Sam Northern: Ready, Set, Sail the Atlantic! May 5, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Sam Northern
will be aboard NOAA ship Gordon Gunter
May 28 –  June 7, 2017

Mission: Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey (Plankton and Hydrographic Data)
Geographic Area of Cruise: Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 5, 2017

Introduction

Greetings from south-central Kentucky! My name is Sam Northern, and I am the teacher-librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. I am beyond exited for this opportunity NOAA has given me. Yet, even more excited than me are my students. I don’t think anyone is more interested in learning about the ocean and its marine ecosystems than my first, second, and third graders. Each week I get to instruct each of the school’s 680 students at least once during Library Media Special Area class. My students do way more than check out library books. They conduct independent research, interact with digital resources, solve problems during hands-on (makerspace) activities, and construct new knowledge through multimedia software.

My participation in the Teacher at Sea program will not only further students’ understanding of the planet, it will empower them to generate solutions for a healthier future. This one-of-a-kind field experience will provide me with new and thrilling knowledge to bring back to my school and community. I am as excited and nervous as my first day of teaching eight years ago. Let the adventure begin!

IMG_9038

In 2015 I married my best friend, Kara, who is also a teacher. We enjoy collecting books, watching movies, and doing CrossFit.

About NOAA
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific agency of the United States government whose mission focuses on monitoring the conditions of the ocean and the atmosphere. NOAA aims to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts. Sharing this information with others will help conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. NOAA’s vision of the future focuses on healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies that are resilient in the face of change [Source — NOAA Official Website].

Teacher at Sea
The Teacher at Sea Program (TAS) is a NOAA program which provides teachers a “hands-on, real-world research experience working at sea with world-renowned NOAA scientists, thereby giving them unique insight into oceanic and atmospheric research crucial to the nation” [Source — NOAA TAS Official Website]. NOAA TAS participants return from their time at sea with increased knowledge regarding the world’s oceans and atmosphere, marine biology and biodiversity, and how real governmental field science is conducted. This experience helps teachers enhance their curriculum by incorporating their work at sea into project-based learning activities for students. Teachers at Sea share their experience with their local community to increase awareness and knowledge of the world’s oceans and atmosphere.

Science and Technology Log
I will be participating in the second leg of the 2017 Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey in the Atlantic Ocean, aboard the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. The survey will span 10 days, from May 28 – June 7, 2017, embarking from and returning to the Newport Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island.

Nashville to Rhode Island_Flight Diary Pic

Gordon Gunter Pic NOAA

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter is a 224-foot, multi-use research vessel. Gordon Gunter is well outfitted for a wide range of oceanographic research and fisheries assessments, from surveys on the health and abundance of commercial and recreational fish to observing the distribution of marine mammals. The Gordon Gunter carries four NOAA Corps officers, 11 crew members, and up to 15 scientists, and one Teacher at Sea.

My Mission
The principal objective of the Spring Ecosystem Monitoring (EcoMon) Survey is to assess the hydrographic and planktonic components of the Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Ecosystem. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, plankton are countless tiny living things that float and drift in the world’s oceans and other bodies of water.

Plankton image

An almost transparent zooplankton is seen in an enlarged view.
Robert Arnold—Taxi/Getty Images

While on the Gordon Gunter, I can expect to collect zooplankton and ichthyoplankton throughout the water column (to a maximum depth of 200 meters) using paired 61-cm Bongo samplers equipped with 333 micron mesh nets. Scientists will preserve the plankton samples in formalin for further laboratory study. It is estimated that the Shelf-Wide Plankton Surveys will result in 300 types of plankton being sorted and identified by staff at the Sea Fisheries Institute in Poland through a joint studies program.

The National Ocean Service defines hydrography as the science that measures and describes the physical features of bodies of water. Aboard the Gordon Gunter, we will use traditional and novel techniques and instruments to collect information. Our research will calculate the spatial distribution of the following factors: water currents, water properties, phytoplankton, microzooplankton, mesozooplankton, sea turtles, and marine mammals. In fact, marine mammal and seabird observers will be stationed on the bridge or flying bridge making continual observations during daylight hours.

The survey consists of 155 Oceanography stations in the Middle Atlantic Bight, Southern New England, Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine. These stations are randomly distributed at varying distances. The progress of the survey will depend on transit time, sea state, and water depth of the stations, with deeper stations requiring more time to complete operations.

Gordon Gunter’s Scientific Computer System is a PC-based server, which continuously collects and distributes scientific data from various navigational, oceanographic, meteorological, and sampling sensors throughout the cruise. The information collected during the survey will enrich our understanding of the ocean.

Personal Log
Since the Teacher at Sea program began in 1990, more than 700 teachers have worked on NOAA Research cruises. I am both honored and humbled to add to this statistic. My teaching philosophy can be summed up in just two words: “Embrace Wonder.”

Working with Students

I believe that students’ exploration of authentic topics nurtures a global perspective and community mindedness. I cannot think of anything more authentic than real-world research experience aboard a NOAA vessel alongside world-renowned scientists.

I am looking forward to gaining clearer insights into our ocean planet, a greater understanding of maritime work and studies, and increasing my level of environmental literacy. I will bring all that I learn back to my students, colleagues, and community. I hope that my classroom action plans will inspire students to pursue careers in research as they deepen their understanding of marine biology. Without a doubt, the Teacher at Sea program will impact my roles as teacher and library media specialist.

My Goals
Through this program, I hope to accomplish the following:

  • Learn as much as I can about NOAA careers, life at sea, and the biology I encounter. These topics will be infused in my library media instructional design projects.
  • Capture and share my experience at sea via photographs, videos, 360-degree images, interviews, journaling, and real-time data of the EcoMon survey.
  • Understand the methods by which NOAA scientists conduct oceanic research. I would like to parallel the process by which scientists collect, analyze, and present information to the research my students conduct in the library.
  • Create a project-based learning activity based on the research I conduct aboard the ship. Students will use the real-time data from my leg of the survey to draw their own conclusions regarding the biologic and environmental profile of the Atlantic Ocean. Students will also collect data from their local environment to learn about the ecosystems in their very own community. I plan to use the project-based learning activities as a spring board for the design and implementation of student-led conservation efforts.
  • Present my research experiences and resulting project-based curriculum to the faculty of Simpson Elementary and members of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. My classroom action plan and outreach activities will be shared with teachers from far and wide via my professional blog: www.misterlibrarian.com

Did You Know?
In 2016, NOAA sent 12 teachers to sea for a total of 182 days. Combined, these teachers engaged in 4,184 hours of research!

My next post will be from the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the Atlantic Ocean. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions, or would like me to highlight anything in particular. I will look for your comments below or through my Twitter accounts, @Sam_Northern and @sesmediacenter.

Michael Wing: What’s there to see out there? July 24, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Date: July 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 5 to 15 knots, wind waves 1’ to 3’, west swell 3’ at 14 seconds, patchy fog.

Science and Technology Log

I’ve been putting in long hours on the back deck, washing plankton in sieves and hosing down the hoop net. Often by the time the sample is safely in its bottle and all the equipment is rinsed off, it’s time to put the net down and do it all again.

On the back deck

Here’s where I wash plankton on the back deck

But, when I look up from the deck I see things and grab my camera. The surface of the ocean looks empty at first glance but it isn’t really. If you spend enough time on it, you see a lot.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross

Black footed albatrosses turn up whenever we stop to collect samples. They probably think we are a fishing boat – we’re about the same size and we have a cable astern. They leave once they find out we didn’t catch any fish. Kirsten tells me these birds nest on atolls east of Hawaii, and that most of the thirty or so species of albatross live in the southern hemisphere.

Mola

Mola

We also see lots of molas, or ocean sunfish. These bizarre looking fish lie on their side just under the water’s surface and eat jellyfish. They can be really large – four feet long, or more. I wonder why every predator in the ocean doesn’t eat them, because they are big, slow, very visible and apparently defenseless. The scientists I am with say that sea lions sometimes bite their fins. Molas are probably full of bones and gristle and aren’t very appetizing to sharks and seals. There are more molas than usual; one more indicator of the extra-warm water we’re seeing on this cruise.

Spouting whales

Humpback whales; one has just spouted

whale back

The back of a humpback whale

And of course there are WHALES! At times we a have been completely surrounded by them. Humpback whales, mostly, but also blue whales. The humpbacks are black with white patches on the undersides of their flippers and barnacles in places. They are playful. They breach, slap the water with their flippers, and do other tricks. The blue whales are not really blue. They are a kind of slate grey that may look blue in certain kinds of light. They are longer and straighter and bigger than the humpbacks, and they cruise along minding their own business. Their spouts are taller.

Humpback whale flukes

Humpback whale flukes

When we see one whale breaching in the distance, we call out. But, when a bunch of whales are all around us, we speak in hushed voices.

Personal Log

Orange balloon

Orange balloon

I have seen six balloons floating on the water, some dozens of miles offshore. Four of them were mylar, two like this one. The scientists I am with say they see the most balloons in June, presumably because June has more graduations and weddings. Maybe it’s time to say that balloons are not OK. When they get away from us, here’s where they end up.

Container ship

Container ship

We see container ships on the horizon. Sometimes they hit whales by accident. Every t-shirt, pair of sneakers, toy and electronic device you have ever owned probably arrived from Asia on one of these. Each of those boxes is forty feet long.

This is my last post from the R/V Fulmar. I go home tomorrow. I sure am grateful to everyone on board, and to NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary for giving me the opportunity to visit this special place.

Common murre

Common murre

Did You Know? When common murre chicks fledge, they jump out of their nests onto the surface of the sea. The drop can be forty or fifty feet. At this point they can swim, but they don’t know how to fly or find food. So, their fathers jump in after them and for the next month or two father and chick swim together on the ocean while the father feeds the chick. These are small birds and they can easily get separated in the rough seas. When this happens, they start calling to each other. It sounds sort of like a cat meowing. We have heard it often on this cruise.

Murre with chick

Adult murre with almost-grown chick

Michael Wing: Introduction to El Niño, July 22, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Bodega Bay, California
Date: July 22, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: Northwest wind 15-25 knots, wind waves 3’-5’, northwest swell 4’ – 6’ at eight seconds, overcast.

Science and Technology Log

UC Davis graduate student and Point Blue Conservation Science intern Kate Davis took some plankton we collected to the Bodega Marine lab in Bodega Bay. She said she is seeing “tropical” species of plankton. A fellow graduate student who is from Brazil peeked into the microscope and said the plankton looked like what she sees at home in Brazil. The flying fish we saw is also anomalous, as is the number of molas (ocean sunfish) we are seeing. Plankton can’t swim, so some of our water must have come from a warm place south or west of us.

Farallones

The Farallon Islands are warmer this year

The surface water is several degrees warmer than it normally is this time of year. NOAA maintains a weather buoy near Bodega Bay, California that shows this really dramatically. Click on this link – it shows the average temperature in blue, one standard deviation in gray (that represents a “normal” variation in temperatures) and the actual daily temperature in red.

NOAA buoy data

Surface seawater temperatures from a NOAA buoy near Bodega Bay, California

http://bml.ucdavis.edu/boon/climatology.html

As you can see, the daily temperatures were warm last winter and basically normal in the spring. Then in late June they shot up several degrees, in a few days and have stayed there throughout this month. El Niño? Climate change? The scientists I am with say it’s complicated, but at least part of what is going on is due to El Niño.

Ryan at flying bridge

San Francisco State University student and Point Blue intern Ryan Hartnett watches El Nino

So what exactly is El Niño?

My students from last year know that the trade winds normally push the surface waters of the world’s tropical oceans downwind. In the Pacific, that means towards Asia. Water wells up from the depths to take its place on the west coasts of the continents, which means that places like Peru have cold water, lots of fog, and good fishing. The fishing is good because that deep water has lots of nutrients for phytoplankton growth like nitrate and phosphate (fertilizer, basically) and when it hits the sunlight lots of plankton grow. Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton; fish eat the zooplankton, big fish eat little fish and so on.

During an El Niño event, the trade winds off the coast of Peru start to weaken and that surface water bounces back towards South America. This is called a Kelvin wave. Instead of flowing towards Asia, the surface water in the ocean sits there in the sunlight and it gets warmer. There must be some sort of feedback mechanism that keeps the trade winds weak, but the truth is that nobody really understands how El Niño gets started. We just know the signs, which are (1) trade winds in the South Pacific get weak (2) surface water temperatures in the eastern tropical pacific rise, (3) the eastern Pacific Ocean and its associated lands get wet and rainy, (4) the western Pacific and places like Australia, Indonesia, and the Indian Ocean get sunny and dry.

This happens every two to seven years, but most of the time the effect is weak. The last time we had a really strong El Niño was 1997-1998, which is when our current cohort of high school seniors was born. That year it rained 100 inches in my yard, and averaged over an inch a day in February! So, even though California is not in the tropics we feel its effects too.

Sausalito sunset

Sunset from the waterfront in Sausalito, California

We are in an El Niño event now and NOAA is currently forecasting an excellent chance of a very strong El Niño this winter.

NOAA map

Sea surface temperature anomalies Summer 2015. Expect more red this winter.

What about climate change and global warming? How is that related to El Niño? There is no consensus on that; we’ve always had El Niño events and we’ll continue to have them in a warmer world but it is possible they might be stronger or more frequent.

Personal Log

So, is El Niño a good thing? That’s not a useful question. It’s a part of our climate. It does make life hard for the seabirds and whales because that layer of warm water at the surface separates the nutrients like nitrate and phosphate, which are down deep, from the sunlight. Fewer phytoplankton grow, fewer zooplankton eat them, there’s less krill and fish for the birds and whales to eat. However, it might help us out on land. California’s drought, which has lasted for several years now, may end this winter if the 2015 El Niño is as strong as expected.

Golden Gate Bridge

Rain will come again to California

Did You Know? El Niño means “the boy” in Spanish. It refers to the Christ child; the first signs of El Niño usually become evident in Peru around Christmas, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. The Spanish in colonial times were very fond of naming things after religious holidays. You can see that in our local place names. For instance, Marin County’s Point Reyes is named after the Feast of the Three Kings, an ecclesiastical holy day that coincided with its discovery by the Spanish. There are many other examples, from Año Nuevo on the San Mateo County coast to Easter Island in Chile.

Window selfie

Michael Wing takes a selfie in his reflection in the boat’s window

Michael Wing: How to Sample the Sea, July 20, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Michael Wing
Aboard R/V Fulmar
July 17 – 25, 2015

Mission: 2015 July ACCESS Cruise
Geographical Area of Cruise: Pacific Ocean west of Marin County, California
Date: July 20, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge: 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ four seconds apart.

Science and Technology Log

On the even-numbered “lines” we don’t just survey birds and mammals. We do a lot of sampling of the water and plankton.

Wing on Fulmar

Wing at rail of the R/V Fulmar

We use a CTD (Conductivity – Temperature – Depth profiler) at every place we stop. We hook it to a cable, turn it on, and lower to down until it comes within 5-10 meters of the bottom. When we pull it back up, it has a continuous and digital record of water conductivity (a proxy for salinity, since salty water conducts electricity better), temperature, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence (a proxy for chlorophyll, basically phytoplankton), all as a function of depth.

CTD

Kate and Danielle deploy the CTD

We also have a Niskin bottle attached to the CTD cable. This is a sturdy plastic tube with stoppers at both ends. The tube is lowered into the water with both ends cocked open. When it is at the depth you want, you clip a “messenger” to the cable. The messenger is basically a heavy metal bead. You let go, it slides down the cable, and when it strikes a trigger on the Niskin bottle the stoppers on both ends snap shut. You can feel a slight twitch on the ship’s cable when this happens. You pull it back up and decant the seawater that was trapped at that depth into sample bottles to measure nitrate, phosphate, alkalinity, and other chemical parameters back in the lab.

Niskin bottle

Niskin bottle

When we want surface water, we just use a bucket on a rope of course.

We use a hoop net to collect krill and other zooplankton. We tow it behind the boat at a depth of about 50 meters, haul it back in, and wash the contents into a sieve, then put them in sample bottles with a little preservative for later study. We also have a couple of smaller plankton nets for special projects, like the University of California at Davis graduate student Kate Davis’s project on ocean acidification, and the plankton samples we send to the California Department of Health. They are checking for red tides.

Hoop net

Hoop net

We use a Tucker Trawl once a day on even numbered lines. This is a heavy and complicated rig that has three plankton nets, each towed at a different depth. It takes about an hour to deploy and retrieve this one; that’s why we don’t use it each time we stop. The Tucker trawl is to catch krill; which are like very small shrimp.  During the day they are down deep; they come up at night.

Tucker trawl

Part of the Tucker trawl

 

krill

A mass of krill we collected. The black dots are their eyes.

What happens to these samples? The plankton from the hoop net gets sent to a lab where a subsample is taken and each species in the subsample is counted very precisely. The CTD casts are shared by all the groups here – NOAA, Point Blue Conservation Science, the University of California at Davis, San Francisco State University. The state health department gets its sample. San Francisco State student Ryan Hartnett has some water samples he will analyze for nitrate, phosphate and silicate. All the data, including the bird and mammal sightings, goes into a big database that’s been kept since 2004. That’s how we know what’s going on in the California Current. When things change, we’ll recognize the changes.

Personal Log

They told me “wear waterproof pants and rubber boots on the back deck, you’ll get wet.” I thought, how wet could it be? Now I understand. It’s not that some water drips on you when you lift a net up over the stern of the boat – although it does. It’s not that waves splash you, although that happens too. It’s that you use a salt water hose to help wash all of the plankton from the net into a sieve, and then into a container, and to fill wash bottles and to wash off the net, sieve, basins, funnel, etc. before you arrive at the next station and do it all again. It takes time, because you have to wash ALL of the plankton from the end of the net into the bottle, not just some of it. You spend a lot of time hosing things down. It’s like working at a car wash except with salty water and the deck is pitching like a continuous earthquake.

The weather has gone back to “normal”, which today means 15 knot winds gusting to 20 knots, wind waves 3-5’ and a northwest swell 3-4’ only four seconds apart. Do the math, and you’ll see that occasionally a wind wave adds to a swell and you get slapped by something eight feet high. We were going to go to Bodega Bay today; we had to return to Sausalito instead because it’s downwind.

sea state

The sea state today. Some waves were pretty big.

We saw a lot of humpback whales breaching again and again, and slapping the water with their tails. No, we don’t know why they do it although it just looks like fun. No, I didn’t get pictures. They do it too fast.

Did You Know? No biologist or birder uses the word “seagull.” They are “gulls”, and there are a lot of different species such as Western gulls, California gulls, Sabine’s gulls and others. Yes, it is possible to tell them apart.

David Walker: Equilibrium at Sea (Days 6-9), July 3, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: July 3, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 7/2/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 7/2/15

Weather has fortunately continued to be calm.  The only main deviation from clear skies has been haziness (symbolized “HZ” on the above weather log from 7/2/15).  On 7/2/15, sky condition varied from FEW (3-4 octas) in the very early morning, to SCT (3-4 octas) and BKN (5-7 octas) at midday and afternoon, to SCT (3-4 octas) in the evening and night.  Swell waves have varied throughout the past couple of days, from less that 1 meter to around 3 meters in height.

Science and Technology Log

The past few days honestly blend completely together in my mind.  I feel as though I have reached an equilibrium of sorts on the boat.  The night shift has proceeded normally – station to station, trawl to trawl, CTD data collection at each station, plankton collected periodically throughout the shift.  Certain trawl catches have been exceptionally muddy, which poses a further task, as the organisms must first be separated from all of the mud and cleaned, before they can be identified.

In addition, on Day 6, the trawl net was damaged on a couple of occasions.  I’ve realized that a trawl rig is quite the complicated setup.  The trawling we are doing is formally called “otter trawling”.  Two boards are attached at the top of the rig to aid in spreading out the net underwater.  To allow the net to open underwater, one of the two lead lines of the net contains floats to elevate it in the water column.  A “tickler chain” precedes the lead lines to stir fish from the sea floor and into the net.  The fish collected by the net are funneled into the terminating portion of the net, called the “cod end”.  FMES Warren Brown is an expert when it comes to this entire rig, and he is in charge of fixing problems when they arise.  On Day 6, Warren had to fix breaks in the net twice.  With help from Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols and Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, new brummel hooks were attached to the head rope for one of the door lifting lines, and a new tickler chain was installed.

I also learned a lot more of the specifics involved in the workup of the plankton catch.  The dual bongo contains two collection nets in parallel.  Plankton is removed from the cod ends of these nets, but not combined.  The plankton from the left bongo is transferred to a mixture of formaldehyde (10% v/v) and sea water for preservation.  The plankton from the right bongo is transferred to 95% ethanol.  The reason for this is that different solvent mixtures are needed to best preserve different parts of the plankton in the sample.  The formaldehyde solution is best for fixing tissue, yet it tends to dissolve hard parts (for example, otoliths, discussed below).  The ethanol solution is better for preserving hard parts (bones, cartilage, etc.).  This explains the need for two bongos.  Workup of collected plankton from the Neuston net is similar, except many non-plankton species are often collected, which have to be removed from the sample.  Highlight non-plankton species from the past couple days have been sailfin flyingfish (Parexocoetus brachypterus) and a juvenile billfish (Istiophoridae).  Neuston-collected plankton is transferred to 95% ethanol.  This solvent is the only one needed here, as only DNA analysis and stock assessment are conducted on Neuston-collected plankton.  All plankton is shipped to Poland, where a lab working in collaboration with NOAA will analyze it.  Samples are broken down according to a priority species list sent by NOAA.

The CTD survey is coming along nicely.  Progress through July 1 is shown on the below bottom dissolved oxygen contour.  Similar trends to those commented on in my last blog post continue to be observed, as a further area of hypoxia has been exposed near the coastline.  You can see that our survey is progressing east toward Mississippi (we will finish this leg in Pascagoula, MI, though the survey will continue on to the Florida coast during Leg 3).

A couple of other distinct memories stand out in my mind from the past couple of days:

  • Sexing “ripe” fish. Sometimes, certain species of fish are so fertile over the summer that certain individuals are deemed “ripe”.  Instead of cutting into these fish, they can be more easily sexed by applying pressure toward that anus and looking for the expression of semen or eggs.  One of the species for which this technique is most often applied this time of year is the Atlantic cutlassfish (Trichiurus lepturus).  One must be careful, however, for as I found out, the gametes sometimes emit from the anus with much force, shooting across the room.  It only takes wiping fish semen off of your face once to remember this forever.
  • Flying fish. I saw my first flyingfish (Exocoetidae) during a plankton collection with the neuston net.  The net would scatter the fish, and they would fly for cover, sometimes 10-15 meters in distance.  Amazing.
  • Preparing sand dollars. Interestingly, the sand dollars we caught (Clypeaster ravenelii) looked brown/green when they came out of the ocean.  Sand dollars are naturally brownish, and in the ocean, they are most often covered in algae.  We kept a couple of these organisms to prepare.  To prepare, we first placed the sand dollars in a dilute bleach solution for awhile.  We then removed them and shook out the sand and internal organs.  We then placed them back in the bleach for a little longer, until they looked white, with no blemishes.  The contrast between the sand dollar, as removed from the ocean, and this pure white is quite remarkable.
  • Otoliths.  Fisheries biologist Kevin Rademacher showed me a nifty way to remove the otoliths from fish.  Otoliths, “commonly known as ‘earstones,’ are hard calcium carbonate structures located behind the brain of bony fishes,” which “aid fish in balance and hearing” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  When viewed under microscope and refracted light, otoliths show a pattern of dark translucent zones (representing period of quick growth) and white opaque zone (representing periods of slower growth).  By counting the white opaque zones (called “annuli”), fisheries biologists can estimate the age of the fish.  Granted, this process differs for different fish, as different fish species have different otolith size.  Accordingly, a species standard is always prepared (usually a fish raised from spawn, from which the otoliths are taken at a known age) to estimate the growth time associated with one whole annulus for the particular species.  Sample otoliths are compared to the standard to estimate age.  Otolith analysis also allows scientists to estimate “growth rates,…age at maturity, and trends of future generations” (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).  On this survey, we only take otoliths from fish that are wanted for further laboratory analysis, but are too large to store in the freezer.  On some surveys, however, otoliths are removed from all fish caught.  I got to remove the otoliths from a large red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).  The first step is to make an incision to separate the tongue and throat from the lower jaw.  The hand is then inserted into the hole created, and using a fair bit of force, the throat and gills are ripped away from the head to expose the vertebrae.  The gills are then cut from the base of the vertebrae, to expose the bony bulb containing the sagittal otoliths.  Diagonal cutters are then used to crack open the boney bulb containing the sagittal otoliths, and the otoliths are removed using forceps.

Personal Log

I am still feeling great on the boat.  The work is quite tiring, and I usually go straight to the shower and the bed after my shift ends.  Interestingly, I think I’m actually gaining quite a bit of weight.  The work is hard and the food is excellent, so I’ve been eating a bunch. I’ve been getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, which is more than I normally get when I am at home, especially during the school year.  One thing I have been noticing ever since the trip started is that I have been having quite nightmarish dreams every night.  This is rare for me, as I usually either don’t have dreams or can’t remember the ones that occur.  I initially thought that this might be due to the rocking of the boat, or maybe to the slight change in my diet, but I think I’ve finally found the culprit – Dramamine®.  Research has indicated that this anti-motion sickness drug can cause “disturbing dreams” (Wood, et al., 1966), and I have been taking this medication since the trip started.  This hypothesis is consistent with the observation that my nightmares lessened when I reduced my daily Dramamine® dose from 2 pills to one. I finished Everything is Illuminated and have begun a new novel (Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald). I am now well into the second week of my trip!

Did You Know?

Earrings can be made from fish otoliths (ear stones).  These seem to be quite popular in many port cities.  Check out this article from the Juneau (Alaska) Empire Newspaper.

Notable Species Seen

David Walker: Slowly Getting the Hang of Things (Days 3-5), June 29, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Monday, June 29, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 6/28/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 6/28/15

Weather remained quite calm through Days 3-5.  I observed a couple minor rain showers during the night shift.  As noted in the above weather log from the bridge, hazy weather (HZ) on multiple occasions during Day 4.  Sky condition on Day 4 went from 1-2 oktas in the morning (FEW), to 5-7 oktas (BKN), to 8 oktas (OVC) by midday.  The sky cleared up by the evening.

Science and Technology Log

Day 3 was incredibly busy.  There were no breaks in the 12 hour shift, as there were many trawl stations, and each catch contained a very large amount of shrimp.

According to many on deck, the shrimp catches on Day 3 would have been deemed successful by commercial shrimping standards.  I got lots of good practice sexing the shrimp from the catch — I sexed over 2000 shrimp on Day 3 alone.  Sexing shrimp is fairly easy, as the gonads are externally exposed.

I also learned how to sex crabs.  This is also a simple process, as there is no cutting involved (see graphic below).  The highlight of the day was the landing of a really large red snapper.  They let me take a picture with it before taking it inside for processing.  I was absolutely exhausted at the end of Day 3 and completely drenched in a mixture of sweat, salt water, and fish guts.

Day 4, in contrast, was very slow.  The trawl net broke on one of the early stations, so the research was delayed for quite awhile.  In fact, in my entire 12 hour shift, we only had to process two catches.  We were able to complete all CTD, bongo, and Neuston stations, however, quite efficiently.  I have gotten to the point where I can serve as the assisting scientist for the CTD, bongo catch, and Neuston catch on my own.  This data also requires two fisherman on hand — one to operate the crane, the other (along with me) to guide the device or net into the water.  The fishermen with whom I most commonly work are Lead Fisherman Chris Nichols, Skilled Fisherman Chuck Godwin, and Fisheries Methods and Equipment Specialist (FMES) Warren Brown (see photo).

On Day 5, I got great practice sexing a wide variety of fish.  An incision is made on the ventral side of the fish, from the anus toward the pectoral fin.  After some digging around inside the fish, you will find the gonads — either ovaries (clear to yellowish appearance with considerable vasculature, round in cross-section often many eggs) or testes (white appearance, triangular in cross-section).  As you might guess, larger fish are much easier to sex than smaller ones, and the ease of sexing is also species dependent.  To make matter even worse, many fish are synchronous hermaphrodites (containing both male and female sex organs), and some are protogynous hermaphrodites (changing from female to male during the course of life).  The ease of sexing is also species dependent.  For instance, I have found the sexing of adult puffer fish and lizardfish to be quite easy (very easily defined organs), however I have experienced considerable difficulty sexing the Atlantic menhaden (too much blood obscuring the organs).

Field Party Chief Andre DeBose provided me with a hypoxia contour chart (see below), representing compiled CTD data from Leg 1 and the beginning of Leg 2.  According to DeBose, these contour charts are generated by the National Coastal Data Development Center (NCDDC) once out of around every 10 stations, and they represent an average of data taken by station near the ocean floor.  A data point is defined as hypoxic if the dissolved oxygen content is below 2 mg/L.  On the below chart, you can see that many hypoxic areas exist along the Texas coast, near the shore.

Bottom Dissolved Oxygen Contours

Dissolved oxygen contours for water at ocean bottom — Plotted data thus far from the SEAMAP Summer Survey (June 9 – 26, 2015)

I could not wrap my head around why this trend exists in the data, as I figured that shallower water would be warmer, allowing for more plant life in greater density, and accordingly more dissolved oxygen in greater density.  Fisheries Biologist Alonzo Hamilton helped me better understand this trend.  The fact that the water is warmer in shallower areas means that more of the dissolved oxygen leaves the surface of water in these areas.  In addition, while plant life is indeed in greater concentration in shallower water, so is the concentration of aerobic microbes.  These organisms use up oxygen through respiration to decompose organic matter.  You can see on the above graphic that the greatest hypoxia is found in areas near major runoff (e.g. Matagorda Bay and Galveston Bay).  Among other things, this runoff feeds nitrates from plant fertilizer into the ocean, which supports growth of more algae (in the form of algal blooms).  Aerobic microbes decompose this excess organic matter once it dies, taking further oxygen from the water. Although it seems counterintuitive, at least to me, the greater heat and greater organism density actually leads to a more hypoxic environment.

I am slowly getting better with the species names of aquatic organisms, but as of now, I am still focusing on common names.  The common names often relate to the fish’s phenotype, and this helps me recall them with more ease.  Common name knowledge, however, is fairly useless when it comes to entering the organisms into the computer during species counts, as the computer only has scientific (Latin) names in its database.  I hope to learn more scientific names as the week progresses.

I am also slowly amassing a really interesting collection of organisms to take back with me to LASA High School.  CJ Duffie taught me how to inject crabs with formaldehyde to preserve them.  Upon return to port, I will spray these crabs with polyurethane, to preserve the outer shell.  I have also been preserving different organisms in jars with 20/80 (v/v) formaldehyde/saltwater.  If you know me, you know I love collecting things, so this process has been particularly enjoyable.  Fisheries Biologists Alonzo Hamilton and Kevin Rademacher have been very supportive in helping me collect good specimens for my classroom.

Personal Log

Life on the ship is very enjoyable.  My bed is comfortable, the work is exciting, the meals are excellent, and the company is gregarious.  However, I have completely lost track of time and date.  My “morning” is actually 11 PM, and my “evening” is actually 1 PM.  Accordingly, my “lunch” is actually breakfast, and my “breakfast” is actually lunch.  I also never have any idea what day of the week it is.  I called my girlfriend yesterday and was surprised to hear that she was not at work (it was a Sunday).

Regarding this blog, I have finally found the optimal time to write and upload photos.  As the satellite internet is shared by all of the ships in the area, it is not possible to access WordPress during the daytime.  Accordingly, I do all of my uploading and most of my writing between 2 and 6 AM.  This works for me, as long as I can find time for the blog between research stations.

I really enjoy the people on the night shift.  Kevin Rademacher, Alonzo Hamilton, and Warren Brown provide such a wealth of knowledge.  These three are absolute experts of their craft, and it is a true honor to work with them.  I am nearing the end of my first week on the ship, and I am still learning just as much as I was on my first day – this is incredibly exciting.

I have found that Alonzo really enjoys the TV show, “Chopped,” as it seems to be on every time I enter the dry lab.  It is pretty interesting to observe him watching the show, as he enthusiastically comments on all of the dishes and regularly predicts the correct winner.

I am also getting well through one of the books I brought – Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safron Foer.  It is a very odd read, but it has been enjoyable so far.

I am looking very forward to every new day.

Did You Know?

The scorpionfish that we are catching are some of the most venomous creatures in the world (see Scorpaenidae) .  These fish have spines that are coated with a venomous mucous, and their sting is incredibly painful – just ask CJ Duffie!  These fish are also incredible masters of camouflage, changing in color and apparent texture to disguise themselves, so as to catch more prey.

Notable Species Seen


David Walker: Lots to Do, Lots to Learn (Days 1-2), June 26, 2015

NOAA Teacher at Sea
David Walker
Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II
June 24 – July 9, 2015

Mission: SEAMAP Bottomfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico
Date: Friday, June 26, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge

Weather Log 6/26/15

NOAA Ship Oregon II Weather Log 6/26/15

Weather was quite calm on Days 1 and 2.  As noted in the above weather log, the only real disturbance was a small squall (SQ) observed at 7 AM on Day 2.  Sky conditions are estimated in terms of how many eighths of the sky are covered in cloud, ranging from 0 oktas (completely clear sky) through to 8 oktas (completely overcast).  FEW in the above log represents 1-2 oktas of cloud coverage.  SCT represents 3-4 octas, and BKN represents 5-7 oktas.

Science and Technology Log

I have been assigned the night watch, which runs from 12 midnight to 12 noon.  Accordingly, on Day 1, I went to sleep around 2 PM and woke up around 10 PM to prepare for watch. My first day consisted mostly of general groundfish biodiversity survey work, one of the focuses during the summer being on shrimp species.  Data collection points have been randomly plotted throughout the Gulf, and data is collected via trawling the seafloor, which consists of the boat pulling a fishing net behind the boat, along the seafloor, for a predetermined length of time.  To allow for collection along the seafloor, the net has rollers on the bottom.  The net also contains a “tickler chain” to stir up organisms (mainly shrimp) from the seafloor, so that they can be captured with the net. The trawl catch is transferred to the boat, where the following steps are completed:

Tranferring catch to boat

CJ Duffie transferring a trawl catch to the boat.

1. The total catch is weighed.
2. The catch is run along a belt, and the three significant shrimp species (white, brown, and pink) are taken out and saved. In addition, multiple unbiased samples are taken from the catch and saved.  The sample should contain at least one of each species encountered in the catch.
3. The entire taken sample is sorted by species.
4. Individuals within each species are counted.
5. Length, weight, and gender are recorded for shrimp individuals within a significant species (white, brown, and pink).
6. Length measurements are taken for all other species individuals within the sample. Weight and gender are recorded for one individual out of every five within a species, for species other than shrimp.
7. Everything is returned to the ocean.

Sorting by species

Sorting the catch by species along the belt. Left to Right — Volunteer CJ Duffie, Equipment Specialist Warren Brown, me, and Research Fisheries Biologist Kevin Rademacher.

On Day 1, we completed the above process for 4 separate catches.  Aside from my lack of knowledge, the only other mishap was that my middle finger accidentally got pinched by a fairly large Atlantic Blue Crab.  I was amazed at the amount of force of the pinch, as well as the amount of pain caused.  I ended up having to break the crab’s claw off in order to free myself.

Also on Day 1, I got to observe the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) sensor in action.  A CTD’s “primary function is to detect how the conductivity and temperature of the water column changes relative to depth” (NOAA).  The salinity of the seawater can be determined from this conductivity and temperature data.  On the Oregon II, the CTD also contains a dissolved oxygen sensor for measuring levels of dissolved oxygen in the seawater.  In addition, the CTD is housed in a larger metal frame (called a “rosette”) with water bottles, allowing for sampling at various depths.  Various data collection points have been randomly plotted throughout the gulf, and data collection consists of sending the CTD (+ dissolved oxygen sensor and water bottles) to and from the ocean floor.  The photo at right shows the data output – the y-axis represents water depth, temperature is recorded in blue (two data points taken at each scan), salinity is recorded in red, and dissolved oxygen is recorded in green (2 data points taken at each scan).  The ocean floor was at a very shallow depth (between 10 and 20 meters) for all sampling done on Day 1.

CTD data output

CTD data output

On Day 2, we completed more shrimp survey work and CTD sampling.  I also got to participate in a plankton survey at the beginning of my shift.  This entailed dropping two fine-mesh nets into the water – a dual-bongo and a neuston – and dragging them through the water to collect plankton.  The dual-bongo is lowered to a predetermined depth, while the neuston remains at the surface.  Obtained plankton is transferred to a jars with salt water and formaldehyde (for preservation) and sent to a lab in Poland (with which NOAA has a partnership) where it is categorized, measured, etc.

Personal Log

I have already met all of the scientific personnel and most of the other core and crew on the ship.  Andre Debose is the Field Party Chief, and he heads up all scientific operations on the ship.  The Executive Officer of the ship is Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Eric Johnson, a NOAA Corps Officer.  These are the two people who approve of all of my blog posts before I submit them to NOAA. The night watch (12 AM – 12 PM) consists of me, Kevin Rademacher, Warren Brown, and Alfonso Hamilton (watch leader).  The day watch (12 PM – 12 AM) consists of Adam Catasus, Jeffrey Zingre, Joey Salisbury, and Michael Hendon (watch leader).  CJ Duffie completes his watch from 6 AM to 6 PM. Adam, Jeffrey, and CJ are volunteer graduate students from Florida.  This is their first NOAA research cruise, but they have already completed a two-week leg, so they know much more than I do.  Alfonso, Kevin, Warren, Adam, and Joey are all seasoned NOAA veterans, have completed many years of research cruises, and have a wealth of knowledge.

Stateroom

My stateroom

My stateroom is quite nice.  There is sufficient storage space for all of my clothing and equipment, such that I am able to keep most everything off of the floor.  I am rooming with Joey Salisbury (I have top bunk), but as Joey is on the day shift, we do not see too much of each other.  I am quite paranoid about not waking up on-time, so I tethered my cell phone to a pipe on the boat, directly above my head.  This way, the phone alarm blares directly toward my face, and there is no danger of my phone falling off of the bunk.

I have not yet experienced any seasickness, although I am still taking preventative medication every day.  Andre noted before we left that ginger helps with seasickness, so I brought some ginger ale and ginger cookies.

The food served on the ship is amazing, definitely much more than what I was expecting.  There are multiple course options for each meal, and everything I have had so far has been exceptional.  The highlight was the made-to-order omelet that I had for breakfast after 7 hours of sorting and measuring fish.

Notably, I also got to experience two boat safety drills on Day 1 – a fire drill, and an abandon ship drill.  For the abandon ship drill, I got to try on my survival suit.  It is made out of neoprene, so in that regard it reminds me of fly fishing waders.  However it feels quite claustrophobic once you put your arms in it and zip it
halfway up your face.  I needed much assistance in putting it on.

Survival suit

In my survival suit, during an abandon ship drill

Did You Know?

NOAA has a Commissioned Service, one of the seven Uniformed Services of the United States.  The NOAA Corps consists only of Commissioned Officers (i.e. no enlisted personnel or Warrant Officers).  The Corps first became a Commissioned Service in 1917, during World War I, as the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps.  In 1965, this Corps was renamed the Environmental Science Services Administration Commissioned Corps, and in 1970, was again renamed the NOAA Corps (Source — NOAA).

Notable Species Seen