NOAA Teacher at Sea Joanie Le Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow August 5 – 16, 2014
Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research Geographic area of the cruise: U.S. Mid-Atlantic Canyons Date: August 15, 2014
Weather information from the Bridge
Air Temperature: 21°
Wind Direction: 277
Weather Conditions: Clear Skies
Latitude: 39° 33.1345′
Longitude: 73° 10.9734′
Science and Technology Log
On the morning of my second-to-last watch, I awoke to learn that many changes had taken place since I last saw my team. In the night, fishermen laid long lines from Hendrickson to Lindenkohl Canyons, leading to a flurry of new plans and a reroute of the night’s dive plan. Long line fishing involves one long line laid parallel to the ocean surface, with several shorter lines called snoods hanging off the main line with hooks on the ends. With these long lines in place, our existing dive route needed a change.
After multiple discussions among the science team and between the chief scientist and the bridge, we decided on an alternate location for our 4 AM dive. Dr. Brian Kinlan (of video-chat fame), quickly produced a new dive plan and rearranged our dive schedule to make the most of our last day at sea. Changes with such short notice are not easy on a ship, but I am learning that they are none-the-less commonplace as the environment is constantly shifting. As my Teacher At Sea guide suggested, flexibility is of utmost importance while at sea.
3D Models and Machine Learning
The ability to quickly adapt to changing situations can be attributed to the preparation that is done even before the ship left the dock. Dr. Kinlan and Matt Poti, both from the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Biogeography Branch in Silver Spring, MD, spent years before this cruise sifting through large repositories of data from NOAA, USGS, NASA and other government agencies to extract the specific environmental variables that may influence the distribution of deep-sea corals, including seafloor type, nutrients, temperature, salinity, currents and food particles.
These data came from a huge variety of scientific instruments ranging from satellites to underwater robots to sediment grabs and sensors attached to bottom trawls. They put these data together with information on where deep corals had been collected or observed in the past. When they had reached the limit of their human brains, they wrote a type of computer program called a “machine learning” algorithm to teach the computer to find corals. This is a kind of predictive habitat distribution model often used as a tool for conservation. So far, Matt and Brian have written these models for the whole Atlantic coast of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico. One of the goals of this cruise is to test these models, and ultimately to improve them, so that they can be used to better protect and conserve deep-sea corals.
The deep coral model is basically a three-dimensional map that predicts the likelihood of coral based on depth, slope and other characteristics of the environment like temperature and salinity. Because deep-sea corals do not benefit from photosynthesis as shallow-water corals do, they tend to prefer areas with high currents that can deliver food particles and also keep sediments from clogging the coral’s delicate feeding structures.
Dive Locations on Fledermaus.
Color indicates depth, and helps predict coral habitats.
Overview of dives on this mission.
On the ship, Brian and Matt use special 3D visualization software called Fledermaus to view the model results in 3D overlaid on top of very accurate maps of the seafloor collected by an instrument called a multibeam sonar, the same technology used to find and map shipwrecks like the Titanic. Fledermaus software allows scientists to explore to complex 3D environments. The software can also connect directly to the ship’s navigation system to help guide TowCam to the exact spot needed to test the coral models.
All models have their limitations, and their ability to predict coral habitats is only as good as the data they are given. “Machine learning” only gets us in the neighborhood of good coral habitat, not to the specific address. Multibeam sonar gives us a detailed 3D picture of the ocean floor, and without it, we’d be lost searching for coral in the deep ocean.
Multibeaming is a process used to gather data about the ocean floor. While you can certainly see many of the canyons we studied on Google Earth, the detail of its bathymetry (topography of the ocean floor) is still just an approximation and could not be used to locate the coral as we have done on this trip.
To build a more accurate chart of the ridges and valleys of the ocean floor, you would need to use the data generated by the Bigelow and several other NOAA ships with multibeaming capability. Much of this data is available to the public, and can be imported into the Geographic Information System (ArcGIS) software and even converted to KML (Keyhole Markup Language) files that can be used in Google Earth. I plan to create a lesson using this data, but the capabilities are numerous.
Tools of the Trade
Even with all this technology available, I was surprised to learn that paper charts and hand-held tools are still regularly used for navigation. While visiting the bridge one afternoon, I found Commander Miller in the midst of dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is a process that determines current position, and aids in the planning of future movements while in transit.
Commander Miller first plotted our “fix” (or current location) directly on the paper chart with a pencil, then used the one-handed divider shown above along with known speed and heading to predict future locations along our path. Furthering my appreciation for the need for both preparation and flexibility at sea, paper charts are still used in conjunction with modern technology to ensure that unforeseen circumstances never interfere with navigation and safety.
During my online training for Teacher At Sea, I was also surprised to learn that the NOAA Corps is one of seven uniformed services of the United States. I was curious to learn more. The officers on the Bigelow were kind enough to take a few moments to talk with me about their experience and the path that led them to the NOAA Corps. After hearing their stories, I found myself wishing I had been aware of the NOAA Corps earlier as I am certain I would have applied myself.
I’d like to take a few moments to ensure that my own students know about this opportunity, and get a bit of advice for using their precious time in high school to set themselves up for success and a possible career in the prestigious NOAA Corps.
LT Kyle Jellison
Ensign Erick Estela Gómez
CDR G. Mark Miller
LCDR Chad Cary
Commander G. Mark Miller was a Marine Science: Geology major. During college, he spent much time at sea through his participation in Semester At Sea, a research diving internship, and other opportunities. After calling the NOAA Dive Center, he learned of the corps. To any interested high school student, he recommends becoming well-rounded through participation in sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities, and to look for leadership opportunities.
Lieutenant Commander Chad Cary was an Environmental Science major, with a Master’s degree in Geography. He enjoyed science and was interested in a career that had an influence on sustainability. His advice to interested high school students is to “reach out to the NOAA Corps recruiting office, ” and to find opportunities to volunteer if near a NOAA port or office.
Lieutenant Jeff Pereira was a Meteorology major, and learned of the NOAA Corps through a college classmate. He states that he always wanted to work for NOAA, and thought that the corps “was the perfect combination of science and duty to country.” He recommends volunteering on a NOAA ship, because “more than likely, one of your first tours is going to be on a NOAA ship.
Lieutenant Kyle Jellison was a Mathematics major, and no stranger to the sea. Growing up in coastal Maine, Jellison worked as a deck hand on whale-watching ships while he was in high school and had his captain’s license by the time he graduated from college. “From all the ships I worked on, the research vessel was the niche I wanted.” The NOAA Corps was a perfect fit. To any interested high school student, he says, “Don’t be picky about the job you get, but be thoughtful about the job you get, because that job experience will help set the path of future job opportunities.”
Ensign Erick Estela Gómez was an Environmental Science major and spent time in the Peace Corps as well as working in ecotourism. Ensign Estela Gómez was drawn to the NOAA Corps through his love of science and the outdoors as well as his belief in public service. To any interested high school student, he suggests keeping up with math and science classes, and finding internship opportunities.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Joanie Le Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow August 5 – 16, 2014
Mission: Deep-Sea Coral Research Geographic area of the cruise: 40 miles SE of Cape May, New Jersey Date: August 5, 2014
Weather information from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 25.5° Celsius
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Wind Direction: 330°
Weather Conditions: clear
Latitude: 37° 37.7′ N
Longitude: 74° 06.8′ W
Science and Technology Log
After almost a full day at sea, we are only hours away from the first watch and the first glimpse of data. Preparations commence, and anticipation is high.
For the next two weeks, we’ll study the deep-sea corals that occur in submarine canyons off the east coast. They have been found in every region of the United States, but for this mission we’ll target canyons in the Northeast region, investigating canyons east of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
Deep-Sea Corals are similar to the familiar shallow-water corals, but cannot harness sunlight for energy through photosynthesis. Instead, they rely on nutrients from the water including detritus (non-living organic matter) and plankton. It is believed that Deep-Sea Corals find both shelter and bountiful grub on the steep-sided canyon walls where the faster-moving currents bring in the day’s meal. Surprisingly, many are just as beautiful and colorful as their shallow-water counterparts, like this bamboo coral photographed at Mytilus Seamount during the NOAA OER US Northern Canyons mission last year.
Though not the hot snorkeling destination, the Deep-Sea Corals in this region are important habitat providers as well as sensitive indicators of ecosystem health. They are long-living but slow-growing and do not recover quickly. Both bottom trawling and possible energy harnessing (off-shore wind farms and oil and gas acquisition) are possible threats to their survival.
Because bottom trawling is so detrimental to the coral communities, we’ll use TowCam to survey the area. Deploying the TowCam is a delicate process, with sensitive and pricey equipment on the line. After a few test deployments yesterday, the team began picking our dive locations. There is plenty to consider when finding a dive spot, including the topography of the sea floor and slope of the canyon walls. We also use the results generated by a habitat suitability model that predicts where deep-sea corals are likely to occur. Scientists must strike a balance between the steeper, high-probability cliffs and the gentler slopes.
Life aboard a ship is surely not easy. The constant rocking and clanging of cold metal will take a while to get used to, and I will sadly miss many daytime hours with our 12 hours on-12 hours off watch schedule. And while waking at 3 AM to greet a deathly dark ocean view may not seem like summertime fun to most, this first morning underway has convinced me that a couple weeks at sea is a treat I won’t soon forget.
NOAA Teacher at Sea: Margaret Stephens NOAA Ship:Pisces Mission: Fisheries, bathymetric data collection for habitat mapping Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States continental shelf waters from Cape Hatteras, NC to St. Lucie Inlet, FL Date: May 28, 2011 (Last day!)
Weather Data from the Bridge As of 06:43, 28 May
Speed 7.60 knots
Wind Speed 10.77 knots
Wind Direction 143.91 º
Surface Water Temperature 25.53 ºC
Surface Water Salinity 36.38 PSU
Air Temperature 24.70 ºC
Relative Humidity 92.00 %
Barometric Pressure 1011.10 millibars
Water Depth 30.17 m
Science and Technology Log
These scientists are not only smart, but they are neat and clean, too! After completing final mapping and fish sampling on the second-to-last day, we spent the remainder of the time cleaning the wet (fish) lab, packing all the instruments and equipment, and carefully labeling each item for transport. We hosed down all surfaces and used non-toxic cleaners to leave the stainless steel lab tables and instruments gleaming, ready for the next research project. The Pisces, like other NOAA fisheries ships, is designed as a mobile lab platform that each research team adapts to conform to its particular needs. The lab facilities, major instruments and heavy equipment are permanent, but since research teams have different objectives and protocols, they bring aboard their own science personnel, specialized equipment, and consumable supplies. The primary mission of NOAA’s fisheries survey vessels, like Pisces, is to conduct scientific studies, so the ship’s officers and crew adjust and coordinate their operations to meet the requirements of each research project. The ship’s Operations Officer and the Chief Scientist communicate regularly, well before the project begins and throughout the time at sea, to facilitate planning and smooth conduct of the mission.
We made up for the two days’ delay in our initial departure (caused by mechanical troubles and re-routing to stay clear of the Endeavor space shuttle launch, described in the May 18 log), thanks to nearly ideal sea conditions and the sheer hard work of the ship’s and science crews. The painstaking work enabled the science team to fine tune their seafloor mapping equipment and protocols, set traps, and accumulate data on fish populations in this important commercial fishing area off the southeastern coast of the United States. The acoustics team toiled every night to conduct survey mapping and produce three dimensional images of the sea floor. They met before sunrise each morning with Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler to plan the daytime fish survey routes, and the fish lab team collected two to three sets of six traps every day. The videographers worked long hours, backing up data and adjusting the camera arrays so that excellent footage was obtained. In all, we obtained ten days’ worth of samples, brought in a substantial number of target species, red snapper and grouper, recorded hours of underwater video, and collected tissue and otolith samples for follow-up analysis back at the labs on land.
Scientists and engineers often use models to help visualize, represent, or test phenomena they are studying. Models are especially helpful when it is too risky, logistically difficult, or expensive to conduct extensive work under “live” or real-time conditions.
As described in previous logs, this fisheries work aboard Piscesinvolves surveying and trapping fish to analyze population changes among commercially valuable species, principally red snapper and grouper, which tend to aggregate in particular types of hardbottom habitats. Hardbottom, in contrast to sandy, flat areas, consists of rocky ledges, coral, or artificial reef structures, all hard substrates. By locating hardbottom areas on the sea floor, scientists can focus their trapping efforts in places most likely to yield samples of the target fish species, thus conserving valuable time and resources. So, part of the challenge is finding efficient ways to locate hardbottom. That’s where models can be helpful.
The scientific models rely on information known about the relationships between marine biodiversity and habitat types, because the varieties and distribution of marine life found in an area are related to the type of physical features present. Not surprisingly, this kind of connection often holds true in terrestrial (land) environments, too. For example, since water-conserving succulents and cacti are generally found in dry, desert areas, aerial or satellite images of land masses showing dry environments can serve as proxies to identify areas where those types of plants would be prevalent. In contrast, one would expect to find very different types of plant and animal life in wetter areas with richer soils.
Traditional methods used to map hardbottom and identify fish habitat include direct sampling by towing underwater video cameras, sonar, aerial photography, satellite imaging, using remotely operating vehicles (ROV’s), or even setting many traps in extensive areas. While they have some advantages, all those methods are labor and time-intensive and expensive, and are therefore impractical for mapping extensive areas.
This Pisces team has made use of a computer and statistical model developed by other scientists that incorporates information from previous mapping (bathymetry) work to predict where hardbottom habitat is likely to be found. The Pisces scientists have employed the “Dunn” model to predict potential hardbottom areas likely to attract fish populations, and then they have conducted more detailed mapping of the areas highlighted by the model. (That has been the principal job of the overnight acoustics team.) Using those more refined maps, the day work has involved trapping and recording video to determine if fish are, indeed, found in the locations predicted. By testing the model repeatedly, scientists can refine it further. To the extent that the model proves accurate, it can guide future work, making use of known physical characteristics of the sea floor to identify more areas where fish aggregate, and helping scientists study large areas and develop improved methods for conservation and management of marine resources.
Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) Measurements
Another aspect of the data collection aboard Pisces involves measuring key physical properties of seawater, including temperature and salinity (saltiness, or concentration of salts) at various depths using a Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) device.
Salinity and temperature affect how sound travels in water; therefore, CTD data can be used to help calibrate the sonar equipment used to map the sea floor. In other instances, the data are used to help scientists study changes in sea conditions that may affect climate. Increases in sea surface temperatures, for example, can speed evaporation, moisture and heat transfer to the atmosphere, feeding or intensifying storm systems such as hurricanes and cyclones.
Pisces’ shipboard CTD, containing a set of probes attached to a cylindrical housing, is lowered from the side deck to a specified depth. A remote controller closes the water collection bottles at the desired place in the water column to extract samples, and the CTD takes the physical measurements in real time.
Of all the many species collected, only the red snapper and grouper specimens were kept for further study; most of the other fish were released after they were weighed and measured. A small quantity was set aside for Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens to prepare for the all the ship’s occupants to enjoy, but the bulk of the catch was saved for charitable purposes. The fish (“wet” lab) team worked well into overtime hours each night to fillet the catch and package it for donation. They cut, wrapped, labeled and fresh froze each fillet as carefully as any gourmet fish vendor would. Once we disembarked on the last day, Scientist Warren Mitchell, who had made all the arrangements, delivered over one hundred pounds of fresh frozen fish to a local food bank, Second Harvest of Northern Florida. It was heartening to know that local people would benefit from this high-quality, tasty protein.
Careers at Sea
Many crew members gave generously of their time to share with me their experiences as mariners and how they embarked upon and developed their careers. I found out about many, many career paths for women and men who are drawn to the special life at sea. Ship’s officers, deck crew, mechanics, electricians, computer systems specialists, chefs and scientists are among the many possibilities.
Chief Steward Jesse Stiggens worked as a cook in the U.S. Navy and as a chef in private restaurants before starting work with NOAA. He truly loves cooking, managing all the inventory, storage and food preparation in order to meet the needs and preferences of nearly forty people, three meals a day, every day. He even cooks for family and friends during his “off” time!
Electronics specialist Bob Carter, also a Navy veteran, is responsible for the operations and security of all the computer-based equipment on board. He designed and set up the ship’s network and continually expands his skills and certifications by taking online courses. He relishes the challenges, responsibilities and autonomy that come along with protecting the integrity of the computer systems aboard ship.
First Engineer Brent Jones has worked for many years in the commercial and government sectors, maintaining engines, refrigeration, water and waste management, and environmental control systems. He gave me a guided tour of the innards of Pisces, including four huge engines, heating and air conditioning units, thrusters and rudders, hoists and lifts, fresh water condenser and ionizers, trash incinerator, and fire and safety equipment. The engineering department is responsible for making sure everything operates safely, all day and night, every day. Brent and the other engineers are constantly learning, updating and sharpening their skills by taking specialized courses throughout their careers.
Chief Boatswain James Walker is responsible for safe, efficient operations on deck, including training and supervising all members of the deck crew. He entered NOAA after a career in the U.S. Navy. The Chief Boatswain must be diplomatic, gentle but firm, and a good communicator and people manager. He coordinates safe deck operations with the ship’s officers, crew, and scientific party and guests.
NOAA officers are a special breed. To enter the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree with extensive coursework in mathematics or sciences. They need not have experience at sea, although many do. They undergo an intensive officers’ training program at a marine academy before beginning shipboard work as junior officers, where they train under more experienced officers to learn ship’s systems and operations, protocols, navigation, safety, personnel management, budgeting and administrative details. After years of hard work and satisfactory performance, NOAA officers may advance through the ranks and eventually take command of a ship.
All the officers and crew aboard Pisces seem to truly enjoy the challenges, variety of experiences and camaraderie of life at sea. They are dedicated to NOAA’s mission and take pride in the scientific and ship operations work. To be successful and satisfied with this life, one needs an understanding family and friends, as crew can be away at sea up to 260 days a year, for two to four weeks at a time. There are few personal expenses while at sea, since room and board are provided, so prudent mariners can accumulate savings. There are sacrifices, as long periods away can mean missing important events at home. But there are some benefits: As one crewman told me, every visit home is like another honeymoon!
I had expected that life aboard Pisceswould include marine toilets and salt water showers with limited fresh water just for rinsing off. I was surprised to find regular water-conserving flush toilets and fresh water showers. Still, the supply of fresh water is limited, as all of it is produced from a condensation system using heat from the engines. During our ship orientation and safety session on the first day, Operations Officer Tracy Hamburger and Officer Mike Doig cautioned us to conserve water. They explained (but did not demonstrate!) a “Navy” shower, which involves turning the water on just long enough to get wet, off while soaping up, and on again for a quick rinse. It is quite efficient – more of us should adopt the practice on land. Who really needs twenty minute showers with fully potable water, especially when more than one billion people on our “water planet” lack safe drinking water and basic sanitation?
The drill I had anticipated since the first pre-departure NOAA Teacher at Sea instructions arrived in my inbox finally happened. I had just emerged from a refreshing “Navy” shower at the end of a fishy day when the ship’s horn blasted, signaling “Abandon ship!” We’d have to don survival suits immediately to be ready to float on our own in the sea for an indefinite time. Fortunately, I had finished dressing seconds before the alarm sounded. I grabbed the survival suit, strategically positioned for ready access near my bunk, and walked briskly (never run aboard ship!) to the muster station on the side deck. There, all the ship’s occupants jostled for space enough on deck to flatten out the stiff, rubbery garment and attempt to put it on. That’s much easier said than done; it was not a graceful picture. “One size fits all”, I learned, is a figment of some manufacturer’s imagination. My petite five foot four frame was engulfed, lost in the suit, while the burly six- foot-five crewman alongside me struggled to squeeze himself into the same sized suit. The outfit, affectionately known as a Gumby, is truly designed for survival, though, as neoprene gaskets seal wrists, leaving body parts covered, with only a small part of one’s face exposed. The suit serves as a flotation device, and features a flashing light, sound alarm, and other warning instruments to facilitate locating those unfortunate enough to be floating at sea.
Thankfully, this was only a test run on deck. We were spared the indignity of going overboard to test our true survival skills. I took advantage of the opportunity to try a few jumping jacks and pushups while encased in my Gumby.
Bets Are On!
These scientists are fun-loving and slightly superstitious, if not downright mischievous. On the last day, Chief Scientist Nate Bacheler announced a contest: whoever came closest to predicting the number of fish caught in the last set of traps would win a Pisces t-shirt that Nate promised to purchase with his personal funds. In true scientific fashion, the predictions were carefully noted and posted for all to see. As each trap was hauled in, Nate recorded the tallies on the white board in the dry lab. Ever the optimist, basing my estimate on previous days’ tallies, I predicted a whopping number: 239.
I should have been more astute and paid more attention to the fact that the day’s survey was planned for a region that featured less desirable habitats for fish than previous days. Nate, of course, having set the route, knew much more about the conditions than the rest of us did. His prediction: a measly 47 fish. Sure enough, the total tally was 38, and the winner was………Nate! Our loud protests that the contest was fixed were to no avail. He declared himself the winner. Next time, we’ll know enough to demand that the Chief Scientist remove himself from the contest.
Once the day’s deck work was over, a fish call came over the ship’s public address system. Kirk Perry, one of the avid fishermen among the crew, attached a line baited with squid from the stern guard rail and let it troll along unattended, since a fishing pole was unnecessary. Before long, someone else noticed that the line had hooked a fish. It turned out to be a beautiful mahi-mahi, with sleek, streamlined, iridescent scales in an array of rainbow colors, and quite a fighter. I learned that the mahi quickly lose their color once they are removed from the water, and turn to a pale gray-white once lifeless. If only I were a painter, I would have stopped everything to try to capture the lovely colors on canvas.
We entered Mayport under early morning light. An official port pilot is required to come aboard to guide all ships into port, so the port pilot joined Commander Jeremy Adams and the rest of the officer on the bridge as we made our way through busy Mayport, home of a United States Naval base. Unfortunately, the pier space reserved for Pisces was occupied by a British naval vessel that had encountered mechanical problems and was held up for repairs, so she could not be moved. That created a logistical challenge for us, as it meant that Pisces had to tie up alongside a larger United States naval ship whose deck was higher than ours. Once again, the crew and scientists showed their true colors, as they braved the hot Florida sun, trekking most of the gear and luggage by hand over two gangplanks, across the Navy ship, onto the pier, and loading it into the waiting vehicles.
The delay gave me a chance to say farewell and thank the crew and science team for their patience and kindness during my entire time at sea.
These eleven days sailed by. The Pisces crew had only a short breather of a day and a half before heading out with a new group of scientists for another research project. To sea again….NOAA’s work continues.
A big “Thank you!” to all the scientists and crew who made my time aboard Pisces so educational and memorable!