Alex Miller, Riding by the River, June 8, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Alexandra (Alex) Miller, Chicago, IL
Onboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada
May 27 – June 10, 2015

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Pyrotechnics training

Mission: Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment
Geographical area of cruise: Pacific Coast
Date: Monday, June 8th, 2015

Weather Data:

  • Air Temperature: 12.0°C
  • Water Temperature: 14.0°C
  • Sky Conditions: Overcast
  • Wind Speed (knots/kts) and Direction: 20 kts, NNW
  • Latitude and Longitude: 46°29’98”, 124°59’93”

Yesterday, I spoke with two of the NOAA Corps officers, Ensign Nikki Norton and Commander Brian Parker. Ensign Norton is in her first post as a NOAA Corps officer and Commander Parker has been in the Corps for 21 years. The NOAA Corps’ main responsibility is to oversee all operations of NOAA research vessels and aircraft. In addition to positioning the ship for deployment and hauling back of the various nets and instruments, they help chart the course to make sure that we visit all the transect stations. In fact, we missed an operation at one of the stations, so they are going to do a slight reroute so that we can make up for that lost data point!

Ensign Nikki Norton wore many hats and had many responsibilities during our time at sea. Including serving as the OOD, Officer on Deck, essentially an extension of the CO while on watch in the bridge, she oversaw safety operations and was the medical officer. Interestingly, she holds a Bachelor’s in marine biology from Florida State University, which makes her well suited for overseeing the operations of a research vessel.

You can listen to my conversation with Ensign Nikki Norton below.

 

This morning, I visited the bridge and spoke with the Commanding Officer of the Shimada, Commander Brian Parker. Commander Parker has been a NOAA Corps officer for 21 years, working his way up from ensign to XO (Executive Officer) to CO. NOAA Corps officers work alternating sea and land posts for two-years at a time, and at the end of this year, Commander Parker’s sea post will end and his land post as Port Captain of the NOAA facility in Newport will begin.

You can listen to my conversation with Commander Parker below.

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We arrived to our second to last transect, the Columbia River line, on Sunday. The Columbia River acts as an important source of food and habitat for certain marine species that the scientists on board the Shimada are studying and they anticipated interesting changes in the physical and biological data that they would collect at these stations.

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The long blue shelf-like line (labeled CR plume in top graph) shows decrease in salinity.

As I’ve mentioned before, the CTD measures temperature, salinity and chlorophyll (a measure of how much plant material is in the water), which are collectively referred to as physical oceanographic data. Dr. Curtis Roegner tracks the data acquired throughout the day at each station by printing the CTD graphs and taping them onto the cabinets of the Chem Lab, creating a visualization of the measurements. He looks for patterns in the data that may help him to better understand the samples acquired from neuston towing. In the graphs, you can see a dramatic change in salinity in the first 10 – 20 m as the ship passes through the fan of fresher water created by the emptying of the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean. This area, called a plume, is the meeting of two bodies of water so different that you can see a front, a clear border between the salty water of the ocean and the fresh water of the river.

The chem lab, wallpapered with CTD graphs.

The chem lab, wallpapered with CTD graphs.

As a fisheries biologist, Curtis Roegner has several driving questions that guide the work he does on board the Shimada and back at the NOAA Center. Among the work he does, he aims to study how well certain projects in the Columbia River are working to restore salmon populations. Certain species rely on the wetlands of the river to spawn (produce young) and mature in and some of this habitat has been lost to the development of cattle grazing lands. Studying the impact of the Columbia River plume on the Oregon coast may help affect change in environmental policy and agricultural (farming) practices.

I interviewed Curtis about his work and you can hear that talk below.

 

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Rougher weather kicked up a lot of swells, which the mighty Shimada crashed right through, sending spray all over the decks and outer stairways and producing just enough pitching and yawing to make a walk through a hallway interesting. The Shimada’s size helps keep the rocking and rolling to a relative minimum, but when at sea safety always remains a major concern.

With that in mind, today I participated in an optional pyrotechnic training with some officers, crew and members of the science team. Several different types of flares and smoke bombs are used at sea to draw attention to a ship in need.

In order to avoid a “crying-wolf” type of situation, we practiced this during the day and most likely radioed to all nearby vessels that we were in fact training and not in need of rescue. While I probably won’t be applying this skill in the near future, I decided I couldn’t miss an opportunity to try something new. Above you can see photos of different members of the crew and science team using these tools and below, you can see a video of me operating a flare gun.

 

Lucky for me, we weren’t in an actual danger situation. At the end of the clip, I turn to NOAA Corps officer LT Tim Sinquefield for assistance. After some adjustment of the flare shell, you can see me successfully operating the flare gun below.

 

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To top off an even more unlikely morning, members of the night shift and I were watching the sun come up and helping Amanda with the bird and marine mammal observations when a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins came to play off the bow of the ship. They stayed astern (toward the back of the ship) throughout the pyrothechnic training and at times, felt close enough to reach out and touch.

Pacific white-sided dolphins   ride the waves near our port stern, seemingly for the sheer joy of it.

Pacific white-sided dolphins ride the waves near our port stern, seemingly for the sheer joy of it.

Personal Log

As June 10 looms ever closer, I am frantically trying to take everything in. I’m basically operating under the mentality that I can sleep when I’m home. The more I try and experience, the less time I have to document what it is I’m learning on board the ship. But I set out to write eight posts about my time as a Teacher at Sea and I’m going to stay true to that commitment. Stay tuned for the final episode of my cruise aboard the Shimada, coming soon.

Sue Zupko: 16 The NOAA Corps

NOAA Teacher at Sea: Sue Zupko
NOAA Ship: Pisces
Mission: Extreme Corals 2011; Study deep water coral and its habitat off the east coast of FL
Geographical Area of Cruise: SE United States from off Mayport, FL to Biscayne Bay, FL
Date: June 13, 2011
Time: 14:00 EDT

Weather Data from the Bridge
Position: 30.4°N 88.6°W
Present weather: 2/8 Cumulus
Visibility: 10 n.m.
Wind Direction: 192° true
Wind Speed: 12.5 kts
Surface Water Temperature: 30.9°C
Barometric Pressure: 1013.5 mb
Water Depth: 10.9 m
Salinity: 36.5 PSU
Wet/Dry Bulb: 35°/25.5°

This blog runs in chronological order. If you haven’t been following, scroll down to “1 Introduction to my Voyage on the Pisces” and work your way back.

Take the quiz before reading this post.

I think it would be fun to be in the NOAA Corps (listen to the NOAA Corps song, “Forward with NOAA”).  To be an officer in the NOAA Corps you need at least a Bachelor’s degree and must be younger than 42 years old so you can give 20 years to the Corps before age 62.  An interest in science would be very helpful since that is NOAA’s mission,  to support science.  Basic officer training is 22 weeks long.  However, once assigned to a ship the real  training begins.  I observed how seasoned officers helped to lead the ensigns, the least experienced and lowest ranking officers, to build upon the training they received in basic training.  It’s OJT (on-the-job-training) at its best.  There is so much to learn.

Purple barrel sponge

Purple Barrel Sponge

I didn’t realize that NOAA did anything other than forecasting the weather.  I have the NOAA weather page on my favorites on all my computers.  After applying to be a Teacher at Sea, I realized that NOAA does so much more than the weather. According to NOAA’s home web page, “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific agency providing information and data about life on earth, our oceans, atmosphere, and the Nation’s living marine resources. NOAA’s programs range from marine sanctuaries, environmental satellites, global climate change, and ocean exploration initiatives to climate, weather, and water services.”    The ocean creates weather.  Without the ocean, there wouldn’t be hurricanes.  The water cycle begins and ends with the ocean.  It didn’t occur to me that NOAA actually works with fish, coral, and the environment in general, not just the weather.   I have decided that Teacher at Sea is an incorrect term for me.  Learner at Sea makes more sense.  Although I will take what I learned here on the Pisces back to my classrooms and to my colleagues, I have been a learner first.  Lindsey, one of the NOAA officers on the bridge, said I’ll probably be glad to be home since I’m constantly taking in information while on the ship.  Nah!  I’m a professional student at heart.  I even considered calling myself the Sponge at Sea since everyone has been so generous in sharing their thoughts and information with me, and I just soak it in.

Hands using a compass on a map

Figuring Distance

While on the bridge, I asked questions about so many things, but only touched on the surface of what they know.  It was interesting learning how to use a compass to see how far we were from land.  This compass is a ‘V’ shaped tool with the legs of the ‘V’ hinged at the top which adjusts the distance between the points at the bottom of the ‘V’.  There is also a compass used to tell which way is north. Same name, but different tools.  I used it to measure how far it was from 29° N latitude to 30° N latitude.  1 minute = 1 nautical mile and 60 minutes = 1°.  Therefore, 60 miles = 1° latitude.  I put one of the points on each of the latitude lines to get the measurement.  Then, went to where our present position and put one point on it.  The other point was then 60 miles.  I “walked” the compass across the map to the nearest point of land and counted my “steps”.  I tried again later and found I could do it.  That was fun.  I love math.

US flag unfurled off back of ship at sunset

Retiring the Colors

I am interested in flags.  When in Mayport, FL at the naval base,  I was moved by the striking of the colors and the playing of taps on the base.  The sailors on the naval vessel next to us, and the NOAA crew, stood at  attention as the sun was setting and they slowly lowered the flag into a waiting seaman’s arms.  Both ships were sitting side by side and with great ceremony each proceeded to fold their ship’s flag.  When I was in the Army, this was my favorite service to perform.  It always brings a swell of emotion to hear taps played and see people showing respect to our country’s flag by standing at attention.

Intricate mast with American flag in center, 4 flags flying vertically, the NOAA flag, and AL state flag

Mast with call sign flags on left

I noted that the flag on the back of the ship only flies while in port.  When we left the dock, we again struck the colors and hoisted (put up) a smaller flag over the flying bridge.

Cabinet with flags rolled up, letter posted on left of cube

Flag Cabinet

There is a cabinet on the bridge with an assortment of flags.  I asked what they all meant.  My gaze was directed to the side of the cabinet to help answer my question.

Poster with flags in two vertical columns going 3/4 of way down, and 2 rows of flags across bottom

International Flag Chart

Posted on the side of the cabinet is a chart which explains what the flags stand for.  The Pisces’ call sign is WTDL.  A call sign is used to communicate who you are.  It’s easier than going through a long explanation on a radio or over long distances.  Airplanes, ham radio operators, ships, etc. all have call signs to identify themselves.  In addition, the ship can use its flags.  Each letter in the call sign has a specific flag as you can see in the picture above.  These flags are flown from the mast at the top of the ship to communicate information.

Red and white tugboat with a white waves around it

Tugboat

Flags are used to communicate on a ship, but ships use lights and shapes to communicate as well.  When a ship has restricted ability to move, the ship displays vertically (up to down) from the mast a black ball, diamond, and black ball.  At night a white light between two red lights vertically lets everyone know the ship has limited movement for some reason, such as an ROV underwater or engine trouble.  Don’t forget that the ship has a red light on its port (left) side and a green light on its starboard (right) side.  These lights help other boaters know whether the other boat  is coming or going.

Lindsey shows Mike a white card/instrument to help determine vectors

Studying Vectors-More Math

What do the NOAA Corps personnel “do” on the ship?  The Corps members, who are the ship’s officers, are lead by the captain, in this case CDR Jeremy Adams.  The captain is ultimately responsible for everything which happens on the ship.  An analogy would be he is the processor on a computer.  Just as a computer assigns tasks or jobs to the peripheral equipment, the captain is the person responsible for delegating jobs.  Some of the jobs the Corps are responsible for knowing include navigation, recovering fishing equipment (the Pisces supports scientists who are learning about diverse fish populations so they must fish for them), currents and how they affect the ship, working oceanographic sampling equipment (such as the CTD), underwater cameras and sonar devices, etc.  Of course, he has heads of departments, such as the steward (food), bosun (deck), and engineer (workings of the ship) who do the daily delegating within each department.

Captain bending over a desk and looking in a book

CDR Adams refers to a book for me

Here are some specifics I noticed aboard the Pisces.  The captain decides who is qualified to be in charge on the bridge (officer of the deck).   These responsibilities include, but are not limited to: steering, looking for safety hazards, responding to alarms, communicating directions and information to the ship’s personnel, and so much more.  Think about it.  He is responsible for the safety of the people on the ship, the safety and working of the ship, the support of the scientists and their missions, and all the paperwork which shows these things have been done.  To be designated an OOD, you must demonstrate a cool head under pressure, a knowledge of the workings of the ship, and an understanding of the ocean systems themselves.  It takes a lot of practice as I’ll explain later.

Round disk on left with red and green buttons to the right

Ship's Bell

Oh, yes.  One of the responsibilities of the noon watch was to ring the bell and announce the time.   I hoped to watch this and ring the bell myself.  I would think about it daily, but would either be busy or forget about it.  I wanted to see the bell rung from the bridge and the announcement made that it was “12:00 aboard the Pisces.”

Ensign Schill speaks into microphone

Ensign Schill announces time

Another announcement they made was, “The following  is a test of the ship’s alarm.  Please disregard.”  One of my favorites was, “The ship’s store will be open in 10 minutes in the lounge.”  I needed a few things.

Let’s look at some interesting things.  First, drills.  As I have mentioned, the ship is running 24 hours a day, so someone is always sleeping.  Our first drill was at 4:00 in the afternoon.  Drills are run weekly.  The second week, the drill was at midnight.  I wore earplugs on the ship so strange noises wouldn’t disturb me.  Well, I did hear the fire alarm through my earplugs.  I had just gotten to sleep.  The captain later explained another reason for having a midnight drill besides not always waking up the day sleepers.  Emergencies don’t always happen in the day.  You must be prepared for emergencies whenever they occur.  I hadn’t thought of that.  At night on the bridge, they use red light so their eyes stay adjusted to the darkness while on watch.  Writing with red light is a bit different from with white lights so practicing at night helps the bridge crew practice this.

Red sunset reflecting off the surface of the ocean

Sunset

Weather Report

One of my opportunities as a Teacher at Sea was to report the weather with my blog posts.  I have participated in The Globe Program at my schools in the past where students monitor weather and share observations with scientists around the world.  I have always been interested in the weather.  It was a natural fit for me to get to go to the bridge and learn more about it from the crew.  The most interesting was the dry/wet bulb thermometers located just outside the bridge’s watertight doors on either side.

Two thermometers sitting side by side in an orange case inside a white box

Dry/Wet Bulbs

The bulb on the left is just the regular air temperature.  The bulb on the right has a wick which surrounds the bulb and trails off into a water reservoir underneath.  This measures the temperature of the water as it evaporates.  When the dry and wet bulb temperatures are close together, it means it is humid (there is a lot of water vapor in the air).  What happens when there is a lot of water vapor?  Think about a glass of water sitting on the table.  Have you noticed it gets beads of water on it if you have ice cubes inside?  What happens when water vapor hits something cold?  Yep, it condenses and turns to a liquid.  No, the water from the glass isn’t leaking through the glass.  The water vapor in the air condenses on the glass.  Make sure you use a coaster under a glass sitting on a wooden table. That condensation will not make your parents happy because it will leave a water ring.  Isn’t science great?  So, if the dry/wet bulb temperatures are real close and there is a lot of water vapor in the air floating up to the cold air above, what might happen next?  If you suggest that clouds will form, you are correct again.  That probably means it will rain soon.  We rarely had dry/wet bulb temperatures close together.  What was the weather like during my time on the Pisces off the coast of Florida?  If you said gorgeous for the most part, you are correct.  We had lovely weather except for June 1, the first day of hurricane season, when a tropical disturbance formed right over us.  We had thunder, lightning, and rain for a short time and we had to postpone launching the ROV for a while.  I thought the boat would rock terribly, but it wasn’t bad at all.  Yeah!

Man Overboard

Man wearing a helmet holding onto a pole

Ryan in Rescue Boat Recovery

Having someone fall overboard would be awful at any time.   It would be much more difficult to find someone at night than during the day.  It’s hazardous to run a man overboard drill during the day.  I’d hate to have them do it at night.  During our man overboard drill, everyone went to their assigned positions.  Three people went out on the rescue boat.  One was the driver, one was a rescue swimmer, and one kept his eye on the person who was in the water.  I didn’t see them get on the rescue boat since I was at my muster station in the conference room, which is on the starboard side of the O-1 deck and the rescue boat launches off the port side.  The rescuers got in the boat and those assigned to the winch which was to lower the boat, mostly the fishermen,  lowered the boat into the water.  Now, I can only imagine, but most people aren’t going to fall overboard in nice calm seas.  There are railings in the way.  I would bet that if someone fell over it was because they were jostled over during violent seas–perhaps while working recovering fishing nets or equipment.

The victim, a dummy in orange, is brought aboard

The Victim is Rescued

Going down in that rescue boat from the O-1 deck would be scary to me.  The crew on deck had someone watching the rescue boat on both sides of the deck, someone watching the victim from both sides, people with medical training standing by to administer first aid, and those on the bridge were driving based on where the victim and rescue boat were.

Orange rescue boat speeding along the ocean's surface

Rescue Boat Returns

Wouldn’t be good to run over either, nor to leave them behind.  Everyone worked as a team.  I was able to witness the drill with special permission once I checked in at my muster station to make sure I wasn’t the victim.  Also, they probably want to keep us out of the way:)  From my observation, everyone was professional and treated this as if our dummy they threw over was a real victim.  Just as we practice fire and tornado drills at school and expect students and teachers to treat it seriously in case there ever is a real emergency so everyone will be prepared, so did the crew.  As I watched, I noted the concern on the faces of the fishermen as they retrieved the boat from the water.   There was a leader in charge who told people where they needed to stand on the rescue boat and who should get off when.  The last person off was someone light, but strong.  He was responsible for attaching equipment and had to be light to make it easier for those maneuvering the rescue boat up to the deck and back to its cradle.

Ship’s Control

Sue standing at the console on the bridge taking notes

Sue Driving?

I waited until I knew the captain would be on the bridge for my driving lesson.  CDR Adams said he would be happy to let me give it a try.  I still joked that because of the autopilot I could say I was driving and just stand on the bridge.  He was serious so I went up on Monday morning during his watch.  He wasn’t there.  Hopes dashed, I mentioned it to the officers on duty who had switched schedules since the captain had other responsibilities to attend to.  “No problem.  We’ll let you steer.”  At last, my chance.  The OOD, LT Lindsay Kurelja, alerted the captain and engineering, that I would be steering.  Seems that if you slow way down or the ride gets rocky the crew calls and to check on what’s happening.

Lindsey monitors Sue's driving

Close Monitoring

The steering lesson began.  Can’t do anything without instructions.  “Although it looks like a sports car steering wheel, if you turn it quickly in either direction the boat will list (roll) heavily.”  The cooks won’t like that kind of surprise.  Others might fall out of bed.  How about those guys on deck painting?  Whoops!  “So, be sure to watch the rudder angle indicator gauge and don’t let it move left or right more than 5°.”  “Focus forward.  If you look left or right your natural tendency is to move your arms in that direction as well.”  “Got it?  Ready?’

ENS Michael Doig reduced speed to 60% from 128 rpm (revolutions per minute) to 72 rpm.  Hey, don’t they think I can handle this?  Apparently not!  These are smart folks.  When I took the helm, I watched the rudder angle indicator like a hawk.  No matter what I did, the ship kept going one direction or another.  Zig zag all the way.  I’d correct, but not enough.  Then it would be too far to the right and I’d have to correct left.  You have to wait a while before the ship responds to the wheel turning.  They stood right over me to make sure I wasn’t messing up.  After all, even though I was driving, they were responsible and no one wants the soup all over the kitchen:)  I found it very nerve-wracking to have the ship’s course in my hands, literally.

Sue driving and concentrating on it

Concentrating on driving

When I finished and they turned the auto pilot back on, Lindsay said that I only went “62 miles” off course.  I don’t think that is physically possible since we were just going about 9 knots and I only drove a couple of minutes.  I’m hoping she was exaggerating.  She congratulated me and said I did very well for a first time.  I think she was just being polite.   All I know is it didn’t feel the way my car feels when driving it.  However, it was interesting to experience driving the ship.  I was grateful to have trained professionals watching over me.  We might have ended up in New Zealand or something.

Dredging boat resembles old time riverboat with large paddle wheel

Lots of interesting boats in Pascagoula

When we arrived at the port in Pascagoula later that afternoon, I was told that we would be docking in front of another NOAA ship already at dock but before a bridge.  It reminded me of parallel parking, which many people consider the most difficult skill in driving and some people avoid like the plague.  One of the crew members groaned and said it would take forever since it was difficult to do.  We had no idea who was going to be bringing the ship in.  Well, to her credit, LT Tracy Hamburger piloted the vessel flawlessly and we were at the dock very shortly.  The crew was happy to be at their home port so they could get off the ship and relax for a while.  I, on the other hand, was happy to stay on the ship and get last-minute pictures, clean my room, pack, and blog.  For awhile I thought I was alone on the Pisces and wondered about security.  Not long after my ponderings, a security guard came walking by.  That made me feel more comfortable.  I also found that many folks returned to the ship later because they live on the ship.  Interesting home.

Five sailboats on a blue ocean

Sailboats near Ft. Lauderdale

I am grateful to NOAA for giving me this opportunity to learn about NOAA and the science missions they support.  The Pisces has a wonderful crew who were always willing to help me learn.