaching our middle school cross country team, and planning events for SouthEast Exchange (SEE). SEE is an organization I am a part of that works to connect local professionals, like those I met at sea, with local teachers. Our goal is to bring more real-world and place-based experiences into our classrooms. Through my involvement with SEE, I met and worked with NOAA scientist Ebett Siddon. Along with collaborating together on a unit about Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management for my 7th graders, she also told me about Teachers at Sea!

With that, I would like to say a HUGE thank you to all of the staff at NOAA who help make this program possible. It was a once in a lifetime experience that has helped me better understand the field I am teaching about. I look forward to using what I have learned about studying fish populations and the unique career opportunities at sea with my students. I know they will appreciate my new expertise and see that there always opportunities to keep learning!

Kodiak Island mural
Last photo taken in Kodiak! Photo by Ruth Drinkwater

Thank you again and please consider applying for this program if you are a teacher reading this. 🙂

Heather O’Connell: Sound in Seawater and Sleeping at Sea, June 8, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Heather O’Connell

NOAA Ship Rainier

June 7 – 21

Mission: Hydrographic Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Seattle, Washington to Southeast, Alaska

Date: 6/8/18

Weather Data from the Bridge: Latitude: 48.15° N, Longitude: 122 ° South 58.0’  West, Visibility: 8 nautical miles, Wind: 24 knots, Temperature: 14.2° C

Science and Technology Log

I was fortunate enough to sit in on a survey orientation for new survey technicians and junior officers with Lieutenant Steven Loy. He was on Rainier as the Field Operations Officer, F.O.O., in the past and is currently here as an augmenter filling the role of Senior Watch Officer since he has navigated through the Inside Passage several times. In his two hour orientation, he shared a wealth of knowledge and discussed how multibeam sonar and ultrasounds are two opposite ends to the ultrasonic pulse spectrum.

Multibeam sonar sends out sound and measures the time it takes to return to calculate the depth of the ocean floor. The accuracy of the depth data generated from the multibeam sonar relies on the sound speed profile of the water. The combined effects of temperature, salinity and pressure generate a sound speed profile. Because of the inherent importance of this profile, there are several different ways to measure it. The sound velocity profiler measures this right at the interface of the multibeam sonar. C.T.D.s., or conductivity temperature and depth machines, measure water profile while the ship is stopped. M.V.P.s, or moving vessel profilers, take the water profile as the vessel is moving. Lastly, XBTs are expendable bathythermographs that measure temperature while the ship is in motion.

Sound is affected by different variables as it is energy that travels through a medium as a wave. Lieutenant Loy shared an informative website, The Discovery of Sound in the Sea, where I was able to enhance my understanding. Sound can travel through a liquid, such as water, a gas like air, or a solid like the sea floor. On average, sound travels about 1500 meters per second in sea water. However, the rate changes at different times of day, various locations, changing seasons and varying depths of the water. By looking at sound speed at one particular place in the ocean, you can determine how the different variables affect this sound. Usually, as depth increases, temperature decreases, while salinity and pressure increase.

A multi-beam sensor has a metal plate receiver and a transmitter perpendicular to one another. This array geometry enhances sound.  The sound velocity profiler is next to the receiver and measures right at the interface. To determine the speed of sound right where the beam is generated, sonar is used to measure speed sound across a known distance. This information is then utilized in the overall determination of the depth of the ocean floor. Once this cast is taken, the Seafloor Information System (SIS), can adjust sonar measurements accordingly.

Another way to measure the sound profile of water includes a C.T. D.  This device measures the conductivity, temperature and depth of the water. Conductivity measures the electrical current of the water. The more dissolved salt, or ions in solution, the greater the conductivity and salinity of the water. The depth of the water is directly related to the pressure of the water. Salinity, temperature and pressure affect the sound speed profile of water. This machine has a high data rate that goes up and down the water column. The titanium C.T.D. operates at a high pressure and costs about forty thousand dollars. This accurate technology can only be utilized when the boat is stopped and is used on the smaller survey launches.

C.T.D. used for sound speed profile of water

C.T.D. used for sound speed profile of water

A third method of measuring sound profile is the M.V.P., moving vessel profiler, which takes the data when the ship is moving. These are calibrated before a survey begins and are an efficient way to collect data. An expansive crane lowers the metal torpedo with the sensor off the fantail, the overhanging back part of the ship, into the water to collect the data. The fish is programmed to stop twenty meters above the ocean floor, at which point it returns to its docked position. On ship Rainier, the deck department deploys the fish with a cable wire and the plot room with the survey technicians controls the sensor.  

Boatswain Kinyon and Survey Technicians Finn and Stedman releasing the torpedo of the M.V.P. into the water

Boatswain Kinyon and Survey Technicians Finn and Stedman releasing the torpedo of the M.V.P. into the water

Another way to collect the sound profile of water with a moving vessel is to use an expendable probe. As temperature decreases, the sound speed decreases. Since temperature is the most important factor affecting the speed of sound, an X.B.T., Expendable Bathythermograph, or expendable probe created by the military. With bathy relating to depth and thermo meaning heat, this measures the temperature of the water at a cost of about one hundred dollars. These probes descend at a known rate, so, depth is a function of time.

Sources – Discovery of Sound in the Sea

Personal Log

We left port yesterday at 16:30, which has been a highlight of my NOAA Teacher at Sea Experience thus far. Before leaving port, all hands were assigned a different assignment to help with the launch. I watched the crew bring in the gangway that connects the ship to the port then disassemble it. The crew with hard hats and orange work vests took down poles and neatly tied up different sections by knotting ropes. We slowly progressed out of the port after a cargo ship passed us.  

The deck crew preparing to leave port

The deck crew preparing to leave port

Once the ship picked up speed and the ocean breeze was in my hair, I felt a new kind of freedom. With the Seattle skyline behind us and the beautiful green peninsulas in front of us, I was content to be moving forward. Everyone seemed to feel relieved once we were underway. I felt gratitude as I enjoyed watching the sunset from the flying bridge, the area of the ship above the bridge at the front of the ship.

Seattle Skyline

Seattle Skyline

After sunset, I returned to my berth, or sleeping quarters, located in the bow of the ship on the C-deck. I heard the constant white noise of the propellers that got much louder when the pitch, or angle, of them changed. This sound of seawater combined with the rocking motion of the ship lulled me to sleep on our first night at sea.



Did You Know?

Juneau, the American capital of Alaska, can only be entered by plane or boat. It is inaccessible by roads due to large mountain ranges on either side.

Robert Ulmer: Perspectives on a Glacier, June 14, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

(En route from Jacksonville, Florida to NOAA Ship Rainier and at port in Juneau, Alaska)

Will be underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

At port in Juneau:  N 58⁰17.895’, W 134⁰24.684’

Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  June 14, 2013

Weather conditions at port:  19.08⁰C, scattered cumulus clouds with little vertical extent against bright blue skies, 43.05% relative humidity, 1017.36 mb of atmospheric pressure, wind speed of 9.5 knots with a heading of 79⁰

Port of Juneau

A panoramic view of the Port of Juneau with a cruise ship beginning its exit of Gastineau Channel

Explorer’s Log:  Mendenhall Glacier

Flying across the North American continent at an altitude of 34,000 feet is an experience somewhere between looking down upon a held globe and walking across the terrain.  Maybe that’s too obvious a sentence for starting this second blog entry, but the fact of that obviousness is the necessary beginning, I think.

Marker on the trail to Mendenhall Glacier with Ensign Steven Wall

As we walked the few miles through Tongass National Forest and across or around several mountains along the West Trail to Mendenhall Glacier, Ensign Steven Wall and I followed piled stone trail markers called cairns.

Crossing the skies above the glaciers of western Canada and eastern Alaska, I was overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of the sights below me.  Stretching from one horizon to the other, mile after seemingly endless mile of nearly blinding albedo from frozen water reflecting the sunlight of the approaching solstice at the nearly-Arctic latitude, interrupted only occasionally by jutting dark crags of towering mountains with just enough warmth or slope to slough the otherwise boundless field of snow, and dotted here and there by impossibly sapphire pools of today’s meltwaters.  Eons of valleys carved by the almost imperceptibly unhurried slog of ice advancing under the magnitude of its own weight.  Cascades of energy waiting, breathing, crawling, leashed only by the chilly bonds of molecular attraction below a certain thermal mark.  But the hiker in me instantly feels a frostbitten ache in the ankles and knees just from peering downward at the tremendous glaciers from the warmth of the airplane cabin, entirely based on the mere consideration of just one day’s walk across the frozen sheet, thousands of frigid footfalls constituting a single-digit of traversed miles, at best.   Truly, the glaciers are awesome when seen from an airplane.

At the toe of Mendenhall Glacier, just before a calving

These ice formations are at the leading face of Mendenhall Glacier as it slowly creeps along and melts into the lake and river below. Even though they seem small, the rocks beneath the ice are more than twenty-five feet high above the water line in this picture! About an hour after I took this photograph, a chunk of ice calved away from the glacier, making an explosive sound that could be heard for miles.

On a globe in my classroom, though, those magnificent glaciers are mere splotches of white and maybe a bit of texture for the fingertips, an entirely different paradigm, to be sure.  Accurate, proportional, and contextually appropriate on a cardboard sphere that must display the major surface features of an entire planet.  Excellent for showing young people comparative and relative size and location in order to launch discussions about geography, tectonics, Earth’s axial tilt, or the water cycle, but not likely to send shivers through the imaginations of the young students whose travels more often are flights of fancy rather than physical treks to distant lands.

The west side of Mendenhall Glacier, viewed from below

This was our first close-up view of Mendenhall Glacier. The “ramp” of ice that you see on the right is more than one hundred feet high.

The point of this comparison?  A study in perspective.

Where a biologist sees a species of tree (or maybe a whole ecosystem), a painter sees verticality or varieties of green, and a carpenter sees a cabinet.  Importantly, all three observers are valid, correct, and good in their perspectives.  Perhaps more importantly, not one of those perspectives has to be deemed wrong just so that the others can be right at the same moment.  Likewise, the globe and the look-down from the airplane both are meaningful in providing totally different perspectives on the same glaciers.

Ice cave at Mendenhall Glacier

Pressure, temperature, and friction work together to carve holes and caves in glaciers, some of which are big enough to walk through… with safety gear, of course!

Therefore, I was overjoyed to hear on my first morning after boarding Rainier a bit of enthusiastic encouragement (and a quick primer on how to use a can of bear spray!) from the ship’s XO, Holly Jablonski, insisting that Ensign Steven Wall and I should spend the day actually exploring Mendenhall Glacier above the Tongass National Forest, just outside the Juneau city limits.  With snacks and drinks in hand, Ensign Wall and I were dropped at the head of the West Trail, where we hiked through a few miles of verdant evergreens and mosses, over and around a few mountains, and up a rock face before arriving at the toe of Mendenhall Glacier.  Abruptly, here in front of me was a rippled wall of ice with folds so large that singular words of description are insufficient to capture their enormity.  What had appeared from miles across the meltwater lake to be small chunks of ice at the face of the glacier now were towers more than 140 feet tall, and yet their backdrop still showed them to be relatively tiny.  In the river below were chunks of floating ice that had fallen forward from the glacier’s leading edge, seemingly just a few feet wide… until I saw kayaks completely dwarfed next to them like flies next to football stadiums.

Kayaks among the calvings in Mendenhall Lake

If you look closely, you’ll see that the black specks on the lake are kayaks, which will give you some idea of the size of the “small” icebergs adrift in the water below Mendenhall Glacier.

Twenty-foot crevasse in Mendenhall Glacier

What appears to be a small crack really is a crevasse more than twenty feet deep, and its small drainage cave continues downward for more than 150 feet to the lake below the glacier.

Indeed, the ice was cold, but the feelings at the front of my thoughts were more about size and power, awe and beauty.  Nothing in my previous education had prepared me for my sudden inability to appreciate the magnitude of the behemoth.  Crawling through caves of ice and walking on the surface of the ice was both spiritually overwhelming, as I joined something so much larger in size and time than any human experience, and also tremendously frightening, as the sound of every creak and every drip striking a floor hundreds of feet below the edges of the hole served as a reminder of my fragility at the hands of such forces.

Next, though, I surprisingly was struck by exactly the opposite of the feeling that I had expected:  Rather than feeling the tremendous difference between the frozen landscape in front of me and the 90-plus Fahrenheit degrees that I left before dawn just one day earlier in Florida, I was moved instead by an overwhelming sense of unity, sort of a bridge between the airplane view and the globe view about glaciers that already had passed through my mind.  I couldn’t escape the connection between this mountainous ice sheet and the swampy lowlands where I live thousands of miles to the southeast, because ultimately it is the existence of this frozen ocean atop the mountains of Alaska (and its neighboring icecap, extending toward the planet’s pole) that leaves the great liquid oceans of Earth at a lower level, thus exposing the small peninsula of Florida that I call home at the far other corner of the continent.  And then I saw everything around me differently:  The flowing ice around the peaks looks very much like the wind-blown sands at the beginnings of beach dunes, the small deltas in the mud from the trickles of meltwater are shaped identically to the much larger region surrounding the Suwannee River as it crashes into the Gulf of Mexico, and the wetland grasses miles below the glacier are nearly twins of the salty marshes near Florida’s Intercoastal waterway.  While very different, also quite the same in many ways.

Delta beneath a rivulet near the toe of Mendenhall Glacier

A delta is formed when running water meets the friction of an obstacle in its path (often a larger body of water) and spills leftward and rightward of its banks, making a triangular shape (like the shape of the Greek letter delta) in the nearby land when seen from above. This tiny delta is at the end of a rivulet at the base of Mendenhall Glacier, but it has the same basic form as larger river deltas all over the world.

As my students and friends hear me say so often, we are the sum of our stories, and every story is interesting if told from a meaningful or exciting perspective.

If I simply had described the past few days of my life as a series of long and uneventful flights followed by a walk among some trees and ice chunks, it wouldn’t have been untrue; it just would have been less interesting.  We all know that the best stories often come from places of familiarity, but spun with unfamiliar points of view.  During the next three weeks, I look forward to hearing and sharing ideas and insights with scientists, mariners, stewards, and technicians aboard Rainier as together we explore the same scenery along the waterways of Alaska, but from our own different perspectives… and then sharing those stories with you here.

Hikers on Mendenhall Glacier

By finding the ice features along the left wall of this picture on other photos in this blog may give you some additional perspective about the tremendous size of Mendenhall Glacier, as here you can see a group of hikers along the edge of a meltwater stream.

In our hurried world of expediency, cell phones, and paved highways, perhaps we too often put on blinders to see our travels from only one frame of reference.  As you walk your own paths, I challenge you – as I again challenge myself – to look at each new thing in several ways before closing any doors of possibility or windows of perspective.  Keep exploring, my friends.

Explorer’s Supplemental Log:  Juneau, Alaska

Tlingit totem pole and wall painting on Village Drive in Juneau

The native Tlingit people carve and paint totem poles and other images to tell stories, record events, and celebrate or worship. Central to their totemic imagery is the great raven, a powerful bird of the local skies. The items in this photograph are at the entry to Village Drive, where many members of the Tlingit Tribe still live just a few blocks from the water in downtown Juneau.

Before my excursion to Mendenhall Glacier, I first was taken to the ship port in Juneau, where NOAA Ship Rainier has been at port for two weeks.  Despite the late hour of my arrival, the sun at this northern latitude so near the beginning of summer remained far above the horizon, and so I decided to explore the local city on foot.

Blooming flowers in Juneau

Many colorful flowers bloom in the warming air in and around Juneau as summer approaches.

Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, is nestled among several evergreen-rich yet white-capped mountains on both banks of the mighty Gastineau Channel, which carries its glacial headwaters eventually to the distant Gulf of Alaska in the North Pacific Ocean.  While Juneau has served as host for my shipmates during their hours of liberty in the past several days, the city traces its history both to the discovery of gold in the nearby mountains and waters and to the native Tlingit people who moved from nearby Auke Bay.  During the past century and a half, those beginnings have laid a strong foundation for commercial ventures in mining, exploration, and government alongside a rich cultural heritage that still is seen in the stories told by the totem poles at the entry to Village Drive.  Further, those roots have since grown as other visitors and new residents have brought their own religions, cultures, and curiosities, resulting in a small and beautiful city of varied flavors and voices, a city whose shopkeepers, fisherman, sailors, citizens, and guests mingle their perspectives into a lovely harmony with those of the soaring eagles, boisterous ravens, playful otters, and hungry gulls.

Juneau movie theater building

Downtown Juneau has many beautiful older buildings, like this one, which houses the movie theater (a favorite evening site for ship crews ashore).

Alaska Senate Chambers

Senators represent their home districts as they debate, negotiate, and legislate in the Alaska Senate Chambers in the state capital city of Juneau.

Russian Orthodox church in Juneau

This is the oldest Russian Orthodox church in North America, constructed in the 1800’s to educate and convert the local Tlingit people.

Did you know?

Like other living things, languages grow, ingesting new ideas and experiences, and then converting them into written or spoken symbols called words.  The study of vocabulary often reveals another important lesson in perspective, as word roots give us clues about how the inventors of those words saw the items and events in their own worldviews.

For example, a glacier is an enormous sheet of ice, but the etymological root of that word is the same root that underlies glass (which looks like ice in its nearly-clear, fragile, appearance of solidity) and glaze (which means to coat or polish a surface so that it appears to be covered in ice, a metaphor that is extended into frosting and icing on cakes).  And in many European countries, you can order a frozen treat by asking for a glacé.  Also, when a frozen chunk of the leading face of a glacier breaks free of the main body of the glacier, the event is called a calving, as the inventor of that term in that context must have seen the many ways that the event is like the birthing of a smaller baby cow from its much larger mother.

(By the way, calved chunks of glaciers that fall into bodies of liquid water don’t sink, but rather they float to become icebergs.  Most substances become denser when they freeze from liquids into solids, but water is unusual.  The buoyancy of water ice – which you’ve experienced on a small scale every time that you see ice cubes floating in a glass of drinking water – is caused by the greater density of liquid water compared to the lesser density of frozen water, as electrochemical forces lock water molecules into a more spread-out lattice during the freezing process than those same molecules experience as they flow more closely around one another in the liquid state.)

NOAA Ship Rainier at port in Juneau

NOAA Ship Rainier at port in Juneau, Alaska

Clare Wagstaff, June 3, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 3, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 1200) 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 12
Wave Height (feet): 3
Sea Water Temp (0C): 8
Air Temp (0C): 10.5

Setting off in the JC-1 skiff for a morning of harbor seal observations.

Setting off for a morning of seal observations.

Science and Technology Log 

This morning Skilled Fisherman (Mills), Dave and I headed out at low tide to explore an area called Big Port Walter. This is located in the next bay over from Little Port Walter where the COBB had docked for the night. Dave had not explored this area before and so he was keen to see if there were any new locations he could record. Sure enough, not long into the ride in the skiff, we came across a rocky reef and a group of harbor seals. Carefully, Mills brought the skiff around to the opposite side of the small island for us to disembark and walk gingerly over the slippery rocks covered with kelp and algae to get a closer look at these beautiful mammals. We were careful to keep a low profile and not make any large silhouettes that could alert them to our presence.

Identifying a Harbor Seal 

The question is, who is watching whom? Seals are mammals and so have hair covering their bodies. The underbelly of the seals pictured appears still wet, but their backs have dried in the sun and so appear more fur like

The question is, who is watching whom? Seals are mammals and so have hair covering their bodies. The underbelly of the seals pictured appears still wet, but their backs have dried in the sun and so appear more fur like

The similarities between the Alaskan Pinniped species can make the initial positive identification of a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) challenging to the untrained eye. In the locations we are studying on this cruise the only seal species likely to be encountered is the harbor seal. However, these seals still have relatives that look very similar to them. Harbor seals, sea otters, California sea lion and Steller (Northern) sea lion are all carnivorous mammals in the suborder Pinnipedia. These animals have developed adaptations for deep diving, swimming, thermoregulation, water conservation and great sensory adaptations and can be easily misjudged in the water for one another.

So how can we tell them apart? Sea lions have external ear flaps (these are absent in seals) and use their long front flippers for propulsion. Otters are generally smaller and spend a large proportion of their time floating on their backs. A seal though does not do this, has shorter front flippers and is not as agile on land. Their appearance reminds me of an over inflated sausage-shaped balloon! Graceful underwater, they struggle and look awkward on land. Dave informed me that both the male and female harbor seals appear the same size and shape, making it difficult to tell them apart. Today I observed a variety of different colors of fur, ranging from nearly all white through to nearly all black. The fur markings also vary. Spots, rings, and blotches are common variations. These colorations and fur patterns of a seal are believed to be quite random. A mother lighter and more spotted in pattern does not guarantee an offspring of the same appearance. To date, I have only observed one pup, although Dave, with his keen eyes and experience, has recorded quite a few. Pups have no obvious markings to identify them by. However, they are smaller and will be generally located next to its larger mother, possibly even suckling. Although seals tend to haul out in large groups for safety, the mothers of particular young pups may be located towards the edge of the crowd.

The disused factory in Large Port Walter.

The disused factory in Large Port Walter.

Further Exploring 

We recorded a total of 17 seals and three possible pups this morning but our exploration didn’t end there! Further down into the bay we came across an old abandoned salting or canning factory probably for Herring, estimated to be from around the 1950’s. Broken down and severely rusting from the extreme elements and the effects of saltwater, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie! Its location here was probably due to the ready supply of fresh water from the impressive waterfalls and fast running stream close by. Its sheltered location probably protected it from the bigger storms and the deep water of the bay would have meant larger ships could have transported goods easily to and from it. 

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, in her survival suit on the beach at Lovers Cove, Big Port Walter.

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, in her survival suit on the beach at Lovers Cove, Big Port Walter.

Personal Log 

Today has been full of highs and lows. Seeing my first group of seals up close was something magical! Although we only observed them for approximately ten minutes, to see them so close and in the wild was amazing. Each seal seemed to have a personality. One scratching its face, another making grunting noises at another seal that appeared to be too close. As Dave and I sat there, it became obvious that a few of the seals were aware of our presence, their heads poking up looking at us. It made me wonder, who was really studying whom?!

Disaster on the COBB! 

Unfortunately, the rest of the COBB’s day was not so successful. Around 17:00 hours the crew heard a loud gratering sound coming from the ship as we were making our way to San Fernando Island. According to CO Chad Cary, a propulsion casualty has left us now anchored near Warren Island (550 54’N 1330 49’W) and the US Coast Guard is in transit to tow us part of the way back to Juneau. Hopefully, there a dive team will be able to assess the damage to the ship. If the damage is minor and easily repairable, then we will resume the mission focusing on last leg of the planned trip, the glacier area. But things aren’t looking too hopeful and we will probably be docked back in Juneau for sometime. Selfishly I don’t want to go home yet. There is so much to see here that three days is not enough! Looks like tomorrow will be a long day. 

Clare Wagstaff, June 2, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 2, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 12
Wave Height (feet): 1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 7
Air Temp (0C): 10.5

Science and Technology Log 

Late last night the JOHN N. COBB reached our anchor site at Tebenkof Bay (56O 23’N 134O 10’W). Situated just off the southern end of Chaptam Straight, the gentle rocking of the boat and the dull drone of the ship’s engine and generator had sent me off to sleep very quickly the night before. Keen to start the day though, and with the early morning sun shining in through my room’s porthole, I got up to a hearty breakfast and made ready to depart the COBB for a day of exploring. Around 06:30 the Chief Bosun (Joe), Dave, and I boarded the small skiff, referred to as the JC-1. The objective was to go visit known seal haulout sites that Dave had visited the year before. At each site the aim was to count the number of harbor seals present focusing particularly on the number of pups.

Equipment Required 

All of us on the JC-1 were dressed in cold weather and rain gear, even though it appeared to be a nice day, rain is always likely around this area! Dave kindly lent me his insulated Mustang survival gear to wear and I was very grateful! For conducting his research, Dave has certain pieces of equipment that he always brings when observing seals. To find the location of a known haulout site or to record the location of a newly discovered one, he has a handheld GPS that can accurately log coordinates. To observe the seals more closely Dave uses a pair of gyro-stabilized binoculars. These are essential as being on the water for most observations means the images produced through these binoculars are much clearer not as wobbly. For safety reasons, he also carries a satellite phone in case of emergencies and an PEPIRB in case of emergencies. A PEPIRB or Personal Epirb is a device that when activated, immediately notifies the US Coast Guard of your exact position by satellite. The data Dave collects is recorded on site in a waterproof notepad and through photographs that he regularly takes of the animals he observes.

An Ideal Site? 

The harbor seals typically haul out at low tide and seem to prefer sunny and warmer periods during the day, roughly between 11:00 and 16:00 hours. Unfortunately today, because of the tide cycle we were venturing out as the tide was gradually rising and much earlier in the day then is optimal to see the seals on land. However, there were a few seals present but their numbers were greatly reduced when compared to last year’s data. Dave did not seem overly concerned though because of the time of day we were making the counts. What was surprising was that certain sites we past looked like ideal locations for the seals to haulout on to. Seals like a variety of substrate (rock or sand), a reef with a steep drop off into the water, wind speed not above 35-40mph and good visibility to be able to see predators. We saw a number of sites that fit this description but there was a distinct lack of seals to be found at them, with no real explanation why. Researchers still have more to learn about seals and hopefully this cruise will add more data to help understand their behavior and choices.

Sea otters around Tebenkof Bay. Note the female in the center of the photograph carrying a baby on her stomach

Sea otters around Tebenkof Bay. The female in the center of the photograph carryies a baby on her stomach

Sea Otters 

One of the most interesting animals we observed today was a large number of sea otters. The otters regularly haul themselves out on to the rocks, like seals do, and seem to frequently be in the same area as the seals. While watching them in the water, a large number of the females were floating or swimming with a youngster on their stomachs! Otters, unlike seals, have little insulation so this technique demonstrated could be a method to protect the young from the elements and keep them safe near the parent. The key to making good observations of any of these wild animals is to approach them slowly and avoiding doing so head on. As we got closer, Jon would switch off the engine so as not to frighten or startle them. Unfortunately, when they do feel threaten, both the sea otters and harbor seals retreat back into the water. This happened on a number of occasions when we got a little too close for their comfort. This obviously makes the observations, identification and assessment of population numbers more challenging.

The entrance to Little Port Walter harbor. The ‘White House’ is where the researchers and seasonal workers live. Photograph courtesy of Dave Withrow.

The entrance to Little Port Walter harbor. The ‘White House’ is where the researchers and seasonal workers live.

Biological Field Station – Little Port Walter 

After approximately two and a half hours of observations we returned back to the COBB. The ship then set course for Little Port Walter, a NOAA Biological Field Station. It is a remote location but manned all year round. “Our nearest neighbors are only six miles away,” comments caretaker, Brad Weinlaeder. Access to this area is via boat or seaplane, so when the COBB docks here with a shipment, possibly four or five times a year, it receives a welcoming reception. Set in a beautiful bay off Chatham Strait, the residents say it gets the most rain anywhere in North America: and it is not hard to believe as a downpour starts as we arrive! The beautiful temperature rainforest around the bay is thanks to the plentiful rainfall it receives each year. But there’s a reason to have a research station in this location, and that reason is salmon. Each year the hatchery on site breeds a variety of fish for release into the wild, the most recent fish to be released where king salmon.

Tagging a Fish 

Brad Weinlaeder showing the incubation trays for the salmon eggs at the Biological Field Station at Little Port Walter.

Brad Weinlaeder showing the incubation trays for the salmon eggs at the Biological Field Station at Little Port Walter.

Although king salmon are not native to this particular section of water (the water is not cold enough), being the biggest and most rare specie of salmon gives them reasons to be studied. The eggs and sperm are collected from trapped king salmon when they reach sexual maturity and return to Little Port Walter, four to five years later. The fertilized eggs, the size of a pearl, are then incubated in early August for nine months until they are released. Unfortunately, that means that we had missed their release by just a few weeks. The process of producing these fish requires a variety of steps including identifying the fish by visual methods and internal tagging. The adipose fin (located between the dorsal and caudal fin) is simply cut off before the captive bred fish is released. Apparently this does not give the fish a survival disadvantage, but is a visual sign that it has been bred in captivity. Each fish released from the hatchery also has a small, stainless steal, identification tag placed in its nose.

When this fish returns to Little Port Walter at sexual maturity, the fish is collected and the tag removed. So small is this tag that that Brad comments, “it’s like trying to find a needle in a hay stack!” Yet this tag gives vital background information about the fish that is then used in selecting the best fish to breed with. Unfortunately removing the tag is fatally invasive. There are other methods for tracking fish that would allow it to survive such as using a small microchip, just like the ones used in identifying cats and dogs today. However, at ten times the price and requiring much more precision to insert it into the fish, is not a practical option on a large scale here. Especially as the fish are caught on their return migration and are already in the last stages of life. Held in giant fresh water tanks, the king salmon matures on a high protein pellet diet that not only they like, but so does the local bear population. It is common practice around Little Port Walter to carry a gun with rubber bullets. A wide shot fired is hopefully just enough to scare them away! This year the hatchery released 214,000 king salmon out into the wild. With an average 3% survival rate, only 1.5% will make it through their four to five year life span to return back to Little Port Walter. Fishermen will catch the other 1.5%.

Other Research 

There is a great deal of other research going on here at Little Port Walter. Currently in progress is the study of rockfish and their preferred habitat substrate in relation to predation. In the past scientists have also studied slug migration and tree ring analysis for the presence of iodine as it relates to fish populations. What makes this marine research station so important is that it has data going back to 1936, when it first opened. Researcher’s come from thousands of miles to compare what they find, to data that is already known and recorded here at Little Port Walter. Pretty fascinating stuff!

View of the hatchery where the salmon are placed when they are approximately 5-6cm long. Here they are fed and fresh water from upstream constantly flows into these holding tanks.

The hatchery where the salmon are when they are approximately 5-6cm long. They are fed and fresh water from upstream constantly flows into the holding tanks.

Personal Log 

Unfortunately, today was the day I experienced by first bout of sea-sickness! I had begun to feel that I had got my ‘sea legs’. But I had spoken too soon! After returning from our morning of observations, the COBB departed for Little Port Walter. In the late morning the ship began to cross Chatham Straight. The COBB was hitting 4-6ft high waves and crossing them at an angle called courtering. This means that the boat was yawing, which is a combination of a pitching motion (see-saw action) and rolling (side to side), basically bobbing around like a cork! As the motion got stronger, my stomach got weaker and I ended up out on the starboard deck trying to look at the horizon and stop feeling ill. Thankfully though the effects wore off quickly as the ship’s ride became smoother. Hopefully the rest of the cruise will be smoother!

Question of the Day for Miss Wagstaff’s Science Class 

Research in the field can be very different to research done in a laboratory at school. From the description written above about today’s seal study, try to think about the ways they differ. Consider such factors as time, variables, data collection etc.

Clare Wagstaff, June 1, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 1, 2008

Weather Data from the Bridge (information taken at 1200) 
Weather: Overcast
Visibility (nautical miles): 10
Wind Speed (knots): 15
Wave Height (feet): 1
Sea Water Temp (0C): 13.4
Air Temp (0C): 11.3

Science and Technology Log 

The first morning on the JOHN N. COBB started early. I am a little apprehensive about the cruise. I have never been on a ship for any great length of time, so this will truly be a test of my sea fairing legs! Today will be a full day of traveling to Tebenkof Bay, situated south of Juneau it is reached by traveling down Stephen’s Passage and through part of Chatham Straight. The COBB travels at maximum of ten knots an hour. The wind, currents, sea conditions, the ship’s hull speed and horsepower can all affect this speed. This means that it will take us approximately 13 hours to reach our destination. My stateroom is located on the main deck and is next to the galley (the kitchen). Here three hearty meals are produced each day for the crew. The ship has three decks, with sleeping quarters spread out over all the levels. The crew generally works in rotation with six hours on, six hours off, to maintain the COBB. This requires all aboard the ship to be considerate of others sleeping at any hour of the day or night. The amenities on the ship are basic but comfortable and include two toilets (called the ‘head’), and a shower. The COBB carries all the water it requires for the entire two weeks cruise, so water conservation is a high priority. No long showers for anyone! On the upper deck is the bridge. It is here that the Commanding Officer (referred to as the CO or Captain) and Executive Officer (XO) control the vessel.

The JOHN N. COBB Crew 

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 8.57.48 PMChad Cary, Commanding Officer (CO) 

Has authority over all embarked personnel and employees whenever aboard ship. Chad has been ‘Captain’ of the JOHN N. COBB for just over two years and is also the Safety Officer, so he has a lot of responsibility. He has a science background with a degree in Environmental Science and a Masters in Geography. Chad states that being away from his home and family is the hardest part of the job, especially as he is about to become a father for the first time very soon!

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 8.57.55 PMJesse Stark, Acting Executive Officer (XO) 

Second in command to the CO and has primarily administrative duties. Jesses has 20 years of experience working on fishing vessels and ferries. He has a degree in Wildlife Management and thinks the one of the best aspects of the job is having the open water as his office.

Screen shot 2013-04-19 at 8.58.01 PMBill Lamoureux, Chief Steward (CS) 

Responsible for provisioning, feeding and berthing of the ship. Bill has worked for many years onboard a variety of vessels, including an Alaskan king crab ship further north. Bill always provides a feast for all those aboard and his homemade soups each lunch are legendary.

wagstaff_log2cMills Dunlop, Skilled Fisherman 

Participates in any required onboard activities necessary to complete the ships mission. Deploying and retrieving of equipment and personnel. This is Mills’ first season aboard the COBB, but he has been raised on the water all his life. With a witty personality, Mills comments that being on the water is both the most enjoyable and worst aspect about being a crewmember!

wagstaff_log2dDave Taylor, Fisherman 

Participates in any required activities necessary to complete the ship’s mission. Dave is in his second season working on the COBB. The biggest advantage to working at sea is his constant access to his favorite past time, fishing! In fact last year Dave caught an 110lb halibut off this ship!

wagstaff_log2eDave Withrow, Chief Scientist  

Shares the response with the Commanding Officer for the success of the mission. Dave has many years experience in research, having a degree in fisheries and psychology, he completed graduate work on Steller sea loins and was also as a killer whale trainer at an aquarium in Washington State. Dave has many fascinating stories about his research adventures: he needs to write a book!

Safety Is the Top Priority! A safety drill is required to take place within the first 24 hours at sea for “Abandon Ship” and “Fire”. Abandon ship is signaled by seven or more short blasts, then one long blast on the ship’s whistle, followed the announcement to abandon ship. The procedure in this instance is to report to your assigned life raft on the bridge deck. You should be wearing long sleeves, gloves and a hat, and bring with you your survival suit. This bright orange suit can protect a crewmember in the cold Alaskan waters for up to three days. In addition to aiding as a floatation device and protection from the cold, its bright orange color and strobe light gives the person wearing it, in the case of an emergency, the ability to survive in the harshest of conditions until rescued.

wagstaff_log2fPersonal Log 

I was initially surprised at how many people it took to operate a vessel such as the COBB. Having seen the ship in action for a few hours now, I can see why they are all needed. Technically there are many aspects to running a ship safely. Jobs include, but are not limited to: navigating the vessel, maintaining the engine room and feeding the hungry crew.

It functions like a small army, with everyone in their place doing their specific job. Each person is necessary for the others to operate and complete their tasks. I do feel a little out of place at the moment, as I am yet to do anything to help the crew or Dave. I am sure over the next few days though that will change. Everyone has been very patient with me repeatedly asking questions about every aspect of the cruise: “How do you know that was a Humpback Whale?” “What is a Fathom?” “Why do you measure distance in nautical miles rather than land miles?” “Which side is port?”

It’s only the first day, yet while standing on the bridge we spot a humpback whale! At some distance off, the crew assured me that that wouldn’t be the best view I would get of one, but I was still very excited! What a truly amazing place and beautiful day!

Question of the Day for Miss Wagstaff’s Science Class  

In science you are constantly asked to provide evidence to support you ideas and conclusion. With is in mind: which job aboard the COBB do you think is the most important? Be able to support you decision.

Clare Wagstaff, May 31, 2008

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Clare Wagstaff
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1-14, 2008

Mission: Harbor seal pupping phenology and critical habitat study
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska – Juneau
Date: May 31, 2008

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, AK

NOAA Teacher At Sea, Clare Wagstaff, at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, AK

Pre-departure (-2 days) 

From door to door, it took me roughly 21 hours to get from Buffalo, NY to Juneau AK, but it was definitely worth it! Flying in from Seattle the view from the air was just breathtaking. Massive mountain rangers visible from the air thousands of feet up looked just like grey and white crumpled up pieces of paper reaching up through the sky. Flying above the clouds, these magnificent mountain formations poked up through the fluffy, white, marshmallow-like skyline below, WOW! Still a little overwhelmed at where I was and having arrived late into Juneau, I headed straight for my hotel to grab a few hours of sleep.

Juneau’s Location 

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and it is situated in part of the panhandle that stretches south and east of the main body of the state. This area is predominately covered by Sitka spruce and Western Hemlock trees that make up the Tongass National Forest. This forest is in turn part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. Juneau is braced on the side of the snow capped Mt. Juneau (3576ft) and Mt. Roberts (3819ft). These mountains make up part of a range of coastal mountains that protect Juneau from the harsher extremes experienced in the Gulf of Alaska. Juneau is a relatively small city, yet during the summer months, huge cruise ships dock daily and consume Juneau, turning it into a major tourist attraction. This is also the only state capital in North America not to be accessible by road. Juneau is located 58O 18’ N latitude, 134O 25’ W longitude, compared to my hometown of Buffalo, NY 420 52’N, 780 55’ W.

Pre-departure (-1 day) 

A juvenile black bear seen while hiking near the Mendenhall Glacier.

A juvenile black bear seen while hiking near the Mendenhall Glacier.

Sunrise was at around 4:00am this morning! Juneau is on AST (Alaskan Standard Time), which is four hours behind Buffalo, which is on EST (Eastern Standard Time). Because I was still disorientated with the time zone changes (four in one day!), 4:00am felt more like 8:00am and time to rise and shine! Juneau will receive just over 18 hours of sunlight each day during this expedition and I’m hoping that will give me a chance to experience as much as I can in the two weeks. Back home in Buffalo the daylight hours will be shorter with just in excess of 15 hours of daylight each day. Today is sunny and bright, unexpected for Juneau. Typically it receives 225 days of rain a year! I am hoping though that I have brought the good weather with me for the trip.

The Scientific Objectives of the Cruise 

The cruise is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its branches: the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Alaskan Fisheries Science Center (AFSC). I will be joining Dave Withrow, Chief Scientist on board the JOHN N. COBB for a cruise based out of Juneau, AK. The objective is to visit known haulout sites of  harbor seals at, or near, low tide base initially around areas off lower Chatham Straight. The return leg of the voyage will focus on haulout sites at three main glacial sites. Similar research cruises have been carried out in previous years to examine the critical habitat for harbor seals, particularly in regards to glacial ice during the pupping season. We will determine which haulout sites are used for pupping, how many pups are born, and the approximate size and age of the pups present. Dave has a wide range of experience in the field, having worked for NOAA since 1976 and he has studied a variety of fish and marine mammals. Dave’s enthusiasm for his research and keenness to pass on his knowledge is contagious and makes me extremely excited to be apart of this expedition.

The JOHN N. COBB docked in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Subport in Juneau.

The JOHN N. COBB docked in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Subport in Juneau.

Local Sightseeing 

Prior to our departure Dave kindly got me acquainted with the local area and took me to the Mendenhall Glacier located just north of Juneau. A tidal glacier, it is retreating and fed by the Juneau icefield that also supports numerous other glaciers around the area. What a surprise! A bear! While Dave and I were hiking around the Mendenhall Glacier a small juvenile black bear appeared within a few feet of us. Apparently oblivious to the humans around it, she happily kept eating the young shoots and sprouting vegetation. A US Forest Service Wilderness Ranger close by explained that this was not an uncommon sighting, especially with so many people around on the viewing platform near the glacier. “The adult bears are cautious of people and the juveniles know this,” said the Ranger. “When humans are around the youngsters know that it is safe to come out and feed.” Bears are easily distinguishable from one another. Bears differ in facial features, along with fur colorations and other marks such as scars. The ranger identified her as a regular to the area: a two and a half year old female, and cinnamon in color. Although she had struggled to survive her first year alone, this season she seemed much healthier. A glacier and bear in one day, not a bad start to my Alaskan experience!


Dwarfed by the massive cruise ships in dock, Dave and I arrived at the JOHN N. COBB in the early afternoon, our home for the next two weeks. The COBB is the oldest and only wooden vessel in NOAA’s fleet of 17 ships. It’s relatively small size of 93 feet long and shallow draft of 12 feet means that this ship can reach areas larger vessels might not. It was built in 1950 and named after John Nathan Cobb (1868 – 1930), the first dean of the University of Washington School of Fisheries. The COBB requires a skilled crew of eight to operate it and can accommodate up to four scientists on board. Each crewmember has a specialized job to maintain the running of the ship and allow Dave and I to undertake the scientific research as efficiently and safely as possible.

wagstaff_log1cInteresting Fact 

Although the metric system is widely used in science today, even being employed by NASA in space, sailing has still retained the mariner traditional system. It uses the following in its measurements: Fathom = depth of water (6 feet to one fathom). Nautical mile = distance over water (1 nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude at the equator, or 6,076.12 feet). Knots = speed (1.6877 feet per second or 0.5144 meters per second). Time is measured using the 24-hour clock, so 2:00am would be 02:00 and 2:00pm would be 14:00.  

Miss Wagstaff’s Science Class Question  

Why does Juneau, AK currently (May 31, 2008) have more daylight hours than Buffalo, NY?