Katie Gavenus: Don’t Forget the Phytoplankton! May 5, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Katie Gavenus

Aboard R/V Tiglax

April 26 – May 9, 2019

Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research project

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska – currently in transit from ‘Seward Line’ to ‘Kodiak Line’

Date: May 5, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Time: 2305
Latitude: 57o 34.6915’
Longitude: 150o 06.9789’
Wind: 18 knots, South
Seas: 4-6 feet
Air Temperature: 46oF (8oC)
Air pressure: 1004 millibars
Cloudy, light rain

Science and Technology Log

Phytoplankton!  These organisms are amazing.  Like terrestrial plants, they utilize energy from the sun to photosynthesize, transforming water and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen.  Transforming this UV energy into sugars allows photosynthetic organisms to grow and reproduce, then as they are consumed, the energy is transferred through the food web.  With a few fascinating exceptions (like chemotrophs that synthesize sugars from chemicals!), photosynthetic organisms form the basis of all food webs. The ecosystems we are most familiar with, and depend upon culturally, socially, and economically, would not exist without photosynthetic organisms.

Indeed, productivity and health of species like fish, birds, and marine mammals are highly dependent upon the productivity and distribution of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Alaska. Phytoplankton also play an important role in carbon fixation and the cycling of nutrients in the Gulf of Alaska.  For the LTER, developing a better understanding of what drives patterns of phytoplankton productivity is important to understanding how the ecosystem might change in the future.  Understanding the basis of the food web can also can inform management decisions, such as regulation of fisheries.

niskin bottles on the rosette

Seawater captured at different depths by niskin bottles on the rosette transferred to bottles by different scientists for analysis.

To better understand these patterns, researchers aboard R/V Tiglax use the rosette on the CTD to collect water at different depths.  The plankton living in this water is processed in a multitude of ways.  First, in the lab on the ship, some of the water is passed through two filters to catch phytoplankton of differing sizes.  These filters are chemically extracted for 24 hours before being analyzed using a fluorometer, which measures the fluorescence of the pigment Chlorophyll-a.  This provides a quantitative measurement of Chlorophyll-a biomass. It also allows researchers to determine whether the phytoplankton community at a given time and place is dominated by ‘large’ phytoplankton (greater than 20 microns, predominantly large diatoms) or ‘small’ phytoplankton (less than 20 microns, predominantly dinoflagellates, flagellates, cryptophyte algae, and cyanobacteria).

Preparing filters

Preparing filters to separate large and small phytoplankton from the seawater samples.

For example, waters in Prince William Sound earlier in the week had a lot of large phytoplankton, while waters more offshore on the Seward Line were dominated by smaller phytoplankton.  This has important ramifications for trophic interactions, since many different consumers prefer to eat the larger phytoplankton.  Larger phytoplankton also tends to sink faster than small plankton when it dies, which can increase the amount of food reaching benthic organisms and increase the amount of carbon that is sequestered in ocean sediments.

The Chlorophyll-a biomass measurements from the fluorometer are a helpful first step to understanding the biomass of phytoplankton at stations in the Gulf of Alaska.  However, research here and elsewhere has shown that the amount of carbon fixed by phytoplankton can vary independently of the Chlorophyll-a biomass.  For example, data from 2018 in the Gulf of Alaska show similar primary productivity (the amount of carbon fixed by phytoplankton per day) in the spring, summer, and fall seasons even though the Chlorophyll-a biomass is much higher in the spring.  This is likely because of at least two overlapping factors.  Vertical mixing in the winter and spring, driven primarily by storms, brings more nutrients and iron into the upper water column. This higher nutrient and iron availability in the spring allow for the growth of larger phytoplankton that can hold more chlorophyll.  This vertical mixing also means that phytoplankton tend to get mixed to greater depths in the water column, where less light is available.  To make up for this light limitation, the phytoplankton produce more chlorophyll in the spring so they can more effectively utilize the light that is available.  This variation in chlorophyll over the seasons probably helps to make the phytoplankton community overall more productive, but it makes it problematic to use Chlorophyll-a biomass (which is relatively easy to measure) as a proxy for primary productivity (which is much more challenging to measure).

Phytoplankton sample in the flourometer

A sample of filtered, extracted phytoplankton is placed into the fluorometer.

To address the question of primary productivity more directly, researchers are running an experiment on the ship.  Seawater containing phytoplankton from different depths is incubated for 24 hours.  The container for each depth is screened to let in sunlight equivalent to what the plankton would be exposed to at the depth they were collected from.  Inorganic carbon rich in C13 isotope is added to each container as it incubates. After 24 hours, they filter the water and measure the amount of C13 the phytoplankton have taken up.  Because C13 is rare in ecosystems, this serves as a measurement of the carbon fixation rate – which can then be converted into primary productivity.

Phytoplankton samples from the rosette are also preserved for later analysis in various labs onshore.  Some of the samples will be processed using High Performance Light Chromotography, which produces a pigment profile.  These pigments are not limited to Chlorophyll-a, but also include other types of Chlorophyll, Fucoxanthin (a brownish pigment found commonly in diatoms as well as other phytoplankton), Peridinin (only found in photosynthetic dinoflagellates), and Diadinoxanthin (a photoprotective pigment that absorbs sunlight and dissipates it as heat to protect the phytoplankton from excessive exposure to sunlight).  The pigment profiles recorded by HPLC can be used to determine which species of plankton are present, as well as a rough estimate of their relative abundance.

A different lab will also analyze the samples using molecular analysis of ribosomal RNA.  There are ID sequences that can be used to identify which species of phytoplankton are present in the sample, and also get a rough relative abundance.  Other phytoplankton samples are preserved for microscopy work to identify the species present.  Microscopy with blue light can also be used to investigate which species are mixotrophic – a fascinating adaptation I’ll discuss in my next blog post!

It is a lot of work, but all of these various facets of the phytoplankton research come together with analysis of nutrients, iron, oxygen, dissolved inorganic carbon, temperature, and salinity to answer the question “What regulates the patterns of primary productivity in the Gulf of Alaska?”

There are already many answers to this question.  There is an obvious seasonal cycle due to light availability.  The broad pattern is driven by the amount of daylight, but on shorter time-scales it is also affected by cloud cover.  As already mentioned, vigorous vertical mixing also limits the practical light availability for phytoplankton that get mixed to greater depths.  There is also an overall, declining gradient in primary productivity moving from the coast to the deep ocean. This gradient is probably driven most by iron limitation.  Phytoplankton need iron to produce chlorophyll, and iron is much less common as you move into offshore waters.  There are also finer-scale spatial variations and patchiness, which are partly driven by interacting currents and bathymetry (ocean-bottom geography). As currents interact with each other and features of the bathymetry, upwelling and eddies can occur, affecting such things as nutrient availability, salinity, water temperature, and intensity of mixing in the water column.

View of horizon from station GAK

The early-morning view from station GAK on the ‘Seward Line.’ Patterns of primary productivity are driven both by amount of cloud cover and amount of daylight. During our two weeks at sea, we actually sampled at GAK1 3 separate times. The amount of daylight (time between sunrise and sunset each day) at this location increased by nearly 60 minutes over the two week cruise!

The current work seeks to clarify which of these factors are the most dominant drivers of the patterns in the Gulf of Alaska and how these factors interact with each other. The research also helps to determine relationships between things that can be more easily measured, such as remote-sensing of chlorophyll, and the types of data that are particularly important to the LTER in a changing climate but are difficult to measure across broad spatial scales and time scales, such as primary productivity or phytoplankton size community. Phytoplankton are often invisible to the naked eye.  It would be easy to overlook them, but in many ways, phytoplankton are responsible for making the Gulf of Alaska what it is today, and what it will be in the future.  Understanding their dynamics is key to deeper understanding of the Gulf.

Personal Log

The schedule along the Seward Line and as we head to the Kodiak Line had to be adjusted due to rough seas and heavy winds.  This means we have been working variable and often long hours on the night shift. It is usually wet and cold and dark, and when it is windy the seawater we use to hose down the zooplankton nets seems to always spray into our faces and make its way into gloves and up sleeves.  But we still manage to have plenty of fun on the night shift and share lots of laughs.  There are also moments where I look up from the task at hand and am immersed in beauty, wonder, and fascination. I get to watch jellies undulate gracefully off the stern (all the while, crossing my fingers that they don’t end up in our nets  — that is bad for both them and us) and peer more closely at the zooplankton we’ve caught.  I am mesmerized by the color and motion of the breaking waves on a cloudy dawn and delighted by the sun cascading orange-pink towards the water at sunset.  I am reminded of my love, both emotional and intellectual, for the ocean!

Float coats

We experienced a lot of wind, rain, waves, and spray from the high-pressure hose (especially when I was wielding the hose), but bulky float coats kept us mostly warm and dry.

Did You Know?

Iron is the limiting nutrient in many offshore ecosystems.  Where there is more iron, there is generally more primary productivity and overall productive ecosystems.  Where there is little iron, very little can grow.  This is different than terrestrial and even coastal ecosystems, where iron is plentiful and other nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous) tend to be the limiting factors.  Because people worked from what they knew in terrestrial ecosystems, until about 30 years ago, nitrogen and phosphorous were understood to be the important nutrients to study.  It was groundbreaking when it was discovered that iron may be a crucial piece of the puzzle in many open ocean ecosystems.

Question of the Day:

Regarding sustainability and scalability of intensive ocean resource harvesting: If humans started eating plankton directly, what could happen? And a follow-up: Can we use algae from harmful bloom areas?

Question from Leah Lily, biologist, educator, and qualitative researcher, Bellingham, WA

I first shared this question with the zooplankton night crew.  The consensus was that it was not a good idea to harvest zooplankton directly for large-scale human consumption.  Some krill and other zooplankton are already harvested for ‘fish oil’ supplements; as demand increases, the sustainability of this practice has become more dubious.  The zooplankton night crew were concerned that if broader-scale zooplankton harvest were encouraged, the resource would quickly be overharvested, and that the depletion of zooplankton stocks would have even more deleterious consequences for overall ecosystem function than the depletion of specific stocks of fish. They also brought up the question of how much of each zooplankton would actually be digestible to humans.  Many of these organisms have a chitinous exoskeleton, which we wouldn’t be able to get much nutrition from.  So it seems like intensive ocean harvesting of zooplankton is likely not advisable.

However, when I talked with the lead phytoplankton researcher on board, she thought there might be slightly more promise in harvesting phytoplankton.  It is more unlikely, she thinks, that it would get rapidly depleted since there is so much phytoplankton out there dispersed across a very wide geographic scale.  Generally, harvesting lower on the food chain is more energy efficient. At every trophic level, when one organism eats another, only a fraction of the energy is utilized to build body mass. So the higher up the food web we harvest from, the more energy has been ‘lost’ to respiration and other organism functions.  Harvesting phytoplankton would minimize the amount of energy that has been lost in trophic transfer.  Unlike most zooplankton, most phytoplankton is easily digestible to people and is very rich in lipids and proteins.  It could be a good, healthy food source.  However, as she also pointed out, harvesting phytoplankton in the wild would likely require a lot of time, energy, and money because it is generally so sparse.  It likely would not be economically feasible to filter the plankton in the ocean out from the water, and, with current technologies, not particularly environmentally friendly.  Culturing, or ‘farming,’ phytoplankton might help to address these problems, and in fact blue-green algae/Spirulina is already grown commercially and available as a nutritional supplement.  And there may be some coastal places where ‘wild’ harvest would be practical.  There are a number of spots where excess nutrients, often from fertilizers applied on land that runoff into streams and rivers, can cause giant blooms of phytoplankton.  These are often considered harmful algal blooms because as the phytoplankton die, bacteria utilize oxygen to decompose them and the waters become hypoxic or anoxic.  Harvesting phytoplankton from these types of harmful algal blooms would likely be a good idea, mitigating the impacts of the HABs and providing a relatively easy food source for people.  However, it would be important to make sure that toxin-producing plankton, such as Alexandrium spp. (which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning) were not involved in the HAB.

Mark Van Arsdale: What Makes Up an Ecosystem? Part II – Phytoplankton, September 14, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Mark Van Arsdale

Aboard R/V Tiglax

September 11 – 26, 2018


Mission: Long Term Ecological Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: North Gulf of Alaska

Date: September 14, 2018


Weather Data from the Bridge

Mostly cloudy, winds variable 10 knots, waves to four feet

58.27 N, 148.07 W (Gulf of Alaska Line)


Science Log

What Makes Up an Ecosystem?  Part II Phytoplankton

Most of my students know that the sun provides the foundational energy for almost all of Earth’s food webs.  Yet many students will get stumped when I ask them, where does the mass of a tree comes from?  The answer of course is carbon dioxide from the air, but I bet you already knew that.

Scientists use the term “primary productivity” to explain how trees, plants, and algae take in carbon dioxide and “fix it” into carbohydrates during the process of photosynthesis.  Out here in the Gulf of Alaska, the primary producers are phytoplankton (primarily diatoms and dinoflagellates). When examining diatoms under a microscope, they look like tiny golden pillboxes, or perhaps Oreos if you are feeling hungry.

Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.

Primary productivity experiments running on the back deck of the Tiglax.

One of the teams of scientists on board is trying to measure the rates of primary productivity using captive phytoplankton and a homemade incubation chamber. They collect phytoplankton samples, store them in sealed containers, and then place them into the incubator.  Within their sample jars, they inject a C13 isotope.  After the experiment has run its course, they will use vacuum filtration to separate the phytoplankton cells from the seawater.  Once the phytoplankton cells are captured on filter paper they can measure the ratios of C12 to C13. Almost all of the carbon available in the environment is C12 and can be distinguished from C13.  The ratios of C12 to C13 in the cells gives them a measurement of how much dissolved carbon is being “fixed” into sugars by phytoplankton.  Apparently using C14  would actually work better but C14 is radioactive and the Tiglax is not equipped with the facilities to hand using a radioactive substance.

During the September survey, phytoplankton numbers are much lower than they are in the spring.  The nutrients that they need to grow have largely been used up.  Winter storms will mix the water and bring large amounts of nutrients back to the surface.  When sunlight returns in April, all of the conditions necessary for phytoplankton growth will be present, and the North Gulf of Alaska will experience a phytoplankton bloom.  It’s these phytoplankton blooms that create the foundation for the entire Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

Personal Log

Interesting things to see

The night shift is not getting any easier.  The cumulative effects of too little sleep are starting to catch up to me, and last night I found myself dosing off between plankton tows.  The tows were more interesting though.  Once we got past the edge of the continental shelf, the diversity of zooplankton species increased and we started to see lantern fish in each of the tows.  Lantern fish spend their days below one thousand feet in the darkness of the mesopelagic and then migrate up each night to feed on zooplankton.  The have a line of photophores (light producing cells) on their ventral sides.  When they light them up, their bodies blend in to the faint light above, hiding their silhouette, making them functionally invisible.

A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.

A lantern fish with its bioluminescent photophores visible along its belly.

Once I am up in the morning, the most fun place to hang out on the Tiglax is the flying bridge.  Almost fifty feet up and sitting on top of the wheelhouse, it has a cushioned bench, a wind block, and a killer view.  This is where our bird and marine mammal observers work.  Normally there is one U.S. Fish and Wildlife observer who works while the boat is transiting from one station to the next.  On this trip, there is a second observer in training.  The observers’ job is to use a very specific protocol to count and identify any sea bird or marine mammal seen along the transect lines.

Today we saw lots of albatross; mostly black-footed, but a few Laysan, and one short-tailed albatross that landed next to the boat while were casting the CTD.  The short-tailed albatross was nearly extinct a few years ago, and today is still considered endangered. That bird was one of only 4000 of its species remaining.  Albatross have an unfortunate tendency to follow long-line fishing boats.  They try to grab the bait off of hooks and often are drowned as the hooks drag them to the bottom.  Albatross are a wonder to watch as they glide effortlessly a few inches above the waves.  They have narrow tapered wings that are comically long. When they land on the water, they fold their gangly wings back in a way that reminds me of a kid whose growth spurts hit long before their body knows what to do with all of that height.   While flying, however, they are a picture of grace and efficiency.  They glide effortlessly just a few inches above the water, scanning for an unsuspecting fish or squid.  When some species of albatross fledge from their nesting grounds, they may not set foot on land again for seven years, when their own reproductive instincts drive them to land to look for a mate.

Our birders seem to appreciate anyone who shares their enthusiasm for birds and are very patient with all of my “What species is that?” questions.  They have been seeing whales as well.  Fin and sperm whales are common in this part of the gulf and they have seen both.

A Laysan Albatross

A Laysan Albatross, photo credit Dan Cushing


Did You Know?

Albatross, along with many other sea birds, have life spans comparable to humans.  It’s not uncommon for them to live sixty or seventy years, and they don’t reach reproductive maturity until well into their teens.


Animals Seen Today

  • Fin and sperm whales
  • Storm Petrels, tufted puffins, Laysan and black-footed and short-tailed albatross, flesh footed shearwater


Martha Loizeaux: Spectrophotometers and Eggplant Curry, August 28, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Martha Loizeaux

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 22-31, 2018

Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring Survey
Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: August 28, 2018

Weather Data from the Bridge

  • Latitude:  39.487 N
  • Longitude:  73.885 W
  • Water Temperature: 25.2◦C
  • Wind Speed:  13.1 knots
  • Wind Direction: WSW
  • Air Temperature: 26.1◦C
  • Atmospheric Pressure:  1017.28 millibars
  • Depth:  30 meters

Science and Technology Log


This is the underwater spectrophotometer!

“Underwater spectrophotometer”… say that 10 times fast!  I was lucky enough to steal a few minutes of Audrey Ciochetto’s time while we admired the views from the fly bridge today.  Audrey works with the Colleen Mouw Lab at the University of Rhode Island.  Her lab studies phytoplankton (you may remember that phytoplankton is plankton that is like a plant) and how light from the sun interacts with plankton.  I bet you never thought about that!  It’s amazing stuff!

Audrey and a graduate student from the lab, Kyle Turner, have brought another cool science tool on board, an underwater spectrophotometer.  The ship has pipes hooked up that take water in from 4 meters under the surface of the ocean at a constant flow.  This water goes into the spectrophotometer and the machine gets to work.  It shines light through the water and measures how the light is absorbed (taken in).  Did you know that light travels in waves?  Different colors of light that you see are different wavelengths.  The spectrophotometer can measure 83 different color wavelengths and what happens to them when they shine on the water.

What does happen to light when it shines into the water?  First of all, the water itself absorbs some of the light.  There are also a lot of tiny things in the water that absorb light.  Can you think of some tiny things that might be in the water? You guessed it again!  Phytoplankton is absorbing some of the light, but also other things like tiny particles and dissolved matter will absorb light.  These items will also scatter the light, making it bounce in different directions.  The underwater spectrophotometer measures that too!

filtering Audrey

Audrey filtering water samples to separate particles and plankton

Audrey and Kyle spend some of their day taking samples of the water and filtering out the plankton and particles, leaving only the dissolved matter.  They will also bring some sea water samples back to their lab to separate the phytoplankton from the rest of the particles. By separating all of these factors, scientists can get an idea of how each of these components in the water are responding to light.

The goal of this work is to understand what satellites are seeing.  Scientists rely on satellites out in space to take pictures of what’s happening on Earth.  These satellites can detect the light from the sun shining on Earth.  They can see some color wavelengths as they are absorbed or scattered by different things on our planet.  With the work that Audrey and Kyle are doing, we can better understand the satellite pictures of the ocean and what they mean.  We can understand what’s in the ocean by looking at what the sunlight is doing when it touches the water.  Pretty incredible, right?

The Design of Experiments

Hearing all of these brilliant ideas from Audrey got me thinking about how creative scientists must be to design experiments and investigations to answer questions.
Remember the hypothesis example that Chief Scientist Harvey mentioned in his interview?  It was an idea that scientists came up with after they used monitoring data to discover a pattern of lower populations of herring (fish).

Hypothesis:  “Increasing haddock populations lead to a lower stable state of herring because haddock feed on herring eggs.”

fish stomach contents

Scientists can study the stomach contents of fish to learn what they are eating. Photo courtesy of The Fisherman Magazine.

How would you design an experiment to test this?
Well, the real scientists who did this work examined the stomach contents of haddock to see how much of their diet consisted of herring eggs!  Would you have thought of that?
It was interesting to read about this study in a scientific journal called PNAS (it stands for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), “Role of egg predation by haddock in the decline of an Atlantic herring population.” By Richardson et. al.

Get creative and start thinking of your own ideas to answer questions you have about the world!



Scientist Spotlight – Tamara Holzwarth-Davis, Physical Science Technician

Tamara is the physical science technician for NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) at Woods Hole.  A technician is someone who is an expert on the equipment and technology used by the scientists.  Today I had a chance to ask Tamara some more questions about her work.

Me – Tell me more about your job.
Tamara – I provide quality control for all of the data brought back by all of the ships involved in our study.  A lot of it is statistical analysis of data [this means looking at data and making sure that it makes sense and is accurate].  I calibrate sensors [make sure they are accurate], process data, and write reports based on the data we find.  We create a yearly atlas of information based on our data that anyone can use to look for trends (such as changes in plankton populations).  I also maintain and coordinate equipment that is needed for the studies.

Me – What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?Tamara – I least expected to be so involved with plankton!  I used to do only the hydrography (water chemistry and physical properties) but now I am also involved with plankton data collection.

Tamara on watch

Tamara keeps track of a lot of different things during her watch.

Me – How do you help other people understand and appreciate NOAA’s work?
Tamara – I write the reports and make data available to the public.  People can be reassured that quality control is in place in our monitoring and the data is as accurate as possible.  It is my job to make sure of it!

Me – What do you love about going out to sea?
Tamara – I love the experience of being out at sea and meeting new people!

Personal Log

Our days on the ship are spent collecting data at stations, storytelling and watching the water on the fly bridge, catching up on work, watching sunrises and sunsets.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comfort and commodities (like comfy mattresses and hot showers) and especially, THE FOOD!


The food options are outstanding. One night we had king crab legs and tuna steaks.

Margaret chef

Margaret is the best chef EVER.

Here on NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter, we have a wonderful steward staff (cooks and kitchen managers), Margaret and Paul. They always have smiles on their faces when you walk in for meal time and are happy to spread their cheerfulness.  There is always an amazing menu with many items to choose from.  As a vegetarian, I have been blown away by all of the delicious veggie options.  But there is plenty of meat for the carnivores too!  There are always a variety of snacks available as well as healthy options.

Margaret makes homemade cookies and pies, guacamole, crab salad, and eggplant curry, just to name a few.  We all sit down for meals together and share stories.  And there is always dessert!

Did You Know?

Water absorbs red light first.  So, if a fish has red scales when it’s out of the water, under water he will look brown and blend in to his surroundings.  All of the red light will have already been absorbed by the water and there won’t be enough left to reflect off the fish’s scales!


A squirrelfish can blend in to its surroundings under water. Since it is a red fish, it is hard to see its color since the water has already absorbed the red light from the sun. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Animals Seen Today

Common dolphins, green sea turtle, brown booby bird, larval hake, larval flounder, larval sea bass, jellyfish

brown booby

Bobby the brown booby stayed with our ship for several hours.

jellyfish jar

A jellyfish we caught in the plankton net!

Martha Loizeaux: Cool Science Tools and Drifter Buoy! August 26, 2018

Susan Dee: Microscopic Sea Life – Days 1-4, May 24, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Susan Dee
Aboard NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow
May 23 – June 7, 2018

Mission:  Spring Ecosystem Monitoring Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise:  Northeastern Coast U.S.
Date: May 24, 2018
Weather Data from Bridge
Latitude: 40°32′
Longitude: 070°45′
Sea Wave Height:  1-2 feet
Wind Speed:  12 knots°
Wind Direction: west
Viability: unrestricted
Air Temperature:  13.5°C
Sky: Few clouds

Science and Technology Log

Tuesday, May 22, I arrived at Newport Naval Base and boarded NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow to begin my Teacher at Sea journey by staying overnight on a docked ship.   Day 1 was filled with many new experiences as we headed out to sea.  The Henry B. Bigelow is part of a fleet of vessels commissioned to conduct  fishery surveys. To learn more about the Henry B. Bigelow,  check out this website:  Henry B. Bigelow. The objective of this cruise is to access the hydrographic, planktonic and pelagic components of North East U.S. continental shelf ecosystem.  The majority of the surveys we will take involve  the microbiotic parts of the sea –  phytoplankton, zooplankton and mesoplankton.  Plankton are small microscope organisms in the oceans that are extremely important to the entire Earth ecosystem.  These organisms are the foundation of the entire ocean food web. By studying their populations. scientists can get an accurate picture of the state of  larger ocean organism populations.

Susan and ship

Henry B. Bigelow

Leaving Newport Harbor

Leaving Newport Harbor

Before leaving the dock, I met with Emily Peacock from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) to learn how to run an Imaging Flow Cytobot instrument that uses video and flow cytometric technology to capture images of phytoplankton. The IFCB was developed by Dr Heidi Sosik and Rob Olsen (WHOI) to get a better understanding of coastal plankton communities. The IFCB runs 24 hours a day collecting sea water and continuously measuring phytoplankton abundance.  Five milliliters of sea water are analyzed every 20 minutes and produces the images shown below.

Imaging Flow CytoBot

Emily Peacock teaching the usage of the Imaging Flow CytoBot (IFCB)


Imaging Flow Cytobot IFCB

Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCB)


Images of Phytoplankton taken by IFCB

The science party on board is made up of scientists from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) part of NOAA Fisheries Division. The chief scientist, Jerry Prezioso, works out of Narragansett Lab and the lead scientist, Tamara Holzworth Davis, is from the Woods Hole Lab, both from the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center.  Other members of the Science Party are Seabird/Marine Mammal observers and a student  from Maine Maritime Academy.  The Crew and scientist group work together to coordinate sampling stations. The crew gets the ship to the site and aid the scientists in deploying instruments. The scientists collect the data and samples at each station.  The Crew and scientists work together to find the best and most efficient sea route to each  sampling site. Note all the stops for specimen collection on map below. There definitely  has to be a plan!

map of proposed route

Proposed Cruise Track and Survey Locations


Personal Log

Because research instrument deployment is done 24 hours a day, the NOAA Corps crew and scientists are divided into two shifts. I am on watch 1200 – 2400 hours, considered the day shift. This schedule is working good for me. I finish duty at midnight, go to sleep till 9:00 AM and rise to be back on duty at noon. Not a bad schedule. Due to clear weather and calm seas, the ship headed east out of Newport Harbor towards the continental shelf and started collecting samples at planned stops.   I joined another group of scientists  observing bird and marine mammal populations from the flying bridge of the ship. Humpback whales and basking sharks breached  several times during the day

It has only been two days but I feel very acclimated to life at sea. I am not seasick, thanks to calm seas and the patch. Finding the way around the ship is getting easier- it is like a maze. Spotting a pod of humpback whales breaching and basking sharks was a highlight of the day. My Biology students back at May River  High School scored great on End of Course Exam. Congratulations May River High School Sharks! Thinking of y’all.

school logo


Chelsea O’Connell-Barlow: Full Steam Ahead, August 30, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Chelsea O’Connell-Barlow

Aboard NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada

August 29 – September 12, 2017


Mission: Pacific Hake Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: NW Pacific Ocean

Date: 8/30/2017


Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 48.472837N

Longitude: -124.676694W

Temperature 59 F

Wind 9.7 knots

Waves 3-5 feet

Science and Technology Log

We have not started fishing yet because we are heading to our first transect off the western coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. I thought this would be a perfect time to introduce another research project that is gathering data on the Shimada. One of my roommates, Lynne Scamman, is on-board researching Hazardous Algal Blooms (HABs).

Lynne in Chem lab

Lynne Scamman running wet chemistry tests and identifying phytoplankton.

  1. What are Hazardous Algal Blooms?

They are large numbers of phytoplankton, either diatoms or dinoflagellates, who produce toxins. Phytoplankton are essential to the ecosystem because they produce half of the global oxygen. However under certain circumstances these organisms reproduce rapidly, skyrocketing the population, this is a bloom. Some of these phytoplankton produce toxins. When the populations are low the toxins aren’t a big deal. However, when a bloom of phytoplankton that produce toxins occurs there can be health concerns for organisms exposed to the toxins. We have to consider the marine food chain and something called bioaccumulation. Phytoplankton along with zooplankton create the base of the marine food web. Organisms who eat toxin producing phytoplankton retain the toxin in their body. Then any organism who eats them will also hold that toxin. You can see how the toxin would accumulate along the food chain and potentially hold serious side effects for organisms with high levels of toxin.

  1. Why is research being done on HABs?

HABs are becoming a problem for humans along the coasts and in the Great Lakes. Basically all of the factors that contribute to the increase in HABs are a product of human impact. Global climate change, increased nutrient pollution and global sea trade are all factors contributing to the rise in Hazardous Algal Blooms. We want to monitor so that eventually we will be able to predict when, where and why the HABs will occur.

  1. Why are YOU studying HABs?

One day I walked into my college biology lab and met a guest instructor who specializes in all things phytoplankton related. I was blown away by the complexity that some of these single celled organisms held. The professor shared a few species names and I started investigating. The species that grabbed my attention is called Nematadinium armatum. This organism has a rudimentary eye called a melanosome and nematocysts for hunting, again this is pretty impressive for an organism made of one cell. Once I learned about the variety in this microscopic world and how influential they were to the health of the entire ocean, I knew that I wanted to learn more.

Personal Log

I am still figuratively pinching myself every few hours at just how amazing this experience is to participate in first hand. Yesterday we left the dock of Port Angeles at 10am and the boat hasn’t slowed down since. We did drills to ensure that all aboard knew where to go in case of fire and if we needed to abandon ship. Part of the abandon ship drill is to make sure that everyone has and can get into their Immersion Suit aka “Gumby Suit.” This suit is amazing! This portion of the Pacific is quite cold and the Immersion suit would keep you warm and buoyant until a rescue can occur.

OCB Gumby

Trying on the Immersion suit.

After our drills several of the science crew went up to the Flying Bridge to look for marine mammals. We were cruising between Cape Flattery, Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia with high hopes of seeing activity. WOW, we lucked out. We spotted 17 Humpback whales, 2 Harbor porpoise and 2 Dall’s porpoise. We are also seeing several types of sea birds but I am still brushing up with the Sibley to id birds from this area.

Shimada Flags

The Shimada under two flags as it enters Canadian waters.


Did You Know?

The island cluster that we are heading to had a name change at the end of 2009. What was formerly called Queen Charlotte Islands is now called Haida Gwaii. This name change came as part of a historic reconciliation between British Columbia and Haida nation. Haida Gwaii translated means “island of the people.”

Haida Gawaii

Map of Haida Gawaii area.

Amanda Dice: Ending Week 1 at Line 8, August 26, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Amanda Dice

Aboard Oscar Dyson

August 21 – September 2, 2017


Mission: Juvenile Pollock Fishery Survey

map cropped

Oscar Dyson moves across the Shelikof Straight to collect the Line 8 samples

Geographic area of cruise: Western Gulf of Alaska

Date: August 26, 2017

Weather Data: 13.2 C, cloudy with light rain

Latitude 57 36.6 N, Longitude 155 .008 N



Science and Technology Log

As part of this survey, the scientists onboard collect data from what is known as “Line 8”. This is a line of seven sampling stations, positioned only a few miles apart, near the southern opening of Shelikof Straight between Kodiak Island and the Alaskan Peninsula. Water samples are taken at different depths at each sampling station to measure several different properties of the water. This study is focused on profiling water temperature and salinity, and measuring the quantities of nutrients and phytoplankton in the water.


The CTD rosette is lowered into the water using a winch – as seen from above.

To collect this data, a conductivity and temperature at depth (CTD) instrument is lowered into the water. This instrument can take water samples at different depths, by using its eleven canisters, or Niskin bottles. The water collected in the Niskin bottles will be used to determine the nutrient quantities at each station. The rosette of Niskin bottles also has sensors on it that measure phytoplankton quantities, depth, temperature, and how conductive the water is. Scientists can use the readings from conductivity and temperature meters to determine the salinity of the water.

Each Niskin bottle has a stopper at the top and the bottom. The CTD goes into the water with both ends of each Niskin bottle in the open position. The CTD is then lowered to a determined depth, depending on how deep the water is at each station. There is a depth meter on the CTD that relays its position to computers on board the ship. The survey team communicates its position to the deck crew who operate the winch to raise and lower it.


Niskin bottles are lowered into the water with the stoppers at both ends open.

When the CTD is raised to the first sampling depth, the survey crew clicks a button on a monitor, which closes the stoppers on both ends of Niskin bottle #1, capturing a water sample inside. The CTD is then raised to the next sampling depth where Niskin bottle #2 is closed. This process continues until all the samples have been collected. A computer on board records the depth, conductivity and temperature of the water as the CTD changes position. A line appears across the graph of this data to show where each sample was taken. After the Niskin bottles on the CTD are filled, it is brought back onto the deck of the ship.


They let me take control of closing the Niskin bottles at the sampling depths!

CTD screen cropped

I used this screen to read the data coming back from the CTD and to hit the bottle to close each Niskin bottle. The purple horizontal lines on the graph on the right indicate where each one was closed.

Water is collected through a valve near the bottom of each Niskin bottle. A sample of water from each depth is placed in a labeled jar. This study is interested in measuring the quantity of nutrients in the water samples. To do this it is important to have samples without phytoplankton in them. Special syringes with filters are used to screen out any phytoplankton in the samples.

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Syringes with special filters to screen out phytoplankton are used to collect water samples from the Niskin bottles.

The “Line 8” stations have been sampled for nutrient, plankton, and physical water properties for many years. The data from the samples we collected will be added to the larger data set maintained by the Ecosystems and Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations (Eco-FOCI), Seattle, Washington. This NOAA Program has data on how the marine ecosystem in this area has changed over the last few decades. When data spans a long time frame, like this study does, scientists can identify trends that might be related to the seasons and to inter-annual variation in ocean conditions. The samples continue to be collected because proper nutrient levels are important to maintaining healthy phytoplankton populations, which are the basis of most marine food webs.



Collecting water samples from a Niskin bottle.

Personal Log

As we travel from one station to the next, I have some time to talk with other members of the science team and the crew. I have really enjoyed learning about places all over the world by listening to people’s stories. Most people aboard this ship travel many times a year for their work or have lived in remote places to conduct their scientific studies. Their stories inspire me to keep exploring the planet and to always search for new things to learn!

Did you know?

Niskin bottles must be lowered into the water with both ends open to avoid getting an air bubble trapped inside of them. Pressure increases as depth under water increases. Niskin bottles are often lowered down below 150 meters, where the pressure can be intense. If an air bubble were to get trapped inside, the pressure at these depths would cause air bubble to expand so much that it might damage the Niskin bottle!