Mark Van Arsdale: Gelatinous Fireworks, September 21, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018


Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 21, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

Partially cloudy skies, variable winds, calm seas to three feet

59.27 N, 143.89 W (Cape Suckling Line)


Science Log

Gelatinous Fireworks


CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.

CTD (water chemistry) data visualized along the Cape Suckling Line.

Last night, we traveled between the Middleton Island line and the Cape Suckling line, providing us with a change in pace from our regular routine of zooplankton and jelly collecting.  Still, it wasn’t a night off, and at midnight, while still in deep waters, we stopped to do a special Multi-net tow. At 800 meters (almost 2500 feet,) this was our deepest tow of the trip.  A tow that deep takes almost two hours to get down to depth and back up again.  This tow was looking for unique organisms for later genetic analysis, and most of the stuff that came up I had previously only seen in movies.  Deep red shrimp, giant copepods almost a centimeter in length, big-eyed lantern fish, comb jellies, and amphipods that looked straight out of the movie Aliens.

Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.

Lanternfish from a deep water (800 m) Multi-net tow.

We had a couple of hours break until we reached the outermost Cape Suckling station, so naturally I slept.  We did our first Methot net jelly tow at five am. We were in deep water, 2500 fathoms (~15000 feet), and far enough off shore that the jellies were abundant.  In fact, as we were putting the net in the water we noticed that there were more jellies than we had previously seen at any sampling station.   After putting the net in, we turned off the ships lights and lay witness to a fireworks show in the water.  So many jellies, and each time one hit the net there was an explosion of blue green light.  Jellies, particularly the glass jellies, are super fragile with long delicate tentacles.  When they hit the net, their tentacles break apart and they release a plume of glowing bioluminescence.  The normal in-water time for this net is twenty minutes, but after seeing such dense concentrations of jellies we decided to pull it early.  As we pulled it out of the water, the net nearly bursting at its seams, we had to attach an extra line and bring the cod end out of the water with the crane.  We measured jellies for a long time, and watched the sky glow red as the sun came up over the rugged peaks of Cape St. Elias and the Bering Glacier.

The Scientists

Yesterday, I talked about the Crew of the Tiglax. Today I thought I would say a bit about the scientists on board.  Excluding myself, there are thirteen scientists on board.  Of those thirteen, ten are women and three are men.  The group includes four graduate students, three research technicians, two wildlife biologists, two primary investigators/professors from UAF, one investigator/professor from the University of Hawaii, and one semi-retired UAF research staff.  Aside from the wildlife biologists and the researcher from the University of Hawaii, they are all physical oceanographers.  Physical oceanographers look at the ocean almost as if it is an equation waiting to be solved.  If you have the right physical drivers, wind and currents may combine nitrates and iron at the surface.  If you have the right nutrients mixed with light near the surface, you get phytoplankton growth.  If you have oxygen and phytoplankton with the right physical conditions to stay near the surface, you can grow and sustain zooplankton. They build ecosystems as if by Lego blocks, each piece critical to the final outcome.

Ask any one of them how they get paid and you will inevitably get the response – it’s complicated.  Most of the salaries are funded through grants in what they describe as “soft money.”  Grants for research are funded by a variety of agencies, in this case, the largest being the National Science Foundation.  Writers of the grants list the number of positions required and the dollar figure attached to those positions.  Once the grant is awarded it gets managed by The University of Alaska accounting department.  For the grad students, these trips are certainly a learning opportunity, and one that a lot of schools could not offer.

Personal Log


The back and forth nature of the way we sample stations is at times dizzying.  We make progress slowly, sample four stations at night, drive back to where you started in the morning, then sample the same four stations during the day.  At sunset, start at the next station down the line.  Much of the conversation aboard revolves around what station we are on and what test is being run.   The acquisition of data is slow, tedious, and deliberate work.

Today we are closer to Canada than we are from the town of Seward where we left. When you are part of a research cruise one hundred miles off shore, you can’t just go home because you’re tired, or because something happens at home, or because you just want a break. If something breaks, you have a spare, or you try to fix it.  If a schedule gets altered because of waves or weather, you just sleep when you can and work later.  There is no phone and no internet, so you can’t call your kids to wish them goodnight.  There is just work, and I have found myself in many ways ill prepared for its single-minded focus.

I have come to realize how much I take for granted the autonomy I have to do or go where I want.  Out here, you have no autonomy.  You go where the boat goes, you eat what and when the chef says, you work when the chief scientist says to work, and you do exactly what they say.  This of course, is driven by the sheer expense of doing research at sea as well as the tremendous travel times it takes to get out this far.

Northern Fulmar, notice it's "tube nose."

Northern Fulmar, notice it’s “tube nose.” photo credit Callie Gesmundo.

Did you know?

Many seabirds have a structure on the tops of their beaks that looks like the air intake on a muscle car.  These birds are known as “tube-nosed” birds and they make up the order Procellariiformes.  The group includes albatross, fulmars, petrals, and shearwaters.   The tube hides two nasal glands that help them concentrate and remove excess salt from their blood.  The glads allow them to drink saltwater without suffering dehydration.


Animals seen today

  • Minke whale
  • Lots of sea birds including puffins, auklets, shearwaters, albatross, fulmars, petrels, and gulls

Britta Culbertson: Hiding Out During Rough Seas, September 6, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Britta Culbertson
Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
September 4-19, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Walley Pollock and Forage Fish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Date: Friday, September 6th, 2013

Weather Data from the Bridge (for Sept 6th at 5:57 PM UTC):
Wind Speed: 42.65 knots
Air Temperature: 11.8 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 81%
Barometric Pressure: 987.4 mb
Latitude:57.67 N          Longitude: 153.87 W

Science and Technology Log

Weather Advsisory

The weather advisory for the Gulf of Alaska and around Kodiak Island (screen shot from NOAA Alaska Region Headquarters)

Spiridon Bay

Spiridon Bay (screenshot from

As you can see from my weather data section, the wind speed this morning was up to 42.65 knots.  We had waves near 18 feet and thus the Oscar Dyson ran for cover and tucked itself in an inlet on the North side of Kodiak Island called Spiridon Bay.  The Oscar Dyson’s location can be viewed in near real-time using NOAA’s Shiptracker website.   The screenshot above was taken from the Shiptracker website when we were hiding from the weather. The weather forecast from NOAA’s Alaska Region Headquarters shows that the winds should diminish over the next few days.  I’m thankful to hear that!


Since the Dyson has been in safe harbor in Spiridon Bay for the last few hours, I have had some time to catch up on some blogging!  Let’s backtrack a few days to Wednesday, September 4th, when the Dyson left Kodiak to begin its journey in the Gulf of Alaska.  We headed out after 1PM to pick up where the last cruise left off in the research grid.  We reached our first station later in the afternoon and began work.  A station is a pre-determined location where we complete two of our surveys (see map below).  The circles on the map represent a station location in the survey grid.  The solid circles are from leg 1 of the cruise that took place in August and the hollow circles represent leg 2 of the cruise, which is the leg on which I am sailing.

The first step once we reach a station is to deploy a Bongo net to collect marine zooplankton and the second step is to begin trawling with an anchovy net to capture small, pelagic juvenile pollock and forage fishes that are part of the main study for this cruise. Pelagic fish live near the surface of the water or in the water column, but not near the bottom or close to the shore.  Zooplankton are “animal plankton”.  The generic definition of plankton is: small, floating or somewhat motile (able to move on their own) organisms that live in a body of water. Some zooplankton are the larval (beginning) stages of crabs, worms, or shellfish.  Other types of zooplankton stay in the planktonic stage for the entirety of their lives. In other words, they don’t “grow up” to become something like a shrimp or crab.

Station Map

Station map for leg 1 and leg 2 of the juvenile pollock survey. I am on leg 2 of the survey, which is represented with hollow circles on the map.

Before we reached the first station, we conducted a few safety drills.  The first was a fire drill and the second was an abandon ship drill.  The purpose of these drills is to make sure we understand where to go (muster) in case of an emergency.   For the abandon ship drill, we had to grab our survival suits and life preservers and muster on the back deck.  The life rafts are stored one deck above and would be lowered to the fantail (rear deck of the ship) in the event of an actual emergency.  After the drill I had to test out my survival suit to make sure I knew how to put it on correctly.

Life Jacket

Britta Mustering for Abandon Ship Drill on Oscar Dyson

survival suit

Britta models a survival suit – they even found a size SMALL for me!

On the way to our first station, we traveled through Whale Pass next to Whale Island, which lies off of the northern end of Kodiak Island.  While passing through this area, we saw a total of 4 whales spouting and so many sea otters, I lost track after I counted 20.  Unfortunately, none of my pictures really captured the moment.  The boat was moving too fast to get the sea otters before they flipped over or were out of sight.

Whale Island

A nautical chart map for Whale Island and Whale Passage

Personal Log

secure for sea!

Last night’s warning about high seas in the early morning of September 6th.

A lot of people have emailed to ask me if I have been getting seasick.  So far, things haven’t been that bad, but I figured out that I feel pretty fine when I’m working and moving about the ship.  However, when I sit and type at a computer and focus my attention on the screen that seems to be when the seasickness hits. For the most part, getting some fresh air and eating dried ginger has saved me from getting sick and fortunately, I knew about the threat of high winds last night, so I made sure to take some seasickness medication before going to bed.  After what we experienced this morning, I am sure glad I took some medication.

Everyone on board seems very friendly and always asks how I am doing.  It has been a real pleasure to meet the engineers, fisherman, NOAA Corps officers, scientists, and all others aboard the ship.  Since we have to work with the crew to get our research done, it’s wonderful to have a positive relationship with the various crew members.  Plus, I’m learning a lot about what kinds of careers one can have aboard a ship, in addition to being a scientist.

So far, I’ve worked two 12-hour shifts and even though I’m pretty tired after my long travel day and the adjustment from the Eastern Time Zone to the Alaskan Time Zone (a four hour difference), I’m having a great time!  I really enjoy getting my hands dirty (or fishy) and processing the fish that we bring in from the trawl net.  Processing the haul involves identifying, sorting, counting, measuring the length, and freezing some of the catch.  The catch is mainly composed of different types of fish like pollock and eulachon, but sometimes there are squid, shrimp, and jellyfish as well.

One of the hardest parts of the trip so far is getting used to starting work at noon and working until midnight.  We have predetermined lunch and dinner times, 11:30 AM and 5:00 PM respectively, so I basically eat lunch for breakfast and dinner for lunch and then I snack a little before I go to bed after my shift ends at midnight.  As the days go by, I’m sure I’ll get more used to the schedule.

Did You Know?

During one of our trawls, we found a lanternfish.  Lanternfish have rows of photophores along the length of their bodies.  Photophores produce bioluminescence and are used for signaling in deep, dark waters.  The fish can control the amount of light that the photophores produce.  Lanternfish belong to the Family Myctophidae and are “one of the most abundant and diverse of all oceanic fish families” (NOAA Ocean Explorer).


Lanternfish caught during a trawl. Note the dots along the bottom of the fish, these are photophores that emit bioluminescence.

Photo of bioluminescing lanternfish (Photo Credit: BBC Animal Facts