Caitlin Fine: Flexibility! August 6, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Fine
Aboard University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith
August 2 – 7, 2011

Mission: South Florida Bimonthly Regional Survey
Geographical Area: South Florida Coast and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 6, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge
Time: 4:24pm
Air Temperature: 31.6°C
Water Temperature: 32.6°C
Wind Direction: Southwest
Wind Speed:  4 knots
Seawave Height: calm
Visibility: good/unlimited
Clouds: partially cloudy (cumulous and cirrus clouds)
Barometer: 1013nb
Relative Humidity: 62%

Science and Technology Log

Many of you have written comments asking about the marine biology (animals and plants) that I have seen while on this cruise. Thank you for your posts – I love your questions! In today’s log, I will talk about the biology component of the research and about the animals that we have been finding and documenting.

We have another graduate student aboard, Lorin, who is collecting samples of sargassum (a type of seaweed).

Sargassum sample from Neuston net tow

There are two types of sargassum. One of those types usually floats at the top of the water and the other has root-like structures that help it attach to the bottom of the ocean.

Lorin is filtering a sample from the Neuston net in the web lab

We are using a net, called a Neuston net, to collect samples of sargassum that float. The Neuston net is towed alongside the ship at the surface at specific stations. This means that the ship drives in large circles for 30 minutes which can make for a rocky/dizzy ride – some of the chairs in the dry lab have wheels and they roll around the floor during the tow!

Towing the Neuston net along the side of the ship

Lorin and other researchers are interested in studying sargassum because it provides a rich habitat for zooplankton, small fish, crabs, worms, baby sea turtles, and marine birds. It is also a feeding ground for larger fish that many of you may have eaten, such as billfish, tuna, and mahi mahi.

Small crab that was living in the sargassum

The net not only collects sargassum, but also small fish, small crabs, jellyfish, other types of seaweed, and small plankton.

Small fish from the Neuston net

Plankton can be divided into two main categories: zooplankton and phytoplankton. As I  said in my last post, phytoplankton are mostly very small plants or single-celled organisms that photosynthesize (they make their own food) and are the base of the food chain. Zooplankton are one level up on the food chain from phytoplankton and most of them eat phytoplankton. Zooplankton include larva (babies) of starfish, lobster, crabs, and fish.

Small zooplankton viewed through the dissecting microscope

We also use a Plankton net to collect samples of plankton. This has a smaller mesh, so it collects organisms that are so small they would fall through the Neuston net. Scientists are interested in studying the zooplankton that we catch in the Plankton net to understand what larger organisms might one day grow-up and live in the habitats we are surveying. They study the phytoplankton from the Plankton net to see what types of phytoplankton are present in the water and in what quantities.

Washing off the Plankton net

Today we collected so many diatoms (which are a type of phytoplankton) in the Neuston net that we could not lift it out of the water! This tells us that there are a lot of nutrients in the water (a diatom bloom) – maybe even harmful levels. I am bringing some samples of the diatoms and zooplankton home with me so we can look at them under the microscopes at school!

Evidence of a diatom (phytoplankton) bloom in the Gulf of Mexico

The marine biologists on this cruise are mainly interested in looking at phytoplankton and zooplankton, but we also have seen some larger animals. I have seen many flying fish skim across the surface of the water as the boat moves along. I have also seen seagulls, dolphins, sea turtles, cormorants (skinny black seabirds with long necks), and lots of small fish.

Small flying fish from the Newston net

Personal Log

Working as an oceanographer definitely demands flexibility. I have already mentioned that we chased the Mississippi River water during our second day. After collecting samples, we had to find blue water (open ocean water) to have a control to compare our samples against.  We traveled south through the night until we were about 15 miles away from Cuba before finding blue water. All of this travel was in the opposite direction from our initial cruise plan, so we have had to extend our cruise by one day in order to visit all of the stations that we need to visit inside the Gulf of Mexico. This has meant waking-up the night shift so we can all change their airplane tickets and looking at maps to edit our cruise plan!

Changes to our cruise plan on the survey map

Many of you are writing comments about sharks – I have not seen any sharks and I will probably not see any. The chief scientist, Nelson, has worked on the ocean for about 33 years and he has sailed for more than 1,500 hours and he has only seen 3 sharks. They mostly live in the open ocean, not on the continental shelf where we are doing our survey. If there were a shark nearby, our ship is so big and loud that it would be scared away.

Playing with syringodium

Today I saw a group of about 4 dolphins off the side of the ship. They were pretty far away, so I could not take pictures. Their dorsal fins all seemed to exit the water at the same time – it was very beautiful. A member of the crew spotted a sea turtle off the bow (front) of the ship and I saw several different types of sea birds, especially seagulls.

Yesterday afternoon we passed through the Gulf of Mexico near the Everglades and there were storm clouds covering the coastline. The crew says that it rains a lot in this part of the Florida coast and that Florida receives more thunderstorms than any other state. It is strange to me because I always think of Florida as “the sunshine state.”

Grey sky and green water in the Gulf of Mexico

The color of the ocean has changed quite a lot during the cruise. The water is clear and light blue near Miami, clear and dark blue farther away from the coast in the Atlantic Ocean, cloudy and yellow-green in coastal Gulf of Mexico, and cloudy and turquoise in the Florida Bay. Scientists say that the cloudiness in coastal Gulf of Mexico is caused by chlorophyll and the cloudiness in the Florida Bay is caused by sediment.

It has been hot and sunny every day, but the wet lab (where we process the water samples and marine samples), the dry lab (where we work on our computers), the galley and the staterooms are nice and cool thanks to air conditioning! I can tell that I am getting used to being at sea because now when we are moving, I feel as though we are stopped. And when we do stop to take measurements, it feels strange.

Did you know?

NOAA does not own the R/V Walton Smith. It is University of Miami ship that costs NOAA from $12,000 to $15,000 a day to use!

Organisms seen today…

–       Many sea birds (especially seagulls)

–       2 cormorants (an elegant black sea bird)

–       10-12 dolphins

–       1 sea turtle

–       Lots of small fish

–       Lots of zooplankton and phytoplankton (especially diatoms)

–       Sargassum and sea grass

Caitlin Fine: Mississippi River Chasers! August 3, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Caitlin Fine
Onboard University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith
August 2 – 6, 2011

Mission: South Florida Bimonthly Regional Survey
Geographical Area: South Florida Coast and Gulf of Mexico
Date: August 3, 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 10:18pm
Air Temperature: 29.5°C
Water Temperature: 31.59°C
Wind Direction: North
Wind Speed: 3 knots
Seawave Height: calm
Visibility: good/unlimited
Clouds: Partially cloudy (cumulos and cirrus)
Barometer: 1011.0mb
Relative Humidity: 72%

Science and Technology Log

The oceanographic work on the boat can be divided into three categories: physical, chemical, and biological. In this log, I will explain a little bit about the part of the research related to the physics of light. Upcoming 5th graders – pay attention! We will be learning a lot about light in January/February and it all relates to this research project.

Brian and Maria are two PhD students who are working with the physical components. They are using several optical instruments: the SPECTRIX, the GER 1500, the Profiling Reflectance Radiometer (PRR), and the Profiling Ultraviolet Radiometer (PUV).

Bryan and Maria

Brian and Maria take optic measurements with the SPECTRIX and GER 1500

The SPECTRIX is a type of spectroradiometer that measures the light coming out of the water in order to understand what is in the water. For example, we can measure the amount of green light that is reflected and red and blue light that is absorbed in order to get an idea about the amount of chlorophyll in the water. This is important because chlorophyll is the biggest part of phytoplankton and phytoplankton are tiny plant-like algae that form the base of the food chain on Earth.

PUV

Brian lowers PRR into the water

The PRR and the PUV measure light at different depths to also understand what is in the water and at what depth you will find each thing in the water. The light becomes less bright the further down you go in the water. Most of light is between 0-200 meters of depth. The light that hits the water also becomes less bright based upon what is in the water. For example, you might find that chlorophyll live at 10 meters below the surface. It is important to understand at what depth each thing is in the water because that tells you where the life is within the ocean. Most of the ocean is pitch-black because it is so deep that light cannot penetrate it. Anything that lives below the light level has to be able to either swim up to get food, or survive on “extras” that fall below to them.

Personal Log

These few days have been very fun and action-packed! I arrived on the ship on Sunday afternoon and helped Nelson and the crew get organized and set-up the stations for the cruise. Several other people had also arrived early – two graduate students who are studying the optics of the water as part of their PhD program, one college student and one observer from the Dominican Republic who are like me – trying to learn about what NOAA does and how scientists conduct experiments related to oceanography.

On Monday morning, we gathered for a team meeting to discuss the mission of the cruise, introduce ourselves, and get an updated report on the status of the Mississippi River water. It turns out that the water is going in a bit of a different direction than previously projected, so we will be changing the cruise path of the ship in order to try to intersect it and collect water samples.

CTD

I am helping lower the CTD into the water

Monday we all learned how to use the CTD (a machine that we use to collect samples of water from different depths of the ocean) and other stations at the first several stops. It was a bit confusing at the beginning because there is so much to learn and so many things to keep in mind in order to stay safe! We then ate lunch (delicious!) and had a long 4-hour ride to the next section of stops. When we arrived, it was low tide (only 2 ft. of water in some places) so we could not do the sampling that we wanted to do. We continued on to the next section of stops (another 3 hour ride away!), watched a safety presentation and ate another delicious meal. By this time, it was time for the night shift to start working and for the day shift to go to bed. Since I am in the day shift, I was able to sleep while the night shift worked all night long.

Today I woke up, took a shower in the very small shower and ate breakfast just as we arrived at another section of stops. I immediately started working with the CTD and on the water chemistry sampling. We drove through some sea grass and the optics team was excited to take optical measurements of the sea grass because it has a very similar optical profile to oil. The satellites from space see either oil or sea grass and report it as being the same thing. So scientists are working to better differentiate between the two so that we can tell sea grass from oil on the satellite images. The images that Maria and Brian took today are maybe some of the first images to be recorded! Everyone on the ship is very excited!

Several hours later, we came to a part of the open ocean within the Florida Current near Key West where we believe water from the Mississippi River has reached. Nelson and the scientific team believe this because the salinity (the amount of dissolved salt) of the surface water is much lower than it normally is at this time of year in these waters. Normally the salinity is about 36-36.5 PSUs in the first 20 meters and today we found it at 35.7 PSUs in the first 20 meters. This may not seem like a big difference, but it is.

The water from the Mississippi River is fresh water and the water in the Florida Keys is salt water. There is always a bit of fresh water mixing with the salt water, but usually it is not enough to really cause a change in the salinity. This time, there is enough fresh water entering the ocean to really change the salinity. This change can have an impact on the animals and other organisms that live in the Florida Keys.

Additionally, the water from the Mississippi River contains a lot of nutrients – for example, fertilizers that run off from farms and lawns into gutters and streams and rivers – and those nutrients also impact the sea life and the water in the area. Nelson says that this type of activity (fresh water from the Mississippi River entering the Florida Current) occurs so infrequently (only about ever 6 years), scientists are interested in documenting it so they can be prepared for any changes in the marine biology of the area.

For all of these reasons and more, we took a lot of extra samples at this station. And it took almost 2 hours to process them!

In the evening, we stopped outside of Key West and the director of this program for NOAA, Michelle Wood, took a small boat into the harbor because she cannot be with us for the entire cruise.

Key West

Sunset over Key West - a beautiful way to end the day

She asked me if I’d like to go along with the small boat to see Key West, since I have never been there before, and of course I agreed! I got some great pictures of the R/V Walton Smith from the water and we saw a great sunset on the way back to the ship after dropping her off with Jimmy Buffet blasting from the tourist boats on their own sunset cruises.

We will be in the Mississippi River plume for most of tonight. Everyone is very excited and things are pretty crazy with the CTD sampling because we are doing extra special tests while we are in the Mississippi River plume. We might not get much sleep tonight. I will explain in my next blog all about the chemistry sampling that we are doing with the CTD instrument and why it is so important.

Did you know?

On a ship, they call the kitchen the “galley,” the bathroom is the “head,” and the bedrooms are called “staterooms.”

One interesting thing about the ship is that it does not have regular toilets. The ship has a special marine toilet system that functions with a vacuum and very thin pipes. If one of the vacuums on one of the toilets is not closed, none of the toilets work!

Animals seen today…

  • Zooplankton that live in the sargassum (a type of seaweed that usually floats on the water) –baby crab, baby shrimp, and other zooplankton. The sargassum is a great habitat for baby crab, baby shrimp, and baby sea turtles.
  • Baby flying fish
  • Two juvenile Triggerfish

    Triggerfish

    We caught a young triggerfish in our tow net

Channa Comer: The End of the Journey, May 21, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Channa Comer

On Board Research Vessel Hugh R. Sharp
May 11 — 22, 2011


Mission: Sea Scallop Survey Leg 1

Geographical area of cruise: North Atlantic
Date: Saturday, May 21, 2011

Final Log
This will be my final log of the cruise. Unlike previous posts, it will not be separated into a science and a personal log. For my final post, I’ve integrated the two because what I’ve

The Last Tow

The Last Tow

gained from the trip is both scientific and personal. In addition to all that I’ve learned about what happens on a Sea Scallop Survey, the FSCS, scallops in general, and many of the other creatures that live on the North Atlantic Ocean floor, I will be taking home new questions to answer and new avenues to explore.

This was my first experience with marine biology and I couldn’t have had a better one. Rather than reading about the ocean in a textbook, I was able to experience it, in all its grandeur, wonder, beauty, diversity, and unpleasantness (sea sickness, green sand dollar slime, sea squirts, sea mouse). I also couldn’t have asked for better hosts that all the people at NOAA who helped to make this trip possible –everyone in the Teacher at Sea program who helped before the trip and everyone here on the boat.

With the many, many, many tows and baskets and baskets of sand dollars, I’ve developed a fascination with them and many questions to answer when I get home. While I’ve learned a bit about them here on the ship, there is still so much to learn about them. Why are they in such abundance in certain areas? How can you tell the difference between a male and a female? How exactly do they reproduce? What is there function in the deep sea food web? What is their life span? Why the green slime? If their anus and mouth is in the same place, how what mechanism exists to turn one function off when the other is active? If any of you know the answers to these questions, feel free to share.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to Vic, the chief scientist who was always willing to share whatever he knows (and he knows a lot), answer all of my many questions, always went out of his way that I had everything that I needed to fulfill my Teacher at Sea obligations, and made me feel like part of the “family.” I am also extremely thankful to all the other members of my watch (and Chief Jakub) for being such an amazing group to work with. We worked together for 12 hours each day for 11 days and NEVER HAD A FIGHT! Everyone always made a conscious effort to be kind, courteous and helpful. Definitely a great lesson to take back with me. One of the most special things about this experience has been the opportunity to get to know the people on board, to learn about their varied backgrounds and how they ended up where they are.
Through my participation in the Teacher at Sea program, I’ve also learned a greater appreciation for the food that I eat. There is so much that happens before food gets to my plate that I usually take for granted. In the case of scallops, the Sea Scallop Survey is just one part of a very complex picture that includes fishermen who make a living for themselves and provide jobs and opportunities for others, all of the organisms who share the ocean with scallops that are affected by scallop fishing, the ocean ecosystem, and the consumers who buy and eat scallops. In reflecting on this, I’m reminded of a series of articles that I read recently about integrating Native American science (viewing science from a holistic perspective with consideration of how our choices affect ecological balance) with western science. While our immediate needs and wants cannot be minimized, as a society, we could definitely benefit a broader, more long-term view of how our choices affect us over the long term, especially as we are faced with diminishing resources and an ever-expanding population.

Thanks to all of you who followed my adventure by reading the blog. And thank you for your comments, both on the blog and via email.

Until the next adventure…………

Nathan Pierantoni, Log, Friday, 4.8.11

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Nathan Pierantoni

University of Miami Ship R/V Walton Smith

South Florida Bimonthly Hydrographic Survey

Florida Keys, south of Key Largo

Friday, April 8 2011

Weather Data from the Bridge

1440 hrs Local Time

Barometric pressure = 1018 Millibars

79 F

74% Humidity

Visibility = good

Wind E 12 knots

Science and Technology Log

In this log I want to talk about the two marine biology graduate students whom I have been working with this week, Chelsea Bennice and Lorin West. They are both 2nd year students at the University of South Florida, and they have been conducting biological sampling all week long. They have been a lot of fun to get to know, and in discussing their research I have really been struck by the similarities between graduate level scientific research and the science projects that many of my students have worked so hard on for this year’s science fair.

***This is cool– as I sit on the deck of the boat writing this, a pod of bottlenose dolphins has joined us! We are cruising at about 7 knots and they are leaping out of the water at the edge of our wake.

Both Chelsea and Lorin are working with a genus of macro algae known as Sargassum. There are two pelagic (floating) species of Sargassum: Sargassum fluitans and Sargassum natans. These species form clumps/patches on the surface of the ocean and serve as habitat for small organisms like crustaceans (and other invertebrates) and juvenile fishes. Throughout the Florida Keys and the Florida Bay, we have seen Sargassum nearly everywhere.

At different stations along the cruise, Chelsea and Lorin have conducted net tows, in which a 2 m^2 fine mesh, windsock-shaped net is pulled along side of the boat for 30 minutes. At the end of this tube is a selectively permeable collection bucket (cod end) that traps Sargassum and the organisms that it hosts, but it allows the water to pass through. These net tows have been pretty cool, because every time we bring one in, there are always interesting creatures waiting to be discovered. Crabs, shrimp, nudibranchs, eels, fishes (including puffers, filefish, frogfish, jacks, flying fish, juvenile billfish, pipefish), copepods, amphipods, cnidarians (“by the wind sailor”), and a sea horse are just a few of the organisms that live in the uppermost meter of the ocean and make the Sargassum their home. And here I thought we had been floating past little chunks of lifeless seaweed! In fact, each patch of Sargassum is its own little ecosystem. Here is where Chelsea and Lorin’s work begins.

Chelsea is conducting a study in which she intends to describe the habitat architecure of pelagic Sargassum species. I had her describe her work: She intends to answer the question of how habitat selection among fishes and shrimp in the pelagic Sargassum community are influenced by the habitat architecture (interstitial spaces and depth) of a Sargassum patch. She will be manipulating the patches by changing their interstitial spaces (spacing the pieces of Sargassum differently among the surface of the patch). Sargassum pieces that are spaced tightly together are thought to create “microhabitats or niches” in the Sargassum for the fishes or shrimp to hide in. She will also be varying depth of the patches of Sargassum. Patches of Sargassum can range from 2cm to 12 cm (sometimes deeper!) in the water column. Having a deep depth patch may make it easier for a fish or shrimp to find its “home” in the open blue water.

Lorin is also working with Sargassum, but her work focuses on the mechanisms (visual and chemical cues) by which organisms are attracted to Sargassum in the open ocean. Her master’s thesis is titled “The role of chemical and visual cues used by the the sargassum crab Portunus sayi in selecting and locating habitats.” Sargassum is highly variable and broken up by waves and even washes up on shore. So, she has created controlled experiments in her lab where she can test whether the sargassum crab can detect chemicals from sargassum when they are dripped into the aquarium. She will also test to see if the crabs can visually detect sargassum without chemical cues and if they can distinguish between the two species of sargassum

As I spoke with Chelsea and Lorin, I couldn’t help but hope that some of my students go to college and graduate school in order to study ocean science. These women love their work and it shows. They describe their studies with enthusiasm and excitement. Chelsea and Lorin both teach introductory biology labs (they were grading punnett squares after hours during the cruise!), attend classes, and take research field trips to the ocean. They are each about to finish a thesis, graduate, and head into a promising career in marine biology!

Personal Log

It is Friday now, and we have north back toward Miami. We had a few CTD stops along the way and couple of other samples to collect, but overall there is a general feeling on board the R/V Walton Smith that we are headed home! Everyone seems ready to head home to be with their family, including me. This ship will begin a 49 day cruise to ground zero of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill next week, and therefore everyone is anxious to get as much shore time as possible. This week went by very quickly, and I enjoyed all of the experiences I had on board, I wish I could stay longer, but I’m excited to get back to work at Heights!

Here are Chelsea, Lorin, Josh (a University of Miami student of Marine Policy), and Matt (the ship’s chef) hanging out on deck after a long day.
Chelsea, Lorin, Josh (a University of Miami student of Marine Policy), and Matt (the ship's chef)

Chelsea, Lorin, Josh (a University of Miami student of Marine Policy), and Matt (the ship's chef)

Nelson, Dennis, Lorin, and Chelsea watching a net tow in progress.
Nelson, Dennis, Lorin, and Chelsea

Nelson, Dennis, Lorin, and Chelsea

Here is the net in action! Lorin keeps her hands on the cable so that it doesn’t come too far out of the water.

Net in action

Net in action

In this shot, Chelsea is gathering the sargasum she collected in a bucket.

Chelsea gathering sargassum

Chelsea gathering sargassum

Once all of the organisms had been rinsed off the seaweed, this is what she got! A ‘soup’ of fish and small organisms. These blue ones were unsuspected!

organisms

In the wet lab, everything gets rinsed again with sea water and filtered through a mesh.

Wet Lab

Wet Lab

Here are the fish they collected in a net tow. Sometimes fish use sargasum like a nursery to raise their juveniles. In this case, a small school of fish were found all at once.

Fish in an aquarium

Fish in an aquarium

Like all field science, they have plenty of work to do in the lab once their collection is done! Here they are writing their results. Nelson is also at his computer working on graphs from his experiments.

Lab work

Lab work

Here is a group shot we took at sunset off of Key West on Thursday night. From left to right, Josh, Lorin, Erik, Cheryl, Nate, Chelsea and Nelson.

The crew near Key West

The crew near Key West

A nice sunset cruise passes by off of Key West (in the background). As we worked a CTD offshore, about 10 of these ships came out of the harbor and did circles around us. It was a really nice sunset, too!

Sunset cruise

Sunset cruise