Lesley Urasky: Smile and say, “Squid!”, June 20, 2012

 NOAA Teacher at Sea
Lesley Urasky
Aboard the NOAA ship Pisces
June 16 – June 29, 2012

 Mission:  SEAMAP Caribbean Reef Fish Survey
Geographical area of cruise: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Date: June 20, 2012

Latitude: 18.1937
Longitude: -64.7737

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Air Temperature: 28°C (83°F)
Wind Speed:  19 knots (22 mph), Beaufort scale: 5
Wind Direction: from N
Relative Humidity: 80%
Barometric Pressure: 1,014.90  mb
Surface Water Temperature: 28°C (83°F)

Science and Technology Log

The cameras are a very important aspect of the abundance survey the cruise is conducting.  Since catching fish is an iffy prospect (you may catch some, you may not) the cameras are extremely important in determining the abundance and variety of reef fish.  At every site sampled during daylight hours, we deploy the camera array.  The cameras can only be utilized during the daytime because there are no lights – video relies on the ambient light filtering down from the surface.

Camera array – the lens of one of the cameras is facing forward.

Deployment of the array at a site begins once the Bridge verifies we are over the sampling site. The camera array is turned on and is raised over the rail of the ship and lowered to the water’s surface on a line from a winch that has a ‘quick release’ attached to the array.  Once over the surface, a deck hand pulls on the line to the quick release allowing the array to free fall to the bottom of the ocean. Attached to the array is enough line with buoys attached. The buoys mark the array at the surface and give the deck hands something to aim for with the grappling hook when it is time for the array to be retrieved.  Once the buoys are on deck, a hydraulic pot hauler is used to raise the array from the sea floor to the side of the ship.  From there,  another winch is used to bring the array on board.

Vic, Jordan, Joey, and Joe deploying the camera array.

When the array is deployed, a scientist starts a computer program that collects the time, position and depth the array was dropped at. The array is allowed to “soak” on the bottom for about 38 minutes. The initial 3-5 minutes are for the cameras to power up and allow any sediment or debris on the bottom to settle after the array displaces it. The cameras are only actually recording for 25 of those minutes. The final 3-5 minutes are when the computers are powering down.  At one point in time, the cameras on the array were actual video cameras sealed in waterproof, seawater-rated cases. With this system, after each deployment, every individual case had to be physically removed from the array, opened up, and the DV tape switched out.  With the new system, there are a series of four digital cameras that communicate wirelessly with the computers inside the dry lab.

We did have a short-lived problem with one of the digital cameras — it quit working and the electronics technician that takes care of the cameras, Kenny Wilkinson, took a couple of nights to trouble shoot and repair it.  During this time period, we reverted back to the original standard video camera.  Throughout the cruise, Kenny uploads the videos taken during the day and repairs the cameras at night so they will be ready for the next day’s deployments.

Squid (before being cut into pieces) used for bait on the camera array

Besides the structure of the camera array which is designed to attract reef fish, the array is baited with squid.  A bag of frozen, cut squid hangs down near the middle.  The squid is replaced at every site.

Adding bait to the camera array.

In addition to the bait bag, a Temperature Depth  Recorder (TDR) is attached near the center, hanging downward near the bottom third of the array. The purpose of the TDR is to measure the temperature of the water at various depths.  It is also used to verify that the depth where the camera comes to rest on the ocean bottom and is roughly equivalent to what the acoustic sounding reports at the site.  This is important because the camera generally doesn’t settle directly beneath the ship.  Its location is ultimately determined by the drift as it falls through the water column and current.  The actual TDR instrument is very small and is attached to the array near the bait bag.  After retrieving the array at each site, the TDR is removed from the array and brought inside to download the information.  To download, there is a small magnet that is used to tap the instrument (once) and then a stylus attached to the computer is used to read a flash of light emitted by an LED.  The magnet is then tapped four times on the instrument to clear the previous run’s data.  The data actually records the pressure exerted by the overlying water column in pounds per square inch (psi) which is then converted to a depth.

TDR instrument

Computer screen showing the data downloaded from the TDR.

The video from each day is uploaded to the computer system during the night shift.  The following day, Kevin Rademacher (chief scientist), views the videos and quickly annotates the “highlights”.  The following things are noted:  visual clarity (turbidity [cloudiness due to suspended materials], what the lighting is like [backlit], and possible focusing issues), substrate (what the bottom is made of), commercially viable fish, fish with specific management plans, presence of lionfish (an invasive species), and fish behavior.  Of the four cameras, the one with the best available image is noted for later viewing.

Computer data entry form for camera array image logs

Once back at the lab, the videos are more completely analyzed.  A typical 20-minute video will take anywhere from 30 minutes to three days to complete. This is highly dependent upon density and diversity of fish species seen; the greater the density and diversity, the longer or more viewing events it will take.  The experience of the reader is also an important factor. Depending upon the level of expertise, a review system is in place to “back read” or verify species identification. The resulting data is entered into a database which is then used to assign yearly data points for trend analysis. The final database is submitted to the various management councils.  From there, management or fisheries rebuilding plans are developed and hopefully, implemented.

Spotted moray eel viewed from the camera array.  He’s well camouflaged; can you find him?

Coney with a parasitic isopod attached below its eye.

Two Lionfish – an invasive species

Personal Log

Today, we are off the coast of St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  We traveled from the southern coast of  St. Croix, went around the western tip of the island and across the straight.  When I woke up I could see not only St. Thomas and St. John, but a host of smaller islands located off their coastline.

Map of the Virgin Islands. St. Croix and St. Thomas are separated by 35 miles of ocean. It took us about 3 hours to cross to our next set of sampling sites.

Around dinner time last night we had an interesting event happen on board.  They announced over the radio system that there was a leak in the water line and asked  us not to use the heads (toilets).  A while later, they announced no unnecessary use of water (showers, etc.); following that they shut off all water.  It didn’t take long for the repairs to occur, and soon the water was returned.  However, when I went to dinner, I discovered that the stateroom I’m sharing with Kelly Schill, the Ops Officer, had flooded.  Fortunately, the effects of the flooding were not nearly as bad as I had feared.  Only a small portion of the room had been affected.  The crew did a great job of rapidly assessing the problem and fixing it in a timely manner.  After this, I have absolutely no fear about any problems on board because I know the crew will react swiftly, maintain safety, and be professional all the while.

Last night was the first sunset I’ve seen since I’ve been on board.  Up until this point, it has been too hazy and cloudy.  The current haze is caused by dust/sand storms in the Sahara Desert blowing minute particles across the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Thomas sunset

Today has been a slow day with almost nary a fish caught.  We did catch one fish, but by default.  It was near the surface and hooked onto our bait.  We immediately reeled in the line and extracted it.  It was necessary to remove it because it would have skewed our data since it was caught at the surface and not near the reef.  This fish was a really exciting one for me to see, because it was a Shark Sucker (Echeneis naucrates).  These are the fish you may have seen that hang on to sharks waiting for tasty tidbits to float by.  They are always on the lookout for a free meal.

Shark sucker on measuring board

One of the most interesting aspects of the shark sucker is that they have a suction device called laminae on top of their heads that looks a little like a grooved Venetian blind system.  In order to attach to the shark (or other organism), they “open the blinds” and then close them creating a suction-like connection.

The “sucker” structure on the Shark Sucker. Don’t they look like Venetian blinds?

I got to not only see and feel this structure on the fish, but also let it attach itself to my arm!  It was the neatest feeling ever! The laminae are actually a modified dorsal spines; these spines are needed because of the roughness of shark’s skin. When the shark sucker detached itself from me, it left a red, slightly irritated mark on my arm that disappeared after a couple of hours.

Look, Ma, No Hands! Shark sucker attached to my arm.

Tomorrow we’ll be helping place a buoy in between St. Croix and St. Thomas.  It will be interesting to see the process and how the anchor is attached.

With all the weird and wonderful animals we’re retrieving, I can’t wait to see what another day of fishing brings.

Chris Imhof, November 15, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Chris Imhof
Onboard NOAA Ship Pisces
November 7 – 19, 2009

Mission: Coral Survey
Geographic Region: Southeast U.S.
Date: November 15, 2009

Science Log

Rough winds and big choppy waves coming around the Keys and into the Gulf Stream last night kept many awake and few of us with a taste of sea sickness. We make port in Jacksonville tonight and take on the ROV and more scientists. While making the first leg of this voyage it has been good to get to meet most of the crew and learn what they do and where they work on the Pisces; these include NOAA engineers, electrical and computer technicians, deck crew, stewards, and the NOAA Core officers. Since this is a maiden voyage, many of these people have worked on other NOAA ships – bringing their expertise and skills to get the Pisces up and working smoothly. Many of this crew will stay with the Pisces – operating the ship for NOAA scientists who come aboard to run experiments or do research in the months to come.

When I boarded the Pisces last Wednesday, the mammal scientists Tony Martinez and Lance Garrison were already on board testing equipment for an expedition this coming January – for detecting concentrations of sperm whale prey – from small fish to squid – acoustically and visually. Two pieces of technology they use are the EK60 Echosounder and ME70 Splitbeam:

1) The EK60 Simrad Echo-Sounder: This piece of technology uses a devices called a transducers that are located on the bottom of the Pisces to detect organisms. The Echo-Sounder operates on 4 frequencies – split beams of 200 and 120 khz (kilohertz) for shallow water detection – giving good data on zooplankton and small schools of fish, and the 18 and 38 khz frequencies which can detect fish, mammals and squid much deeper. The transducers issue a ping at each frequency every .5 seconds which bounce back creating a picture or vertical scatter. The scatter shown is a reflective signature – which the scientist use to identify what is below.

2) The ME70:  The ME70 is brand new technology that uses a single high frequency – but based on amplitude reverberates from 80 transducers in a fan or swath -like shining a spot light down the water column. This gives another kind of visual image of what is below – especially the characteristics of the concentrations of zooplankton and nekton or schools of fish.

Tools and technology like this help scientists conduct surveys of marine species in deep and shallow waters, they can improve the way we estimate fish stocks – and the more it is used and tested can be a passive way to identify species in their habitats through their acoustic signatures.

An interesting aspect of this technology is the growing study of “swarm behavior” – understanding why schools of fish glide in precise synchronous movement. This field of study is becoming more important as we learn that self-organizing coordinated systems like schools of fish are extremely resilient and efficient. Mammal studies conducted by Tony and Lance aboard the Pisces may have larger implications in the future when looking at the behavior of crowds, or traffic on a highway, or how people move in a work place.

Methea Sapp-Cassanego, July 19, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Methea Sapp-Cassanego
Onboard NOAA Ship Delaware II
July 19 – August 8, 2007

Mission: Marine Mammal Survey
Geographical Area: New England
Date: July 19, 2007

NOAA Ship Delaware II

NOAA Ship Delaware II

Delaware II: Ship Specifications 
Length: 155ft
Breadth: 30ft
Draft 16.6 ft
Hull: Welded steel
Displacement: 891 tons
Cruising Speed: 10 knots
Range: 5,300 nm
Endurance: 24 days
Commissioned Officers: 4
Licensed Engineers: 3
Crew: 10 Scientists: 14 (Max)
Launched: December 1967
Commissioned: March 12th 1975
Builder: South Portland
Engineering, S. Portland Maine

I arrived in Woods Hole Massachusetts at 10:30 pm and rolled my luggage up and down the main street trying to find the DELAWARE II.  Following a not so encouraging conversation with a bus station security officer who said to me “The DELAWARE II never docks here”, I managed to indeed find the ship that would be home for the next 3 weeks.

A large tiger shark awaits examination and tagging

A large tiger shark awaits examination and tagging

Over the course of a calendar year, the DELAWARE II will be at sea for ~200 days during which a crew of 17 will attend to her maintenance and operation.  Most of its crew members are hired via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA; 6 of which work on deck, 4 others serve as engineers, 2 work in the galley, 1 serves as an electronic technician, and 4 more are NOAA  Corp officers. These officers are in charge of ship operations and manage all other operations which are carried out on board.  The DELAWARE II conducts a variety of fishery and marine resource research in support of NOAA. The ship has also been utilized to carry out research conducted by private entities, such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the US Geological Survey in addition to other government agencies and universities.  Typically DELAWARE specializes in 5 different survey projects which are as follows:


The Northeast Ecosystems Monitoring Survey monitors the Northeast continental shelf by assessing both its physical and biological aspects.  For example, one of the methodologies employed during this survey uses a set of Bongo tows which are designed to catch plankton, small fish fry, larvae, and other small invertebrates.  These minuscule creatures are the foundations for most of the ocean’s food webs and therefore their populations are used to indicate and predict the overall health of the ecosystem.  The Northwest survey is conducted on a repetitive basis so that these populations may be monitored over time, thus enabling researchers to monitor changes over time.

A smaller tiger shark will receive a tag before being released as part of the ongoing Apex predator survey

A smaller tiger shark will receive a tag before being released as part of the ongoing Apex predator survey

Apex Predator Survey is conducted every three years and is designed to assess the relative abundance, distribution, population structure, species composition, and to tag sharks so that migration patterns may be studied.  Sharks are captured via longlining and then released after tagging and biological samples have been gathered.

Atlantic Herring Hydroacoustic Survey combines a variety of advanced technologies including multi-frequency echo integration, omni-directional sonar, and underwater video to assess hearing populations. The stability of herring populations is central to the sustainability of many commercial fisheries as well as the ecosystem as a whole.

Ocean Quahog and Surf Clam Survey conducts dredges through the silty and/or sandy portions of the ocean floor where these filter feeding bivalves dwell. Such dredges enable researchers to calculate relative abundances and thus derive sustainability yields.  Since both the ocean quahog and surf clam are edible bivalves, they are of commercial value and contribute to the economic stability of the Atlantic fisheries.  The surf clam is especially coveted in the restaurant and other food industries for making clam strips and chowders. The ocean quahog has a stronger flavor and is used in recipes where the clam is used in conjunction with other strong flavored ingredients like pasta dishes.  (who knew you would get a cooking lesson here) Also of significance is the reproductive biology of the quahog: This bivalve is extremely slow growing and long lived, it does not reach maturity for 20 years and will live up to 200 years.  Those that are eaten are typically between 40-100 years old.

Marine Mammal, Large Whale Biology aims to examine the relative abundance and distribution of the Atlantic’s large whales.  A variety of data gathering methodology is used, ranging from visual and photographic recording to biopsy sampling for genetic studies. Studies which focus on the whales’ food abundance are also included in this survey.

Commanding Officer (CDR) Richard Wingrove

Commanding Officer (CDR) Richard Wingrove

So who’s in charge of all this nautical navigation and science? As one can imagine there is allot going on aboard the DELAWARE II at any given time.  Of course, numerous highly trained personnel insure that the engines work, that everyone gets three meals a day, that the toilets flush, that scientific protocols are being met, and that we are on course. But one individual is ultimately responsible for the coordination of these individual efforts. During my tenure aboard the DELAWARE II that role was fulfilled by the Commanding Officer (CDR) Richard Wingrove.  CDR Wingrove has spent a lifetime working in, and studying marine environments.  After earning a degree in Marine Science from the University of Miami, the Commander joined the Peace Corp and was stationed on the Caribbean island of Antigua. As a fisheries officer for the Peace Corp, his job was to monitor fishing practices while helping fishermen develop and implement techniques that would improve their catches. Following his service in the Peace Corp, CDR Wingrove went to work as a Satellite Oceanographer for the private sector; it was during this job that he happened to attend a conference and met a NOAA officer:  Soon after, it was on to officer training school in Fort Eustis, Virginia where after 5 months of training, officers emerge with the foundational knowledge to navigate the seas and drive a ship.  

Following completion of officer training, CDR Wingrove was appointed to the NOAA Ship MILLER FREEMAN which is stationed in Alaska.  After enjoying the northern latitudes for two years, NOAA then sent him back to his home state of Florida where he worked in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.  Following two years in the sanctuary he returned to the Western Seaboard and set to work on the NOAA Ship JOHN N. COBB which is stationed out of Seattle.  Again, after two years of surveying salmon, killer whales and other marine mammals CDR Wingrove was headed back to the Eastern Seaboard. This time he would spend three years based in Miami where his job was to oversee oil spill responses for South Carolina, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean.   As he explained to me, working to clean up such an event is a rather delicate job since each of the involved entities including the company who spilt the oil, state agencies, federal agencies, and community leaders are each represented by their own biologists, ecologists, scientists, and researchers which then assess the spill, evaluate its impacts, and determine how the clean up should be executed. CDR Wingrove’s job was to take all the data and information presented to him by each of the involved parties, and then coordinate their findings in order to determine a course of action for clean-up, as well as monitor the clean-up process.

After three years of cleaning up other peoples’ messes CDR Wingrove was appointed as Executive Officer aboard the NOAA Ship DELAWARE II. He worked aboard the DELAWARE for two years before being sent to the Great Lakes area where he spent another three years coordinating the clean-up oil spills.  Then once again he was headed back to the DELAWARE II this time as the ships Commanding Officer.  CDR Wingrove will finish his service aboard the DELAWARE II in May yet he does not know where NOAA will send him next.  Regardless of the locale I have little doubt that CDR Wingrove will continue his legacy of service to the natural world and to all whom benefit from healthy seas.