Ragupathy Kannan: Salps to Shearwaters, August 22, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 22, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 40.74767
Longitude: -70.41857
Water temperature: 25.3°C
Wind Speed: 7.18 knots
Wind Direction: 229 degrees
Air temperature: 24°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1014 millibars
Sky: Cloudy

Science and Technology Log

Life aboard this research vessel is fast-paced and absorbing.  I feel like I am a child in a toy shop, eager to learn and blog about so many of the happenings around me!  I spend much of my time high above in the flying bridge (above the bridge) with a panoramic 360 degree view of the horizon, documenting seabirds and mammals with colleagues—more on this later.  We suspend our surveying when the ship reaches a sampling station.  We have about 150 random sampling stations out in the ocean, ranging from close to coast (depth about 15 m) to right at the edge of the continental shelf (up to 500 m so far).  Cruising about 9 knots (about 10 mph), the ship zigzags along a predetermined track, stopping anywhere between 15-30 minutes at each sampling station. 

sampling station map
A map of our sampling stations. The black circles indicate plankton sampling sites; Dots show oceanographic stations where conductivity and temperature measurements are taken along with water samples for carbonate chemistry and nutrient analyses

At each station, an array of measurements are taken or specimens sampled.   

In my previous blog, I described a state-of-the-art device called the Imaging FlowCytoBot (IFCB).  But plankton are also sampled using more traditional methods.  We deploy Bongo Nets for plankton sampling.  Can you guess why they are called Bongos?  See the photo below. 

bongo nets
Bongo nets being pulled out after sampling. The chief bosun and student volunteers are on watch.

Note that there is a pair of bigger bongos and a pair of “baby” bongos.  These nets are lowered by a j-frame (arm that can be extended off the side of the ship) and winch, at various depths into the water and towed for particular distances through the water.  The time spent inside the water (5 minutes minimum) and the depth traversed (up to 200 meters) varies with station depth, but there is a Flowmeter at the mouth of each net that counts volume of water sampled.  So all measurements are standardized by volume.  The mesh size is 333 microns (1 micron = 1 millionth of a meter; 1 meter = 3.3 feet), meaning anything over 333 microns will be trapped.  (To put that in perspective, most cells in your body are about 100 microns).

flowmeter
A flowmeter at the mouth of a bongo net–-note the spinning fins that activate the water volume counting device

When they are pulled out, research personnel swing into action.  Most of them are undergraduate volunteers from various universities eager to get their hands wet (literally and figuratively) doing marine science.  The bigger bongo nets are hosed to flush all organisms to the bottom.  Then the bottom is opened and contents flushed into a sieve.  These samples are then preserved in formalin for future examination in labs on the mainland. 

Jessica rinses bongo nets
Jessica, an undergraduate volunteer, spraying the bigger bongo nets to flush plankton to the bottom
David rinses baby bongos
David (another undergraduate volunteer) sprays the smaller bongos
TAS Kannan rinsing nets
I lend a helping hand spraying the nets
emptying bongo nets
Jessica opens the bottom of the net and empties contents into a sieve
net contents
Much of the contents are Salps: jelly-like planktonic tunicates
salps and larval hake
Closer look at Salps with a larval hake fish (probably a Red Hake) near the center. More on hakes below.
Facts about Salps
The abundant salps are a vital component of the ecosystem. Source: archives.nereusprogram.org
crustacean
We even caught this beautiful planktonic crustacean (amphipod or isopod). It’s related to our rolly-pollies.
arrow worms
We also get some tiny arrow worms in our plankton samples. These torpedo-shaped worms belong to a phylum of predatory marine worms called Chaetognatha (“bristle jaws”). Photo courtesy Zatelmar
plankton jars
Plankton from the bigger bongos are preserved in 5% formalin for future analyses in mainland labs.

What happens to the contents of the pair of smaller bongos?  Our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh freezes the sample from one of them into small ziplock bags for a Florida lab which will conduct Stable Isotope Analyses.  The other one’s contents are preserved in ethanol for genetic testing (Ethanol is far easier on DNA than formalin) to determine such aspects as taxonomy and phylogenetic (evolutionary) relationships and use in larval fish age and growth studies.

sample bag
Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh bags a sample for freezing
labels
All specimens are carefully labeled and catalogued

So what are Stable Isotope Analyses?  If you are a beginning college student, you may be unaware of this sophisticated and widely-used technique.  (My ecology students should be well aware of this!).  Basically, the ratio of isotopes of a chemical element in a given sample is used to yield insights into aspects such as food preferences of the organism or to reconstruct its past environmental conditions.  It can also be used to determine where the plankton originated and thus get insights into ocean circulation.  The analyses are done with a device called mass spectrometer. 


Career Corner

I spoke with our Chief Scientist Harvey Walsh about his career, research, and his advice for students.

Q. Harvey, tell us how a man from land-locked Minnesota ended up as a top marine biologist.

A. When I graduated from college I looked for a job with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but they were very competitive. So I applied for several NOAA positions from North Carolina down to the gulf coast. I got a job offer in NC.  This was after my B.S. in Aquatic Biology from St. Cloud State University.

Q. You did an M.S. while working with NOAA?

A. Yes, I went back to school part-time and got my Masters. I then went to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute [WHOI]

Q. From WHOI you came back to NOAA?

A. Yes.

Q. Has ocean acidity changed since NOAA started EcoMon?

A. It is hard to say because of seasonal variability.  We need more long-term data.

Q. Is ocean acidity world-wide increasing?

A. That’s what I see in the scientific literature.

Q. How about temperature?

A. Yes, the Northeast has seen an increase in water temperatures, especially in the Gulf of Maine, where it has increased about 0.9°C in about 4 decades.

Q. Has EcoMon helped document declines in sharks or whales?

A. Again, we need long-term data for that.

Q. Can you name one recommendation from EcoMon that has benefited sea life?

A. We get larval fish data.  Recently we started calculating Atlantic Mackerel Egg Index in collaboration with Division of Fisheries and Ocean Canada and the data indicated that there is a decline in the adult population.  This aided in the determination to lower catch limits for that species.

Q. Has the politics of climate change influenced your work?

A. No.  I have not had anyone try to change my research or findings in any way.  We have within NOAA good scientific integrity rules. We feel we have the ability to publish sound science research without any interference.

Q. You are highly published.  One of your papers on larval fish otoliths was with my former student Michael Berumen.  How are larval otoliths helpful in research?

A. One of the projects we have is trying to use larval hakes to examine stock structure (fish stock is a group of fish of the same species that live in the same geographic area and mix enough to breed with each other when mature) and estimate spawning stock biomass (the amount of mature fish).  We have interns in the lab who remove otoliths and get daily growth increments. That allows us to estimate age of the larva and spawning seasonality. 

Q. Can you tell based on this where they hatched?

A. That’s where we are headed.  Once we get information on when they were born and where they were collected, we hope to use oceanographic conditions to see if we can back-calculate where they may have come from and thus plot spawning locations to aid in stock structure analysis.

Q. One of the findings of past warming episodes is shrinking of foraminiferans and other small shelled organisms.  Is NOAA monitoring size of plankton?

A. We are.  That’s one of the projects we have just started: estimating size of Calanus finmarchicus, or Cal fin [see photo below].  This is a copepod crustacean and an important food for the endangered Right Whales. We have a 40-yr time series and have seen evidence of declining size of late-stage and adult Cal fin. We are trying to see if this has resulted in a decline in their energetic value.  They are a lipid-rich zooplankton.  If their size is related to their lipid storage they may be less nutritious for their predators.

Q. One of your papers indicated that about a third of fish and plankton species assessed in the northeast are vulnerable to climate change.  Is that trend continuing?

A.  Yes, as we monitor we continue to see shifts in fisheries, plankton, seabirds, and mammals.

Q.  What is your advice to early college undergraduates interested in marine science? 

A. Be flexible.  When I first started I thought I’d stay in Minnesota and work on adult fish stocks. I ended up working on larval fish and zooplankton.  Not focusing on one skill set and being able to adapt and look at various aspects will help you in the long run.

At the end of the interview, Harvey gave me this card and encouraged students to contact him for volunteer opportunities with NOAA. 

information card
Information Card from NOAA’s Oceans and Climate Branch
Calfin
Calanus finmarchicus, a subject of Harvey Walsh’s research. From: https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/nauplius/media/copepedia
food web slide
Harvey also kindly shared this slide explaining the locations of Calfin, Baleen Whales, and even you, in the food web. The highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale feeds on plankton like calfins by filtering them through a sieve (baleen) in their mouths (slide: courtesy Harvey Walsh)


Personal Log

One of the best aspects of this voyage is the daily spectacular views of sunrises and sunsets.  I spend a lot of time high up on the fly bridge assisting in sea bird, sea mammal, and sea turtle surveys.  It’s also a treat to look around 360 degrees and see nothing but the horizon, nothing man-made except this big old ship gently bobbing up and down in the center, leaving a wide frothy wake behind.  Yet, in the vastness of the ocean, we are but a mere speck. It really is humbling to experience this vista.

The ship crew are very serious about safety.  We have periodic Fire and Emergency, Abandon Ship, and Man Overboard drills.  A billet posted on my door advises where to report in each of these scenarios.  We have “muster” points, meaning, where to meet, for each.  I was trained to get into my Anti Exposure Suit in less than two minutes.  That was easier said than done!

Kannan in survival suit
Here I am in my Anti Exposure Suit. I felt like an astronaut in it

The food continues to be sumptuous and delicious, cooked by two expert stewards Margaret and Bronley.  Never did I dream I will enjoy eggplant curry and coconut jasmine rice on a NOAA Ship far out into the sea.

Dinner menu
Dinner menu posted in the mess
stewards Margaret and Bronley
Margaret and Bronley are the two great cooks on board. Margaret makes her own Garam Masala, putting her unique fingerprint into her curry dishes (and delighting my Indian-American tongue)!
gym
I even get my daily work out in the ship’s small but well-appointed gym


Did You Know?

Hakes (see photo above) are lean whitefish belonging to the Cod family.  They are known as Gadoids (Order Gadiformes) and are grouped with cods, haddocks, whiting, and pollocks.  They are much sought-after for their delicate texture and mild flavor.  We get some hake larvae in our plankton tows.  Hake larvae are used by scientists for all kinds of studies.  For example, their otoliths (tiny ear bones) can enable identification of species and even help determine where they were hatched (by Stable Isotope Analysis—see above).  This information, combined with data on ocean currents and circulation, can help determine hotspots for hake reproduction to enable conservation and sustainable fisheries. 

Interesting animals seen lately

Fish:

Hammerhead Shark

Whale Shark

Tuna sp.

Mammals:

Pilot Whales

Minke Whales

Common Dolphins

Bottle-nosed Dolphins

Spotted Dolphins (riding the bow!)

Sea Birds:

Great Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Cory’s Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Audubon’s Shearwater

Wilson’s Storm-petrel

Band-rumped Storm-petrel

Leach’s Storm-petrel

Black-capped Petrel

Red-necked Phalarope

Northern Gannet

In addition, several land birds on their south-bound autumn migration rested briefly on the ship.  I was not expecting to see Prairie Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbirds on a pelagic (=ocean) cruise!

Callie Harris: More than Meets the Eye, August 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Callie Harris

Aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson

August 13 – 26, 2019


Mission: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Alaska

Date: 8/18/19

Weather Data from the Bridge:

 Latitude: 57° 01.32 N
Longitude: 155 ° 01.21 W
Wind Speed: 14.56 knots
Wind Direction: 334°
Air Temperature: 15.5°C
Sea Temperature: 15°C
Barometric Pressure: 1017 mbar


Science and Technology Log

Today marks our sixth day at sea. We are headed north into the Shelikof Strait between the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island. We are continuing along our survey stations with bongo nets and midwater trawls. A bongo net consists of two plankton nets mounted next to each other. These plankton nets are ring nets with a small mesh width and a long funnel shape. Both nets are enclosed by a cod-end that is used for collecting plankton. The bongo net is pulled horizontally through the water column by a research vessel. 

bongo net diagram
Bongo Net Diagram. Image credit: Flanders Marine Institute
Bongo nets on deck
Bongo nets on deck

We are using a combination of four total bongo nets simultaneously to sample plankton. Two of our nets are 60 cm in diameter and the other two are 20 cm in diameter respectively. Depending on the depth at each station, the nets are lowered until they reach a depth of ten meters above the sea floor. Scientists and NOAA crew on the scientific deck must constantly communicate with the bridge via radio during this survey to maintain consistent wire angles. Ideally, the goal is to maintain the winch wire angle at 45° so that the water flow into the nets is parallel to the ocean floor.

Callie measuring bongo angle
Me measuring the bongo net wire angle. Photo by Matt Wilson.

Plankton are plants and animals that float along in the oceans’ tides and currents. Their name comes from the Greek meaning “drifter” or “wanderer.” There are two types of plankton: tiny plants called phytoplankton, and weak-swimming animals called zooplankton. Oceanic plankton constitute the largest reservoir of biomass in the world’s oceans. They play a significant role in the transfer of energy within the oceanic ecosystems. Ongoing plankton monitoring data is essential for evaluating ecosystem health and for detecting changes in these ecosystems.

Plankton ID
One of the plankton ID cards we use when identifying samples under the microscope

Once the nets are brought back onto the deck, we immediately rinse the nets so that all of the plankton collects in the cod-end (the plastic tube attachment at the bottom). We carefully remove the cod-end tubes and bring them into the wet lab for processing. Using sieve pans, we filter the cod-end sample (plankton) into glass jars. We add formaldehyde and sodium borate to each jar to preserve the plankton for future analysis and study. NOAA Chief Scientist Matt Wilson informed me that all of the sample jars we collect on this expedition will actually be sent to the Plankton Sorting and Identification Center in Szczecin, Poland. Check out their website for more info: https://mir.gdynia.pl/o-instytucie/zaklad-sortowania-i-oznaczania-planktonu/?lang=en .

At even numbered stations, NOAA scientists on board will conduct a RZA (rapid zooplankton assessment) of samples collected using a microscope. This rapid assessment of plankton yields current data that allows scientists to quickly evaluate present-day ecosystem health and changes while they await more in-depth sample results and analysis from Poland.


Personal Log

Everything is still going great on day six at sea. Seas are remaining relatively calm, which I am very thankful for. I am actually sleeping more than I do at home. I am averaging about nine to ten hours sleep at night which is amazing! Most mornings, I get up and head down to the gym to run on the treadmill for some much needed exercise. As I said in my second blog, our meals have been delicious. Chief Steward Judy leaves us out some late night treats to help us get through our long shifts. I thoroughly enjoyed some late night ice cream to help me power through the last trawl of the night. I really like lunch and dinner time on the ship because it brings everyone together for a few minutes to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Most of the scientists and NOAA crew and officers have traveled all over the world on scientific vessels. It is fascinating to hear about all of their stories and adventures. I have already decided to add the ‘PolarTREC’ (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating in Antarctica and/or the Artic) Program to my bucket list for a few years down the road. My most favorite organism that we have caught in the trawl so far was this Smooth Lumpsucker. 

Smooth lumpsucker
Smooth lumpsucker

Me and my buddy Mister Lumpsucker – Photos by Lauren Rogers


Did You Know?

The answers to day three blog’s temperature readings were 62.6°F for air temperature and 59°F for sea temperature.

All jellyfish are such weak swimmers that they too are considered plankton. There is also some scientific debate as to whether or not the Ocean Sun Fish (aka Mola mola) is considered a type of plankton. The sun fish is a passive planktonic creature which can only move vertically in the water column since it lacks a back fin. They have a long dorsal and anal fin that help them maneuver clumsily up and down in the water column.

Ragupathy Kannan: Starting with Plankton, August 18, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Ragupathy Kannan

Aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

August 15-30, 2019


Mission: Summer Ecosystem Monitoring

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean

Date: August 18, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 38.2494289
Longitude: -75.0853552
Water temperature: 26.3°C
Wind Speed: 4.92 knots
Wind Direction: 122 degrees
Air temperature: 27.1°C
Atmospheric pressure: 1015 millibars
Sky: Partly cloudy


Science and Technology Log

In my previous blog posting, I explained the importance of plankton as base of the ecological pyramid upon which much of marine life in this ecosystem depends.  The past few days, I have witnessed and experienced in-person how scientists aboard this sophisticated research vessel collect and analyze sea water samples for plankton. 

Yesterday I spent some time with Kyle Turner, a guest researcher from the University of Rhode Island doing his M.S. in Oceanography.  He operates a highly sophisticated device called the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB).  I was fascinated to learn how it works.  It is basically a microscope and camera hooked up to the ship’s water intake system.  As the waters pass through the system, laser beams capture images of tiny particles, mostly phytoplankton (tiny photosynthetic drifters).  As particles do, they scatter the light or even fluoresce (meaning, they emit their own light).  Based on this, the computer “zooms in” on the plankton automatically and activates the camera into taking photographs of each of them!  I was amazed at the precision and quality of the images, taken continuously as it pipes in the water from below.  Kyle says this helps them monitor quality and quantity of plankton on a continual basis. 

Kyle Turner and IFCB
Kyle Turner with the Imaging FlowCytobot (IFCB)
Kannan and IFCB
Here I am examining a filamentous (hair-like) phytoplankton in the IFCB monitor.
IFCB computer screen
The various kinds of phytoplankton are neatly displayed on the IFCB’s computer screen. See my previous blog for a photo of the dazzling and colorful array of plankton out there! Plankton may lack the popularity of the more charismatic sea animals like whales, but much of life in the ocean hinges on their welfare.


Career Corner

Hello, students (especially bio majors).  In this corner of my blogs, I will interview some key research personnel on the ship to highlight careers.  Please learn and be inspired from these folks.

Here is my interview with Kyle Turner.

Q. Tell us something about your graduate program.

A. My research focuses on phytoplankton using bio-optical methods. Basically, how changes in light can tell us about phytoplankton in the water.

Q. How does this IFCB device help you?

A. It gives me real time information on the different types of phytoplankton in the location where we are.  We can monitor changes in their composition, like the dominant species, etc.

Q. Why are phytoplankton so important?

A. They are like trees on land. They produce about half the oxygen in the atmosphere, so they’re super important to all life on earth. They are also the base of the marine food web.  The larger zooplankton eat them, and they in turn are eaten by fish, and so on all the way to the big whales.  They all rely on each other in this big ocean ecosystem.

Q. How are phytoplankton changing?

A. The oceans are warming, so we’re observing shifts in their composition.

Q. What brought you into marine science?

A. I grew up on the coast.  I’ve always liked the ocean. I love science.  So I combined my passions.

Q. What is your advice to my students exploring a career in marine science?

A. Looking for outside research opportunities is important.  There are so many opportunities from organizations like NASA, NSF, and NOAA.  I did two summer research internships as an undergrad.  First was with NASA when I was a junior.  I applied through their website.  That was a big stepping stone for me. A couple of years later, I did another summer project with a researcher who is now my advisor in graduate school.  That’s how I met her.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I’d love to get into satellite oceanography to observe plankton and work for NASA or NOAA.


Personal Log

I am pleasantly surprised by how comfortable this ship is.  I was expecting something more Spartan.  I have my own spacious room with ample work and storage space, a comfortable bed, TV (which I don’t have time for!), and even a small fridge and my own sink. Being gently rocked to sleep by the ship is an added perk! 

My own cozy stateroom
My own cozy stateroom
Sunrise view
A room with a view—sunrise from my window

The food is awesome.  We have two expert cooks on board, Margaret and Bronley. 

lunch
My first lunch on board
mess
The ship’s mess is a nice place to eat and interact with people. There’s always food available 24/7, even outside of meal hours.


Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter played a big role in recovery operations following Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

Barograph
This photo is displayed in the galley. Note the sharp decline in atmospheric pressure as Katrina thundered through.


Some interesting animals seen so far

  • Flying fish (they get spooked by the ship, take off and fly several yards low across the water!)
  • Cow-nosed Rays (see photo and caption below)
  • Leather-backed Sea-turtle (I’m used to seeing them on the beach in Trinidad—see my previous blog.  It was a treat to see one swimming close by.  I was even able to see the pink translucent spot on the head).
  • Bottle-nosed Dolphins
  • Seabirds (lots of them…. four lifers already—more on this later!)
school of cow-nose rays
We saw large schools of Cow-nosed Rays closer to the coast. These animals feed on bivalve mollusks like clams and oysters with their robust jaws adapted for such hard food. They are classified as Near Threatened due to their reliance on oyster beds which are themselves threatened by pollution and over exploitation.

Catherine Fuller: Searching for Water in the Ocean, July 9, 2019

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Catherine Fuller

Aboard R/V Sikuliaq

June 29 – July 18, 2019


Mission: Northern Gulf of Alaska (NGA) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

Geographic Area of Cruise: Northern Gulf of Alaska

Date: July 9, 2019

Weather Data from the Bridge

Latitude: 57° 47.549 N
Longitude: 147° 30.222
Wave Height: 0-1 with swell of 4 ft
Wind Speed: 1.7 knots
Wind Direction: 170 degrees
Visibility: 5 nm
Air Temperature:  13.1 °C
Barometric Pressure: 1014.4 mb
Sky: Overcast


Science and Technology Log

Ana’s Work: 

iron fish deployment
Dr. Aguilar-Islas oversees the iron fish deployment.
iron fish on deck
The “iron fish” on deck…
iron fish in water
..and in its habitat.

Dr. Ana Aguilar-Islas and her team of Annie, Kelsey, and Carrie are studying how the different sources of iron in the Gulf of Alaska influence its chemical structure.  Iron is considered a micronutrient, because it is a nutrient that is needed in lower quantities than silicate, phosphate and nitrate, which are macronutrients. Iron is essential for phytoplankton.  Iron does not easily remain dissolved in ocean water, but has a tendency to precipitate and become a particle.  It is essential for many functions within phytoplankton, including gene function and photosynthesis, so the presence or absence of iron in the water is an indicator of the viability of the ecosystem. 

Testing phytoplankton in both an iron-limited environment and an iron-rich one allows scientists to pinpoint the effect that iron has.  The water in the Gulf of Alaska is notable for having more iron, leading to larger zooplankton as compared to areas, such as Hawaii, where the lack of macronutrients in the water means that they’re much smaller.  The Copper River plume was an example of a naturally occurring source of iron although its decrease is exponential the farther you move from the plume. 

In order to test samples without any contamination from being in an iron ship, Ana’s team created a “bubble” room or a clean space to do testing.  Her samples come directly from the “iron fish,” a collection instrument that is towed along the starboard side of the ship, and a pump on deck sends water through a tube that is carefully strung from the “fish” through the hallways and into the “bubble.”  The team is testing water samples for dissolved iron, particulate iron, and ligands (naturally occurring structures that bind iron and allow it to stay dissolved in seawater).  Both the filtered (any plankton filtered out) and unfiltered samples that Ana’s team collects are also used by other teams to provide context for their own experiments, especially testing the behavior of phytoplankton populations in iron-rich and iron-poor water.

looking in the bubble
The bubble from the outside.
Annie at the bubble
Annie spends many hours patiently taking water samples in the bubble.


The Search for “Perfect” Water

After completing our comprehensive zig-zagging study through the Copper River plume, it was decided to continue on a path south to find HNLC (high nitrate low chlorophyll) water.  We’re specifically looking for water with a salinity over 32.4 psu and nitrates over 3 micromoles. Water like this would be low in iron.  Normally, the lack of iron is a factor that limits photosynthesis,.  However, in areas with these numbers, phytoplankton communities have evolved to survive in an iron-deprived environment. 

What Clay, Suzanne and Ana hope to do is to introduce both Copper River iron-rich water and commercially available iron into samples of these communities to see if a “bloom” or a sudden growth in population will occur.  It’s been a long search so far, taking us through an offshore eddy, watching salinity numbers slowly creep up as we leave the plume’s fresh water influence behind us.  To pass the time, my cribbage board came out and I’ve lost to Pete, Seth and Ana (although I beat Seth once).  To help Suzanne and Ana find their water, Seth stitched together a composite satellite picture of the chlorophyll in the Gulf from images taken over the last few weeks.  This showed an eddy south of the Copper River plume that provided a possible location for the right sampling of water.

Our initial target was 58 degrees N, 146 degrees W, however, we’re continuing on the journey south to see if we can find the right spot.  For a long time, we were towing the Acrobat behind us, trying to get additional readings, however, our speed with the Acrobat is limited to a maximum of 7 kts.  Early this morning, the Acrobat was pulled in and we’re now cruising at about 10 kts.  We’re supposed to move over to the GAK (Seward) line of waypoints after this, but the joke is that we’ll reach GAK 125, i.e. Honolulu, before we find water that fits the parameters we need.

After careful monitoring of our position and the information screens in the computer lab, it seems that our target water is between 57 degrees 21 minutes N between 145 degrees 42.8 minutes W and 145 degrees 39.9 W.  Finding the perfect water is complicated by the number of anomalies in the sea surface. We’re having the bridge go through specific maneuvers to take us back and forth through the target patch of water. As we move through what seems reasonable, Ana’s iron fish will be deployed to start bringing in  “perfect” water samples. 

Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies
These anomalies represent changes in sea surface temperature, and in turn in the chemical composition of the water. On the map, you can see the lines we’re surveying from left to right: Kodiak, Seward (GAK) and Middleton.
our course
Our zigzag course: the bridge asked if we were making course lines with an Etch-a-Sketch!

Since last night, there has been at least one person stationed in the computer lab with eyes on the underway data display to monitor the salinity and nitrate levels.  Today, with Dr. Strom, Clay and myself there, we jump every time the nitrate value does.  Once our target patch is isolated, Dr. Strom directs the bridge to zigzag the ship through it to find maximum nitrate values and then radios the iron fish team. It’s 2.1….it’s 2.7…quick! Collect samples!  It’s a crazy system, but for now it’s getting us the best results we can, considering the fluidity and changeability of the ocean. 

I’m not sure what the bridge thinks about our maneuvers, and we’re all imagining what they’re saying! They have been very patient and willing to go along with requests; they’re pretty used to the demands of scientists in search of specific answers.  We’re finding our highest values to be about 3.2 micromoles, and it seems that we’ve also narrowed down the “sweet spot.” In addition, a group of fin whales is moving through the area and is making regular appearances as we trace and retrace our path. At one point, Eric, the captain came down to chat and helpfully volunteered to look up the definition of “zig” and “zag” so that we would have our terminology correct.  Is zig the upward progression or the downward one?

Most of the science done on board is carefully planned and prepared for.  Methodologies are clean and precise in order to produce specific and incontestable results.  Sometimes, however, science requires taking advantage of the situation at hand to find optimum data.  Science can be messy and inexact, too, if the end result is finding the perfect drops of water in the ocean.


Personal Log

We are now over the 50% point in our trip.  It is a bit ironic that as the science team and the crew get to know each better and develop friendships, both sides are also looking ahead to the end of the trip.  It’s been fun to get to know the crew and to discover the personalities that make this ship run so smoothly. 

Our weather has been notably calm so far, with today’s nearly flat seas being the smoothest to date.  We have fog every day; every day the sea surface temperature is higher than the air temperature.  What might that be an indication of? Russ seems to think it’s a fairly unusual pattern.  Even though today’s temperature is in the mid-50s, the stillness and reflected light off the surface of the ocean almost make it seem warmer.  It looks like we can continue to expect fairly calm seas for the next few days, too.  Every day someone posts a weather forecast in the mess hall, and every day the forecast is similar.    

fog bank on the horizon
Seeing fog banks on the horizon is a daily occurrence.

We continue to eat remarkably well.  Today’s lunch was spaghetti or zoodles with eggplant parmigiana, shrimp, and hot veggies.  This week already, we’ve had pecan pies and oatmeal raisin cookies for dessert and apple and berry turnovers for breakfast.  The food is definitely one of the benefits of being on this ship!


Did You Know?

The fresh water measured in the Copper River plume equates to a quarter of the yearly excess melt from area glaciers.  The question then is, where does the other three-quarters go?


What do you want kids to know about your research?

Ana: There are nutrients in the water that sea creatures need: large nutrients and small ones.  The small ones are important because they’re needed more often, like vitamins being a more regular part of your diet than hamburgers.


Sea Creatures seen today:

fin whales
A small group of fin whales came near us several times during our zigzag maneuvers.

Martha Loizeaux: Sea You Soon, August 30, 2018


Martha Loizeaux: Plankton Palooza, August 22, 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 22, 2018

 

Weather Data from the Bridge

  • Latitude: 991 N
  • Longitude: 590 W
  • Water Temperature: 22.3◦C
  • Wind Speed: 1 knots
  • Wind Direction: WSW
  • Air Temperature: 23.3◦C
  • Atmospheric Pressure: 66 millibars
  • Sky: Mostly Cloudy

 

Science and Technology Log

Haven’t you always dreamed of having your own Imaging Flow Cyto Bot (IFCB)?  What an interesting scientific instrument that I am lucky enough to be taking care of while on this cruise!  Before we even left the dock, Jessica Lindsey (volunteer from the Maine Maritime Academy) and I were trained by Emily Peacock, research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on how to run this amazing piece of equipment!

The IFCB is a computer, microscope, camera, and water flow controller all in one.  Emily describes it as “plumbing combined with electronics”.  It uses a water intake system from the ship to run a constant flow of water into extremely tiny hoses. As the water flows through these hoses, a laser beam of light shoots at every tiny particle that is in the water.  The tiny particles in the water, mainly phytoplankton (microscopic drifting plants), react to the sudden burst of light.  The phytoplankton scatters the light and also can react by fluorescing (reacting to one wavelength of light by giving off a different wavelength).  The computer detects this scattering and fluorescing to determine where the phytoplankton is in the water flow.  The microscope focuses in on each phytoplankton cell and the camera takes a picture!  Scientists simply get the IFCB going and at the end of the day they have hundreds of pictures of plankton!  Isn’t that incredible?!

Martha IFCB

Here I am learning how to use the IFCB! It is SO COOL!

One thing I’ve learned about this particular cruise is that it’s all about plankton!  We are collecting samples and data for scientists at the University of Rhode Island, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and NOAA’s own Narragansett Lab, just to name a few.  What are all of these scientists studying?  Plankton!  Why?  Plankton is the microscopic lifeblood of the ocean.  The word plankton comes from a Greek word, oikos, meaning “drifter.”  Plankton refers to all the living things of the ocean that are drifting with the currents.  They are present throughout the water column and consist of two types:  phytoplankton and zooplankton.  Can you guess the difference?  Phytoplankton is like a plant.  It has chlorophyll and does photosynthesis.  Zooplankton is an animal.  There are many zooplankton species that hunt, hide, and do other things that larger animals do.  Most plankton is microscopic or close to it.  Phytoplankton does at least half of all the photosynthesis in the WORLD.  So you can think that every other breath you take contains oxygen created by phytoplankton.

Both types of plankton are the base of the marine food chain. If major changes happen in the community of plankton in the sea, these changes will impact the entire food chain all the way up to the apex predators (top predators).  So, as you can see, plankton is SUPER important.  If plankton populations are healthy, it indicates that much of the rest of the ecosystem is healthy too.

Some scientists use equipment, like the IFCB, to study samples of phytoplankton.

plankton on screen

Associate Researcher Emily showing us the program that allows you to see pictures of the phytoplankton sampled.

We also are collecting zooplankton in nets (called “bongo” nets) and preserving samples for scientists to analyze in the lab.  More on that to come soon!

My students have been learning that scientists always start an experiment with a question.

Scientists on this mission are not exactly leading an experiment, but they are responsible for monitoring.  The monitoring of an ecosystem tells us WHAT is happening there.  Scientists from all over the world can then use the monitoring data that we find to research and experiment WHY things are happening the way they are.  This is where the scientific method will come in and an experiment will start with a question.

For example, through the plankton samples that we take on this monitoring mission, scientists may notice a change in the amount of larval hake (tiny baby hake fish).  They can then ask the question, “Why are larval hake populations decreasing?” which may lead them to a hypothesis such as, “larval hake populations are decreasing due to climate change”.  They can test this hypothesis by comparing the plankton data to other types of data (such as pH and water temperature) in the same areas over time.  Thus, an experiment!

So our job now is to collect the important data that can help scientists understand what’s happening and think of ways to investigate “why” and “how”.

Bottom line, I really love plankton.  And you should too.  That breath you just took?  Thank plankton.

screen shot of plankton

Pictures of glorious plankton!

 

Scientist Spotlight – John Loch – Seabird Observer

Enough about plankton!  During all of this plankton excitement, I have also spent some time on the fly bridge (the top level of the deck of the ship), asking questions to our two seabird observers, John and Chris.  Their job is to stand watch all day, looking for and identifying seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles, and any notable (large) animals.  Here’s a little interview with John Loch, Seabird Observer:

 

Seabird observer

John observing seabirds from the fly bridge

Me – Why is your job so important?

John – My job is to monitor seabird populations to help detect changes in numbers or distribution of species.  We estimate a 300 square meter area around the ship and record all birds seen within that area.  We enter our data into a computer, noting species, life stage, number seen, and direction of flight.  Over time, we may notice trends in numbers and distribution which is important to understand this ecosystem.

 

Me – What do you enjoy most about your job?

John – I enjoy seeing anything new or rare.

 

Me – How could scientists use your monitoring data to lead an investigation (using the scientific method)?

John – Our data has shown, for example, that some populations of birds, such as the gannet, have steadily declined over the last 20 years.  Researchers can ask “Why are gannet populations declining?” and can use oceanographic data in combination with bird observation data to come up with a hypothesis to test.

 

 

Personal Log

I was excited to get underway this afternoon!  Although many of us slept on the ship last night, we have been on the dock until 2:30 this afternoon, when we finally watched the crew release the lines and the ship cruise through the harbor and out to sea!

bow in harbor

A view of the bow as we head out to sea!!

We began our day with a scientist meeting where Harvey Walsh, our Chief Scientist, explained our route and the “stations” where we would be slowing down or stopping the ship to take our data.  He explained our 3am-3pm/3pm-3am shifts that we alternate so that whenever a station is reached, day or night, data can be collected.  I’m lucky to intersect these shifts and work “on watch” from 8am-8pm!  This means that I will support and assist scientist in their data collection during this time, and generally be present and available.

Scientist showing route

Chief Scientist Harvey explaining our route on the Northeast Shelf.

We also heard from Libby, our Operations Officer, who explained our state rooms, bathrooms, shared spaces, and general “do’s and don’ts” of the ship.

Safety briefing

Libby, our Field Operations Officer, explaining the safety procedures of Gordon Gunter

I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by our living quarters aboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter.  I have my own state room with a shared bathroom, small closet, sink, and even a desk.  It is quite spacious!  I’m also excited about the food options on board, but more about that later!

view from room window

The view from my state room…not bad!

Tonight is our first night out at sea!  Luckily, I’m not feeling seasick, but rocking and rolling as I type this does feel pretty strange!  Everyone says we’ll get used to it and it will feel normal in no time.

I am so excited for our first morning and sunrise out at sea!  Stay tuned!

 

Did You Know?

Phytoplankton come in all different colors, just like the flowers in your garden.  Since they are so tiny, we don’t see the colors unless there is a lot of plankton all together.  They also contain more than one color in their cells, similar to leaves that change from green to brown, red, or orange.

noaa phytoplankton

Colorful phytoplankton, photo courtesy of NOAA

Question of the Day

Do you think the amount and type of plankton in an area can affect how many sharks live there?  Why?

NOAA shark

Do sharks rely on plankton? Photo courtesy of NOAA

 

 

 

 

Roy Moffitt: Bring in the Bongos, August 16, 2018

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Roy Moffitt

Aboard USCGC Healy

August 7 – 25, 2018

 

Mission: Healy 1801 –  Arctic Distributed Biological Observatory

Geographic Area: Arctic Ocean (Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea)

Date: August 16, 2018

 

Current location/conditions:

Evening August 16 – Due west of Barrow, Alaska within sight of the coast

Air temp 35F, sea depth  40m , surface sea water temp 41

 

Bring in the Bongos

Bongo Nets ready for deployment

Bongo Nets ready for deployment

In a previous blog I showed the Methot net that catches very small (1-5cm) fish. However, if we want to catch sea life even smaller, we bring in something called a “bongo net.”  The bongo nets have very small openings–the larger nets are 500 micron (1/2 a millimeter) and the smaller nets are 150 micron.   In the picture below, you will see the back tail fin of the Healy with the bongo nets suspended from the hydraulic A-frame.  The A-frame supports a system of pulleys that are used to deploy and retrieve equipment (such as nets and moorings).

 

 

 

 

bongo canister

Organisms caught in the bongo net are washed down into this canister attached at the end.

The net looks and feels more like a tough nylon fabric, however, the water freely flows through the opening trapping the tiny organisms of the sea.  These organisms are pushed into the canister at the end of the net as shown in the picture on the right. While most of them are pushed into the canisters, many are stuck on the side of the net in a sticky goop.   The gelatin like goop is sprayed off the net with seawater by using a hose.  The process takes just a few minutes. Since I was the net holder and stretcher I got little wet!

 

 

Copepods in a Jar

Copepods in a Jar

The main organisms that we caught today were copepods. They are shown in the jar appearing pink.  Copepods are small crustaceans only 1-2mm in size that drift in the sea and feed on phytoplankton. Copepods are an important bottom of the food chain member of the ecosystem and serve as prey for fish, whales, and seabirds.

 

 

 

Flowmeter

Flowmeter suspended at the top of a bongo net

On the front of each net there is a flow meter as shown in the picture. It looks like a little torpedo with a propeller.  When the net trawls behind the ship, water flows through the net.  The amount of water that passes through the net can be calculated.  Using this calculation and the amount of organisms in the net, scientists can calculate the density of living microorganisms at a certain heights in the water column.  With annual samples scientists will be able to determine any changes over time including changes to the overall health of the regional ecosystem.  Today’s samples will also be sent out to a lab for further analysis.

 

Today’s Wildlife Sightings

Today I had unique experience– listening to wildlife.  This was a highlight.  Marine mammal acoustic scientists, Katherine Berchok and Stephanie Grassia, released an acoustic buoy this afternoon.  On top of the ship they put up an antennae and listened in for whales and walrus.  They were able to hear the constant underwater chatter between walruses.   As I wore the headphones and listened in, I was in awe at the grumbles and the ping sounds the animals were making back and forth underwater.  While we don’t know what the walrus were communicating back and forth to each other, to eavesdrop on these conversations, miles away, in real-time, was a pretty special experience.

 

Now and Looking forward

We did not see any ice today. I am looking forward to getting out of the fog and rain and returning back to the ice in the coming days.