Cara Nelson: Little Creatures that Rule the World, September 23, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sheltering in Kodiak harbor again

Date: September 23, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 13:30
Latitude: 57º47.214’ N
Longitude: 152º24.150’ E
Wind: Northwest 8 knots
Air Temperature: 11ºC (51ºF)
Air Pressure: 993 millibars
Overcast, light rain


Science and Technology Log

As we near the end of our trip, I want to focus on a topic that it is the heart of the LTER study: zooplankton.  Zooplankton are probably the most underappreciated part of the ocean, always taking second stage to the conspicuous vertebrates that capture people’s attention.  I would argue however, that these animals deserve our highest recognition. These small ocean drifters many of which take part in the world’s largest animal migration each day. This migration is a vertical migration from the ocean depths, where they spend their days in the darkness avoiding predators, to the surface at night, where they feed on phytoplankton (plant plankton). Among the zooplankton, the humble copepod, the “oar-footed,” “insect of the sea,” makes up 80% of the animal mass in the water column.  These copepods act as a conduit of energy in the food chain, from primary producers all the way up to the seabirds and marine mammals.

copepod
A copepod. Photo credit: Russ Hopcroft.

Aboard the R/V Tiglax, zooplankton and copepods are collected in a variety of manners.  During the day, a CalVet plankton net is used to collect plankton in the top 100 meters of the water column.  

CalVet
Russ prepares the CalVet for deployment.

On the night shift, we alternated between a Bongo net and a Multinet depending on our sampling location.  The Bongo net is lowered to 200 meters of depth (or 5 meters above the bottom depending on depth) and is towed back to the surface at a constant rate.  This allows us to capture the vertical migrators during the night.  How do we know where it is in the water column and its flow rate you may ask?  Each net is attached to the winch via a smart cable.  This cable communicates with the onboard computer and allows the scientists to monitor the tow in real time from the lab. 

bongo net
The Bongo net coming back aboard. Note the smart cable attached to the winch that communicates with the computer. Grabbing the Bongo can be tricky in high seas as we learned on this trip!

The Multinet is a much higher tech piece of equipment.  It contains five different nets each with a cod end.  It too is dropped to the same depth as the Bongo, however each net is fired open and closed from the computer at specific depths to allow for a snapshot of the community at different vertical depths.

multinet
The Multinet about to be deployed during our night shift.

Copepod research is the focus of the two chief scientists, Russ Hopcroft and Jennifer Questel aboard R/V Tiglax.  Much of the research must occur back in the laboratories of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For example, Jenn’s research focuses on analyzing the biodiversity of copepods in the NGA at the molecular level, using DNA barcoding to identify species and assess population genetics.  A DNA barcode is analogous to a barcode you would find on merchandise like a box of cereal.  The DNA barcode can be read and this gives a species level identification of the zooplankton.  This methodology provides a better resolution of the diversity of planktonic communities because there are many cryptic species (morphologically identical) and early life stages that lack characteristics for positive identification.  Her samples collected onboard are carefully stored in ethanol and frozen for transport back to her lab.  Her winter will involve countless hours of DNA extraction, sequencing and analysis of the data.

One aspect of the LTER study that Russ is exploring is how successful certain copepod species are at finding and storing food.  Neocalanus copepods, a dominate species in our collections, are arthropods that have a life cycle similar to insects.  They have two major life forms, they start as a nauplius, or larval stage, and then metamorphisize into the copepodite form, in which they take on the more familiar arthropod appearance as they transition to adulthood.  Neocalanus then spends the spring and summer in the NGA feasting on the rich phytoplankton blooms. They accumulate fat stores, similar to our Alaska grizzlies.   In June, these lipid-rich animals will settle down into the deep dark depths of the ocean, presumably where there is less turbulence and predation.  The males die shortly after mating, but the females will overwinter in a state called diapause, similar to hibernation.  The females do not feed during this period of diapause and thus must have stock-piled enough lipids to not only survive the next six months, but also for the critical next step of egg production.  Egg production begins in December to January and after egg release, these females – like salmon – will die as the cycle begins again. 

Part of Russ’s assessment of the Neocalanus is to photograph them in the lab aboard the ship as they are collected.  The size of the lipid sac is measured relative to their body size and recorded.  If females do not store enough lipids, then the population could be dramatically altered the following season. These organisms that are live sorted on the ship will then be further studied back in the laboratory using another type of molecular analysis to look at their gene expression to understand if they are food-stressed as they come out of diapause.

Russ Hopcroft at microscope
I watch in awe as Russ is able to manipulate and photograph copepods under a microscope amid the rocking ship.
Neocalanus
Two Neocalanus with their lipid sacs visible down the center of the body. Note the difference in the size of the lipid storage between the two.

Back in the UAF laboratory, countless hours must be spent on a microscope by technicians and students analyzing the samples collected onboard.  To give an idea of the scope of this work, it takes approximately 4 hours to process one sample.  A typical cruise generates 250 samples for morphological analysis to community description, which includes abundance, biomass, life stage, gender, size and body weight information.  There are three cruises in a season, and thus the work extends well into the spring. To save time, computers are also used to analyze a subset of the samples which are then checked by a technician.  However, at this stage, the computer output does not yet meet the accuracy of a human technician. All of these approaches serve to better understand the health of the zooplankton community in the NGA. Knowing how much zooplankton there is, who is there and how fatty they are, will tell us both the quantity and quality of food available to the fish, seabirds and marine mammals that prey upon them.  Significant changes both inter-annually and long-term of zooplankton community composition and abundance could have transformative effects through the food chain.  This research provides critical baseline data as stressors, such as a changing climate, continue to impact the NGA ecosystem.


Personal Log

After sheltering in Kodiak harbor overnight Friday, we once again were able to head back out during a break in the weather.  We departed Kodiak in blue skies and brisk winds on Saturday. 

sunset
Sunset over Marmot Island at the start of the Kodiak line on what would end up being our last night of sampling.

We made it to the start of the Kodiak line by sundown and began our night of sampling with the goal of getting through six stations.  The swells left over from the last gale were quite challenging, with safety a top priority this evening.  Waves were crashing over the top rale as we worked and the boat pitched side to side.  Walking the corridor from the stern to the bow required precise timing, lest you get soaked by a breaking wave, as poor Heidi did at least three times.

Despite having to pull the Methot early on one station and skip it all together on another due to the rough seas, we had an amazingly efficient and successful evening.  Our team was amazing to work with and Dan captured one last photo of us as we wrapped up our shift at 6am.

night shift group photo
The night shift “A Team”: Emily, Jenn, Jen, Cara and Heidi.

The day crew worked fast and furious on the return to station one as once again, another gale was forecast.  This gale was the worst yet, dipping down to 956 millibars in pressure with the word STORM written across the forecast screen for the entire Gulf of Alaska.  Luckily we were able to make it back into Kodiak harbor by Sunday evening just as winds and waves began to build.  After riding out the storm overnight we are still waiting for the 4pm forecast to reassess our final days two days.  The crew grows weary of sitting idle as the precious window for sampling closes.  Stay tuned for a follow up blog as I return to solid ground on Wednesday! 


Did You Know?

Copepods are the most biologically diverse zooplankton and even outnumber the biodiversity of terrestrial insects!

Cara Nelson: Chemistry on the High Seas, September 19, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 19, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 18:30
Latitude: 59º53.587’ N
Longitude: 149º33.398’ E
Wind: South 15 knots
Air Temperature: 15.5ºC (60ºF)
Air Pressure: 998 millibars
Partly cloudy skies


Science and Technology Log

A major component of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project is the collection and analysis of physical parameters in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how these abiotic (non-living) factors interact with and impact the biological community.  A variety of physical oceanographic research is occurring during the day shift on R/V Tiglax, one of which includes looking at metals in the ocean water. 

Mette Kaufmann is the onboard research professional working on the collection of trace metals from the surface water.  Specifically, Mette is working to sample and process iron species for Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas who is the principal investigator for iron biogeochemistry on the LTER study.  One might ask, why is there such a focus or interest in iron in the surface ocean water?  In the past few decades it has become evident through research that iron is major player in the productivity of the ocean ecosystem.  Prior to this, nitrogen was assumed to be the most important nutrient and limiting factor in phytoplankton growth and production.  It is now known that iron influx from surface and atmospheric sources is the major limiting factor in our coastal and offshore ecosystems. 

Glacier runoff from the Kenai peninsula and the Copper River plume carry this iron into the ocean and allow for a rich spring bloom of phytoplankton over the continental shelf.  Sampling the iron levels at different locations helps paint a picture as to the overall availability, transport and use of iron in the NGA.  For example, one question the researchers are examining is, do fall storms bring up iron to the surface from deeper water?  Additionally, copper samples are being collected for analysis on this cruise, as a factor that can potentially suppress photosynthesis at higher levels.  

As I mentioned in my second blog, there is a tool for every job and for iron sampling, it is the “iron fish.”  The iron fish looks a bit like a rusty torpedo being dragged next to the boat with a simple plastic hose attached to it.  However, looks can be deceiving, as this piece of equipment is quite high tech.

iron fish
The iron fish weight resting on the zodiac.

The actual sampling piece of the iron fish is the white tubing that can be seen in the picture below.  The tip of the tubing has a red cap and is attached to the weight.  This tubing is treated with acid and has an inner lining of Teflon to assure for a “clean” catch of metals.

iron fish tubing coil
The iron fish tubing coiled up with the red-capped collection tip attached to the weight.

As we transit between stations the iron fish is towed at 1-3 meters of depth off the starboard side of the boat.  The pump, which runs off of the boats air supply, send the water through the tubing and into the “van” on the mid deck.  This van is a small connex that is used for trace metal processing.  Inside the van, the water samples are processed through a 0.4-micron filter to remove any particulates and then stored in acid for analysis back in the metals laboratory at UAF. 

The iron fish being towed while underway and sending samples into the van on the deck.
Annie Kandell
Annie Kandell, a graduate student under Dr. Aguilar-Islas, works to process the water samples in the van clean room to avoid contamination.


Personal Log

As we started our shift on Tuesday evening heading into Wednesday morning, we knew a gale was approaching.  We wanted to squeeze in as many sampling stations as we could before the weather chased us away.  It was challenging to manage both the Methot and Multinet in the high seas and building wind, but also a lot of fun.  We were handling the waves crashing over the back deck and rushing across us as we sampled and measured and getting really good at pouring off the cod-ends with the rise and fall of the boat in the swell.  Unfortunately, by our third station of five, the wind and waves were putting such a strain on the winch that the Multinet couldn’t get an accurate reading or sample.  The winch began to not respond and the decision was made to call it for the night, even though it was only 2:30am.  We strapped things down and proceeded to make a run for shelter back in Resurrection Bay. 

I awoke on Wednesday at around 11am expecting it to be raining sideways and blowing still, but was surprised again by partly cloudy skies and a much calmer sea state.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear that we were going to take the afternoon for an excursion to Bear Glacier.  We all donned our mustang coats and took three groups in the zodiac to head to shore.  We were diverted due to rough breakers to a separate beach away from the glacier but all of us were happy to be ashore. 

group photo
The night shift and part of the day shift preparing to go ashore.

We had about 4 hours to hike around and explore the shoreline.  One of the drawbacks of the beauty of the amazing rocky shoreline along the Gulf of Alaska is that it is littered with human trash.  The trash entering from around the Pacific circulates through the ocean driven by the currents.  Some of the water gets caught up in the counterclockwise gyre of the Gulf of Alaska current and then gets deposited on land by the storms.  Just a few steps onto the shore and plastic water bottles are visible everywhere. What is less visible is the plastics that are broken up into small pieces or micro-plastics that then invade the entire water column.  These plastics get ingested by marine organisms, such as seabirds, and can cause death from starvation, as their stomachs are clogged with debris.  It makes you appreciate our impact on the oceans and the dire need for a shift in our plastic use and disposal.

plastic on beach
Can you spot the 6 plastic bottles just in this one picture?

Aside from the trash, the beach held other treasures and the walk in the fresh air and sunshine was greatly appreciated.

Mermaid's purse
An empty egg case for a Skate, also known as a Mermaid’s Purse.
algae on shore
Beautiful colors of red, green and brown algae decorate the rocky shore.

I did have an interesting case of what the seasoned crew calls “dock rock.”  This is when you are used to the motion of the sea and everything on land seems to be moving like the ocean.  It didn’t make me land sick but it did throw me off a bit.  I wonder how long I will sway when I return!

R/V Tiglax
A view of our current home, R/V Tiglax from the shore.

We boarded the ship in time for another fabulous dinner and prepared to head back out to the Seward line for another night of sampling.


Did You Know?

Dr. Thomas C. Royer is a physical oceanographer who was the first to begin water sampling along the GAK (Seward) line almost 40 years ago.  His research led to the discovery of significant coast currents in the Northern Gulf of Alaska that are driven by freshwater input.  It was this knowledge of coastal currents that assisted with the prediction of oil spill trajectories during the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  His groundbreaking work was the start of the Long Term Ecological Research study that I am assisting with today!

Cara Nelson: Report from the Flying Bridge, September 16, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling along the Seward line.

Date: September 16, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º36.465’
Longitude: 149º14.346’
Wind: North 12 knots
Air Temperature: 16ºC (61ºF)
Air Pressure: 1001 millibars
Clear skies


Science and Technology Log

The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) study focuses on ecosystem dynamics in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and how the complex processes of abiotic factors, such as ocean salinity, temperature, currents, and trace metals influence primary productivity of phytoplankton.  The project examines how efficiently this energy is transferred, in turn, to higher trophic levels, from zooplankton to vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals. 

Over the past twenty years, seabird and marine mammal observations have been an important component of the LTER study. Approximately 50 species of birds inhabit the NGA either year-round or seasonally, with a variety of foraging behaviors and diets. Through the LTER, we can learn about how physical and biological oceanographic processes influence the distribution and abundance of higher trophic levels, such as seabirds.

Dr. Kathy Kuletz with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the lead scientist for the seabird part of the research program. Dan Cushing is the seabird and marine mammal observer aboard R/V Tiglax.  He holds a master’s degree in wildlife science and has a wealth of experience in birding both on and offshore.  This fall cruise marks Dan’s eleventh cruise observing in the NGA.  Whenever the R/V Tiglax is underway, Dan can be found on the flying bridge collecting data. 

flying bridge
The flying bridge (named for its bird’s eye view) is an open viewing area atop the wheel-house of R/V Tiglax accessed by a ladder.

Observations are made using a protocol established through the USFWS.  Dan records survey data using a computer on the flying bridge that records both time and GPS coordinates of each bird or mammal sighting. 

Dan on flying bridge
Dan actively observing on the flying bridge.
estimating distance
A chopstick with markings on it helps Dan estimate bird distance. Dan made this simple distance measuring tool using high-school trigonometry. When the top of the stick is placed on the horizon, the markings along the stick correspond to distances from the boat.
observing laptop
Dan is able to quickly document the species seen, abundance and any special notes using the computer program.

It is immediately clear that bird sightings along the LTER follow a pattern.  Inshore, diving bird species are common, such as common murres, puffins and cormorants.  Pelagic bird species inhabiting deeper waters are mostly surface-feeders, and rely on processes such as fronts and upwellings at the shelf break to concentrate prey at the surface where feeding occurs.  Albatross, shearwaters and storm-petrels are abundant as we head further out on our sampling lines.  

birds on the dock
Pelagic cormorants and black-legged kittiwakes sit on the dock in Seward prior to our departure.
black-footed albatross
A black-footed albatross. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

Dan’s experience on the LTER study is helpful in that he can comment on both changes he sees from the spring, summer and fall cruises but also over the past several years.  For example, in winter 2015-16, a large die-off event of common murres was observed in Alaska following an extreme warming event called “the blob” in the North Pacific.  The murre die off was due to starvation from lack of forage fish availability.  A question of the LTER study is how is the ocean chemistry, primary production, and zooplankton abundance tied to events such as this. Today, the murre numbers have not completely rebounded in the NGA and other species, such as the short-tailed shearwater are beginning to experience die-offs in the Bristol Bay area.   In addition to shifts in bird populations, fish that frequent warmer waters, have been observed in the NGA, such as the ocean sunfish.  Dan spotted one on this trip along our Middleton line swimming at the surface near a flock of albatross. 

The fall survey is occurring when birds are preparing for harsh winter conditions or long migrations.  We have spotted a few birds already changing to a winter plumage, which can make identification that much more challenging.  As the strong September storms hit us, it is amazing to watch the birds handle the strong winds and driving rain.  Last night as we worked on our nightly plankton tow a gale blew up around us.  The winds picked up to 30 knots and the seas began to build to 10 feet, and the aptly named storm-petrels kept us entertained.  At one point, we turned around and one had accidently gotten to close and seemingly stunned itself by hitting the back deck.  We watched as it shook off the confusion and again took flight into the storm. 

fork-tailed storm petrel
A fork-tailed storm petrel. Photo credit: Dan Cushing

One of the exciting things about Dan’s job and my time observing with him was the sightings of rare and endangered species.  Just off of Cape Cleare, as I sat on the flying bridge with Dan, I heard him exclaim, “no way!” as he grabbed his camera for some shots.  After a few quiet moments, he shared that he had officially has his first sighting a Manx shearwater.  The Manx shearwater has a primary range in the Atlantic Ocean, with rare but regular (1-2 per year) sightings in the NGA.  There currently are no confirmed breeding locations identified in the Pacific Ocean. Every new sighting adds to our limited understanding of this small and mysterious population. Another exciting observation, although more frequent for Dan, was the short-tailed albatross.  This beautiful bird, with its bubble-gum pink bill, is currently critically endangered, with a global population of only about 4000.  The good news is that the population is currently rebounding from extremely low numbers. 

short-tailed albatross
A short-tailed albatross. Picture credit: Dan Cushing

Dan has not only done an amazing job as an observer but also as a teacher.  He has helped me identify the birds as we see them and given me tips on how to hone in on particular species.  In addition to this, he has supplied me with amazing facts about so many of the species, I am in awe of his knowledge, patience and his skill as a seabird and mammal observer.

Cara observing
I am getting better at identifying northern fulmars on a beautiful evening on the flying bridge.


Personal Log

One of the biggest questions I had (as well as my students) prior to my trip, was how would I handle sea sickness.  I must say for a person who used to get sea sick snorkeling, I am thrilled to announce that I am sea sickness free.  After riding through three strong gales with 12+ seas and 35-40 knot winds without any major problems, I think I’m in the clear.  I owe a lot of it to consistent Bonine consumption!

Additionally, I would say I officially have my sea legs on. I have gotten really good at working, walking, eating, typing, and my brushing my teeth in high seas as the boat tosses about.  One of my favorite phrases is when Captain John says, “the seas are going to get a bit snappy.” I asked him what he meant by this and he explained that snappy means the waves are sharp and about 8-12 feet in height in contrast to the swells.  They hit the ship with a snap that causes it to vibrate, rather than just allowing it to slowly roll over them. 

A last thing that has surprised me on this trip so far is the warm weather.  I am typically always cold and was worried about how I would manage working outside on the nightshift in the elements.  The weather, despite intermittent storms has remained surprisingly warm and with our mustang suits and rain gear, we have remained mostly dry.  Almost daily we have had the pleasure of a beautiful ocean sunset, a full moon rising and stars over our heads.  Now we are just crossing our fingers for some northern lights to grace our presence.

sunset
Another sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!


Animals Seen from the Flying Bridge

Mammals:

Fin whale
Humpback whale
Dall’s porpoise
Harbor porpoise
Stellar sea lion
Harbor seal
Sea otter

Birds:

Greater scaup
White-winged scoter
Sandhill crane
Red-necked phalarope
Red phalarope
South polar skua
Pomarine jaeger
Parasitic jaeger
Commone murre
Thick-billed murre
Pigeon guillemot
Marbled murrelet
Ancient murrelet
Parakeet auklet
Horned puffin
Tufted puffin
Black-legged kittiwake
Mew gull
Herring gull
Glaucous-winged gull
Arctic tern
Pacific loon
Common loon
Laysan albatross
Black-footed albatross
Short-tailed albatross
Fork-tailed storm-petrel
Northern fulmar
Buller’s shearwater
Short-tailed shearwater
Sooty shearwater
Flesh-footed shearwater
Manx shearwater
Red-footed booby
Double-crested cormorant
Red-faced cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Great blue heron
Northern harrier
Bald eagle
Merlin

Cara Nelson: Methot Madness, September 14, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 14, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 16:10
Latitude: 59º19.670’
Longitude: 146º07.196’
Wind: East 5 knots
Air Temperature: 14.5ºC (58ºF)
Air Pressure: 1010 millibars
Clear skies

Science and Technology Log

A Methot net is not your typical plankton net.  This large net hooks to a stainless-steel frame and has a mesh size of 3mm.  Its purpose: large jellyfish collection!  The Methot is unique not only for its size but also in its method of deployment.  The net must be craned off the starboard (right side) of the ship and submerged just under the water.  It is then towed for 20 minutes at the surface. Similar to the smaller plankton nets, there is a “cod-end” bucket that helps collect the jellies as the water filters out of the net. 

Methot net setup
Heidi working to tighten the shackles on one setup for the Methot net.
Methot net setup
Emily helps place the flow meter on the net prior to deployment to measure water flow for quantifying the abundance of organisms caught.

The setup of the Methot is tricky.  The frame that we are using was fabricated locally for these nets so there isn’t a manual for setup and a lot if trial and error is involved in the setup process.  This entails a lot of wrenching on shackles to connect the net to the frame, trying out a setup and then trying again once it is in place and we can watch the positioning and motion of the net in the water.  Fortunately, we have an amazingly positive team so we were able to meet each challenge and come up with a solution.  Our fourth time in resetting the net seems to be the charm.

lowering Methot net
The Methot being craned into the water.
Methot fully extended
The Methot looks like a giant wind sock when it is fully extended in tow next to the ship.

Heidi Islas is our onboard jellyfish guru.  I have never met anyone who loves jellyfish more than Heidi, and this passion and enthusiasm translates directly toward her commitment to her research.  She is currently working on her master’s degree at UAF with Russ Hopcroft as her advisor.  Her specific research thesis is, “the abundance and distribution of gelatinous zooplankton in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).”  Currently there is no baseline data on the type and biomass of the large jellies in the NGA so Heidi’s work is so important in helping identify not only what is present but how these jellies may be playing a role in this ecosystem particularly as predators on small fish. 

Heidi and codend
Heidi is about to open the cod-end where the jellies are trapped at the end of the net. A few of our samples were so full the jellies were up into the net and we needed the assistance of the crane to lift it back onboard.
jelly collection
One of our first collections had only a few but a nice variety of jellies: 2 Lion’s Mane, 1 albino Lion’s Mane, 1 Sea Nettle and 1 Crystal jelly.

Our typical sampling includes running either a Bongo net or Multinet off the stern (back) of the boat to collect zooplankton, and then immediately following we lower the Methot net for its 20-minute tow.  One of the deckhands, either Dave or Jen, run the crane for us, while the four of us help move and position the net into and out of the water.  At the end of the tow, we hose down the net and then open the cod-end to see what we have collected.  Our first few tows had only a few jellies but a little more variety.  Last night however, as we moved into deeper water south of Middleton island, we had a large number of jellies to process.  We assist Heidi in measuring the diameter of bells of the jellies, as well as collecting volume and mass measurements.  We then preserve any zooplankton and fish we collect for analysis by fisheries scientists back in the lab. 

measuring jellies
Emily assists Heidi in measuring and massing the jellies.
Heidi and Cara and jelly
Even though it is 3am, Heidi and I are pretty excited about our sample of Crystal jellies.

Many people might ask, why should we care about the jellyfish?  It all comes back to the food web connectivity.  For example, it is known that jellies will feed on smaller zooplankton, such as copepods and euphausiids (krill), but also on fish larvae, such as pollock.  The commercial pollock fishery is very interested in identifying any factor that may impact the adult pollock numbers.  Additionally, very little is known about what else the jellies are eating, or in what quantity.  So many questions arise about how these jellies might be impacted food availability for other species as well as serving as a food source themselves. 

Russ and worm
Russ examines a polychaete worm that was part of our sample.

Another very interesting piece of research for Heidi apart from her thesis focus is how are jellies responding to climate change.  A current hypothesis was that jellies increase in number during warming events, suggesting that they may become more abundant as our climate changes with even greater impact other species.  In her research on this topic, Heidi came across a paper published in 2013 that challenges this hypothesis.  It demonstrated that jellyfish actually follow a natural cycle of growth and decline with a peak in abundance every 19 years.  Heidi decided to analyze data that NOAA Fisheries had collected over a 38-year period from bottom trawls in the NGA.  She too saw the same cycle emerge.  Although this is exciting data, it leads to many more questions for her to explore. Such as what is driving this cyclic pattern?

giant sea nettle jelly
Emily holds a giant Sea Nettle that actually got trapped in our Bongo net. We measured it before sending it back to sea.

In both the scientific and non-scientific world it is easy to see a correlation of cause and effect and jump to a conclusion.  What I am realizing from the research going on aboard R/V Tiglax is that numerous variables must be considered before true causes can be determined from the data.  This is why collaboration in research is so important.   Physical, chemical and biological oceanographers along with fisheries biologists must work together to gain more holistic view of this NGA ecosystem to help unravel its secrets. 


Personal Log

Fortitude is my word for the past few days.  I have learned so much on this trip so far, including two important pieces of information about myself.  One is that my body does not like to work nights.  The days are blurring together for me as I adjust to my shift work.  I can say that it is definitely not an easy transition because the transition requires more than just adjusting sleep times, but also eating patterns as well.  On Friday night, due to the nature of our stations, we were not able to start our shift work until 1am.  By 5:30 in the morning as we began our last sample, I literally fell asleep on the rales of the ship waiting for our Bongo net to surface.  I think in another day or two, I will have it figured out.

A second piece of information I learned about myself, I am allergic to the scopolamine patch!  Early on Friday, I realized I was developing a rash, which soon spread.  The itching was becoming a problem and so I immediately discontinued an antibiotic I was taking thinking it was the culprit.  After the rash worsened, I then realized it was likely the patch.  After speaking with Captain John, he confirmed that this is a nasty side effect for some people.  I removed the patch Saturday and transitioned back to my usual medicine for motion sickness prevention: Bonine. Unfortunately, 24 hours later, the rash and itching persists.  Russ and John joke that they will be taping my fingers soon, so I better behave. 

After the first storm passed we were lucky enough to have several days of beautiful and surprisingly warm weather as we started along the Middleton line.  I was able to spend time on the fly bridge with Dan birding and mammal monitoring.  I will definitely highlight more on this in a later blog.  From Friday to Saturday I was fortunate enough to watch both amazing sunsets and sunrises as well as enjoy the beauty of the full moon. 

sunset
Sunset over the Northern Gulf of Alaska!

Another storm is forecast to be upon us by late Sunday evening, so our plan is to finish the Middleton line tonight and be in transit to GAK1 (just outside of Resurrection Bay) overnight.  Currently it is calling for East 40 knot winds and 11-13 foot seas.  It should be a fun ride.


Did You Know?

The jellies we are sampling all started out in the benthic (bottom) habitat in what is known as a polyp stage of their life cycle.  These polyps are attached to the bottom and will asexually bud off into the water column.  At this point, the jellies are only approximately a half of a centimeter in size.  It is estimated that it takes approximately a year for the jellies to grow to the full adult medusa stage.  The medusa is the bell-shaped, free floating stage that everyone recognizes as a jellyfish.  This amount of growth requires a lot of energy input, and thus these jellies must feed continuously to reach the adult sizes.  It is not known for sure, but it is estimated that the jellies will spend approximately a year in this phase in which they sexually reproduce.  The larva will then settle back to the benthic environment and start the cycle all over again.

Cara Nelson, The Gales of September, September 12, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard USFWS R/V Tiglax

September 11-25, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently sampling in Prince William Sound

Date: September 12, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Time: 0830
Latitude: 60º16.073’ N
Longitude: 147º59.608’W
Wind: East, 10 knots – building to 30
Air Temperature: 13ºC (55ºF)
Air Pressure: 1003 millibars
Cloudy, light drizzle

Science and Technology Log

There is a tool for every job and the same holds true for sampling plankton and water in the Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA).  As we sorted, shuffled and assembled equipment yesterday, what struck me the most was the variety of nets and other equipment needed for the different science research being performed as part of the LTER program. 

There are a variety of research disciplines comprising the LTER scientific team aboard the R/V Tiglax, each with their own equipment and need for laboratory space. These disciplines include physical oceanography, biological (phytoplankton and zooplankton), and chemical oceanography along with marine birds and mammal.  Their equipment has been transported from University of Alaska Fairbanks, as well as Western Washington University to the remote town of Seward AK and subsequently transferred to the ship before it could be either set up or stored away in the hold for later use.  Logistics is an important part of any research mission.

Immediately, it was obvious that some of the primary equipment on the ship, used for almost all the water sampling and plankton tows, require frequent maintenance in order to maintain function.  The winch for instance needed rewiring at port before we could depart. Winch runs the smart wire cable that allows the scientists to talk real time to the equipment (e.g., CTD and MultiNet).

v
The deck full of boxes being unpacked and stored away, as well as the winch pulled apart for rewiring

One of the most complex pieces of equipment and the workhorse of all oceanographic cruises, the CTD, takes a good deal of time to set up as well properly interface with the computers in the lab for real-time data communication.  A CTD, which stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, is a piece of equipment that accurately measures the salinity and water temperature at different depths.  The CTD is actually only a small portion of the device shown below.

CTD prep
The CTD is being put together and wired before departure.
CTD output
Temperature (blue line) salinity (red line) and fluorescence (chlorophyll) are transmitted and graphed on the computer as the CTD is lowered and raised.


The main gray bottles visible in a ring around the top are called Niskin bottles. These bottles are used to collect water samples and can be fired from the lab computer to close and seal water in at the desired depth.  These water samples are used by the team to examine both chlorophyll (abundance of phytoplankton) as well as nutrients.  As a side note, if these bottles are not reopened when the CTD is sent back down the pressure can cause the bottles to implode.  Two bottles were lost this way at our second station this morning, luckily spares were available onboard!

One bottle shattered from the pressure (on the right) and in the process, broke the neighboring bottle.

On the bottom of the CTD, there are several important sensors.  One is for nitrates and another for dissolved oxygen.  Additionally, there is a laser that detects particle size in the water, aiding in identifying plankton.  Much of this data is being fed to the computers but will not be analyzed until the scientists return the lab at the end of the cruise. 

A big decision had to be made before departing Seward late in the evening on the 11th.  A gale warning is in effect for the NGA with 30+ knot winds and high seas.  After several meetings between the chief scientists and the captain, it was determined to forego the typical sampling along GAK1 and the Seward line and head immediately to Prince William Sound (PWS) to escape the brunt of the storm. 

After getting underway late in the evening on Wednesday, the 11th, we stopped at a station called Res 2.5 in Resurrection Bay.  This station is used to test the CTD before heading out.  Just as with any complicated equipment it takes time to work out the glitches.  For example, it is imperative to have the CTD lower and raise at a particular rate of speed for consistent results and speed and depth sensor were not initially reading correctly.  Additionally, the winch continued to give a little trouble until all the kinks were worked out close to midnight. With a night focused on transiting to PWS, sampling was put on hold until this morning.


Personal Log

There are three F’s to remember when working aboard a NOAA research vessel: Flexibility, Fortitude and Following orders.  Flexibility was the word for everyone to focus on the first day.  I was immediately impressed with how everyone was able to adjust schedules based on equipment issues, coordination with other researchers on equipment loading and storage and most of all the weather.

Yesterday, there was help needed everywhere, so I was able to lend a hand with the moving and sorting and eventually assembly of some of our equipment.  The weather was beautiful in Seward as we worked in the sunshine on the deck, knowing that a gale was brewing and would follow us on our exit from Resurrection Bay.  Helping put together the variety of nets we are going to be able to use during our night shift, gave me time to ask our team a lot of questions.  I am amazed at how open and willing the entire team is to teach me every step of the way.  I am feverishly taking notes and pictures to take it all in.

Orientation and safety are also a big part of the first day on a new ship.  Dan, the first mate, gave us a rundown of the rules and regulations for R/V Tiglax along with a tour of the ship.  We ended on the deck with a practice drill and getting into our survival suits in case of a ship evacuation. 

survival suit practice
The new crew practices with their survival suits: Emily, Jake, Kira and Cara
Cara in survival suit
Although it has been a few years, I was able to don my survival suit pretty quickly.

Adjusting to a night time schedule will be one of my greatest challenges.  Usually we work the first night but we had a break due to the weather so we were able to put off our first nighttime sampling until Thursday night.  Everyone on the night crew has a different technique to adjust their body clock.  My plan was to stay up as late as possible and then rise early.  Last night however, between the ship noise and the rocking back & forth in the high seas during our transit from Seward to Knight Island passage, I did not sleep well.  Hopefully this will inspire a nap so I can wake refreshed for our first night shift. 

When I awoke this morning at 06:00, we had entered the sheltered waters of Knight Island passage. with calm seas and a light drizzle, ready to start a full day of collection.  I was able to watch the first plankton tows with the CalVet for the daytime zooplankton team with Kira Monell and Russ Hopcroft. Additionally, I made my rounds up to the fly bridge where Dan Cushing monitors for seabirds and mammals while we are underway.  I will share details of these experiences in the coming days.

For now, it is time for lunch and my power nap.


Did You Know:

There are a wide variety of plankton sampling nets each with a unique design to capture the desired type and size of plankton.  To name a few we will be using: Bongo nets, Mutlinets (for vertical and horizontal towing), Methot trawl nets, and CalVet nets.  As I get to assist with each one of these nets, I will highlight them in my blog to give you a better idea what they look like and how they work.

Cara Nelson: A Birthday Gift to Remember, September 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Cara Nelson

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – September 26, 2019


MissionNorthern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program.

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska (Port: Seward)

Date: September 5, 2019

Weather Data from Bartlett High School Student Meteorologist Jack Pellerin

Time: 0730
Latitude: 61.2320° N
Longitude: 149.7334° W
Wind: Northwest, 2 mph
Air Temperature: 11oC (52oF)
Air pressure: 30.14 in
Partly cloudy, no precipitation


Personal Introduction

On September 10th, I enter my 46th year on this amazing planet, and on the 11th, I depart on a trip that will be a birthday gift to remember. I will be departing Seward on U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s R/V Tiglax to assist in the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research study. To understand why I am so excited about this trip, I have to rewind about 30 years.

On March 24th, 1989, I watched in shock, along with the world, as the oil from Exxon Valdez swept across Prince William Sound. I was a 15-year old budding scientist learning about the importance of baseline data for ecosystems.  I didn’t know how, but I envisioned myself someday assisting in science research for this beautiful ecosystem. I dreamt of the day I would end up in Alaska and experience the Pacific Ocean.

In 2006, I was fortunate to be offered a teaching position in Cordova, Alaska on Prince William Sound where I became an oceanography and marine biology teacher.  I was in awe of the ocean and what it had to teach myself and my students. Having the ocean at our front door made hands on learning in the field possible each and every week.  We were also fortunate enough to partner with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Sycamore for a marine science field trip each year along with scientists from the Prince William Sound Science Center and U.S. Forest Service. 

zooplankton sample
Showing zooplankton to a U.S. Coast Guard crew member after a plankton tow. Photo Credit: Allen Marquette

Since 2017, I have been teaching at Bartlett High School (BHS) in Anchorage School District.  I again have the opportunity to teach oceanography and marine biology and I am thrilled.  Although we live only a few miles away, many of my students have not yet seen the ocean.  It is so important for me to make learning relevant to their lives and their locality. As much as we can incorporate Alaska and their cultures into the lessons the better.

Here are just a few snapshots from our classroom:

BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class learn to make sushi during a lesson on seaweed uses.
BHS marine biology students
BHS marine biology students examine zooplankton during the Kenai Fjords Marine Science Explorers program in Resurrection Bay.
BHS marine biology students
Students in my BHS marine biology class operating mini-ROVs they built to complete an underwater rescue mission.

In a few days, I will begin my two-week mission to assist in important science research in Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) and I feel like my 30-year old dream has come true. I will be participating in the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

This cruise will be the third survey for the 2019 season for this area and the 23rd consecutive season for sampling along the Seward Line.  The goal of the NGA-LTER program is to evaluate the ecosystem in terms of its productivity and its resiliency in the face of extreme seasonal variations and long term climate change.  The mission entails doing a variety of water and plankton sampling at different stations along four transect lines in the NGA, as well as a circuit within Prince William Sound.  

sampling station map
The NGA-LTER sampling stations. Image Credit: Russ Hopcroft

I will be sailing aboard R/V Tiglax (pictured below) which is the Aleut word for eagle and is pronounced TEKL-lah.  My primary mission is to assist on the night shift with the collection of zooplankton at each station.  In addition to this, I look forward to learning as much as I can about the other work being done, including water chemistry, nutrient sampling, phytoplankton collection and analysis, and seabird and mammal surveys.  As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am tasked with creating lesson plans that connect this science research to my classroom.  My goal is to develop lessons that will help my students understand the importance of whole systems monitoring, as well as the important connections between ocean water properties, microfauna and megafauna. 

R/V Tiglax
R/V Tiglax. Photo Credit: Robin Corcoran USFWS

When I am not in my classroom, I like to be outside as much as possible.  I enjoy hiking, backpacking and spending time with my family on our remote property in Bristol Bay. 

Crow Pass Trail
My husband and I getting ready to backpack Crow Pass Trail , part of the historic Iditarod Trail.

My husband and I also like to travel outside of Alaska whenever possible during the winter months and see the world.  One of our favorite trips was completing a full transit of the Panama Canal.  This winter break we will be headed to the barrier reef in Belize to experience the beautiful tropical ocean. 

Panama Canal
Transiting the Panama Canal on Christmas Day on our honeymoon.

I tell my students we have researched and explored more of space than we have of our own ocean.

Cara at Space Camp
Participating in Space Camp Academy during my tenure as 2012 Alaska Teacher of the Year.

I am so excited to be working to help change that statistic!

Teacher at Sea Cara Nelson
I am honored to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea.


Did You Know?

This summer has broken many records in Alaska for warm dry weather and Southcentral has been in an official drought.  How will this impact ocean temperatures out in the NGA and will we see evidence in the plankton or other organisms we examine? 

Stay tuned to my blog and I will let you know the answer to this as well as so much more!

Catherine Fuller: From Microplankton to Megafauna, July 13, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 13, 2019

Science and Technology Log:

Through the Microscope

Gwenn with microscope
Gwenn using one of the microscopes to look at phytoplankton.
Gwenn and labels
The Lady of a Thousand Labels, hard at work.

Dr. Gwenn Hennon will be starting as an Assistant Professor with the University of Alaska in the fall.  Her interest is in the types of microbes, especially phytoplankton, that are in the water and what they are doing. She is studying what limits them, whether it is nutrients, light or other factors.  She finds it interesting to try to find interactions between phytoplankton and other organisms, such as ciliates that are filled with chloroplasts that they steal, termed “kleptoplasts.”  She investigates what microbes they stole them from, how the ciliate steals the plastid and how they maintain it. While a lot of algae have photosynthetic genes and controls in the nucleus, ciliates wouldn’t be expected to have those controls, but they must have some in order to keep plastids alive, and these need to have specific genes in order to control specific plastids.  There is a trade-off between specificity of genes for certain plastids and being able to keep the plastids alive for a long time.  Ciliates can also live by just eating other organisms, so another field of investigation would be to look at which genetics are used when organisms are switching between strategies. One goal of this research would be that, when looking at samples from various stations, someone would be able to say what the ciliates are doing without having to do experiments. 

The NGA is a very complex ecosystem, and this cruise has shown me that any scientific investigation needs to have a very specific focus rather than a shotgun approach, in order to have productive results. There is so much to be studied that the potential amount of data that can be gathered is staggering.  

Because the LTER has been funded for many years, there are great sets of time series to look at for some studies, but molecular data is fairly new and adds a lot to the picture.  Gwenn’s work, and the work of others at the molecular level are just the beginning of an understanding of life at the microscopic end of the scale. 

observation deck
Dan and Gwenn on the observation deck. Dan’s always on the lookout!

Through the Binoculars:

Fin whale
Fin whales come fairly close to us out in the deeper Gulf waters.

Dan Cushing is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird and mammal specialist and is here to investigate organisms at the large end of the size spectrum, compared to everyone else on board. His workstation is primarily the bridge of the ship, where he is on the lookout for birds and mammals. He records the species and number spotted, and the time and the GPS location of each sighting. He also logs environmental conditions such as fog and wave height that can affect visibility.

Dan comes from a small fishing town with a population of 3000. He wasn’t necessarily interested in birds specifically when he was young, but developed a gradual interest in them. He likes that working with seabirds combines aspects of being a wildlife biologist with aspects of being a marine biologist. Dan has done both land-based projects at seabird breeding sites and ocean-based surveys on small boats and large research ships. One project that he worked on included attaching sensors to diving birds to record water temperature, depth, and location. This provided information about water conditions as well as about the behaviors of the birds and their feeding patterns in those conditions.

The variation in distribution and feeding strategies of bird species make them a good indicator of what is happening to the environment at different levels in the ecosystem. For example, Dan used small-boat surveys to look at changes in marine bird populations in Prince William Sound. He found that, over a period of two decades, declines had occurred in almost half of the species he looked at. In general, species that occurred farther from shore and fed on zooplankton and fish had greater declines than those that fed on prey along the shoreline and the nearby seafloor.

Studying the changes in a bird population leads to investigations that connect down the food chain through fish species to plankton (which, of course, is the focus of this cruise) and finally to climate change. Dan sees changes in the availability of fish species having a direct effect on the economic health of Alaskan communities that depend on fishing to survive. Coming from a fishing community, this hits home for him. As smaller species respond to climate change, a ripple effect works its way up the food web and so human populations must also alter their survival strategies as well.

coming in for a landing
One of Dan’s feathered friends coming in for a landing off the working deck.
albatross
An albatross follows along behind us.
Gulls
Gulls watch the working deck with interest in hopes of food (not going to happen).


Personal Log:

The longer I’m on board, the more the pieces of the puzzle seem to come together.  On thing that really strikes me about the teams on board is the intensity of their research and the drive they have.  Each person here is making the most of their opportunity for data gathering. Gwenn, for instance, I have nicknamed “the lady of a thousand labels” because her work ethic and preparedness are so impeccable.  She is just one example of the discipline and passion I see on board. 

There is enough potential data to be gathered here to provide for years of research.  Each of these researchers is not only singularly focused on their specialty but also well aware of the underlying premise of their research, i.e. that what they’re studying will serve to document climate change.  Already, this year has brought anomalous weather to the Gulf, which, in a sense, makes conclusions about how and why changes occur a bit difficult.  Another thing that is noteworthy on this cruise is that, because there are PIs (Principal Investigators) on board, there is a lot of discussion of ideas and plans for collaboration.  Already, Gwenn, Suzanne, Hana and Clay have been talking about a potential project where their ideas intersect.  The amount of time we’re out allows for more interaction between people and more room for ideas to develop. 

Finally, as I ask each person what they want kids or the public to know from their research, the answers I am getting all focus on the same thing: change is happening and every organism on the planet is affected by it.

map of the shelf
An image of the shelf; the data station lines cross over this to get a complete range of samples from shallow to deep in order to understand the complexity of the ecosystem and the changes happening within it.


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Gwenn: All things are related to each other.  All species on earth developed from the same ancestral single-celled organisms.

Dan: If you don’t pay attention to what’s around you, you won’t see how it changes.