NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jenny Gapp (she/her)
Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
July 23, 2023 – August 5, 2023
Mission: Pacific hake (Merluccius productus) Survey (Leg 3 of 5)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean off the Northern California Coast working north back toward coastal waters of Oregon.
Date: July 24, 2023
Weather Data from the Bridge
Sunrise: 05:46 | Sunset: 20:51
Current Time: 8:30am Pacific Standard Time (0830)
Lat 42 06.5819 N, Lon 124 58.5931 W
Visibility: less than 1 nautical mile
Sky condition: overcast, Present weather: fog
Wind speed: 10 knots
Wind direction: 115° (east southeast ESE)
Barometer: 1017.5 mbar (millibars), approx. 30 hg (inches of mercury)
Sea Wave height 1 ft | Swell 260°, 3-4 feet in height
Sea temp 15.2°C (59.36°F) | Air Temp 57.38°F
Course Over Ground (COG): 359.2°
Speed Over Ground (SOG): 11.3 knots (13 mph)
Science and Technology Log
Let’s break down the weather and navigation data that you may not be familiar with:
What is a nautical mile as compared to a “regular” mile?
Nautical miles are used to measure the distance traveled through the water. A nautical mile is slightly longer than a mile on land, equaling 1.1508 land-measured (or statute) miles. A nautical mile equals exactly 1,852 meters or approximately 6076 feet. The nautical mile is based on the Earth’s longitude and latitude coordinates, with one nautical mile equaling one minute of latitude. (Source: NOAA)
What are knots?
One knot equals one nautical mile per hour. A knot is a unit of speed that ties directly into the global latitude and longitude coordinate system. Aviators and sailors find knots are easier to navigate due to their relationship with degrees of latitude. Land-based miles per hour do not share a relationship with latitude and longitude. A knot is equal to about 1.15 land-based miles. Knots are tied (pun intended) to nautical miles traveled. The origin of measurement comes from a piece of wood tied to the ship with a piece of knotted rope, with the crew members then counting the number of knots between the ship and the piece of wood after a certain amount of time.
What is a millibar?
A unit of atmospheric pressure equal to ¹/₁₀₀₀ bar or 1000 dynes per square centimeter. Wait, what’s a dyne? This is a physics concept. A dyne is a force that acts for one second and produces a change in velocity of one centimeter per second in a mass of one gram. When I blow on the surface of my peppermint tea to cool it off I am exerting the force of my breath and changing the velocity of the tea’s surface.
The air around you has weight and exerts pressure on everything it touches. Press lightly with your fingers on the back of your other hand to feel more noticeable pressure. Gravity is pulling on the air as well, just like it is keeping you anchored to Earth.
Atmospheric pressure is an indicator of weather. It’s obviously a windy day down in the land of peppermint tea when (my) wind is blowing. When a low-pressure system moves into an area, it usually leads to cloudiness, wind, and precipitation. High-pressure systems usually lead to fair, calm weather.
Barometers gauge pressure. Hg represents inches of mercury in a classic barometer. One inch of mercury is the pressure exerted by a 1-inch high column of mercury at 0°C (32°F ) Millibars is a metric measurement while inches of mercury (hg) is the English unit of measurement.
What is a heading?
The direction in which a vessel’s bow points at any given time. It is the angle between North and the bow of the boat.
What is Course Over Ground?
Course Over Ground is the actual direction of progress of a vessel, between two points, concerning the earth’s surface. The vessel’s “heading” may differ from the Course Over Ground (COG) due to the effects of wind, tide, and currents.
How do you read wind direction in degrees?
NOAA works with a multitude of contractors that are associated with other entities such as Oregon State University (OSU) and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC). The science crew on leg 3 includes three individuals associated with OSU concerned with marine mammals and birds (Nick Metheny, Chris Hoefer, and graduate student Jake Marshall), one fisheries technician (Liz Ortiz, with PSMFC), two independent contractors (Ethan Beyer, Wet Lab Lead; Samantha Engster, environmental DNA sampling), and two NOAA employed scientists: Steve de Blois (Chief Scientist, Acoustics), and Julia Clemons (Acoustics).
The lesson here is that you can be contributing to NOAA’s Fishery work but not necessarily receiving your paycheck from them, as is the case with contractors. NOAA also welcomes ocean enthusiast volunteers, which is true both of myself and second-year graduate student Jake. Jake’s focus is to examine how proposed wind farms off the Oregon Coast, along with rising sea temperatures, may impact the migratory patterns of hake. His undergraduate degree is in applied math.
Career trajectories are well represented within the science crew. Liz represents an entry-level position, while Steve represents a senior scientist with many surveys under his belt.
Tour of Hatfield Marine Science Center Campus
On Friday, July 21st I had the opportunity for a brief tour of buildings on the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) campus. The general public is limited to the Visitor Center where a Giant Pacific Octopus is on display along with numerous educational exhibits.
My guide was Alicia Billings, a Fishery Biologist who specializes in engineering (such as underwater cameras) and database management for NOAA Fisheries. She is currently working on a Master’s in Data Analytics at Oregon State University. Truly a renaissance woman, who crafts all sorts of contraptions for expeditions, she also serves as a point of contact for the TAS program.
I met her at a cafe just inside the new Marine Studies Building. It’s the newest structure on campus and allegedly designed to withstand a magnitude 9.0+ earthquake and subsequent tsunami. It’s touted as a vertical evacuation structure and contains a community cache with emergency supplies. An imposing stairway leads to the upper floors and is lined with an art installation that imitates portholes on a ship. Alicia pointed out an Innovation Lab on the main floor which appeared to have many interesting mechanical devices to experiment with. A bulletin board at the entrance announced summer and fall classes: Food From the Sea, Phycology (micro & macroalgal biology), Aquaculture Lab.
The next stop was the OSU Guin Library, which I couldn’t resist peeking into. An impressive whale skeleton hangs near the entrance. Marilyn Potts Guin was the first librarian for HMSC. Under her “exuberant guidance,” she convinced the HMSC director at the time that the site needed a real library. The education building had room so Guin started filling it.
HMSC is an academic research field station that evolved into a multiagency research campus. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department along with its federal counterpart are all partners on campus. When the EPA provided funding for a new library building, Guin provided guidance on the design. Sadly, she passed away from breast cancer at age 45 while construction was underway.
Guin’s exuberance echoed long after her departure when a 2014 remodel was assisted by the sale of her house, which she had left to the university. The library continues to adapt to the ever-changing information landscape but maintains its core focus on materials related to marine fisheries and mammals, and information specific to the Northeast Pacific Ocean. A ‘new books’ display included: Tales of the Sea Cloud, Coastal and Deep Ocean Pollution, Seaweed Biotechnology, and (appropriate to the survey) Advances in Fish Processing Technology.
A myriad of bookish treasures presented themselves: color plates of tropical coral fish from the Indo-Pacific, a glass-enclosed case of old tomes like Eniwetok Marine Biological Laboratory Contributions 1955-1974. Then, lo and behold, a modest collection of children’s books! All non-fiction science as far as I could tell. Rounded shelf marker stickers announced: Oceanography! Zoology! Sharks! On the way out I noticed a whiteboard asking, “What Are You Excited About for the Summer?” See the gallery images below for how I answered.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, there was a shelving cart labeled “Free Books.” I’m not sure that my elementary students will be as excited about a withdrawn copy of ‘Proceedings of the West Coast Squid Symposium (February 1983)’ as I was, but perhaps I can use it to introduce them to the word “symposium” and to use as scientific realia during a lesson on squids.
Following the library tour, we walked over to NOAA’s Barry Fisher Building #955. In one room, otoliths (ear bones from which a fish’s age is determined) from previous legs of the hake survey were being processed. Other items of note in the building included a -80°C freezer for fishy samples awaiting transport. For example, gonads are processed in Seattle, not in Newport. Another freezer was filled with labeled crates: Big Skates & Black Skates, Deepsea Skates & Starry Skates.
Offices belonging to many of the science crew joining me on leg 3 were upstairs. This is where I first met Liz Ortiz, meticulously counting otoliths. One year is equivalent to an opaque ring (feeding activity) and a translucent one (lean times in the mess hall). The feeding cycle has to do with a pattern of upwelling, which produces elevated nutrients, and downwelling: “Hey! Who took away the salad bar?” Liz was looking at walleye pollock at the time and had recently counted 88 rings. The oldest fish on record are upwards of 200 years old. Hake are shorter lived with 15-20 years being the top end of the grumpiest specimens.
Alicia also showed me a room that houses a host of technology components. One of the items was a broken underwater stereo camera she attempted to fix. Unfortunately, it will not be ready for leg 3.
The final part of the tour was a preview of the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada. In the wet lab, Alicia pointed out her contributions. Alicia’s knowledge of electrical engineering is self-taught (most NOAA tech is DIY). She used Python to create a software called CLAMS–Catch Logger for Acoustic Monitoring Survey. Data from the wet lab is added to the software and is backed up to a database (the mother CLAM, if you will) that lives in the acoustics lab. Alicia wired something together called the ‘electronic back deck’ where the fish data initially goes prior to being backed up to the Mother CLAM. There are four separate networks on the ship, but all data is shared among them. The old system used isolated spreadsheets… welcome to the 21st century!
Remember the ship tracker technology from blog post 1? Here’s a look at the AIS equipment on the bridge. Additionally, there are two radar screens in the suite of instrument panels available to navigators. One uses an X band for short range and the other an S band for long range. A gyroscope is used for maintaining orientation, and an analog compass serves as a last resort if redundancies in backup power fail more contemporary instruments. Two pedestals on the exterior bridge deck contain the gyro bearings.
Taxonomy of Sights
Day 1. An albatross (observed by OSU marine mammal observer), a pod of humpback whales feeding last night near sunset (observed by fisheries technician with PSMFC).
Fog has impeded observations on day 2 of our leg.
Day 2. Several whale “blows” during our marine mammal watch prior to trawling. If mammals are within 500 meters of the ship we wait until they move off before dropping the net.
You Might Be Wondering…
Where exactly is this survey taking place?
We steamed south from Newport to a transect off the California coast– #35 in the image below. We’ll follow those lines similar to mowing the lawn, a back and forth to case the continental shelf for hake. The goal is to complete all transects through 57. A transect is simply a straight line along which observations, measurements, and samples are taken. The first hake survey on the West Coast occurred in 1977. In 1992 a partnership with Canada was formed, and in 2003 the FEAT Team started conducting biennial surveys.
- Like any industry there are acronyms that can get confusing.
- The FRAM division is Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division.
- The FEAT Team is Fisheries Engineering and Acoustic Technologies Team (not to be confused with Fishery Ecosystem Analysis Tool).
- The NWFSC is Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Further reading on the Hake survey.
The Bell M. Shimada flies the NOAA Service Flag along with the flag of the United States (National Ensign) and the POW/MIA flag of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. In port she also flew a Union Jack pennant from the bow mast.
Government Nesting Dolls:
The Department of Commerce is one of 15 departments in the federal government. View an organization chart here. See where NOAA falls under the 13 arms of the Department of Commerce here. NOAA has multiple branches as well. Our survey is made possible by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO), including NOAA Corps, working together. Notice the nautical theme on the Department of Commerce emblem in the image below.
The Road from Portland to Newport
I woke up with the birds on Friday, July 21st to travel via personal vehicle to Newport, Oregon from my home in Portland. Hwy 18 crosses the Willamette Valley in a south-westerly manner when originating from the north. The view out the window is something like an advertisement for “Made in Oregon.” A cornucopia of agricultural goods beckon: orchards of walnuts, hazelnuts, apples, pears. A combine parked under a tree made me think of my Dad, retired from the agricultural community, but driving a combine “for fun” for a farmer friend. Just the day before he had driven the behemoth machine onto the Buena Vista Ferry in Marion County crossing the Willamette River—which dumps into the Columbia, which runs into the Pacific, which is where I was heading.
Many years back, during the Ice Age floods, a rock came to rest on an improbably flat spot in what is now Yamhill County. An unassuming brown sign marks the road you turn down to view it. Unremarkable looking except for its size and location. This glacial erratic serves as an example of the power contained in collective molecules of H2O. The Valley (as locals call it) is fertile in part due to the rich silts washed here by ancient floodwaters (our apologies to Eastern Washington—here’s a glass of merlot from Siltstone Winery for your troubles). Farmer John’s Market boasts peaches, strawberries, apricots, raspberries, smoothies, shortcakes, and milkshakes—the latter of which do not grow on bushes or trees. After passing the sign for Wetzel Winery you get a few more grass seed fields, some fallow, some with boxes for bee colonies. The landscape then begins to transition into the foothills of the coast range. Queen Anne’s lace and Himalayan blackberry fill in the gaps between the field and road.
Yamhill is traded for Polk and the fir trees start to get serious, accompanied by ocean spray (the bush also called ironwood or Holodiscus discolor), vine maple, and rhododendron. The flower clusters of ocean spray are reminiscent of lilac, except these are a peachy off-white. At a distance, the multi-toned green of trees on distant hillsides illustrates staggered replanting after a patchwork of clearcut harvests. As Hwy 22 East merges with 18, I think about childhood trips to the beach. Our family most frequently traveled 22 to 18 to Lincoln City which sits 25 miles north of Newport. We made a pilgrimage about once a year, sometimes in the off-season to avoid crowds. A series of billboards still promote businesses that we patronized in the 1980s and 90s. Undersea Gardens—which is no more—was of particular interest to me. I was captivated by “Armstrong,” the Giant Pacific octopus who entertained visitors by interacting with a diver in his tank. The name made an impression on me, signifying that this was a creature to be respected. Our family stayed at The Inn at Otter Crest, Pelican Shores, and other establishments whose names are lost to me. Mo’s Chowder was a frequent stop, where I delighted in the chewy clam pieces floating in cream. I admit that as an adult I find the chowder a bit too rich, a bit too heavy in butter. Or maybe it’s just me that’s heavy!
Hwy 22 diverts from 18 just before Spirit Mountain Casino—operated by The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. CTGR puts on an excellent educator summit that happens annually. Oregon educators are compelled by the legislature to fulfill SB13, which promotes “Tribal History is Shared History.” It strives to share the stories of Oregon’s First Peoples with young Oregonians. Indigenous communities persist in our state and there are always a few students in my elementary school who declare tribal affiliations.
Among the other billboards are Chinook Winds, The Oregon Coast Aquarium (which broke ground in 1990), and one recommending, “Explore Lincoln City” with a sea lion balancing a glass float on his nose. When I was a child, the billboards were key in the escalating excitement of reaching the beach. The first glimpse of the Pacific was always a special moment in the car, often accompanied by celebratory mouth trumpets and squeals. The H.B. Van Douzer corridor and its whopping 760-foot Murray Hill summit is the last section of road to traverse before hitting Hwy 101. The coast range is fraught with landslides in winter and there are multiple patches of rough road. Cue the chorus of voices in a car full of children, “Ruh-ro!”
The sign for Tillamook County flashes by and the turquoise sky becomes populated with purple-hued clouds that have a misty edge, a tell-tale sign of marine influence. Lincoln County comes next and the sun is left behind at Slick Rock Creek. Speaking of rocks, the local news was all aflutter this past week with the tale of a cougar trapped by tides on Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach. Another recent story comes from an Australian sailor and his dog (!) rescued by a Mexican tuna boat after three months adrift at sea.
You know you’re really close when you see the white and blue sign proclaiming, “Entering a Tsunami Hazard Zone.” I will do my best NOT to think about the statistical probability of a Cascadia Earthquake during the next two weeks. D Sands was often the first stop during family trips of yesteryear. It’s adjacent to D River, claiming to be the world’s shortest. Depoe Bay is the next town south of Lincoln City. Between Newport and this charming and often congested whale-watching spot is Beverly Beach State Park. During a geology project in college, I was infamously caught on camera here discussing “sands of grain.”
I was equally tongue-tied when I entered the gated MOC-P facility where the Bell M. Shimada lives when in port. “I’m with the Teacher at She program!” To which I sheepishly told the security guard, “Um, yes, I’m a she, but I’m here to go to sea.” I am now, in fact, at sea. Over the course of the following blog posts, I’ll share more about what life at sea is like.
Librarian at Sea
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, the Whale
Day 1. 7:30pm As my stomach screamed over the yawning gulf it couldn’t quite reconcile what was happening and promptly evacuated its contents on the main deck about an hour after dinner. At which point I upgraded to scopolamine (prescribed slow-release patch behind the ear) over a cocktail of dramamine and meclizine. The lesson here: sometimes you can only learn through the school of hard knocks.
Hook, Line, and Thinker
What’s a whale’s favorite phrase? Where there’s a whale, there’s a way.
Innovating on the spot is a hallmark of research excursions. Chief Scientist, Steve de Blois, shared an anecdote about a time in 2005 when an instrument pod fell off the hull-mounted centerboard of an older vessel, making acoustic data impossible to gather. Where there’s a whale there’s a way, and the team sprung into action creating a new apparatus from parts available, though the frame for the solitary transducer was made off-site. In contrast, the Bell M. Shimada has fancy watertight doors that open up to its instrument pod, which can be raised or lowered as needed. This allows easy access for cleaning and tinkering as needed. This improvement in ship design eliminates the need for NOAA Divers in this case, who previously could only work on instrument pods from beneath the surface.
A Bobbing Bibliography
The ship’s lounge is where movie nights occur, where the ship store is located (clothing, stickers, and swag), and where you can grab a game, magazine, or book to pass the time.