I arrived to NOAA Ship Oregon II on Thursday afternoon, August 30th, after traveling from Chicago. The very first person I met aboard the ship was my stateroom roomie, Valerie McCaskill. Valerie is a full time NOAA employee, as she holds the position as Chief Steward. NOAA Ship Oregon II would not function daily if her position did not exist.
Valerie is from Naples, FL and attended the Art Institute of Atlanta where she studied culinary arts. She has been with NOAA for three years, and also has a cousin that works on a different NOAA vessel. She stated that she is “responsible for the morale of the ship”. Her daily duties include making sure everyone has fresh linens, grocery shopping while on shore, preparing all meals, and she even takes special meal request from her fellow crew members.
Her position on NOAA Ship Oregon II is crucial for all to run smoothly while out at sea. Valerie truly is the heart and Mom of the ship. She is constantly making sure all crew members are fed and remain steady emotionally. It takes a special person to hold down the ship and Valerie does just that, while leaving behind her 9 year old son, Kain, for 8 months out the year. She is also forced to get creative in the kitchen, as there is no stove. All food is prepared on a grill, in the oven, or in a kettle.
As I am sitting here with Valerie writing this piece of my blog, she rushes out the door because we just heard dishes fall in the kitchen. She takes care of all the little things aboard the ship, and most expeditions would not be successful without crew members like Valerie.
Today I went or 5 mile walk/run to explore the area around the port. I have always been fascinated by lighthouses, and I was fortunate to come across the Round Island Lighthouse. The original Round Island Lighthouse was built on Round Island in 1833, but it was relocated and renovated due to damage from Hurricane George in the 90’s. The lighthouse now sits inland on the western gateway into Pascagoula, Mississippi.
We left the port in Pascagoula, Mississippi around 1400. I made sure I put on my sea sickness patch last night to give the medicine time to get in my system. I woke up with one dilated eye on the side that I placed the patch. I much rather have a funny looking eye than get nauseous.
Did You Know?:
There are numerous oil rigs throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Many bird species that are migrating across the Gulf will stop to rest on the oil rigs. Unfortunately, most of these birds will not continue on and they will end up dying of exhaustion and dehydration. A possible reason for the birds interrupting their flight is a change in the wind pattern. If they are unable to cruise in the jet stream they will be forced to expend more energy to get where they are going. Sometimes they don’t have that extra energy to go against the wind and will stop their flight on an oil rig.
Mission: Long Line Shark/ Red Snapper survey Leg 1
Geographic Area:32 nautical miles SE of Key West Florida
Date: July 28, 2018
Weather Data from the Bridge: Wind speed 11 knots, Air Temp: 27.6c, Visibility 10 nautical miles, Wave height 1 foot
Science and Technology Log: As we move through the Gulf of Mexico headed to our first research station, I didn’t have a job most of the day, so I sought to find out more information about what makes the great Oregon ll function to serve it’s crew of 28. One of the Engineers kindly offered me a tour of the engine room to see what lies below the service decks.
The ship is powered by twin 900 horse power engines that turn the propeller shaft up to 12 knots. When sailing between work stations, generally both engines are used, and when long line fishing begins, only one engine provides power as the ship moves around 2- 3 knots. The ship holds up to 70,000 gallons of fuel, and when both engines are running,1,000 gallons are used daily. There is also a bow thruster engine near the front of the ship that is much smaller and helps with finer movements at the dock, in stations, or when seas get rough.
There are 2 large electrical power generators that provide electricity to the ship for the multitude of research computers and data collectors. While out at sea, Oregon ll is always tracking weather data, water quality, live radar from above the ship, and also sonar from below the ocean. The generators also provide power for all the creature comforts you would need in any living environment, as this ship is the crew’s home during each leg of the trip. At times when less power is needed, one generator is shut down to conserve energy for later use.
The Oregon ll also provides it’s own clean water for equipment and human consumption. The Water Purification System uses Reverse Osmosis to take salt water from the ocean and turn it into potable water to wash, cook, clean with, and drink. A Reverse Osmosis System uses high pressure and pushes impure water through a semi-permeable membrane which allows clean water through the membrane, while allowing impurities (such as salt, bacteria, and sediment) to be blocked from coming through, and discharges the impurities back into the ocean.
Personal Log: I am having a great time getting to know the crew and their many jobs around the ship, and how each one affects the other. This symbiotic relationship is the heart of what makes every mission successful. There are the Ship’s Officers who chart the course, drive the ship, and oversee all Crew Members. The Deck Department makes sure the work areas are safe and equipment is working correctly. The Fishermen are in charge of the process of the Long Line Survey, from preparation, to process, to clean-up. The Engineering Department makes sure the interior of the ship and it’s equipment are functioning properly, which is a very wide ranging. I certainly wish I had these guys around my house during those tricky repairs!
The Steward Department is in charge of ordering, cooking, serving, and cleaning up of all meals for the crew. Finally, the Electronic Department has the complicated job of installing, operating, and fixing any electronic equipment. Let me tell you, there are miles of wires running through this ship and all of it is used to make the mission successful. All data is continually collected, and preserved for later study. Some of the water and weather data is uploaded to the NOAA website for the public’s use as well.
I really enjoyed hearing the wide ranges of places in America the Oregon ll crew come from. It is also impressive to hear the various places all around the world they’ve sailed before joining NOAA, and which other NOAA ships they’ve been crew members on. The diverse experience each crew person has in their field has really helped the mission many times over since I’ve been here. One thing I know is true is that each of them is happy to tell you about their families, and how much they love them and miss them while they’re away. Many of them have long seasons away from the ones they love, and count the days until they can come home.
Fun Fact: NOAA Ship Oregon ll turned 50 years old last year, and was honored for making the half century mark of service. It was built in 1967, right in it’s home port of Pascagoula, Mississippi
Animals Seen Today: Bottlenose Dolphin, Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Flying Fish, Jelly Fish
Ship repairs are ongoing so I’m reporting from Biloxi, MS. Last week, I got the chance to visit the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center, Pascagoula lab onshore to learn about what the scientists do when they are not at sea.
Because we spent so much time at the pier (below) Andre Debose took over the tour. We got a sneak peek at the seafood inspection lab. You need a pretty high clearance to get in, but we ran into a researcher (I didn’t get his name) who was kind enough to take a few minutes to explain what they do:
The U.S. imports a lot of seafood from overseas as well. All ready-to-eat seafood that comes in is inspected by NOAA. A sample from every batch is tested for contaminants and pollutants to ensure it is safe for consumption. We happened to be at the lab that inspects menhaden, a fish typically ground into “fish meal” which is commonly used in pet foods. The lab also checks fish oil, a dietary supplement. Down the hall are labs that inspect Gulf seafood for petroleum oil. After speaking with him, I felt much more confident in my seafood dinners and my cats’ food.
We went down to the reef unit which Andre has worked on and was introduced to Kevin Rademacher who studies reef fish and was watching video data from their camera array. He showed me a few videos recorded from their past surveys. Today, they use an array of five video cameras to create a single, 360˚ field of view for accurate fish counts. Fisheries use these data to determine the health of a fishery, as in the population and sizes of commercially important fish. This information guides the quotas of how many fish people are allowed to take while maintaining resources for the future.
Up to a few years ago, they used four separate cameras—four different fields of view that had to be watched individually to count fish. The new setup also features two levels to create stereoscopic or 3-D images so scientists can digitally measure the lengths of the fish, which was not possible before. However, species identification is still done using good old-fashioned human eyeballs in an experienced scientist.
A hammerhead shark skull among shark jaws in Kristin Hannan’s office
I take a closer look at bull shark jaws
We stopped by the plankton lab. Plankton is a collective term for very small marine organisms—algae and animals that form the foundation of marine food chains. The very small animals are usually the larvae of larger animals, but I didn’t realize how many were vertebrates, i.e. baby fish. I had imagined that plankton were primarily invertebrates such as sea sponge, coral, crustacean and squid larvae.
Finally, Andre showed me his otolith samples. Otoliths are small bony disks in the ears of fish that allow them to sense gravity and speed, which maintains their balance. (Yes, fish have ears and earbones like humans.) A layer of calcium is added every year of a fish’s life so these give us data about the ages of fish.
Overall at NOAA’s Pascagoula labs, researchers are hard at work studying marine life in the Gulf of Mexico to learn where they are and when to find them, at every stage of life, from larval plankton, to juveniles, adults and to food for others such as sharks and dolphins. While “economic” species are the focus of fisheries industries, “ecological” species are deservedly monitored here as well. In such a vast ecosystem, every organism has hundreds or likely thousands of ecological ties to those around it, as predator, prey, competitors or symbiotic partners. Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy crab legs and fish sticks for dinner. As biologist Alonzo Hamilton puts it, “fish are a product of the environment”, referring to the collective forces that create an ecosystem.
To top off the lab visit, I was presented with a fabulous goody bag! I have some great materials to use in class, and I’m particularly grateful for the coffee mug so I can stop using paper cups in the ship’s galley.
So where does all this equipment for these different projects come from? Sadly, there isn’t a “science store” for weird and wonderful devices that seamlessly combine into “cutting edge technology”. I mentioned in the last post that scientists often have to build what they need. In fact, part of NOAA’s mission to support sustainable fishery practices is inventing the tools to fish sustainably! They may not have a store to go shopping in, but they have something much better: Captain James Barbour, master welder extraordinaire! (His actual title is something like Engineering Tech/Gear & Equipment Specialist.)
Chrissy took me to visit him in the warehouses and that was a fun place! We walked into his current project—a stainless steel work table for a scientist, but custom built to include clipboard hangers, blood sample holder, holes for hand sanitizer bottles…like a home renovation show but for research vessels.
The camera arrays for reef survey are his handiwork. He’s built traps with camera housing to record what’s going on under water. He has also modified smaller boats to create platforms for scientists to safely wrangle fish, and apparatuses to operate nets and other equipment. He is steeped in the design of TEDs-turtle excluder devices, and bycatch reducers. Bycatch are animal species that are caught with commercial ones, especially by nets. Often, these are not returned alive to the ocean. TEDs are metal, circular grids about three feet across that are attached to the end of fishing nets, forming a cone. When a turtle is caught, it hits the excluder and slides out of an escape chute. Fish pass through the excluder and into the blind end of the net.
A peek at one of the storage areas in a NOAA warehouse.
Custom trap built by Capt. James Barbour featuring camera housing on the left side.
Bycatch reduction devices
Bycatch reducers with nets
Turtle exclusion device attached to the end of nets. Turtles are stopped by the metal grid and slide out an escape chute to the right.
If you have ever heard or worried about sea turtles or wasted bycatch getting trapped in nets, rest assured that U.S. fisheries are using these devices to reduce their environmental impact. And chances are Capt. Barbour welded them!
Captain James Barbour and I with his many awards.
A recent award to James Barbour for his work with NOAA
This is just a small sample of what he’s accomplished in his long career at NOAA. He continues his research with other scientists to collect data and improve the design, for example, to screen out smaller turtles without sacrificing the fish catch.
As a scientist observing the decline in science literacy and confidence from the general public, I often come across the Strawman fallacy that “science has no place in politics”. This doesn’t make sense considering the various U.S. agencies that employ scientists to make discoveries about our world and outside of it, because objective knowledge is where sound policies should originate. Science has always has an important role in American politics. Another classic are the cries for “less government regulation and interference” but I’m certain those people have no idea what that means. In U.S. seafood industries, regulations require TEDs and bycatch reducers because ecological species support the health of economic ones. In U.S. markets, regulations require safety testing of seafood imports. In Gulf fisheries, regulations limit how many red snapper one can take and when shrimpers can open season because this ensures consumers can enjoy seafood next year and every year after. They ensure that fisherman have employment next year and every year after. Government, as well as university, scientists are third party to all companies and have no personal financial incentives besides their regular salaries. Scientists are public servants who work for everyone.
Captain Barbour is a modest man, but it’s clear that he takes pride in the devices he builds because he accepts the responsibility of humans to be stewards of this planet and the other creatures we share it with. Thus, he genuinely cares about the well-being of dolphins and turtles. He takes personal action for what he believes by coming to work everyday and engages with optimizing the design of scientific equipment by communicating with collaborators, analyzing data, and building with his own hands. While most of us don’t get to be so directly involved with our contributions to society there are two things to think about:
All of us together through our own strengths can make many small actions great: refuse those single use plastics, recycle always, VOTE (or don’t complain), and practice lifelong learning.
At about 1500 on the first day of the survey, I find out that I’m assigned to the day shift that runs from 1200 to 2400. Roommates are assigned with opposite shifts so that each person can have the stateroom while the other works. Typically, you have a backpack to carry anything you might need to avoid entering the room and disturbing a sleeping roommate. The operations of the vessel are 24 hours and other members of the crew work different shifts around the clock: engineers might be scheduled six hours on, six hours off, officers four hours on/off, etc.
“Someone is sleeping all the time on every deck.” –LT Ryan Belcher
So, on day one, my roommate tries to get some sleep and I’m out of the room. For the rest of the day, I experience something called “down time” with nothing really to do. I don’t know when the last time this happened was. Everyone is busy at work or sleeping before their shift and I find myself curiously alone. I find my way back to a higher deck that Chrissy had shown me earlier where a deck chair (no pun intended) has been stashed. The indoor lounge features a large collection of movies on loan from the Navy, including recent releases. After I come in from spending some time relaxing outside, I reenter the lounge to find some of the scientists starting Justice League. When that finishes, we put in Winchester which is inspired by the true story, whatever that means, of the famous haunted house built by Sarah Winchester of the family that developed rifles. Not too bad if you are a fan of ghost stories.
It’s a long day and I finally get to go to bed.
Did You Know?
From the last blog we learned that NOAA is a Department of Commerce (DOC) agency that collects scientific data for economic purposes. On this cruise, and those of the past 40 years, Texas shrimp fisheries use NOAA data collected by Oregon II to determine when to open shrimping grounds every year to ensure a sustainable supply. NOAA Ship Oregon II also trawls during the summer for red snapper for fisheries around the entire Gulf to determine when fishing can begin.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Geoff Carlisle Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II June 7 – June 20, 2018
Mission: SEAMAP Groundfish Survey Geographic Area of Cruise:Gulf of Mexico Date: June 10, 2018
Having spent a few days on the ship now, I’ve come to realize that NOAA Ship Oregon II is a lot like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Han describes the Falcon by saying, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” Every crew member and scientist that I’ve talked to talks about Oregon II like Han does about the Falcon. The typical conversation starts with them saying that she “may not look like much,” being the oldest and one of the smallest research vessels in the NOAA fleet. But without fail, they immediately begin talking about how versatile the boat is, thanks to the many modifications that have been made over the years (some even joke about how the boat itself may be 50 years old, but none of its parts are). The boat is covered with its many awards and achievements, and has the lowest crew turnover in the NOAA fleet (many of the crew members have worked on the ship for over 20 years!).
On Thursday, we began our two-day “steam” from the NOAA Ship Oregon II’s home port in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Brownsville, Texas (near the border between the US and Mexico). Upon reaching Brownsville we’ll drop our first trawling nets at various stations, which are randomized locations where we’ll make our measurements.
The data we collect is part of the SEAMAP Summer Groundfish Survey, which the Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida depend on to assess the health and vitality of groundfish in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD), the commercial shrimp season for both the state and federal waters “is based on an evaluation of the biological, social and economic impact to maximize the benefits to the industry and the public.” Knowing that I helped with the “biological evaluation” they refer to makes the work feel important.
Casting off from Pascagoula felt like getting a “best of” tour of the Mississippi Gulf. The first hour of sailing was filled with incredible views of wildlife: groups of pelicans buzzing the ship, terns hovering above the deck, and flocks of seabirds chasing after fishing ships hoping to catch a meal. Every few hours we also see pods of bottlenose dolphins playing in the boat’s wake, and schools of flying fish gliding alongside the boat. The diversity and abundance of life reminded me that the Gulf of Mexico is a fertile ecosystem, with so much to explore.
Dolphins chasing our boat!
Without stations to take measurements, I don’t have many responsibilities yet on the ship, so I spend most of my time getting to know the crew, reading, watching the ocean, and working out. I was worried about what two weeks at sea would do to my triathlon training (it’s the middle of racing season!), but luckily I found a stationary bike with an incredible view. The term “stationary” bike feels almost tongue-in-cheek though, as the boat’s rocking and rolling have caused me to tip over more than once. On the bright side, I’m getting more of an ab workout?
Space is very limited on the boat, so there are a number of pieces of etiquette you learn quickly:
If someone is coming down the stairs or a hallway, pull over – you can’t fit two people in any passageways
With 30 people on board, but only 12 seats in the galley, make your meals short so others can get in and sit down
Don’t sit up too quickly in bed (the pic below is my bed!)
The boat is also constantly moving and humming. You learn quickly that you can’t move too quickly because of the large waves rocking the boat. While the gentle rocking of the ship can help lull you to sleep, every hour or so the waves get so rough that things start falling off of tables, which makes dinner time… fun?
One thing is for sure: the sunsets on the Gulf are unparalleled.
Did You Know?
British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams set text about the sea from American Poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in his Symphony No. 1, “A Sea Symphony,” for chorus and orchestra. In the piece, Vaughan Williams paints a symphonic picture of the sea that transports the listener, making you feel as if you were at sea. Since setting sail a few days ago, I can’t get this piece out of my head. Have a listen!
Behold, the sea itself,
And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships;
See, where their white sails, bellying in the wind, speckle the
green and blue,
See, the steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port,
See, dusky and undulating, the long pennants of smoke.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book XIII: Song of Exposition
NOAA Teacher at Sea
Aboard NOAA Ship Pisces (In Port)
May 04, 2016 – May 12, 2016
Date: Saturday, May 11, 2016
My children sometimes complain when they find a bird in the freezer next to their frozen waffles. Yet in Pascagoula, Mississippi, relentless digging in the freezer is how discoveries are made.
Mark Grace has been a biologist with NOAA for 30 years. If he counted all his time at sea, excluding volunteer and international research, he spent “seven solid years floating.” Out of 200 surveys with NOAA, he was the field party chief for 41 of those projects. In all of those years, he had never discovered a new species, almost no one ever does. Yet, in 2013, he discovered an extremely rare, tiny species of pocket shark that had been identified only one other time, in 1979 off the coast of Peru.
Scientists happened to find the 5 ½ inch shark while doing research on sperm whale feeding habits in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The pocket, unnoticed at first, is what makes this shark so unique. Jesse Wicker took this photo in 2010, aboard NOAA Ship Pisces during the whale survey while processing mountains of sea creatures. Scientists must pay meticulous attention to detail as they document and photograph specimens at sea. You never know when your photo may prove crucial to scientific discovery.
The specimens collected in 2010 were identified and then placed in freezers to preserve them for further analysis.
Mark began to work through the specimens, but it took much longer than he had imagined. He’d undo a bag, and there would be a hundred fish to process. Each bag seemed bottomless. By the time Mark got to the last bags, the shark had been in the freezer for three years, eight months. Brrr…..
Yet he knew the fish weren’t worth much if they stayed in the freezer. He was particularly interested in the cookie cutter shark named after the cookie shaped bites they leave in their prey. He kept on.
A shark caught his eye. The shark was identified as belonging to the Dalatiidae family (kitefin sharks), many of whom share luminescent features.
Yet this shark did not look like the other cookie cutter sharks he had studied. It had a remarkable fold of skin behind the pectoral fin that did not look like an injury or parasite. Once Mark saw a matching feature behind the other fin, he realized this shark was like no other species he had ever seen. Looking in his reference books, he could not find this shark, because it did not exist in any book on his shelf.
Over hundreds of millions of years, shark adaptations have helped them survive. They have become smoother, faster, and better at sensing out their prey. Many sharks have the hard, smooth, scales on their skin called denticles that increase their speed and reduce noise, just like my friend’s fast blue Sterling fiberglass kayak compared to my noisy, orange, plastic Avocet kayak.
Just below the snout, this shark had has a translucent denticle, or scale, at the center of surrounding denticles, giving the appearance of a flower.
Mark hypothesized that this unique adaptation might be a pit organ, used to sense currents, or prey. Scientists have many thoughts about the purposes for this organ. Each unique feature of the shark inspired Mark to research further.
One adaption many creatures of deep ocean waters is they glow. Small photophores, or organs on their body, emit light and signals to communicate with other animals. In this picture, Mark created a composite of several of the other glowing animals that were pulled up in the trawl net with the pocket shark (middle).
In 30 years, he had never seen a species this rare. A vitelline scar, like the belly button of a human, indicated that the five and a half inch fish was only a few days to no more than a few weeks old when it was born near the place it was harvested. It was a baby. There had to be at least one other fish like it somewhere in the world.
Connections to others
After a little research, Mark connected this pocket shark with the only other pocket shark ever recorded, in 1979 off the coast of Peru and Chile in the east Pacific Ocean. His research was particularly challenging because Dolganov, the scientist who first identified the new species pocket shark, wrote up his findings in 1984, in Russian. Mark had to find a Russian scientist to translate the document to English.
The older pocket shark was a female, and probably an adult, at 20 inches long. Between the two sharks, there were many similarities, but also many differences.
Once again, I find myself swirling in a sea of questions. Are these two pocket sharks, which lived far away from each other, of the same species? Are their morphological (physical) differences enough to make them unable to reproduce with each other? Scientists ask similar questions to determine if they have found a new species.
What makes a species unique?
Species identification is no easy task. Mark reached out to experts, as we all do, with his questions. At the Hollings Marine Laboratory, Gavin Naylor began to collaborate with Mark as part of his global effort to collect DNA of all living things. He added the pocket shark to the portion of the tree of life he manages at Sharksrays.org. John Denton, of the American Museum of Natural History, and Michael Doosey and Henry Bart from the Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute became part of this group of five scientists who would be connected for life through this 5 ½ inch shark. Together they read many books, sliced and diced the shark digitally, and traveled around the world to meet with other biological explorers. They determined that the specimen collected in the Gulf of Mexico, like specimen in the east Pacific, was a pocket shark, Mollisquama.
The most intriguing part of the scientists’ research lies in the title of their work, hidden in Latin: Mollisquama sp., the name for our Gulf of Mexico baby, and Mollisquama parini, its Russian relative. I notice that the second part of their name is different! Yet in order to establish our shark as a new species of Mollisquama, these scientists will have to write a paper that is “strong enough to withstand many layers of peer review,” says Mark. They will need to demonstrate that the physical differences (e.g. teeth and vertebrae) are significant enough to support a new species identification.
If they are successful in proving their pocket shark is different than its eastern Pacific Ocean relative, what should he name this species of shark? Mark suggests an international competition, as it will take many minds “to be good enough for NOAA.”
Mark reminds us that when we learn about this shark, we realize that the one great interconnected ocean and its inhabitants are a still a place of mystery and discovery. We have much more to learn about the ocean and its inhabitants than we know.
Often the greatest discoveries come when you least expect them, hiding in expectations dashed, problems, or the path less traveled. While the Pisces was scheduled to depart last week, the crew continues to work on long and short term projects on the ship and in the lab.
Photo courtesy of William Osborn
I am being supervised by Engineering Department Chief “Chief” Brent Jones, on one of many cameras around the ship, as I “assist” the engineering crew get through their list of duties. His words of wisdom? “Hands off!”
Here, Dana Reid, General Vessel Assistant, and I are opening up the aft valve, so that Travis Martin can switch out the strainers in the main water system. Dirty strainers get hosed out at least every other day. Today we caught a small eel in the strainer.
Photo Courtesy of William Osborn
Travis Martin, TAS Denise Harrington, and Dana Reid are switching out the strainer, while Farron “Junior” Cornell, Fisherman, photo bombs us.
Acronyms abound at NOAA, and teachers are affectionately referred to, not by our names, but as “TAS,” for Teacher at Sea. I’d like to name a new species of this family of adventuresome NOAA educators, “TIP” for those Teachers in Port who adapt by learning about all the amazing discoveries that take place on land following successful projects at sea. I want to extend a big thank you to Mark Grace and the fishery biologists in the lab who did not know they’d be hosting a TIP.
While in port, I have been able to explore the various land based habitats which are much easier to study than their underwater counterparts. Standing on the water’s edge at David Bayou, I wondered how the area would look from a kayak. I posted a message to the Mississippi Kayak Meetup Group. Both Eric and Keigm Richards and their friends responded, sharing their knowledge and boats, showing me parts of the watershed very few people see. Coincidentally, Eric was one of the talented NOAA Ship Pisces builders, and knows everything from the finest detail of an itty bitty kayak skeg, to the gigantic architecture and versatile features of the Pisces.
Here is a slideshow of the one of the most unspoiled, diverse and scenic estuaries I’ve paddled.
Most of the were taken by Eric. Notice the changes in vegetation as we travel away from mouth of the Pascagoula River, up the estuary. The decreasing salinity has a remarkable effect on the flora and fauna of the area. Mississippians are proud of the Pascagoula, “the last unimpeded river system in the continental United States.” http://ltmcp.org/pascagoula-river-watershed.
DID YOU KNOW?
Most, around 80%, of the creatures in the water column are bio-luminescent, or emit light. They can vomit out the glowing liquid, hold and release it from a pouch, and/or send it out through photophores (organs like eyes which emit light instead of collecting it).
NOAA Teacher st Sea Emilisa Saunders Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II May 14th – 30th, 2013
Mission: SEAMAP Plankton Study Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Mexico Date: Monday, May 13th, 2013
Science and Technology Log:
I’m finally aboard the Oregon II!
Today I got a sneak preview from the lead scientist, Andy, of the labs and some of the equipment that we’ll be using to collect plankton once we’re underway. There are three labs where we’ll be doing science for the next 17 days: the dry lab, the wet lab, and the chem lab. The dry lab, where I’m sitting and typing right now, is a room with computers that are used to remotely monitor the depths of the nets once they have been dropped, and to record data about those drops. The wet lab is where samples of plankton are preserved in jars to be sent back to shore and studied. The chem lab is where chlorophyll is separated from plankton samples.
I got to see the CTD, which is a unit that collects water at specific depths in order to measure physical characteristics of the water, such as salinity, fluorescence, temperature, and dissolved oxygen. I’m looking forward to learning more about this physical data and why it is important once we are underway.
Andy also showed me the nets we will use to collect plankton. All of the nets are large and heavy and are raised and lowered by winches that are operated by the ship’s crew. The first is a Bongo net. If you’ve ever seen bongo drums, you can get a sense of what this unit looks like: two side-by-side nets with round openings. The nets themselves are shaped like cones, and we’ll attach a bottle called a cod end on the end of each to capture all of the plankton from the nets. Then there are two Neuston nets, which have large, rectangular openings. The regular Neuston net will be towed along the surface, and the Subsurface Neuston will be towed in a pattern at various depths, as will the Bongo. The unit that I am most excited about is the MOCNESS. This big frame holds up to ten nets, which can be opened and closed at certain depths; that way, we can collect samples from various depths and monitor plankton at separate locations and at specific depths in the water column. In the other nets, you know what you get and where it came from, but not how deep it was.
The water column is an idea that scientists use to think about and study the ocean from top to bottom, or from the surface to the ocean floor. When you think about the water column, imagine the ocean as an aquarium, and you’re looking into it and seeing the organisms that live at different depths and what the water is like at those depths.
The reason that the MOCNESS is so exciting to me is that it reminds us that the water in the ocean is not just a uniform mixture all throughout; different creatures live at different depths, and in different numbers at those depths. It’s easy to imagine that creatures that are benthic – meaning, they live on the ocean floor – will vary depending on where they are in the world and how deep the ocean floor is in that spot. It’s harder to imagine that pelagic organisms – those that live in the water column, neither at the very surface, nor at the bottom or at the shore – will also vary greatly depending on depth and location. The water itself is different as well; the temperature of the water and the amount of salt, light and oxygen changes with depth.
Challenge Yourself: Here’s a challenge for my Nature Exchange Traders: go on into the Nature Exchange and explain the terms water column, benthic and pelagic to earn some bonus points. Tell them Emmi sent you!
Flying over Alabama on the descent into Mobile on Sunday, I was struck by how much water there was everywhere below me. Everywhere I looked, there were slow, meandering rivers, sparkling ponds, lakes and streams. At times when I thought I was looking down on a forest, I saw the sun reflecting off of water blanketing the ground beneath the trees and shrubs. I was even struck by the number of puddles in parking lots and lining the streets. I kept thinking that, living in the desert, I’m just not used to seeing so much water – and I hadn’t even reached the harbor yet! It was as if I was being slowly introduced to the world that I’m about to live in for the next 17 days.
I’ve been aboard the Oregon II at dock for just a few hours now, and I’m already overwhelmed with fascination, excitement, curiosity, and anticipation. I started the morning at my hotel feeling very nervous, knowing that I was about to experience a rush of newness: new people, places, sights, sounds, rules, routines, you name it. I told myself just to take a deep breath and take it in one thing at a time, and that really helped me to enjoy the experience. Now the nerves are mostly gone and I’m just very much looking forward to the ship’s departure tomorrow afternoon!
To my great fortune, I’ve already found everyone I’ve met to be incredibly kind and friendly. I got to meet some of the NOAA lab scientists who study the plankton that is collected from the Gulf, as well as field scientists Alonzo and Glenn, with whom I’ll be working the night shift on the Oregon II. Last but not least is Andy, the lead scientist for this cruise, who helped plan logistics for my arrival, gave me a tour of the ship and helped me get situated on board.
The folks I’ve met on board are from all over the United States. Some of them came to Pascagoula to work for NOAA to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; some came as part of their graduate school studies. Everyone I’ve met either has or is pursuing an advanced degree, so the intelligence on board the ship is impressive. As challenging as it can be to for the scientists to be away from home for more than a hundred days out of the year, all of them have some level of appreciation for doing field work. Not all of the scientists who study plankton in Pascagoula are able to leave the lab to go on the cruises, so I am even more grateful that I have the honor of taking part. I’m also extremely grateful to learn that I will be of help to the team. Because of limited staffing and budgets, the science team depends on teachers, like me, to provide extra sets of hands during the field work.
I’ll be staying in Stateroom 5 for this cruise, which I’ll share with a volunteer scientist named Jana. “Stateroom” is the word used for a bedroom on a ship. The stateroom is small, as expected, but it actually feels like it’s the perfect size. All of my belongings are unpacked in drawers and cabinets, and they all fit just fine. There’s a bunk with two beds, a sink, and three storage cabinets. Two of the cabinets are entirely for our use, and one mostly holds safety gear and flotation devices. There is enough floor space that I could lay on the floor and do snow angels, so there will be plenty of room to move around. I don’t expect to be spending all that much time in the stateroom once we are underway.
Time has taken on a whole new meaning in the past two days. Yesterday morning I left Las Vegas in the Pacific Time Zone and flew to Atlanta in the Eastern Time Zone, then to Mobile in the Central Time Zone. It was almost like time travel. After we embark tomorrow, I’ll start my work schedule, which will have me on duty from midnight to noon every day. Work goes on around the clock on NOAA vessels. This schedule will take some getting used to, but as a morning person, I am excited that I’ll be awake and active for my favorite part of the day, and I’ll get to watch the sun rise. Right now, I’m attempting to stay awake for my entire first night on the ship so that I can get on my work schedule right away. To add another level of confusion to my sense of time, ship crews observe 24-hour military time instead of using AM and PM. Numbers are difficult for me and don’t come naturally, so this will take some getting used to.
Just being on the ship feels quite surreal. As I write this at 23:33hrs, there are just a handful of people on board, and we are still at dock. Every once in a while some subtle movement reminds me that this is a ship in the water, but mostly it feels like solid ground. I know that will change once we get moving. Aside from the obvious signs, there are other little reminders that this is a ship, where everything must be secured for rougher waters. Computers and monitors are strapped and bolted to the tables, there are gripper pads spread out on tables and in drawers, and every door, from drawers and cabinets to staterooms, has to be latched shut and unlatched to open, and open doors have to be secured with a hook so that they don’t slam shut when the ship shifts. There’s also a constant hum of noise on the Oregon II. I’m interested to see how loud it is when we’re actually moving!
The adventures in science begin tomorrow!
Did you know?
Bluefin tuna plankton are a type of ichthyoplankton, which comes from the Greek words for “fish drifters.” For those of you in Nevada, think of our state fossil, the ichthyosaurus, which means “fish lizard!”
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 22, 2012
Location: Latitude: 18.5472
Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Temperature: 28.6°C (83.5°F)
Wind Speed: 9 knots (10.5 mph), Beaufort scale: 3
Wind Direction: from SE
Relative Humidity: 77%
Barometric Pressure: 1,014.80 mb
Surface Water Temperature: 28.1°C (82.6°F)
Science and Technology Log
Another aspect (much more technical) of the scientific research conducted on this cruise is the collection of acoustic data. This field is continually evolving as the detection resolution improves allowing scientists to more precisely identify fish. This has been used with more success in fisheries farther north because the schools of fish are more likely to be monospecific (a single species). However, the technique still needs improvement in warmer waters where the fish assemblages tend to be multi-specific (having a much greater variety of fish).
This field of study is called Hydroacoustics (hydro- means water, and acoustics refers to sound). It is the science of how sound moves through water. Leonardo da Vinci noticed how sound travels through water in 1490. He noticed that, “If you cause your ship to stop and place the head of a long tube in the water and place the outer extremity to your ear, you will hear ships at a great distance from you.” (Urick, Robert J. Principles of Underwater Sound, 3rd Edition. New York. McGraw-Hill, 1983.) World War I helped promote innovation in the field, especially with the need for anti-submarine detection devices (Wood, A. B., From the Board of Invention and Research to the Royal Naval Scientific Service, Journal of the Royal Naval Scientific Service Vol 20, No 4, pp 1-100 (185-284)).
The system used is a sonar beam that is split into quadrants. This instrument is used to assist in determining fish abundance and distribution. The premise is relatively simple: an echo sounder transmits a pulse of energy waves (sound), when the pulse strikes an object, it is reflected (bounced) back to the transducer. The echo sounder is then processed and sent to a video display. This is the same general process behind the recreationally available fishfinder.
A short burst of energy is focused into a narrow beam. When this beam encounters an object such as a fish, a school of fish, plankton, or other object, some of the energy bounces back up through the water to the transducer. It is the detection of these reflections that allow scientists to determine location, size, and abundance of fish. These reflections show up on our video monitor. These measurements are combined with groundtruthed data (for example, fish collected in the field, camera images).
One of the difficulties in data interpretation is that often, the signals that appear on the computer monitor have false readings. This is a result of the sound wave bouncing multiple times. It travels to the bottom from the transducer, strikes an object, returns to the ship, bounces off the ship back toward the bottom, strikes another object, and is detected yet again.
The Pisces is actually home to one of six multi-beam acoustic instruments in the world. Of the six in existence, NOAA has five of them. The benefit of running a multi-beam instrument is that each beam can be set to measure a different frequency (kHz), thus enabling detection of many more features (different species of fish, etc.)
Last night the crew of the Pisces carried out a task that they don’t normally perform. The Pisces was created for fisheries research projects – it focuses on collecting fish samples either by bandit reel, longline, or trawling. This particular operation was to deploy the anchor for a buoy that will be attached at a later date. When the buoy is ready to be attached, another vessel will bring it out to the site and divers will go down to the anchor to make the final attachment.
The anchor consists of a huge rebar-reinforced concrete block with a very long chain that has marker floats attached at the end. Logistically, this took some planning; the A-frame had to be raised and the anchor lifted with the Gilson winch with a 1″ spectra line (has an enormous tensile strength). The gate to the ship’s ramp was lowered and the A-frame (or as the deck hands call it, the “Tuna Tower”) repositioned so the anchor was hanging over the water. The rope holding the anchor, chain, and float was cut through, and the anchor plunged to the ocean bottom. Again, the crew made the operation go smoothly and demonstrated their ability to complete unexpectedly assigned tasks.
Today was a slow fishing day – no fish at all. Without any fish to “work up” (collect samples from), the day goes more slowly and we have more down time. With the extra time, I had a chance to interview Kevin Rademacher, the Chief Scientist on the cruise.
LU: What is your official job title and what are your job duties?
KR: I’m a Research Fisheries Biologist. I work for the Reef Fish Unit at the NOAA Fisheries Lab in Pascagoula, MS. I am the Senior Tape Reader/Reviewer, in charge of the readers that analyze the video data we collect from Reef Fish Surveys. I also help plan, organize, and run the surveys. Additionally, I participate in trawl surveys and anything else the lab needs done.
LU: When did you first become interested in the ocean and marine sciences?
KR: I guess that would have been when I was really young. There is a photo from the Panama City, Florida newspaper, two weeks after I was born with my parents pulling me in a homemade wagon along the beach! I knew in junior high school that I wanted to be a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
LU: It’s such a broad field; how did you narrow your focus down to what you’re currently doing?
KR: I got lucky and kind of fell into reading underwater videos at the initial stages of the project and fell in love with being the proverbial “fly on the wall”! It has allowed me to see the fish in their natural habitat, different color phases, behavior, etc.
LU: If you were to go into another area of ocean research, what would it be?
KR: Marine Mammal Studies. After college I trained dolphins and sea lions and put on shows with them for a local Oceanarium on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
LU: What is the biggest challenge in your job?
KR: Communicating with people and writing papers.
LU: What do you think is the biggest issue of contention in your field?
KR: The impression that commercial fishermen have regarding the work we do to regulate the fisheries they work in.
LU: What are some effects of climate change that you’ve witnessed during your career in fisheries research?
KR: The decline of coral reefs and overfishing of some species.
LU: In what areas of marine science do you foresee a lot of career paths and job opportunities?
KR: Ecosystem management and data modelers. There has also been a decline in taxonomists over the past few decades.
LU: How would you explain your work to a layperson?
KR: I use underwater cameras to help assess populations of reef fish, especially snappers and groupers. The data collected is used to manage those fisheries.
LU: If a high school student wanted to go into your field of study/marine science in general, what kinds of courses would you recommend they take?
KR: Math, Biology, Chemistry, and any other science courses available.
LU: Do you recommend students interested in your field pursue original research as high school students or undergraduates? If so, what kind?
KR: Most definitely! Whatever they are interested in would be beneficial.
Well, only two more days left with the scientists before we pull into San Juan, Puerto Rico. We have 17 more daytime sites to sample and then this survey will be over. The scientific crew will be flying home on the 25th, and once home, their work will really begin. Back in the lab, they will be analyzing the data and reviewing the video. Some of them will be going back out on other cruises. Kevin Rademacher will be going out on another reef fish survey in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It is currently delayed because of the potential formation of tropical storm Debby. Joey Salisbury has a couple more; he will be going on a longline cruise and then another reef fish survey, both of which will be in the Gulf of Mexico. Arian Frappier will be heading off to begin a masters program in marine systems and coastal studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
After a day’s shore leave in San Juan, I’ll continue on to Mayport on the Pisces. During this time, I’ll focus on the crew members and their jobs. The cruise will definitely take on a different feel at this point, but it will give me an opportunity to explore other ocean related careers.