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: Out of the Sea and into the Lab, July 3, 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 3, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 58° 54.647’ N
Longitude: 146° 00.022’ W
Wave Height: 4-5 ft.
Wind Speed: 1.9 knots
Wind Direction: roughly 90 degrees, but variable
Visibility: 1 nm
Air Temperature: 13.2 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Clear, then foggy

Weather overview

We have been fortunate so far to have very calm conditions.  Winds have been variable or light and are expected to continue to be so through the weekend at least.  Wave heights have generally been about 3 feet, although they’re up to 4-5 feet today, and are expected to drop tomorrow.  The calm weather is critical for some of the testing being done, and thus is allowing more to happen.

Science and Technology Log

The focus of all of testing on board is plankton.  As the base of the food web, all species depend on their health and abundance for survival. There are multiple teams who are focused on various aspects of plankton and their reaction to environmental conditions.  Kira Monell is a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is working under the direction of Dr. Russ Hopcroft while on board.  She is studying zooplankton, or the animal version of plankton.   She is specifically focusing on Neocalanus flemingeri, a type of sub-arctic copepod.  It is important to study zooplankton because they provide a link between phytoplankton (the plant version of plankton) and larger fish on the food web.  Copepods are extremely abundant and varietal, found just about everywhere in the world.  They are an important food source for most aquatic species (they exist in both salt and fresh water).  They are a trophic link – a connection in the food web.  Her target species is special because they mostly eat phytoplankton during the seasonal plankton blooms.  They convert their food into a lot of lipids (fats) and thus are great sources of food and energy for larger fish.  After fattening up, they go deep into the ocean to hibernate around mid-summer. 

Kira is specifically focused on the termination of their hibernation (technically called diapause).  She is doing genetic testing to see which genes are activated or deactivated during this phase of their lives.  Messenger ribonucleic acid (or mRNA) coded by these genes is required to construct the enzymes that cause changes in body functions, so she is looking at levels of different mRNA in the copepods. She is expecting to see an increase in genes relating to oogenesis (egg formation).  Her female copepods go into diapause ready to start making eggs, so she expects to see changes in genes relating to egg growth as they come wake up from diapause.

Kira is examining copepods through three different experiments.  With some samples, she adds a stain called EDU (a dye that labels cells that are just about to divide) into her samples and then checks them at 24 hours to see which cells have divided.  Because the copepods are still alive, she can check back to see what further cell division have happened over longer periods of time.  A fluorescent microscope is required to see the EDU.  Scientists still struggle to understand what actually triggers emergence from diapause since deep water copepods don’t experience seasonal light changes, or other potential triggers that might exist on the surface. 

Another thing she is looking at is in-situ hybridization.  She makes a tag that is very specific for the gene she wants to examine.  When the probe gene is introduced, it attaches to the gene she wants to look at only if it is being actively copied.  Kira then attaches a colored or fluorescent dye to the probe and in that way she can track which genes are being expressed in specific areas of the body.

The third project that she is working on is trancriptum analysis, which requires building a complete “catalog” that shows all the RNA used by a species. She can then look at which gene transcripts are present, and in how abundant they are, so as to compare them to the “average” version of a transcriptum to see which genes are being turned off and on under certain conditions.

To obtain samples of copepods, the zooplankton team, including Kira, uses Calvet nets.  These are four long nets that terminate in collection tubes. Weight is added to the bottom of the nets and they are submerged off the stern to 100 meters of depth and then pulled back up (a process that takes roughly five minutes).  The nets are then rinsed to collect the samples in the tubes, which are transferred into jars and brought to the lab for more detailed sorting and examination. 

Calvet rising
The Calvet is returning to the surface after being submerged
Kira and Kate rinse net
Kira and Kate rinse the length of the nets to collect their samples in the tubes in the end.

As the Calvet rises you can see the full net. (This video has no dialogue.)



Personal Log

back deck
This is the main working deck at the stern of the ship.

Getting prepared to go out on deck safely!

All of the sample collection happens on the working deck at the stern of the R/V Sikuliaq or in the adjacent Baltic Room.  The back deck is equipped with a variety of cranes and winches that are designed to handle heavy weights and lines under tension.  As such, it is critical to wear the proper protective gear when you’re out there: boots (preferably steel-toed), a hard hat and a flotation vest of coat.  If there’s a potential to get wet or dirty, rain gear or waterproof bibs are essential to stay dry and relatively clean. Being properly dressed is a process that took getting used to, but now it’s habit.  Again, we’re lucky to have had good weather, so the deck is usually warm enough to wear a t-shirt and jeans.  I find it calming to be outside, so I am enjoying learning about the sampling methods of other teams by watching and sometimes assisting them.  There are also observation decks at the bow that do not require safety gear.  A few of us have discovered that the forward decks are much quieter and are good spaces to decompress and look for sea life. 


Animals Seen in the Last 24 Hours:

We’ve seen a few species of birds including black turnstones, glaucous-winged gulls, Black-winged kittiwakes, as well as deeper water birds such as storm petrels and shearwaters.  In addition, there have been small pods of dolphins in the distance and one humpback whale (all we saw was the tail).

Catherine Fuller: Maintaining Balance, July 1, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 1 July 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60’ 15” N
Longitude: 145’ 30” N
Wave Height:
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Wind Direction: 101 degrees
Barometric Pressure: 1020 mb
Air Temperature:  13.2° C
Relative Humidity: 94%
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

When I read some the material online about the NGA LTER, what struck me was a graphic that represented variability and resiliency as parts of a dynamic system.  The two must coexist within an ecosystem to keep it healthy and sustainable; they must be in balance.  On board, there is also balance in the studies that are being done.  The Main Lab houses researchers who are looking at the physical aspects of the water column, such as sediment and plankton.  The Wet Lab researchers are looking at the chemical aspects and are testing properties such as fluorescence, DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon), and DOC (dissolved organic carbon). 

Working deck
This is the working deck of the ship, where the majority of equipment is deployed

Today we deployed Steffi’s sediment traps, a process during which balance was key. First of all, each trap was composed of four collection tubes arranged rather like a chandelier. 

collection tubes
These are the collection tubes that will be staged at selected depths to collect sediment

These were hooked into her primary line. Her traps were also attached to two sets of floaters: one at the surface and one as an intermediary feature on her line.  These allowed her traps to sit at the proper depths to collect the samples she needed.  The topmost trap sat 80m below the surface, while the next three were at subsequent 25m intervals. 

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Sediment trap #Sikuliaq

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Bern’s time lapse of the sediment trap deployment
hazy sound
Steffi’s traps were released against the background of the smoky sound.

We also collected more samples from another run of the CTD today.  Again, the Niskin bottles (collection tubes) were “fired” or opened at various depths, allowing sampling through a cross section of the water at this particular data point PWS2. Unlike our previous collection, these samples were filtered with .45 micron mesh to eliminate extraneous particles.  This is a very careful process, we needed to be very careful to eliminate air bubbles and replace the filters regularly as the clogged quickly.  For one depth, we did collect unfiltered samples as a comparison to the filtered ones.  Many groups use the CTD to collect samples, so there must also be careful planning of usage so that there is enough water for each team.  Collection is a complicated dance of tubes, syringes, bottles, labels and filters all circling around the CTD. 

Steffi and buoys
Steffi looks over the sound as the buoys marking her traps recede into the distance.

Later this evening, we’ll have the chance to pull up Steffi’s sediment traps and begin to prepare her samples for analysis. 


Personal Log

Balance is key in more ways than one when you’re living aboard a research ship. Although it’s been very calm, we experience some rolling motion when we are transiting from one site to the next.  The stairways in the ship are narrow, as are the steps themselves, and it’s a good thing there are sturdy handrails!  Other than physical balance, it’s important to find personal balance.  During the day, the science work can be very intense and demanding.  Time schedules shift constantly, and it is important to be aware of when your experiments or data collection opportunities are taking place.  Down time is precious, and people will find a quiet space to read, go to the gym (a small one), catch up on sleep or even watch a movie in the lounge. 

A couple of weeks before I left, the Polynesian Voyaging Society hosted a cultural group from Yakutat, who had shipped in one of their canoes down for a conference.  We were able to take them out sailing, and the subject of balance came up in terms of the worldview that the Tlingit have.  People are divided between being Eagles and Ravens, and creatures are also divided along the lines of being herbivorous and carnivorous.  Rather than this being divisive within culture, it reflects the principle of balance.  Both types are needed to make an ecosystem whole and functional.  And so, as we progress, we are continually working on maintaining our balance in the R/V Sikuliaq ecosystem. 


Animals seen today:

A few dolphins were spotted off the bow this evening, but other than that, Prince William Sound has been relatively quiet.  Dan, our U.S. Fish and Wildlife person, remarked that there are more boats than birds today, which isn’t saying much as I’ve only seen three other boats.

Catherine Fuller: A Tropical Fish in an Alaskan Aquarium, June 30, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 28 – July 18, 2019


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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: 30 June 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 60.32 N
Longitude: 147.48 W
Wind Speed: 3.2 knots
Wind Direction: 24 degrees
Air Temperature: 72 °F
Sky: Hazy (smoke)


Science and Technology Log

We arrived in Seward mid-day on Thursday, June 27th to find it hazy from fires burning north of us; the normally picturesque mountain ranges framing the bay were nearly obscured, and the weather forecast predicts that the haze will be with us at sea for a while as well.  Most of the two days prior to departure were busy with loading, sorting, unpacking and setting up of equipment. 

Ready to load
All equipment and supplies are placed on pallets to load on board

There are multiple experiments and different types of studies that will be taking place during the course of this cruise, and each set of researchers has a specific area for their equipment.  I am on the particle flux team with Stephanie O’Daly (she specifically requested to have “the teacher” so that she’d have extra hands to help her), and have been helping her as much as I can to set up.  Steffi has been very patient and is good about explaining the equipment and their function as we go through everything.  Particle flux is about the types of particles found in the water and where they’re formed and where they’re going.  In addition, she’ll be looking at carbon matter: what form it takes and what its origin is, because that will tell her about the movement of specific types of plankton through the water column.  We spent a part of Friday setting up a very expensive camera (the UVP or Underwater Visual Profiler) that will take pictures of particles in the water down to 500 microns (1/2 a millimeter), will isolate the particles in the picture, sort the images and download them to her computer as well. 

Steffi’s friend Jess was very helpful and instructive about setting up certain pieces of equipment.  I found that my seamanship skills luckily were useful in splicing lines for Steffi’s tows as well as tying her equipment down to her work bench so that we won’t lose it as the ship moves. 

As everyone worked to prepare their stations, the ship moved to the refueling dock to make final preparations for departure, which was about 8:30 on Saturday morning. 

Day one at sea was a warm up for many teams.  Per the usual, the first station’s testing went slowly as participants learned the procedures.  We deployed the CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) at the second station.  A CTD is a metal framework that carries various instruments and sampling bottles called Niskin bottles.  In the video, you can see them arranged around the structure. The one we sent on June 28 had 24 plastic bottles that were “fired” at specific depths to capture water samples.  These samples are shared by a number of teams to test for things like dissolved oxygen gas, and nutrients such as nitrate, nitrites, phosphate and silicate, and dissolved inorganic carbon.  

Video coming soon!
The CTD is lowered over the side of the ship long enough to fill sample bottles and then is brought back on board. (This still photo is a placeholder for the video.)

One of my tasks today was to help her collect samples from specific bottles by attaching a tube to the bottle, using water from the sample to cleanse it and them fill it.  Another team deployed a special CTD that was built completely of iron-free materials in order to run unbiased tests for iron in the water. 

By late Saturday night, we will be in Prince William Sound, and will most likely spend a day there, before continuing on to Copper River.  Usually LTER cruises are more focused on monitoring the state of the ecosystem, but in this case, the cruise will also focus on the processes of the Copper River plume, rates and interactions.  This particular plume brings iron and fresh water into the Northern Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, where it is dispersed by weather and current.  After spending some time studying the plume, the cruise will continue on to the Middleton Line to examine how both fresh water and iron are spread along the shelf and throughout the food web.  


Personal Log

As the science team gathered yesterday, it became evident that the team is predominantly female.  According to lead scientist Seth Danielson, this is a big change from roughly 20 years ago, and has become more of the norm in recent times.  We also have five undergraduates with us who have never been out on a cruise, which is unusual.  They are all very excited for the trip and to begin their own research by assisting team leaders.  I’ve met most of the team and am slowly getting all the names down. 

I have to admit that I’m feeling out of my element, much like a fish in a very different aquarium.  I’m used to going to sea, yes, but on a vessel from another time and place.  There is much that is familiar about gear, lines, weather, etc., but there are also great differences.  The ship’s crew is a separate group from the science crew, although most are friendly and helpful.  Obviously, this is a much larger and more high tech vessel with many more moving parts.  Being on the working deck requires a hard hat, protective boots, and flotation gear.  There are viewing decks that are less restricted. 

I am excited to be at sea again, but a little bit nervous about meeting expectations and being as helpful as I can without getting in the way.  It’s a little strange to be primarily indoors, however, as I’m used to being out in the open! I’m enjoying the moments where I can be on deck, although with the haze in the air, I’m missing all the scenery! 

Did you know?

Because space is limited onboard, many of the researchers are collecting samples for others who couldn’t be here as well as collecting for themselves and doing their own experiments.

Something to think about:

How do we get more boys interested in marine sciences?

Questions of the day (from the Main Lab):

Do whales smell the smoke outside?

Answer: Toothed whales do not have a sense of smell, and baleen whales have a poor sense of smell at best.

Do scorpions get seasick?

Katie Gavenus: Thinking Like A Hungry Bird, April 28, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26-May 9, 2019

 

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

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently on the ‘Middleton [Island] Line’

Date: April 28, 2019

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 1715
Latitude: 59o 39.0964’ N
Longitude: 146o05.9254’ W
Wind: Southeast, 15 knots
Air Temperature: 10oC (49oF)
Air pressure: 1034 millibars
Cloudy, no precipitation

 

Science and Technology Log

Yesterday was my first full day at sea, and it was a special one! Because each station needs to be sampled both at night and during the day, coordinating the schedule in the most efficient way requires a lot of adjustments. We arrived on the Middleton Line early yesterday afternoon, but in order to best synchronize the sampling, the decision was made that we would wait until that night to begin sampling on the line. We anchored near Middleton Island and the crew of R/V Tiglax ferried some of us to shore on the zodiac (rubber skiff).

This R&R trip turned out to be incredibly interesting and relevant to the research taking place in the LTER. An old radio tower on the island has been slowly taken over by seabirds… and seabird scientists. The bird biologists from the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation have made modifications to the tower so that they can easily observe, study, and band the black-legged kittiwakes and cormorants that choose to nest on the shelfboards they’ve augmented the tower with. We were allowed to climb up into the tower, where removable plexi-glass windows look out onto each individual pair’s nesting area. This early in the season, the black-legged kittiwakes are making claims on nesting areas but have not yet built nests. Notes written above each window identified the birds that nested there last season, and we were keen to discern that many of the pairs had returned to their spot.

Gavenus1Birds

Black-legged kittiwakes are visible through the observation windows in the nesting tower on Middleton Island.

Gavenus2Birds

Nesting tower on Middleton Island.

The lead researcher on the Institute for Seabird Research and Conservation (ISRC) project was curious about what the LTER researchers were finding along the Middleton Line stations. He explained that the birds “aren’t happy” this spring and are traveling unusually long distances and staying away for multiple days, which might indicate that these black-legged kittiwakes are having trouble finding high-quality, accessible food. In particular, he noted that he hasn’t seen any evidence they’ve been consuming the small lantern fish (myctophids) that generally are an important and consistent food source from them in the spring. These myctophids tend to live offshore from Middleton Island and migrate to the surface at night. We’ll be sampling some of that area tonight, and I am eager to see if we might catch any in the 0.5 mm mesh ‘bongo’ nets that we use to sample zooplankton at each station.

The kittiwakes feed on myctophids. The myctophids feed on various species of zooplankton. The zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, or sometimes microzooplankton that in turn feeds on phytoplankton. The phytoplankton productivity is driven by complex interactions of environmental conditions, impacted by factors such as light availability, water temperature and salinity as well as the presence of nutrients and trace metals. And these water conditions are driven by abiotic factors – such as currents, tides, weather, wind, and freshwater input from terrestrial ecosystems – as well as the biotic processes that drive the movement of carbon, nutrients, and metals through the ecosystem.

Scientists deploy CTD

This CTD instrument and water sampling rosette is deployed at each station during the day to collect information about temperature and salinity. It also collects water that is analyzed for dissolved oxygen, nitrates, chlorophyll, dissolved inorganic carbon, dissolved organic carbon, and particulates.

CTD at sunset

When the sun sets, the CTD gets a break, and the night crew focuses on zooplankton.

Part of the work of the LTER is to understand the way that these complex factors and processes influence primary productivity, phytoplankton, and the zooplankton community structure. In turn, inter-annual or long-term changes in phytoplankton and zooplankton community structure likely have consequences for vertebrates in and around the Gulf of Alaska, like seabirds, fish, marine mammals, and people. In other words, zooplankton community structure is one piece of understanding why the kittiwakes are or are not happy this spring. It seems that research on zooplankton communities requires, at least sometimes, to consider the perspective of a hungry bird.

Peering at a jar of copepods and euphausiids (two important types of zooplankton) we pulled up in the bongo nets last night, I was fascinated by the way they look and impressed by the amount of swimming, squirming life in the jar. My most common question about the plankton is usually some variation of “Is this …” or “What is this?” But the questions the LTER seeks to ask are a little more complex.

Considering the copepods and euphausiids, these researchers might ask, “How much zooplankton is present for food?” or “How high of quality is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” or “How accessible and easy to find is this food compared to what’s normal, and what does that mean for a list of potential predators?” They might also ask “What oceanographic conditions are driving the presence and abundance of these particular zooplankton in this particular place at this particular time?” or “What factors are influencing the life stage and condition of these zooplankton?”

Euphausiids

Euphausiids (also known as krill) are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

Copepods in a jar

Small copepods are among the types of zooplankton we collected with the bongo nets last night.

As we get ready for another night of sampling with the bongo nets, I am excited to look more closely at the fascinating morphology (body-shape) and movements of the unique and amazing zooplankton species. But I will also keep in mind some of the bigger picture questions of how these zooplankton communities simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the dynamic Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Over the course of the next 3 blogs, I plan to focus first on zooplankton, then zoom in to primary production and phytoplankton, and finally dive more into nutrients and oceanographic characteristics that drive much of the dynamics in the Gulf of Alaska.

 

Personal Log 

Life on the night shift requires a pretty abrupt change in sleep patterns. Last night, we started sampling around 10 pm and finished close to 4 am. To get our bodies more aligned with the night schedule, the four of us working night shift tried to stay up for another hour or so. It was just starting to get light outside when I headed to my bunk. Happily, I had no problem sleeping until 2:30 this afternoon! I’m hoping that means I’m ready for a longer night tonight, since we’ll be deploying the bongo nets in deeper water as we head offshore along the Middleton Line.

WWII shipwreck

While on Middleton Island, we marveled at a WWII shipwreck that has been completely overtaken by seabirds for nesting.

Shipwreck filled with plants

Inputs of seabird guano, over time, have fertilized the growth of interesting lichens, mosses, grasses, and even shrubs on the sides and top of the rusty vessel.

 

Did You Know?

Imagine you have a copepod that is 0.5 mm long and a copepod that is 1.0 mm long. Because the smaller copepod is half as big in length, height, and width, overall that smaller copepod at best offers only about 1/8th as much food for a hungry animal. And that assumes that it is as calorie-dense as the larger copepod.

 

Question of the Day:

Are PCBs biomagnifying in top marine predators in the Gulf of Alaska? Are there resident orca populations in Alaska that are impacted in similar ways to the Southern Resident Orca Whale population [in Puget Sound] (by things like toxins, noise pollution, and decreasing salmon populations? Is it possible for Southern Resident Orca Whales to migrate and successfully live in the more remote areas of Alaska? Questions from Lake Washington Girl’s Middle School 6th grade science class.

These are great questions! No one on board has specific knowledge of this, but they have offered to put me in contact with researchers that focus on marine mammals, and orcas specifically, in the Gulf of Alaska. I’ll keep you posted when I know more!